“I had a terrible day. We say it all the time. A fight with the boss, a running nose, the traffic. That’s what we describe as terrible when nothing terrible is happening.
When the really terrible things happen, we start begging a god we don’t believe in to bring back the little horrors and take away this. It seems quaint now, doesn’t it? The flood in the kitchen, the dead cell phone battery, the fight that leaves you shaking with rage. Would it have helped if we could see what else was coming? Would we have known that those were the best moments of our lives?”
Cheryl stood there, unflinching, unblinking, staring out of the window. It was a scene of torrential downpour outside. A sudden flash of lightning revealed the massive thunderclouds rolling up in the sky. The firmly rooted oak tree outside creaked dangerously while the merciless stormy winds whistled past. As the weather raging outside continued to worsen, a part of her could hear the faint sounds of the television installed in the hallway just outside the room. It was the frantic reports by Chad Myers, the CNN weatherman, proclaiming that this was the biggest storm the West Coast had encountered in the past decade. From the window, she could see two people, a couple, emerging outside the hospital building. Braving against the rain and the winds, she saw the husband holding his wife’s hand, guiding her towards their car in the parking lot. And for one brief moment, her already puffy eyes brimmed with tears again; her chest ached with terrible yearning, and her mind began to spin. She forcibly tried to track the car outside with her watery eyes as it veered out of the parking lot and sped away onto the dark road leading to the city. Moments later, the car vanished into the darkness and then, the time stopped again. Now, it was just the sound of raindrops pattering on the window pane and the occasional hospital P.A. announcements calling nurses back to the station. Cheryl simply stood there, flinching at each thunderclap, rapidly blinking her eyes to drain away the tears, trying to stare out of the window.
If only poor Chad Myers knew that the storm had devastated not only the entire West Coast, but also Cheryl Todd’s fricking life…
“Mom, Pat’s pulling my hair again!” Jo complained aloud from her room.
“Not true! Mom, it’s her! She’s pinching my hands!!”
“Oh, that’s only because you are pestering me with your annoying riddles!” Jo retorted.
“Only if you could answ-
“Stop it, both of you! Not today. Patrick honey, mommy has a terrible headache. Don’t make me shout at you guys.” Cheryl interjected. It had been one of those serious bouts of migraine. And she felt really weak. And the fact that Ryan hadn’t called yet was now starting to trouble her. Having made a mental note to try on his cell phone again, she got out of her bed and proceeded to the kitchen.
“Jo, Pat!!” She called out her kids, “Dinner’s ready, come downstairs.”
“Ham & eggs! Ham & eggs! Friday means ham & eggs!” Patrick came yelling down the stairs.
“Stop being so loud. Mom, really, you need to stop treating him like a 5 year old!” Jo whined.
Cheryl merely smiled. Both she and Ryan really adored Pat’s antics. And even though he was close to being 11, they would never mind him being mischievous. Jo, on the other hand, was the serious one. Focused and driven, responsible and caring. Perhaps it was because she was the elder kid. Ryan would always be remarkably proud of her whenever she stood first in any of the competitions in her school. All in all, Cheryl and Ryan had always felt blessed for having such great kids.
“No ham & egg today, son. Mommy told you she had a headache, right? Jo, please help me serve this casserole.”
“Any word from dad yet?” Jo asked, setting out the dinner plates.
“Nuh-uh… Phone’s switched off. He’s never been negligent with his phone.” Cheryl said, her eyebrows still frowned, visibly worried.
“Stop worrying, Mom. It must have slipped his mind.”
“It’s been 6 hours since I last talked to him. And I just heard the channels; they’re saying a big storm is heading this way. And if your Dad has taken Route 67…”Cheryl’s voice trailed off. She had started to panic. Terribly. Route 67 was the worst choice at this point of time. Did Ryan know that a storm was heading? Maybe he would have changed his course after hearing about it on the radio. Maybe not.
“Mom, get a hold of yourself. You know Dad, right? Probably he would just stop at a motel for the night or maybe stop at a phone booth and give us a call. In fact, he may be making a call right no-
Just then, the phone on the wall began to ring.
“The problem is, fairy tales don’t come true. It’s the nightmares that always seem to become the reality.”
“Can I talk to Mrs. Cheryl Todd?” Voice of a man (not Ryan) crackled on the other end of the phone.
“Yes, you’ve reached me.”
