The last time I wrote, my girlfriend Liz had broken things off with me for being unfaithful to her. I have to admit that I really deserved to be broken up with because I treated her like crap. But the thing is, I didn’t realize how much I cared for her until she was telling me she didn’t want to see me again. I knew that she felt like I didn’t take our relationship seriously, but I wanted to show her that wasn’t true. That’s how I made the decision to ask Liz to marry me.
I know it seems kind of drastic and it’s definitely not where I saw things going when me and Liz first started dating. But the more I thought about it, the more right it seemed. My friend Michelle tried to talk me out of it, probably with good reason, but I had never felt so sure of anything before in my life. Liz was the only woman I ever felt comfortable being with since I lost both my legs above the knees and had to rely on a wheelchair to get around.
Finally, when I convinced Michelle that I was serious about the whole marriage thing, she agreed to come with me to pick out a ring for Liz. This wasn’t the first time I bought an engagement ring. The first time was back in college when I got one for my ex-fiance Wendy. I didn’t know what I was doing back then and her best friend basically picked it out for me and I just bought it. I returned that ring a long time ago.
Michelle and I went to Tiffany’s to look at rings. It felt weird going in because I hadn’t been in a place like this in a long time. Right away, a salesman approached us. “Hi, I’m Andrew. Can I help you?”
“I want to buy an engagement ring,” I said.
Andrew smiled. Maybe it was imagination, but it seemed a little condescending. “Of course. Is it for her?”
“No, it’s a surprise for my girlfriend,” I explained.
“What price range were you thinking about?”
I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to spend too much because I was pretty broke right now, but I wanted to get her a really nice ring.
“Are you working right now?” Andrew asked me when he saw I was hesitating.
I was taken aback by the question. I couldn’t believe he would have asked me that if I weren’t in a wheelchair. Michelle answered for me: “That’s none of your business, actually.”
Andrew got a lot more quiet after that. He showed me a bunch of rings that were in the price range under $10,000. I saw one that I really thought was great that cost $9,275. It was one and a half carats, set in white gold. That was definitely way on the higher end of what I wanted to spend though. Understand that even though I’m a doctor, I don’t make that much as a resident and I’ve got loans from college and med school.
Michelle said that she knew I wanted to be super-romantic, but she honestly thought that Liz would like some of the cheaper rings just as much. “It’s not about the ring, Jeremy,” she said. “It’s about whether or not she wants you.” Her saying that made me even more anxious though and I decided to think about it a little more. I didn’t want to start spending money unless I at least thought there was a decent chance of her saying yes to me. Michelle agreed that was a good idea.
I decided the best thing to do was to first work on getting her back. Unfortunately, just making time for a date turned out to be pretty difficult. My easy rotation had long since ended and I was working an ICU rotation. Now that I’m a second year resident, I didn’t realize how good I had it last year. This year I’m in charge of running the codes during my calls on the unit. It’s been a terrifying experience to say the least. Every time I hear that familiar beeping and the loudspeaker saying overhead “CODE BLUE”, I feel my heart start to pound in my chest, like a Pavlovian response.
My involvement in codes last year was pretty minimal, considering my wheelchair pretty much just got in the way. If I tried to move in to draw a blood gas or feel for a pulse, there were immediately five people tripping over me. And I definitely couldn’t do chest compressions at all.
People don’t realize that most resuscitations have pretty bad outcomes. When you watch on TV, most people survive being coded, but that’s just not the situation in real life. The people you see on TV are usually young and otherwise healthy, not people who are in overwhelming sepsis or something. Of the people who have gone into real cardiac arrest, the vast majority don’t make it out of the hospital alive. Especially when the person is pretty sick to begin with.
When I had my accident, I was a patient in the ICU, so I got to see the other side of things. I honestly don’t remember much of it at all. I was intubated, meaning they had to put a tube down my throat to control my breathing. I actually had a collapsed lung and they had to put in a chest tube. I was really a mess and it’s a miracle that I survived and am doing as well as I am right now.
On my third call in the ICU, one of our septic patients coded. It was a patient with a traumatic brain injury who had been on the rehab medicine service, but wound up getting very sick with aspiration pneumonia. We took him onto our service in order to try to save his life. I get very exasperated with our rehab service sometimes because they have no idea how to medically manage a patient, so going on their service is kind of like a death sentence for some patients. The only thing they know how to do really well is manage bowel programs, which isn’t that helpful when a patient is practically dead.
