Near Death's Door

© Crockett Grabbe 6/1/2014


Emergency Room Rebuff

I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, and knew something was seriously wrong. I could feel it over parts of my body. There was a numbing/tingling sensation of my right arm, up and down my right leg, and in my face. The peculiar thing about my face was there was a notable circular area around my mouth that was not affected. I quickly sensed that something was wrong in my central nervous system, and I needed to get to a hospital right away. It was sometime after 3 in the morning as I put my shoes on and struggled out to my car. The hospital was 10 miles away, and I was hoping not to pass out while driving there.

After waiting in the emergency room for a while, I was brought in and saw a young doctor, to whom I fully described the symptoms, probably using the word "numbness" to describe the sensation. He then performed one simply test: using an instrument with one side sharp and the other dull on my right arm, he asked if I could tell the difference. I informed him I could. He then said he could find nothing wrong with me. Somewhat exasperated I repeated that the unusual feeling was all up and down my right leg, my right arm, and my face, except for a ring around my mouth. He said nothing in response, but started doing the same test on my face. After my response he left the room, and I stayed motionless on the mat, feeling as exasperated as hell. After a while he came back, and told me I had to leave since they needed the room!

Knowing I was in a serious condition, angry because I was refused treatment by an inexperienced haughty resident who ignored clear description of my symptons, I went to the chairs in the waiting room and tried to lie down in a very uncomfortable situation. I did not dare leave since I was afraid of passing out, and realized leaving may have involved taking out a death warrant. I stayed in the waiting room, trying to nap on those very uncomforable seats. for another 3 hours. When the next shift came on, I asked to see the doctor on that shift. He refused because the doctor of the previous shift said there was nothing wrong with me. However, he did take note of my pituitary dysfunction in my medical record (something the previous doctor had failed to do), and order blood to be taken to test my hormone level to see that it was adequate. He also prescribed a powerful sedative, with instructions to return if my symptons did not go away.

My 4-hour emergency room visit had resulted in a sedative! I felt rejected again, but rationalized that my long wait had not been completely wasted. By that time I was pretty tired and sleepy. I did not want to go home, so I called a colleague at the physics & astronomy department to take me to the University of Iowa motel across the river. Besides, sleeping in a bed in a motel was more comfortable than sleeping in a hospital room, not to mention a whole lot less expensive!

After taking the medication and going into a long sleep I woke up around dusk late the next afternoon. Feeling much better and having by this time developed an appetite, I set out on a trek to my local restaurant (which was known as "the best greasy spoon in town"). After walking about 3 blocks up the hill, when I sat down there I suddenly realized from the worked-up blood flow that the strange tingling in my right leg, arm, and face was still there . That medication given by the doctor at the University of Iowa Hospital Emergency Room had done nothing to change the gravity of the situation!

The day I went to a shopping center and bought a new TV and VCR for the first time ever, and hauled them home, carrying them into my mobile home. As I set the new TV set and VCR packages on the floor, I strongly felt the strange tingling of the blood in my right arm and right leg. It seemed noticeably worse than before, and I turned around and rushed out the door to my car, heading again for the emergency room of the University of Iowa Hospital.

That new TV set package was still sitting there on the floor the next time I returned to my mobile home. That was over 3 months later!

A Cute Stroke

This was late 1985 & I was only 34 years old, but was experiencing a serious medical problem. I had surgery & radiation treatment for a pituitary tumor just 8 years before, right after I completed my Ph.D. in Applied Physics at Caltech, but would find out later that this situation was brought on by a birth defect that complicated that radiation treatment years later, unbeknownst to the MDs that did that treatment. I had returned in recent months from 2 trips to Europe in which I delivered 6 invited lectures: 2 in Trieste, Italy, 1 in Vienna, AUSTRIA, 2 in GERMANY. & 1 in SWEDEN. But now I was vying for admittance in the local University of Iowa hospital.

I was finally admitted into the hospital after the second trip to the emergency room, the diagnoses carried out quickly found that I had a cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain), often referred to as an acute stroke. That stroke was causing partial paralysis on my right-hand side. Monitoring that hemorrhage was of primary importance, which was not done for over 2 days because of my double-rejection at the emergency room.

It is quite interesting the persistent errors that developed in my medical records at the University of Iowa Hospital that I was having migraines with that stroke. In fact, migraines occurred no more commonly than usual, and their occurrence had no correlation at all with what was happening with the stroke. The initial error was compounded by multiple residents (student physicians) who would not believe me when I said there was no correlation of the stroke with any migraines I was having. This along with the diagnostic failures from with my double-rejection at the emergency room led to a whole paragraph of errors on my discharge papers when I left for another hospital 6 weeks later.

In my discharge papers they said in my initial emergency room visit I was having a "headache typical of migraines", when I in fact was having no headache at all! I had come for that initial visit because of tingling and numbness on my right arm, right leg, and face. The discharge report said "numbness came later", when in fact it was the cause of my initial emergency room visit. The report claims that the first 2 vistits (which was actually 1 visit with me sitting in the waiting room more than 3 hours to see the next-shift doctor!) as producing normal exams, when in fact there were no exams of the problems of tingling and numbness I repeatedly reported! Finally, the discharge papers report that I was "extremely agitated" about the "numbness and throbbing" on the emergency room visit where I was finally admitted. I was very agitated because the tingling and numbness had gotten worse in 2 days, and with their skepticism from the earlier erroneous report and their persistent questions about migraines, I thought I might be rejected again!