“Mam, this is Joseph from the emergency medical services. Our ambulance found your husband’s car wrecked against a truck on Route 67. We’ve recovered his body from the debris and are heading straight to Fresno Presbyterian. Please reach there immediately!”
They say lightning never strikes twice, but that is a myth. It doesn’t happen often, lightning usually gets it right the first time. When you’re hit with 30,000 amps of electricity, you feel it. It can make you forget who you are. It can burn you, blind you, stop your heart. And cause massive internal injuries. But, for something that happens in only a millisecond, it can change your life forever.
Cheryl couldn’t speak for a few seconds. Her mind stopped processing her surroundings for those few seconds. She felt numb. Her deepest and darkest fears were violently writhing, and she started breathing heavily. This couldn’t really be happening. “It’s just a small deal that I gotta finalize, honey. I’ll be in and out in no time. And before you realize, I’ll be at home for dinner…” That was what Ryan had said. That was just what he had said. And now, everything started to feel unreal.
“Mam? Mam are you still there? Mam? Mam?” Joseph’s voice crackled again.
“Yes… Uhh yes… Still here. He’s… he’s still alive right?”
“Barely breathing but yes, alive.”
Pat had begun to sob. But there was no time to console him. She immediately called Pam to take care of the kids, grabbed her car keys and rushed outside. It had begun to rain. As she fumbled with the keys, Jo came rushing outside.
“Mom…” Her voice trembled.
Cheryl stopped. For a moment, she had completely forgotten how difficult it must be for her kids. She was just too busy thinking of the worst. Jo was always the strong one and seeing her cry actually caught Cheryl off guard. She hugged her tightly.
“Dad’s gonna be okay, and I’ll call you immediately on reaching him. Alright?”
Jo simply mumbled.
Cheryl had reached the hospital just in time to see the ambulance orderlies unloading his husband on a stretcher. There was a rush of doctors and interns waiting at the trauma pit for the ambulance.
“All right everyone, multiple blunt trauma protocol. Let’s go.” It was the Head of Trauma ordering everyone else.
“Tachycardic and hypotensive en route. Obvious head and chest injuries. He’s haemorrhaging.” The ambulance staff informed the doctors while transferring Ryan.
Cheryl shouted, “He’s my husband, he’s my-
“Where’s that blood coming from? Is that coming from his chest?” An intern remarked.
“Okay, someone page cardio immediately. Let’s move guys. Everybody clear! Incoming!!” And in a flash, they transferred Ryan on to the hospital wheelie bed and rushed him within the hospital premises.
Cheryl just stood there, horrified. “He’s my… He’s my…” She tried to speak but couldn’t. The sight had been too much for her. All the blood and injuries on Ryan’s body… It was getting harder and harder for her every second.
“Mam, are you related to the person who was just brought in?” One of the interns who had remained outside went on to ask her.
“He’s my husband.” Cheryl replied in a broken voice.
“Mam, please come inside the building. I suspect the weather is going to get a bit harsh. Plus, we’ll keep you updated on his condition.”
She showed her the way directly into the Emergency Room where they had taken her husband.
The E.R. was a mess. Every doctor was rushing about attending to various patients. Cheryl was hearing a lot of medical jargon in that area, and that further made her uneasy. She scanned each and every bed there. But her husband was nowhere to be seen. All she could see was bandages, suture kits, medications, severely injured patients, and doctors trying to pacify them. Suddenly she saw him. Through the window of a nearby Trauma Room. She immediately tried to rush inside. However, her path was blocked by a nurse. “Sorry mam, you can’t go inside.”
All Cheryl could do was to wait at a distance while the Trauma team tried to stabilize Ryan’s injuries. Her heart cringed as she saw them hack through his body, pushing in fluids, slicing open his chest, inserting needles. She started to feel dizzy.
“He’s lost a lot of blood.”
“Ryan, can you blink for me? Extra-ocular movement intact. Pupils are equal and reactive.”
“Somebody set up the chest tray. Okay, hold on and apply pressure here.”
“Depressed skull fracture with a probable bleed.”
“I’ll do a trauma ultrasound. Somebody ask C.T. to get ready for him.”
“No obvious spinal deformities.”
“Hang in two bags of O neg.”
“I’m getting no breath sounds on the right. Did somebody set up the chest tube?”
“Left upper quadrant is clear. I want those drapes to prep up his chest.”