Anyway, we resuscitated that patient after his code, but I talked the family into making him DNR, then about an hour later he died. I went to talk to the family about it, which is very hard for me, not only because I hate telling someone that their loved one died, but also because a lot of families just won’t respect my authority because of my disability. They want to hear what happened from “the head doctor”, they say. Of course, it was the middle of the night so our attending physician wasn’t there. Instead, I sent my intern in to talk to them. Even though I’m higher up in rank than the intern, somehow they respected what he had to tell them more. I’ve had female doctors tell me that they have a similar problem and that the male med students get more respect than they do.
The whole thing was devastating because I found out the next morning that I had missed a pneumothorax on the patient’s chest film. It was a very slight pneumothorax, but I felt awful about the fact that maybe a chest tube could have saved the guy’s life. I stared at that chest film for about twenty minutes, trying to figure out how the hell I had missed that pneumo. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that.
When I came home from that call, the first thing I did was call Liz, even though she was still mad at me. I felt really awful and I knew that hearing her voice would make me feel better. Her mom picked up and I said, “It’s Jeremy. Can I talk to Liz?”
Her mom sounded pretty happy to hear from me and put Liz on the phone right away. Liz sounded a little guarded though. I told her for the hundredth time that I still felt really bad about cheating on her and that if she didn’t want to see me again, I would understand but that I hoped she’d forgive me and we could at least be friends.
“I guess we can be friends,” Liz agreed. “Then we can see where it goes from there.”
I was really happy to hear that, because before then she hadn’t been willing to talk to me at all. I asked her if she’d like to go out to dinner that night and she said she would. I had been planning on taking a nap since I had been awake for over 30 hours in a row, but I was so excited about seeing Liz that I couldn’t sleep. I took a shower and I paid special attention to my stumps, making sure they were clean and soft, in case something happened that night with Liz. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked pretty tired, which I was, but there wasn’t really much I could do about that.
When I first saw Liz at the restaurant, I felt really nervous. I know we were just supposed to be “friends” but my eventual plan was to ask her to marry me, so I didn’t want to screw things up. When I saw her, I gave her a hug and she looked pretty happy too. I was surprised to see that she was wearing make-up, which she usually didn’t do.
I had a bouquet of roses on my lap and I handed them to her, which she looked pretty happy about. We got our table and we started talking. I told her about the bad night I had last night and she was really nice and comforting about the whole thing. I forgot how great it was talking to Liz.
When she got up to go to the bathroom for a minute, I actually fell asleep on the table. I meant to just rest my head on my arms for a second, but the next thing I knew, some waiter was shaking me, looking really freaked out. I guess they thought that because I was in the wheelchair that I must be sick. The waiter asked me if I wanted him to call for a doctor and I quickly told him I was just really tired from working all night.
Liz missed all that excitement and when she got back to the table, she said she wanted to tell me something. “What?” I said.
“I’ve actually been seeing someone for the last few weeks,” she said.
I was shocked. We had only broken up a little over a month ago. “Who?”
“There’s this guy at church who had been asking me out for a while, so when we broke up, I told him yes,” she said.
One thing I admit about myself is that I’m a really jealous person. I liked Liz a lot and it was devastating to me that she was now dating someone else. I tried not to let on about this though. “What’s his name?”
“His name is Todd,” she said. “He’s a really nice guy.”
“Is it… serious?” I asked.
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I rubbed my stumps self-consciously. “Is he disabled?” Liz has a slight disability in that her legs are two different sizes and she usually uses a cane to walk outside the house. And obviously I’m disabled.
“No, he isn’t,” she said.
Honestly I felt like giving up right then. I didn’t see how I could possibly compete with a guy who wasn’t in a wheelchair, no matter how much Liz used to like me. I just kind of mumbled “I see” and looked away from her.
Liz took my hand in hers. “Jeremy, I really like you a lot, but I don’t think you feel the same way about me that I do about you. Todd really cares about me.”
The rest of the meal was kind of subdued. I kept thinking about how good I had it with Liz and how I had managed to screw things up so badly. When we were in the taxi going home, I tried to kiss her and she just sort of pushed me away and said, “Jeremy, please don’t…”
I got home at around 9 and my parents were in their bedroom watching television. I went to the kitchen and saw that there was a bottle of wine on the counter. I admit I do tend to drink a little when I’m upset so my mother tries to put the alcohol out of my reach, but when I locked the wheels on my chair and really stretched for it, I was able to get at the wine. I didn’t even bother with a glass, I just drank it right out of the bottle.