A few days after admission that cerebral hemorrhage developed into a major burst in the brain, and I had to have emergency surgery to live. I remember being briefly awakened the day before the surgery by the surgeon, who informed me of the situation. Being barely conscious I did not fully understand the grave nature of the request, but promised a decision. However, I was never conscious after that.

Early the next morning I could not be awakened, so the surgeon called down to Texas to get approval for the surgery from my 72-year old Dad, who gave it. He explained to my Dad that I may not live through it. I was at death's door, & he was going to try to pull me back.

I remember next waking up after the surgery was completed, while I was being wheeled out. The surgeon was describing staying in the hospital for the next 3 months. Also present was Prof. Dwight Nicholson, who had just become chairman of Physics & Astronomy at the University. I in fact remember that he came to visit me almost every day when I was at the University of Iowa hospital. My clear memory shows that I was very cognizant at that time just after the surgery. However, I was given a lot of drugs while I was in intensive care (mostly by young resident doctors), and recall later periods where I had some difficulty in distinguishing dreams from reality.

I learned from Dwight that my Dad was coming up to see me. That was good news to me, because my Dad had never been out of the State of Texas in his life! I then had some strange dreams about my Dad. When he arrived, he was greeted by both Dwight, and by Prof. Walter Randall. Walter was another friend of mine, and he and his wife Steffie graciously visited me a number of times while there. I remember trying to say hello to my Dad, but I had been given something for medication, and my voice never seemed to come out right. I remember trying to smile at him, and him looking seriously at me, and even thinking he was angry at me for not being able to do so. He, of course, did not realize I was cognizant of him.

In the early part of my hospitalization, after being loaded with drugs and losing touch with what was going on, I became convinced that the hospital staff had conspired to chain down my right leg with a heavy weight! I remember asking one nurse to help get more comfortable. She in fact was very helpful in that regard, but I was suspicious because it felt as if my leg was tied down! I later asked another nurse to remove the heavy weight on my leg. After trying to understand me, she finally made the connection that I thought this because my leg was paralyzed. She informed me of this fact, & I finally knew that there was no conspiracy!

I was in intensive care for several weeks, and my Dad visited me in the daytime for 3 of those. I remember often looking over from my bed and seeing his hat and crutch, but not being able to see him. He also gave me occasional massages of my paralyzed leg. These felt wonderful, relieving a lot of tension that slowly built up there. I also remember extensive discussions he would get into with Dwight Nicholson. Several times Dwight took Dad, who was without a car, out to dinner. Upon hearing Dwight, my Dad, and my friend Jonni talking about dinner once, and I chimed in, wanting to go with them. The idea of a steak sounded great to me! Alas, I never got one!

At the end of 3 weeks my Dad very tearfully said goodbye. I suddenly felt like cheering him up, and gave him assurances that I was going to get better. At that discussion, we were perhaps closer together than we had ever been in my life growing up in Texas. The reason was that when I was growing up I was literally afraid of my Dad to some extent, because he had a short temper and used a belt or stick, often more as an outlet for his own anger than for a deserved punishment.

In this visit 3-week visit in his old age, Dad was quite unlike the person I remembered from growing up. I glimpsed a bond there that had never been built as a youngster. Unfortunately, that was the last time I would see him alive.

I had several telephone conversations with Dad in the following months up until his death. While I was growing up, he virtually never referred to professors at a college or university without an appropriate curse word to go with the profession. However, Dwight was probably the first professor he really got to know. In those last few telephone conversations I had with him he would always end with "Please say hello to Dr. Nicholson". Dwight had been very helpful through this whole ordeal.

After about 4 weeks in intensive care I moved into my own room in the hospital. I remember listening to music after this move, and hearing the song "Broken Wing" which was popular at the time. The lyrics just popped out at me, as a description of the situation I was in and I had been through. This endeared the song in my heart for many years to come.

After 6 weeks of care in the University of Iowa hospital, I was transferred to St. Lukes in Cedar Rapids for rehabilitation. I was still paralyzed on my right-hand side, but wanted to sit up in the transfer vehicle to see the countryside I had not seen for ages. I was promptly told I would be moved flat on my back, but then convinced them to raise my head so I could see out the window.

This was the first time I had been able to see the exterior world for close to 2 months. And viewing the snow-covered fields and valleys for that 40-minute ride to Cedar Rapids was now one of my rare pleasures I had looked forward to for over a week, Ah, glorious country. I had missed it, but had lived to see it again!

POST-MORTEM: Dr. Grabbe went through another 6 weeks in rehabilitation, regaining much of the use of his right-hand side. He now lives in Austin, TX, having multiple disabilities but functioning fine as a respected physicist & writer. Crockett's Dad died about a year later in 1987. Departmental Chairman Dwight Nicholson was murdered in 1991 along with 4 others by a vindictive, distraught student -- shootings which also made another young student a quadriplegic for the rest of her life.