“Sterile drapes and betadiene! Now!”
“Should we start mannitol?”
“He’s got blood in the upper right quadrant. He needs a central line.”
“I’ll do a subclavian.”
“Call O.R. 2 upstairs and inform them we are coming!”
For most people, a hospital is a scary place. A hostile place. A place where bad things happen. Most people would prefer church, or school, or home. Standing there, Cheryl started feeling sick. This was the last thing she ever wished for. Her whole world was crashing right in front of her eyes. She couldn’t bear looking inside anymore. As she turned her back, the monitors inside the room suddenly started beeping rapidly.
“Oh god, V-fib, he’s crashing!! Somebody get a crash cart and an intubation tray, immediately.”
“Starting C.P.R. right away.”
“Charging to 120. Clear!” Everybody stepped aside as one of the doctors stepped in to defibrillate him. As the charge seared through his chest, Cheryl saw Ryan’s whole body heave upwards in shock.
“No, No, No…” She screamed.
“Still V-fib. Okay, charge the paddles to 200.” The doctor commanded seeing no change in heart activity.
“Charging to 200!!”
“Clear!!” Another huge jolt of electric pulse jolted through Ryan’s body. The monitors finally started beeping rhythmically.
“Okay everyone, I see a sinus tach. He’s back. Get the ambu on and let’s move him to the O.R.”
“Move, move, move!!” The doctors jostled together to get his bed moving upto the Operating Room. Cheryl stepped aside the door and watched her husband been taken away.
“Wait, is he- is he- Will somebody tell me what’s going on?” She yelled at those doctors.
One of the doctors stepped aside while the others rushed him to prep for the surgery. “Mam, I need you to calm down. He has had a serious accident, and we won’t know the extent of his injuries until we open him up. For now, we have stabilized all the bleeders. I request you to kindly wait in the waiting room. I’ll personally keep you updated.”
“He was- He was fine till the afternoon. And suddenly this…” She began to sob uncontrollably.
“Mam, is there somebody I can call for you? You need somebody to be with you right now. This is going to be a tough night…”
But Cheryl was barely listening. Depressed skull fracture, tachycardic, hypotensive, V-fib, chest tube… A montage of those moments was running like a reel inside her head. Besides, the doctors weren’t specific. Everything here was hanging on chance. Chances her whole world was hinged on to. What was she supposed to do when the life she knew was right now spinning out of control?
“When the ground gives way and your world collapses, maybe you just need to have faith. And to trust that you can survive this. Maybe you just need to hold on tight. And no matter what, don’t let go.”
The weather outside had worsened. People were talking about this being one of the biggest storms Fresno had seen. Ever. The winds outside were growing stronger by the moment and the rain was pattering harder on the car windshields. And it was only the beginning.
Cheryl was sitting on one of the benches in the waiting room. The tears had long dried away. Her near-perfect life now lay in tatters and she had finally come to terms with it. She did not pray even once. She (and Ryan) had never believed in God anyway. Ryan always used to say things like carving one’s own destiny and striving hard to achieve what one wants and searching for God within one’s own self. Things she thought only she had belief in until she had met Ryan.
Cheryl and Ryan’s story was the most ordinary one you could ever come across. He had bought her drinks in a bar and they had connected instantly. They had talked for hours on end and by the end of the month, they were crazily in love. A year later, when both of them were standing at the wedding altar, taking vows, that was when Ryan had said those heart-touching lines which she still carries close to her heart, “Today’s the day my life begins. All my life, it’s been just me. Just a smartass kid. Today, I become a man. Today I become accountable to someone other than myself. To our future. To all the possibilities our marriage has to offer. Together no matter what happens. I’ll be ready for everything. To take on life. To take on love. To take on responsibility. Today Cheryl Cowell, our life begins, and I for one, can’t wait.”
It had been the perfect day, and the start of her near-perfect life. They were Cheryl and Ryan, the perfect example of an ideal couple. And though people think of this as an overstatement, things had actually begun to fall in place for both of them after marriage. Almost like a dream…
Until today’s nightmare.
“We can survive this.” She kept muttering under her breath. “We are Cheryl and Ryan and we will survive this!”
“Imagine my surprise, when the patient for whom I am giving an Ortho consult turns out to be your damn husband!!”
It was Dr. Vanessa Cuellar, Head of Ortho. She had come storming into the waiting room and called out for Cheryl, who was now standing beside the window.