Considering how tired I was and that I hadn’t eaten much at dinner, it started affecting me pretty fast, although not in the good and numbing way that I had been hoping for. I felt worse, if anything. I felt like I was never going to find the right woman and it was completely hopeless. I actually started crying right in the middle of our dining room, holding this stupid bottle of wine.
I don’t know if my mother heard me or what, but she came out of her room and saw me in the dining room. “Jeremy, what are you doing!” she screamed at me.
This was the problem with living with my parents. You can’t be miserable in peace. “Just leave me alone,” I said. I was trying to wipe my eyes off.
She yanked the bottle right out of my hand, which I only let her do because she surprised me. “This is getting to be a big problem,” she said.
This was really typical of her. I mean, her youngest son was crying in the middle of the dining room and all she cared about was that I was drinking. She worries entirely too much about me drinking, it’s kind of annoying. I guess her brother had a drinking problem, so that’s part of it.
“What’s this about?” she asked me.
I told her the whole thing about how Liz didn’t want to take me back and how I wasn’t ever going to find anyone, etc etc. As I was talking, I started crying harder and now my dad came out too. I felt really weird about crying like this in front of my parents, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I was also now somewhat drunk from having had all that wine and I think I was slurring my speech a little.
“How many hours in a row have you been awake now, Jeremy?” my dad asked me.
I woke up at 6AM yesterday morning and hadn’t slept at all since then, so I told him it had been about forty hours, which I guess is a lot. It felt like I had been through a train wreck since yesterday. “I think you need to get some sleep,” he said. “Maybe you should call in sick tomorrow.”
That last part was out of the question. I felt pretty sure that my intern wasn’t going to be able to manage by himself tomorrow, even though I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of coming to work hungover. But I agreed maybe I should go to sleep now and try to forget all the stuff that had happened today.
My mother pushed me into my room. I started to transfer into bed, but because I was so drunk and tired, I forgot to lock the wheels and I slipped somehow and wound up on the floor. That got me crying again and I started slamming my fist into the side of my chair, screaming, “I hate this fucking chair!” I think I was hurting my fist more than I was hurting my wheelchair, which was probably just as well.
My mother moved the chair away from me and helped me climb into bed. As soon as I was in bed, it felt so good, I just wanted to go right to sleep, but my mom was all like, “Lift your arms.” So I lifted my arms like I was five years old and she helped me pull off my shirt. It was really unnecessary, but I guess it was kind of nice and motherly of her to help me. Then she went and undid my pants and pulled those off too for me. I don’t need help with any of those things anymore, but she’s helped me a lot of times since my injury, so we’re both sort of used to it. After my pants were off, she gently patted one of my stumps in sort of a reassuring way.
My mom took some tissues and started wiping off my face to dry it. “You’re going to be okay, sweatheart,” she said to me. “You just need to cut down on the alcohol, okay?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I really don’t have any kind of drinking problem, so it was very annoying that she kept acting like I did. Seriously, I’m not in denial or anything, this was the first time in over a month that I even had a drink. But I didn’t feel like arguing with her, so I just said okay.
“Good, now get some sleep,” she said and she kissed my forehead like when I was little.
“Can you put my wheelchair back by the bed?” I asked. Even though I had gotten emotional before, I didn’t really feel like dragging myself all the way across the room tomorrow morning.
She moved the wheelchair and then shut out the lights and left. As soon as she was gone, I pulled back the covers to look at my stumps in the dark, then I started crying again. I just couldn’t stop thinking about Liz and how I was a freak who’d never get married. I mean, when you’re almost thirty, most of the women are married and the ones who aren’t are really picky and don’t want a guy in a wheelchair with two stumps. Even though I’m used to being a double amputee, I know that my stumps are a big turn off to most women. Most guys my age are married and having kids now, and I can’t even get a date.
One thing Michelle said to me once was that I should make an effort to date more women who are disabled. This is an easy thing to tell someone but not so easy in practice. I think the women with disabilities who are actually attractive have an easier time finding a guy than an attractive guy in a wheelchair. And the ones who aren’t attractive aren’t women I want to date. I mean, I don’t want to sound shallow, but some of them are really really bad.
