Heads up: This is a longer, somber post about the end of my 2017, and a powerful experience that informed how I resolved to take on 2018. Some content concerns hospitalization and physical trauma.
All told, 2017 has been famously terrible. Flamboyantly, laughing-while-weeping terrible. Basic human rights and Internet freedom were imperiled, and disasters—natural and man-made—seemed to succeed each other before we could catch our breaths again.
In February (was it really last February?), the president announced his first attempt to ban entry from seven majority-Muslim countries. The next morning, my habitually prompt English professor stormed into our classroom a minute late. Her eyes were blazing.
“I’m fine,” she said to us, a small tempest of shuffling papers. “Personally fine, nationally frustrated.”
In the coming months, personally fine, nationally frustrated became the epigraph of 2017. I graduated from college; the families of undocumented people are at risk. I started a job that I enjoy; female survivors of sexual assault are faced with condemnation for speaking out.
But when, a few weeks ago, my mom called and told me that my dad fallen off a ladder while cleaning the garage, that he landed squarely on the right side of his skull, that anything could happen as long as his brain kept bleeding, the accumulated exasperation that was 2017 dissipated. In an instant, my thoughts narrowed to my most immediate concerns: get home, be with family, hope furiously that everything would be okay again.
When I walk into the ER, the first thing that I notice is that there is so much machinery: buttons, wires, coils, screens, plastic tubes, metallic sheens, blinking lights, and high monitor tones.
The day before, I received a call from my mom, who asked me to come home immediately. My dad was in the ER. The entire drive down the coast from San Francisco, I struggled to contain my darkest fears and speculations beneath a thin membrane of forced calm. I drove for seven hours and saw the sun rise.
The first thing I notice when I see my dad is his face: flushed skin, swelling temples, bulging purple half-moons on his eyelids. His body rising and falling with sleep. The neurologist comes in and tells me and my mom that “we’re not out of the woods yet.” This is an idiomatic expression that I take to mean that all manner of dangerous and unpredictable things lurk in the woods, just like in the fairytales, and we haven’t reached a safe place yet. The woods a maze of twisting canals on the brain scan that the doctors show us. Among the paths, there is one bright, white stain: rupture.
The woods are in my dad’s right frontal lobe, and so, it seems, are the wolves.
Patients are allowed to have, at maximum, two visitors in the Intensive Care Unit, which works out fine, because it’s just me and my mom. We feed him, untangle the wires that bind him to life, call over the nurses. My mom is a more vocal advocate for him than I am, because I realize that some innate part of me balks at being pushy. Correct this about yourself, I think.
Most of my dad’s family is in the Philippines, so his care really just comes down to me and my mom.
I learn, through eavesdropping, a bit about the patients surrounding my dad. The man across the hall from my dad in the ICU was hit by a car while he was crossing the street to the grocery store. He’s a man with four grown-up children, who, with their own children, visit him in pairs. There is always someone hovering over him, murmuring to his sleeping body in Spanish.
When the nurses make their rounds, they ask my dad and his neighbor the same questions:
“What is your name?”
“Cómo se llama?”
“What year is it?”
“Quel año estamos?”
“Where are you right now?”
“Dónde estamos ahora?”
“Muy bien, Papa,” says the neighbor’s daughter, when he answers them all correctly. It seems like she’s the oldest, or at least in charge, and she makes sure that the children and grandchildren come in twos.
When my dad was in the ER, the man in the bed adjacent to him was homeless. He had walked into the hospital because he had difficulty breathing. There were no visitors for him. Each time he was left alone, he yelled for the nurses until his voice grew hoarse.
For the first few days, all that the nurses and neurologists would tell us is that my dad wasn’t getting worse. I quickly realized that, in the ICU, that’s the most that you could ask for.
At last, with clearance from the neurologist, my dad moved to an observation unit that afforded him more privacy than the ICU. At last, the doctors could say with certainty that he would make it through. The shock and fear that had gripped my body for three full days began to ease their clasp.
Those nights that my dad had to spend in the hospital, my mom and I seldom left his side before 10pm.
As I drove home, I would listen as the late-night soft-rock radio hosts received calls from listeners who called to dedicate songs to loved ones, or to share their heartfelt stories of Christmas miracles. While there’s room to believe in the original miracle (you know, the big one), I’m usually skeptical of Christmas miracles as a concept because of how often they are used to sell bad made-for-TV movies.
But each night—driving through the unremarkable suburbs where I grew up, listening to other peoples’ phenomena—I slowly conceded that a miracle had, indeed, graced my family. Or, at least, a series of small ones: My neighbors had found my dad unconscious. They called the ambulance immediately. There was no injury to his neck or spine. And at the end, after long and grueling days in two different hospitals, my dad was able to come home for Christmas Eve. The joy of my dad’s homecoming, this absolute certitude of his well-being, ensconced me like a mantle.
Here are other things, though, that are not miracles: I graduated from college with a job that gives generous time off and allows me to work remotely. My family has access to a hospital that possesses enough resources to give patients constant care and attention. Because both of my parents are employed, and their employers provide health insurance, we only had to pay $25 for this entire medical ordeal.
If we did not have these privileges, my family’s Christmas tale could have had a far, far darker ending.
My parents are immigrants, and even in the most challenging times, they’ve unwaveringly reminded me to be aware of how fortunate we are. How lucky to inhabit the circumstances that we do. How it is not like this for most people. My dad sustained a brain injury, and we are still fortunate.
I’ve been lucky and sheltered that personally fine, politically frustrated even applied to me for the most of 2017. And at the final moments of this tailspin year, the maxim no longer applied; they were one and the same. I confronted the worst fear I had ever felt in my life—the fear of losing my dad—and, at the same time, experienced firsthand the decisive significance of having health insurance.
The end of 2017 is hours away. The latest GOP tax bill has begun the Trump administration’s slow attempt at dismantling the Affordable Care Act. The ACA has given an estimated 20 million Americans vital health insurance, coverage that finally recognizes the disparities in healthcare access that Americans experience and moves toward mending them. My dad, the grandfather in the ICU, and the homeless man in the ER all depend on health insurance; real, loved lives depend on a system that is in jeopardy.
On a moral and intellectual level, I’ve always believed that access to healthcare was a human right. But my dad’s injury, and my family’s narrowly-achieved miracle, frightened me into my convictions. It left me with the resolve, as we enter into 2018, to continue the fight for a humane healthcare system.
My dad’s recovering at home now, and I work from home to spend time with him and support his recovery. As he continues to confront the difficulties of a brain injury patient, my family’s experience strikes me as a strange allegory for the new year, a year that will not start on a clean slate but is instead leaden with the trauma of the past. When it comes, not long from now, 2018 will charge us with the imperative to find, and forge, a path toward healing.