This is a piece my father wrote about 1/1/1977. Published here as backstory for another note titled "Dreams" ... I've written chapters past this, an undergraduate play, painted, other products of traumatic inculcation -- but they remain mostly in a box.
© George C. Wilson, 1977 (as edited, James R. Wilson)
The telephone call every parent dreads, and thousands get – especially on New Year’s Eve – came to our house at 2 a.m. on January 1, 1977.
“Mr. Wilson,” said the woman at the other end. “This is Fairfax Hospital. Your son has been in an auto accident. He is severely injured. We need your permission to operate. There isn’t much time.”
Questions flooded my brain. How did it happen? Where is he hurt? Who is the doctor? What does he want to do?
She could answer some of them. But she needed a decision from my wife Joan and me. Immediately. She repeated that there wasn’t much time. She told me that the surgeon poised over my 17 year old son, Jimmy, was Dr. Ezel Dogan. He was the surgeon on duty at Fairfax, Virginia, Hospital this New Year’s Eve.
Ezel Dogan. Who was he? I had never heard of him. I thought the worst: An ill-trained foreign doctor whom the regulars had stuck with the New Year’s Eve duty. How could I entrust my son’s life to him over the phone?
The Fairfax Hospital caller also told me roughly what Dr. Dogan wanted to do: drill several holes through the top of Jimmy’s head to determine how seriously the brain was injured from the severe blow Jim had received on the left side of his head in the auto crash. The holes would also absorb some of the brain’s swelling if it pushed against the top of the inner skull. The immediate worry was that the brain would swell so much that it would crush itself against the internal skull, snuffing out our boy’s young life.
Couldn’t I first call another doctor – one I know? No, the caller explained, there was not enough time for this. Jimmy was hurt too seriously to move. Dr. Dogan must start drilling within the next few minutes to help save Jim’s life.
Joan and I saw no alternative to giving our consent to letting this unknown doctor drill into the golden head of our boy. We gave it: then made a dash for the hospital over the same roads that had almost claimed Jimmy.
We spoke few words on the way. Neither of us cried. Each sensed that one must reinforce the other for making the other hard decisions ahead of us in the night. Joan is a math teacher; I’m a journalist. She tends to put her faith in people, especially professionals like doctors. I tend to question everybody and everything and ponder the dark side of issues at hand. I feared the worse. Gruesome pictures from auto accidents I had covered as a young reporter and from wounds I had seen as a combat reporter in Vietnam galloped through my mind.
I swung our car to the entrance of the sparsely lit Fairfax Hospital and dropped off Joan. I parked, then sprinted to catch up to her. We went to the Emergency Room. Jim wasn’t there. He was already on the operating table. All we could do was to wait outside the operating room in hopes of seeing Dr. Dogan and Jimmy. We stood against the green wall, shoulders touching; seldom speaking. I thought how close we had came to avoiding this tragic morning.
Jim had been invited to a neighborhood New Year’s Eve party but was not sure he wanted to go. He enjoyed the warmth of his home and the love of his parents. Yet going out New Year’s Eve was the thing to do. His sister, Kathy, was out. Several of his teammates from the Langley High School rugby team would be at the party. Maybe he should go, too. He got dressed up but lingered with us in the family room as we watched a New Year’s Eve program on television while the fire crackled. He asked to use my 1971 Mercury Cougar rather than the more sedate 1975 Chevrolet Malibu which Joan drove. I consented, after delivering the usual cautions about not drinking and watching out for drunk drivers whom imperiled everybody on New Year’s Eve. He promised to be careful, reminding us that the party was only a few miles away. Still he hesitated, standing uncertainly for a while at the edge of the family room before departing.
As I stood there in the hallway outside the Emergency Room, I saw him standing vibrant, healthy and loving in the family room and cursed myself for not putting my arms around him and persuading him to spend New Year’s Eve at home with us. He was close to doing so – if I had only held him at home. If, if – there were so many ifs to ponder as I waited for the double doors of the operating room to open.
The doors finally parted and out came a fulsome, slightly stooped man with dark hair and solemn brown eyes in the surgeon’s garb of green gown and hat. He was Dr. Ezel Dogan. He talked briefly but directly. Jim was in grave danger. It would be several more hours before we knew whether the brain’s swelling would reach fatal proportions or stop. He could tell from peeping through the freshly drilled holes in Jim’s skull that there was still some room for the brain to swell before hitting the wall of the inner skull. Youth was on Jim’s side. A man only twice Jim’s age would not have survived this long, Dr. Dogan told us. The head injury was that bad. Dr. Dogan advised us to go somewhere and await developments. Jim would be under intense observation in the recovery room.