Eventually I did fall asleep and I felt better in the morning, although I had a moderate headache. Work was especially annoying because everyone seemed to know about my fuck up with the pneumothorax. Now that I had slept on it, I still felt bad about missing it, but that patient was really really sick and I don’t think catching a tiny pneumothorax and sticking in a chest tube would have wound up making a difference in his life or death. But the annoying thing is that you never know.
I told my mother as soon as I got home that I wanted to come with her to church the next Sunday I had the day off. My mom was thrilled to hear this. She’s a fairly religious Catholic and I’m not religious at all, which has always been sort of a disappointment to her. My older brother and sister aren’t very religious either, but I’m probably the worst one of the three of us. I think I’d probably be a happier person if I shared my mother’s beliefs, but I just don’t. She blames herself for allowing me not to go to church as a teenager, but I don’t think torturing me more was the answer.
Anyway, the reason I wanted to go to church with her was not for religious reasons, but because I was hoping to see Liz and also that guy Todd that she was now dating. I let my mother believe what she wanted though.
My mother was really excited about me coming to church. The whole experience made me remember why I hated it so much in the first place. First, I had to wake up early and dress up on my one day off. Second, the church is like the focus of my mom’s social life, so all her friends were there and we had to go talk to everyone. I hadn’t seen a lot of these people since I was a kid, which was really awkward because it was very obvious how they were trying to step around the wheelchair issue. I got to hear from about ten different people how good I looked and how great it was that I was a doctor. By the end of it, I was actually looking forward to the boring sermon getting started.
I had to sit all the way up front so my chair didn’t block the aisle. I always hated sitting up front in church, and it made things harder in terms of keeping a look out for Liz. But I didn’t have much of a choice if I wanted to stay.
People were still filing into the church when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Liz. “I can’t believe you’re in church,” she said. She knew how I felt about it.
“I came to see you,” I admitted.
Liz sat down on the bench next to me. “Look Jeremy, I’m sorry, but I’m with Todd now.”
“You like him better than me?”
Liz had to think about that one for a minute. “I like my relationship with him better than my relationship with you.”
This was like payback for the way I had treated Liz when we were going out. I felt awful hearing her say this to me, but I guess I deserved it. I probably should have backed down gracefully, but instead I said, “Please Liz, I love you. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it. I just want you back.”
Liz just shook her head. “No, I can’t.”
“Liz, I want to marry you,” I said, taking her hand. “Please, give me another chance…”
Liz’s eyes started tearing up. I couldn’t tell if I was getting through to her or not but then I heard someone saying, “Liz, is he bothering you?”
I turned around and saw the infamous Todd. He was very short and very pudgy, with dark hair and an upturned nose. He came over and put his hand on Liz’s shoulder possessively. “You must be Jeremy Andrews,” he said. “You need to leave her alone from now on.” When he spoke, he kind of jabbed me in the chest with his finger.
I didn’t know what to say or do. I knew that what I wanted to do was punch him in the mouth. But I’ve never done anything like that in my life and I knew my mother would kill me if I got into a fistfight with a guy in church. Plus even though I think I was stronger than he was, I was worried he might be able to beat me in a fight, just due to having more weight and of course having legs.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I won’t bother you anymore, Liz.”
Todd took Liz back to their seats. My parents reappeared and my mom tried to ask me what I had just been talking to Liz about, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I was fuming through the entire sermon. I kept thinking about how dumb I was, but also how dumb Liz was for rejecting me. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that I deserved everything that had happened, and moreover, it had happened for a reason. I did care about Liz, but I probably didn’t love her as much as Todd did. Maybe getting rejected by her just elevated her in my mind and made her seem much more wonderful than she really was. I had never been head over heels for her.
At the end of the sermon, my mother forced me to go talk to the priest, Father McGill. I had known Father McGill as a kid, but hadn’t seen him at all since my accident. But of course, thanks to my mother, he knew all about it. He told me that he had been praying for my health and he added some comment like, “It’s amazing to see what you’ve turned into as an adult. You’ve truly grown up.” Or something equally asinine.
“Father, we were just wondering if there’s a place where Jeremy can meet some nice Catholic girls,” said my mother, much to my horror.
“How old are you? About 30?” he asked. I nodded. “There’s a singles night for adults ages 25 to 40 every Thursday.”
“Oh, that’s perfect!” My mother was thrilled.
Going to a church singles night was not my idea of “perfect” by any means. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like a reasonable possibility. I’m sure there have to be girls there who are like me and not that religious but just have a Catholic background. So this is something I’m actually considering now.
To be continued...