“Just stop, don’t say a word! I am your go-to person for a reason. And you didn’t care to inform me about all this??” Vanessa was now fuming. Then suddenly, she tightly hugged her. Almost on the verge of tears, she asked, “How did all of this happen?”
As Cheryl related the day’s events to her long-standing friend, Vanessa, her anxiety eased out a little bit. Having another set of ears to understand the medical stuff really made her calm. Though she knew Vanessa worked here at the Fresno Presbyterian, yet somehow, she had completely forgotten about it during those moments of frenzy.
“Oh sweetie, don’t worry. We’ve got a whole team of doctors trying to give their best shot inside the O.R. Try not to worry until you really have to. And besides, you guys are everybody’s idol. The perfect couple living the perfect life! Even God wouldn’t wanna mess up with your life, for he rarely goes handing out people with blissful lives.”
A doctor came rushing into the waiting room. “That’s her!” Cheryl told Vanessa as she buckled up, ready to receive the update.
“Okay mam, the surgery till now has revealed many lesions and lacs on most of his organs. But the primary concern now is the hole in his heart which needs to be fixed right away.”
“That means bypass, Dr. Bailey and it would require a lot of heparin. And with so many lesions all around, it is a setup for a re-bleed!” Vanessa interjected.
“With all due respect Vanessa, you are not even on the case. Let the other doctors handle it.” A visibly annoyed Dr. Bailey retorted.
“Is what Dr. Vanessa saying true, Dr. Bailey?”
“Uh… Yes Mrs. Todd.” Dr. Bailey replied. “But Dr. Vanessa may be slightly out of her depth here. She’s not even in cardio. Our Head of Cardio has given a thumbs-up on this procedure, so you needn’t worry.”
But Cheryl wasn’t satisfied. Vanessa had an impeccable medical record and if she was saying that something wasn’t right, then it sure wasn’t. “Dr. Bailey, this is my husband’s life that’s at stake! And so, even if there is some remote possibility of a risk factor being involved, I’d want all suggestions to be put on board again!” She gave Vanessa an approving look and both doctors rushed outside to discuss the course of action for the surgery with other doctors.
All Cheryl could hear from the room was a heated debate that was going on amongst the other doctors.
“In my years of surgical residency, while I was on cardio rotation, I helped Dr. Warren repair stab wounds percutaneously which drastically reduced the amount of heparin needed! Now that would surely avoid rebleeding.” Vanessa stated.
“But the patient has a contusion, not a penetrative wound. This one’s way different.”
“I’ve read cases where it worked on blunt trauma.” Vanessa defended.
“The cardiac structure will get sheared by that wire loop in the procedure! There is no way his heart would stand a chance!”
“Dr. Warren had avoided that complication by placing an extra stiff wire deep into the pulmonary artery. Sheer genius!” Vanessa exclaimed.
Vanessa was extremely adamant with her suggestion. She defended each and every step of the procedure and after a couple of more minutes, the Head of Cardio agreed. The risk factors were still high, but Cheryl was now assured, given that it was Vanessa who had really pushed for it. As they proceeded to go perform the surgery again, Cheryl came up and thanked Vanessa. “Thanks for being around… I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Go ahead and save his life. God bless!”
“God bless!” Vanessa repeated and went inside the O.R.
“Didn’t we almost have it all?”
The surgery was now taking longer than expected. “Let’s not worry until we really have to.” That’s what Vanessa had said. Though she was considerably relieved with Vanessa being in the surgical team that was operating on her husband, yet she couldn’t help noticing that the surgery was taking longer than expected. She had lived one of her worst fears in this hospital tonight but now, all that was coming to an end. Any moment now, they must be coming out of the surgery. Cheryl was getting impatient. She called home and checked on the kids. She texted of all of Ryan’s family, updating them on the current status. She had just got up to go to the loo when she saw Vanessa coming.
“Finally! Thank god, that was a really long wait. Hang on, her face doesn’t seem good. Does it mean further complications? How bad is it? I have Vanessa to take care of that anyway, but still…” Many thoughts transpired through her mind all at once.
Finally, as Vanessa drew closer, Cheryl wasn’t able to read her face at all. She wore a blank look and appeared a stranger to her, not a friend.
“So, how did it go?” Cheryl stood up, expectantly waiting for a positive response, wanting to smile.
