Chapter 23 THE LONG ROAD HOME
I got home and Marney’s door was wide open. She was even singing. After several sessions of virtual reality treatment, Marney seemed to be a lot more upbeat. She spent less time alone in her room with those old game videos.
“It’s like the song, ‘I’m walking on sunshine.’” Marney told me. “I feel so incredible in that machine. Like I almost have my life back.”
“When did they say you’ll be ready for surgery?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Squirt,” Marney answered. “But, right now, I’m enjoying the ride. ’And don’t it feel good!’” She sung out. I stood there at her doorway watching her as she shot her basketball into the hoop on her wall. She smiled and sung and I wanted to be happy for her. But I knew this easy and fun treatment wasn’t going to last. Once it was over, she’d do the surgery and then the intense physical therapy. But Marney wasn’t thinking of that. In a way, I didn’t want to take away her happiness by reminding her either. But, she’d need a reality check soon.
And that reality check came even sooner than I’d guessed. Within a few days, Fred and Jane were called into Doctor Mackey’s office to discuss the surgery and we all went down there as a family. There’s another thing I realized about Jane and Fred, if we do something, we do it together.
“The treatments are going so well, I think we can do the surgery as early as next week,” Doctor Mackey said.
Jane and Fred looked at each other and with some hesitation and a sigh hugged one another at the news. I’m not sure if it was a happy hug or a scared hug. But, I’m guessing it was a little of both. I didn’t know what Marney was thinking but I can only imagine how uncertain it all was.
Two weeks later, Marney was scheduled for surgery. Her whole basketball team rolled into the hospital to see her go through those surgery doors. Some waited to see her when she came out, but by then, most had gone home. Only one teammate stayed.
The surgery consisted of placing some kind of electrical device right onto Marney’s spinal cord. The device, when turned on, would stimulate Marney’s spine and remake those connections between her legs and her brain. If it is successful, she should, with some daily physical therapy, be able to walk almost immediately.
We waited in that waiting room to hear any news, any results, anything about the surgery. Everyone drank coffee. Fred even gave me a cup. It was pretty gross. I prefer the hot chocolate. The TV was on and I could see the Simpsons was on. That’s my favorite cartoon. But it was so low that I couldn’t hear it. A nurse walked into the room and we all stood up with rocket speed, except for Marney’s teammate of course.
The nurse looked at us and asked, “Would any of you like playing cards?”
Fred nodded his head and she gave him a set of cards. He played a round of Go Fish with Jane and Marney’s friend.
I thought that game was too childish so I asked the nurse if she’d turn the TV up and when she did, I sat around and watched Homer eat donuts and drink beer, while Bart made me laugh every time he said, “Don’t have a cow, Dude.”
But then Doctor Mackey finally walked into the room and we knew the waiting was over. We all stopped what we were doing and stood up. Doctor Mackey looked at Jane and Fred, took off his surgical mask and said, “Marney’s sleeping soundly. The surgery went well and it looks like it will be successful, but we won’t know for sure until she wakes up.”
“Can you give her a nudge and wake her up?” I asked.
“No, Young Lady, that would not be ideal for her. She needs to recover from the operation. When the anesthesia wears off and her body feels ready, she’ll wake.”
“Can we see her?” Jane asked.
“Yes, I’ll have the nurse come ’round and show you to her room. I would just ask that you allow her to get the rest that her body needs.”
“Ok,” Fred said.
“Good,” said Doctor Mackey. “I’ll be back here in the morning and we’ll go over the treatment plan together.”
He walked out and you could see how relieved everyone was at the news. Even I had tears in my eyes.
“You softy,” Fred said to me and he gave me a noogie.
“Nobody gives me a noogie except for Marney, Fred.” I said to him with a snarky attitude.
“Excuse me, your highness,” Fred answered. I went back to the coffee machine and bought myself a hot chocolate. It made me feel better.
The nurse finally came back and told us to follow her. She walked fast but I was right behind her. Fred and Jane held hands as they walked behind and Marney’s friend was just behind me. The slick hospital floors made it easier for her to wheel around. We reached the room and the nurse gave me the shhh signal with her finger as she opened the door. I walked in quietly and took the first seat I saw. I looked at Marney. She was still sleeping. A hospital wheelchair was next to her bed.
Fred and Jane came in with Marney’s friend and they sat next to Marney, right up against the bed. Jane began to stroke Marney’s hair and Fred held her hand. Even with that much touchy and feely stuff Marney didn’t wake up. I guess Doctor Mackey was right. She needed sleep.
Not long after that Marney’s friend’s mom came to pick her up. I wondered when Marney would wake and what she would say when she did. Would she remember what happened and where she was?
A few hours later, Marney woke up. I was asleep in the chair by the window when she did and was startled awake myself when I heard Jane say, with a jump, “She’s awake! Fred! Marney, how are you, Sweetie?” She took one of her hands.
Fred went to Marney’s side too and he took her other hand. “Hi, Sport. How ya doin’?”
Marney looked around and at first said nothing. She looked over at me and she smiled. She looked back at Fred and Jane, “What did the doctor say? Did he say it worked?”
Jane responded, “Sweetie, this is only just the beginning. You can’t just get up and walk out the door right after surgery, no matter how bad you want it.”
Marney looked right at Jane, “I do want it, Mom. Did he say it worked or not?”
“He said he thinks it was a success.”
Marney looked at her wheelchair. “Well then,” she put her arm out towards her wheelchair. Fred pushed it closer.
“Do you want to get in it, Sport?” Fred asked.
“Just leave it be,” Marney answered. Fred let go of the wheelchair and backed off. Jane stood up. I stood up. We stood there, all of us, and watched and waited to see what Marney wanted to do. She pulled the wheelchair right up to the edge of the bed and then pulled her body as close to the edge of the bed as possible. Her legs weren’t moving. It was all done with the strength of her arms.