The double doors of the Operating Room opened again. They wheeled Jim out. His head was a white turban of bandage. Tubes were in his arm and nose. We tried to touch him as the attendants wheeled him past us on the quiet rubber wheels of the stretcher. I probably called out what I had heard and said dozens of times on the battlefield but seldom believed: “Hang in there. You’ll be all right.”
Dr. Dogan started walking away from us to tend to Jim. I caught up to him and asked him out of Joan’s hearing what were Jim’s chances. He leveled with me. The odds chilled me. Jim was in an uphill fight for survival. And I was to learn in the next few moments that there was no good reason for him being near death. A man previously had been had been convicted of drunken driving had rammed into the side of the Cougar at an intersection, throwing Jim – who was riding in the front passenger seat against the door framing on the driver’s side. The impact had inflicted a frightful blow to the left side of his head.
Joan and I got these sketchy details of the accident right after leaving the hallway outside the Operating Room and entering the hospital lobby. There a group of teen-agers who had happened upon the accident scene minutes after the collision were sitting in the near dark, sweating out Jim’s struggle for survival. One of the girls was the sister of the teen-ager who had been driving my car, Robert Morley. Jim, figuring he had drunk too much champagne, had handed the car keys to Robert as they left the party. They drove along Churchill Road in McLean, Virginia, slowed down while approaching the red light at the Dolley Madison Boulevard intersection and then, by Robert’s sworn testimony, started across the boulevard when the light turned green. A van driven by George F. Burton, 35, came barreling out of the night, and, again according to sworn testimony, went through the red light and slammed into the Cougar Jim was riding in. He had not fastened his seatbelt and shoulder belts. He was knocked unconscious in the collision. Robert suffered a comparatively minor knee injury. Burton escaped with minor cuts and bruises. The Fairfax County policeman who responded to the accident and was interviewing the teen-agers in the lobby when Joan and I arrived there told me that Burton apparently went through the red light at the intersection. He said Burton was not subjected to a drunk driving test because he had received some medication at the hospital, which, a lawyer could argue later, could skew the sobriety test. I was furious Burton had not been tested.
Joan and I left the lobby for the Emergency Room. I got my first look at Burton there. A smallish, brown-haired man, he was sitting in a wheel chair with splotches of Mercurochrome over his face cuts. I glowered at him. He said something about being sorry. I wanted to kill him right then and there. I could have strangled him in his wheel chair without a twinge of conscience. I still don’t know what held me back. Maybe convention. Maybe Joan. She said nothing at all to him. I growled at him with a furious, “You know you may have killed our son.”
We learned from the hospital people that Dr. Dogan wanted to do some more surgery on Jim this long New Year’s day to assess the brain damage. The idea was to insert a small tube in an artery leading to the base of Jim’s brain; slide the tube up near the brain and then shoot colored dye through the tube and into the blood vessels running through Jim’s head. The dye would be photographed as it made its way through the brain, revealing such damage as blocked passages and clots. The procedure is called an angiogram. Dr. Dogan warned us with great solemnity that the test was risky. The tube might go off course or trigger some other adverse reaction as it was inserted in Jim’s arteries. But it was important to make a further damage assessment to help determine what to do next. Fairfax Hospital had just ordered a machine that would do all this examining entirely through rapid-fire x ray pictures, eliminating the need to poke tubes into the arteries. But Fairfax Hospital’s CAT (for Computerized Axial Tomography) Scan was not yet ready for use. Jim was too sick to move. He was in a Coma. Paralyzed. Would we give the go ahead for the angiogram later on this darkest of all days for us? Since we had several hours, rather than seconds as before, to make the decision, I said we would call the hospital with our answer later in the morning.
We could not visit Jim hanging onto the edge of the cliff separating life from death in his first hours in the Intensive Care Unit where he was placed after undergoing the operation. We understood. We did not want to cause any kind of vibration at this crucial moment that might start him sliding over the edge of the cliff. We returned home to Great Falls to ponder the go or no go decision on the angiogram. I had never spent a single night in hospital myself – knew little about such surgical procedures. I wanted to talk to someone expert in the field – someone who knew about the forbidding world of head trauma. I could think of only one person that early Saturday morning, Dr. Alfred Luessenhop of Georgetown University. His son was in Jim’s high school class at Langley. It was only 7 a.m. But I was desperate for expert guidance. I dialed Luessonhop’s home number, and he answered. This eminent brain surgeon could not have been nicer or more helpful to this caller from out of the blue.