With a calm voice, Vanessa began, “When we brought your husband into the O.R., we originally thought that doing the percutaneous procedure was the best possible option. However, there was excessive bleeding so we decided to explore further.”
Cheryl was now confused. “No wait, you said that-
“On exploring further, we found a shard of metal that had eroded his pulmonary artery. Dr. Bailey and Dr. Hahn, the cardio lead on your husband’s case, used extraordinary measures-
“No… Uh, no, no, no, no.” This wasn’t right. This conversation was so not going in the right direction. Cheryl began to experience a sinking feel in her stomach.
“-they used extraordinary measures. But his heart wasn’t able to tolerate the excessive-
“No, no, no, no” This couldn’t be happening. Vanessa had a plan. She had a plan to save Ryan. She wasn’t supposed to talk like this.
“-the excessive bleeding. He did not survive the surgery. I’m sorry.” Vanessa just stood there, carrying that blank look, finishing the speech with utmost formal dignity.
“You’re saying… You mean to imply that… that Ryan is dead?” Cheryl’s voice had now begun to tremble.
“Yes. Ryan is dead.”
They say death is hardest on the living. It’s tough to actually say goodbye. Sometimes it’s impossible. You never really stop feeling the loss. We leave little bits of ourselves behind, little reminders, a lifetime of memories, photos, trinkets, things to remember us by… Even when we’re gone.
She felt tense no more. All the raging weather within her was replaced by a dead void. She didn’t undergo any hysterical episodes. She just aimlessly ambled through the hospital corridors, watching the routine around her carry on. Nobody else in the world had realized her tremendous loss. Doctors were busy diagnosing, patients were busy puking, interns were busy charting and the whole pandemonium remained just unaffected. Cheryl felt envious. Even she wanted to be carefree and carry on with her daily work; take care of her kids, go to her office, shop with her friends. Instead, she was now stuck with the depressing memories of her husband. Her late husband. Her eyes became moist again. But she had decided not to cry. After all, nobody was gonna give a damn anyway. Every friend and relative would share her grief and tell her they understand. But nobody would actually mean those words. Why, was it the case that their husbands had died too? That even their lives had turned upside down in a night? Or the fact that the death was so sudden that their heart never got a chance to ever come to terms with it? No, she wasn’t going to cry.
“Cheryl, Cheryl…” Vanessa called up from behind.
“Look, I know you don’t want to talk to me but-
“You’re right. So just go.” Cheryl said calmly.
“I will. But I care for you and I need you to listen. You need a plan. You need to figure out-
“Don’t you dare stand there and tell me what I need. Don’t you dare.” Cheryl was now fighting not to cry. “My deepest fears came true tonight. My marriage ended, my husband died, and now my kids are left fatherless. All I can do now is simply stand back and watch it play out. You know why Ryan and I never believed in a God? Because there is no God! No God would do this!” That was it; tears had now started rolling out.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry about all of-
“Just stop!” Cheryl cried. “Just don’t look at me with your pity and your guilt! I can’t take it anymore. All the while I stand here looking at you, I see your sunny life, your not-dead husband, your kids, and above all that, I remember feeling assured that you were gonna operate on my husband and that everything was gonna be okay! All of it makes me wanna scream and claw your eyes out! So please!” Cheryl was now visibly shaking with anger, her eyes still moist. “I am so angry at you! And jealous of you! And I feel terrible for feeling this way for you. I want to be okay with you, but I can’t. I can’t because every cell of my body actively hates you. It is so easy for you to feel bad for me Vanessa, but you don’t realize how tough it is for me to hate you!” Cheryl’s voice was now cracking. “I’ve no room left for other emotions on top of all the pain and bitterness that is burying me. I’ve no room left to have any feelings for you. No room at all!”
With a heavy heart, Cheryl continued, “I don’t know if I am gonna make through this, but I know I can’t do this with you around. So just stay the hell away from me.”
Vanessa didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t stunned. She was guilt-ridden. Heading back to her cabin, she met Dr. Bailey.
“How did it go?”
“She’ll never forgive me, Bailey. Never.”
“She won’t forgive anyone of us. Her husband died in this hospital…”
“We are always looking for ways to ease the pain. Sometimes we ease the pain by making the best of what we have, sometimes by losing ourselves in the moment, and sometimes all we need to do to ease the pain is… Call a simple truce.”