“Marney,” Jane tried to reason with her.
“Stop, Mom, just let me try this,” Marney replied.
Marney took hold of the wheelchair like a walker. She grabbed her legs with her hands and moved them towards the floor. Her legs dangled off the bed and she started to slide toward the floor.
I started praying in my mind, Please let her stand, please let her stand, please let her stand.
By the time I thought my last thought, Marney lay on the floor. Her legs didn’t hold her. She didn’t move them. She didn’t walk. But she cursed and cried out loud, “Damn it!”
Jane and Fred didn’t get mad, they just went to the floor to help her up. Marney kept swearing and crying. Fred put Marney in the wheelchair and Marney let out her last swear word before finally kicking Fred in the calf with her right leg.
Everyone looked surprised at Marney. Fred grabbed his calf and then looked surprised at Marney, “Marney, you...kicked me.”
Jane looked at Marney and let out a short fast laugh. “Honey, you kicked him!”
“Did you feel it?” I asked.
“I did,” Fred said.
“Shh, Fred. Marney, Did you feel it when you kicked him?” Jane asked.
“I’m not sure,” Marney replied.
My thoughts were running through my head a hundred miles a minute.
Jane smiled at Marney and hugged her. “It’s ok.”
“You want a hot chocolate? We can go for a stroll.” Fred said to Marney.
Marney shook her head, “Just put me back in the bed, Dad, I’m tired.”
Fred picked Marney up from the chair and put her back into the bed. “Anything else, Sweetie?”
Marney looked at us all, shook her head and said, “I just want to sleep.”
“Come on, everybody, let’s let Marney sleep,” Fred said. We all gathered our things and started to leave the room.
I ran back in and kissed Marney on the cheek. It was wet with her tears. “Good night Marney.”
“Good night, Squirt,” she whispered back.
The next day, as promised, Doctor Mackey was back with his treatment plan. “It’s perfectly normal to get some movement on the first day, even hours after surgery. It’s a good sign, but it doesn’t mean you can run a marathon, Marney.”
Marney sat in a wheelchair in the physical therapy room with the doctor, Fred, Jane and me. It was pretty crowded. There were treadmills with people walking on top and a uniformed nurse on the side. There were weights and small rubber balls, even steps. Every single person was doing something. No one was complaining. No one was giving up. No one sat down and said I can’t do it.
“I can’t do it,” Marney said after Doctor Mackey told her to get on the treadmill. The nurse stood by to help her get up but Marney refused to budge.
“You can do it, Marney,” the doctor said. “Watch this.” The doctor had a kind of remote control in his hand and he turned it on. “Do you feel anything?”
“Like what?” Marney answered. Then her toe moved.
I jumped. “Marney, your toe moved!”
“Do it again,” the doctor told Marney. Then her toe moved again. “Again,” the doctor said. Marney smiled and looked down as she moved it again. “The other one,” said Doctor Mackey. Marney then moved the other toe. Tears began streaming down her face. Jane also wiped tears from her eyes.
“Hey, you’re under remote control, Marney!” I sat down near Marney’s feet and poked her toe, “Do you feel that?”
“Holy, sh--” Jane’s face stopped Marney from completing the phrase, “sheesh. Yes! Yes, Squirt. I can.” Every one smiled. Marney looked at Doctor Mackey, “What is that thing?”
“This is an electric impulse device. Basically the stimulator in your spine is wirelessly connected to this device. It was on last night as a test after your surgery and I can turn it on during your physical therapy and turn it off when your body is at rest.”
“Why not just leave it on all the time?” Marney asked.
“Why not just stay in the Virtual Reality helmet all the time?” Doctor Mackey answered.
“Why not?!” I shouted out.
“Shhhhh!” Jane said to me.
“Like with any treatment, your body needs to learn to do this on its own. I don’t want to make a substitute for your own nerves and electrical impulses. I want to remind your body and mind that it needs to use its own. We are simply recreating the ability for your body to function on its own again. Eventually, your body should reconnect itself. It should heal the injury and reconnect its own wiring, from the electrical map we’re creating for it and all the while, you’ll be strengthening your legs and body for when that connection happens.”
“You think it will happen, Doctor Mackey?” Marney asked.
“You can train your mind and body to do anything,” he said. “That’s what I believe. Because I’ve seen it.”
Marney pushed herself up off the wheelchair and with the help of the nurse standing by, she slowly moved her feet to the treadmill.
“You don’t intend to put her on that thing today, do you?” Fred asked.
“Mr. Ferguson, we’re not just preparing the body. We’re preparing the mind.” He beckoned the nurse to keep going and the nurse assisted Marney to step onto the treadmill.
Marney moved like she was carrying weights on her legs. She lifted her foot very slowly and she struggled to get it high enough, but finally stepped onto the treadmill with the first foot. With her strong arms she held tight to the handles and lifted her other foot with all her might till it landed hard on the treadmill. “It’s so difficult,” Marney said.
“Exercise a little control, Marney. I know everything’s more heavy now, but soon, your body will remember and get used to the weight of its own limbs again.” The doctor checked off some boxes on Marney’s chart. “Now I want you to just lift your feet, one after the other. Just lift, nothing more.”
I couldn’t imagine doing this for several hours. This wasn’t anything like being in the virtual reality helmet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Marney struggle with her body like this.
“I want you out of the chair and doing these exercises for 15 minutes three times a day,” Doctor Mackey said.
Marney stayed in the hospital for two weeks. During that time there were a few reporters with cameras outside, but eventually that died down and the story I wrote for her died away too. Her coach and some players also showed up to see when she’d be back.