“How old is he,” Dr. Luessenhop asked of Jim when I explained my dilemma. When I answered 17, he replied: “The risk is minimal for someone his age.” He asked a few more questions and then gave explanations that added up to a compelling case for going ahead with the angiogram. He signed off with the reassurance sounded on a hundred battlefields: “He’ll be all right.”
We consented to the angiogram. Jim got through it without suffering any further slips. But there was no sign that he was recovering from his deep coma. We were granted permission to visit him for 10 minutes, five times a day: at 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Our first visit was searing for me. There was my brilliant, well muscled, vibrant and compassionate son of 24 hours ago lying helpless on his back in a room full of other people fighting for their lives. We had been more than just father and son in the conventional way. We were best friends, all the way through. We had played almost every kind of sport together; built models together; camped together; canoed down rapids together; hiked through Glacier National Park together; wrestled on the living room rug until he became too big and strong for his old man to handle. And today this same, wonderful son of my mine was that lifeless lump under the sheet because some drunk had gone through a red light. The nurses had had to tie his hands and feet to the bed so the body could not have its way and assume the fetal position it often took just before death.
Jim emitted no sound, moved no muscle, as we looked down on him. He was just a helpless boy with tubes running into his nose and arm to keep him linked to the living whether his body wanted to live or not. The nurses in the Intensive Care Unit urged us to say familiar things to Jim in hopes of breaking through his coma and arousing him to consciousness. Joan and I and Kathy, his 18-year-old sister, said everything we could think of to break Jim out of his deep and sapping coma. But there was no response, not even an eyelash flutter, in the 10-minute visits of that first day. We sat in the hospital hour after hour, day after day, praying the next 10-minute visit would be the one in which Jim showed signs of life. His high school friends, teachers, our friends – they all came into the lobby to encourage us. One neighbor, Fran Luke, had her church collectively offer a prayer for Jim. Other Catholics lit candles. Joan’s associates at Cooper Intermediate School and mine at the Washington Post visited, sent meals, prayed. Jim had everybody pulling for him. But head injuries are little understood. There is not much doctors can do to repair them. The brain is a wonderful but immensely complicated organ which science is just beginning to understand.
We did learn the fundamentals of Jim’s problem from Dr. Dogan and others. When someone suffers a severe blow on the left side of the head, the brain suspended in its protective helmet of skull is knocked against the right side of the inner skull. This bruising collision, called a concussion, can damage the right side of the brain which controls the left side of the body. A boxer is only knocked out if his brain is jarred against the inner skull from a punch. But he can be killed instantly if the blow is so powerful that the brain is smashed against the inner skull. The harder the brain is hit, the deeper the unconsciousness. Deep unconsciousness is a coma. People can remain in comas for days, weeks, months – even years – before dying. The longer one stays in a coma, the less chance there is for a full recovery if the victim does regain consciousness. Deterioration of the muscles and hundreds of other parts of the body and mind marches in mercilessly. This much we knew as we tried five times a day to wake up our boy.
Saturday, Day One of our trauma and the New Year, nothing came from Jim. Sunday nothing. Monday nothing. We kept hoping the next day would bring some sound, some movement from our paralyzed Jimbo as we returned to our dark home each of those winter nights. We never gave up hope, but were emotionally and physically exhausted after just these first three days in the special hell that is reserved for loved ones of head trauma victims. Some people are doomed to this hell for years, struggling day after day to break the death grip of a coma. No one could predict how long Jim’s coma would last or what shape he would be in mentally and physically if he broke out of it. We could only keep on fighting with everything we had – which was little more than love and determination.
On Tuesday, Day Four, Joan, Kathy, and I crowded around Jim’s bed in the Intensive Care Unit once again to try to provoke an association, which would restart and reconnect his brain circuits. Kathy, a sister whom Jim deeply loves, said: “Jim, you know you have a dog. She’s a Springer Spaniel. What’s her name?”
Movement suddenly came from under the sheet. Then Jim’s mouth opened and he issued a ragged answer that sent our spirits soaring for the first time since that awful New Year’s Eve phone call: “Win-nn-eee!” He had made an association with his dog, Winnie, and spoken her name. Kathy had broken through. Jim’s wonderful mind was working again.
Joan asked: “Jim, do you know where you are?” He replied: “In the hospital.” Our black despair lightened. God was being kind. But we all still had a long way to go to reach the daylight of full recovery.