THE FIRST 10 DAYS
I am Julia Furey-Bastian’s (JFB to friends) mother, Dyan. I’ve historically shied away from social media because of the breeding ground I see it can be for judgement, derision, division, even public shaming. Even though it was designed to connect and bring us together.
I am thrust out of this shell by my desire to share the experience of a life-changing event that happened to my family: A life-threatening accident involving my 20 year old daughter, Julia, and her fight to live.
I endeavor for it to be factual, and to keep it current, as many are pouring in seeking round-the-clock updates. I may not get all the medical nomenclature correct as we are deluged by teams of critical care specialists fighting for brain-space (mine) in the attempt to save and rebuild her. I don’t have time to grammar and spell-check so please bare with me.
This is a blog from a mother’s perspective. It is, also, I believe, a testament to how Julia herself would want to represented. Julia and I shared a very unique and specific spiritual connection and uncommon view when it comes to suffering and its meaning that, on her behalf, I’d like to extend to any who might relate or, by it, be inspired.
If you have preconceived notions of how a mother “should” react to my situation you may be put off or skeptical about my observations and interpretations. If that is so, I ask that you reserve judgmental comments. I am just one woman sharing an experience that could have happened to anyone.
IN A NEW YORK MINUTE
At 7 PM on Wednesday night, 10 days ago, I was driving home from my mother’s on the Jersey shore. As I approached the Garden State Parkway, I got the call every parent dreads: “Julia’s been in an accident. She was hit by a car.”
“Was she driving?”
“Is it serious?”
Lankenau hospital was 90 minutes away.
I felt an immediate surge of purpose and focus. Deep breath… Here we go. The moment I knew was possible the moment I held her. Whatever was to come next, my strong, spiritual daughter was built for it. And so was I. I learned to trust God a long time ago. And so did she. God grant me the serenity to accept what I can not change…
I tried to imagine what she was doing when she was hit. If she was alone or not. If she saw it coming or not. I pictured her with her ear buds in and hoped she was listening to music. When the phone rang an hour later, I realized my hand was balled into the fist I involuntarily make when I’m scared, ever since my mother taught me, as a child, to hold the Blessed Mother’s hand..
30 minutes to the hospital, my mother calls to see if I’m home safely. “Are you home yet? There’s going to be weather.”
“Yes, Mom, I’m almost home safe and sound”, I lied. “Thank you for the awesome visit.” It was an awesome visit. My mom waits on the porch for me like a Labrador. And pouts equally when I leave. I suddenly remembered Bo and I were going to get our Christmas tree tonight.
By the time I got to Lankenau, the 1st Catscan had come back and the results were, “Not as bad as we thought.” The 1st sense of relief I’d felt in 2 hours. When I saw Julia’s dad, I remembered today was his birthday.
Julia’s injuries were extensive. A gaping opening in her forehead above her skull fracture, broken nose, multiple facial fractures, multiple rib fractures, a broken fibula in her leg that somehow tore ligaments from her knee that impact an artery that’s now more pressing than the eye. Fractures around the eye that are pressing upon her optic nerve, threatening her sight. Ruptured sinuses which are apparently a bigger deal than I knew. Her stomach was blackened and she needed stitches in multiple areas. Her beautiful eyes were swollen shut. She had a neck brace and tubes down her throat to keep her breathing and fed. Multiple IV’s streamed from her arms.
The doctor’s said, “We are worried about the right eye; she must be airlifted to Jeff.”
The “weather” came and made airlifting prohibitive. It would be 4 more hours till the ambulance came to pack her up and forge into the snow. I talked to her non-stop the whole way, telling her what happened, what was happening to her now, and that she was safe and protected.
I sang to her in the ambulance. Julia is very musical and has a beautiful voice. One thing I missed early on in the divorce from her dad was listening to her and her dad sing together. In church, in the car… I couldn’t hold a tune if it had handles but sing through the house regularly we do.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, at Jeff, they took a 2nd Catscan. Thank God by the time they read it at 9 AM, both my sister Maureen and brother (Dr.)Bill were there. What I didn’t understand from the images I was seeing on the screen, I read on my brother’s face: As opposed to the 1st scan that was better than expected, this one was worse.
The eye was secondary now. The swelling in the brain was first. “Severe, complex TBI.” Traumatic Brain Injury. I knew the term from a woman I worked with as an early social worker. She was in a wheel chair and needed help to do everything, She could not speak, feed or dress herself. She was in a car accident coming home from her prom. The driver who hit her, like the driver who hit Julia, was impaired.
Julia was standing at a corner on St. Joe’s University campus, on City Line Ave, waiting to cross the street to meet her cousin. It is a 4-lane avenue, which has an overpass kids take unless the traffic is sparse. When the light turned yellow, the car in the lane closest to her slowed to a stop. She stepped out into the street. The car in the further lane, by account, was farther back behind the closer driver. Instead of slowing to a stop, he pressed the accelerator and sped up. This explains why she was in the middle of the street. It also explains why he was going so fast. And hit her so hard.
When I saw the picture of the car, I assumed he crashed into something else as well. Later I would learn that no, he only hit Julia. She was struck on the right leg, sweeping her legs out from under her, projecting her head first into the windshield. All 125 lbs of her. The indented, shattered windshield was the impression of her beautiful head.
The driver, I was told by police, was driving an uninsured vehicle – an SUV – on a license that had been suspended for some time. His eyes were glassy and he smelled of alcohol and marijuana. He was arrested and given a blood test at the police station. Results of which were yet unknown.
Strangely, when I first heard about the accident, I felt a pang of angst for the driver, whom I assumed, was a student. As much as no one wants to get the call her dad and I got, no one wants to get the call those parents got. That poor kid’s life, as he knew it, was over. It crossed my mind which call I’d prefer, the call that Julia was hurt or that she hurt someone else. Obviously, I know what Julia would choose.
When I found out that this man was 42, with assumed prior incidents, compassion disappeared. I wished for it back. Anger is so much worse.
A student who was Julia’s service-partner at Hopeworks in Camden last year, named Emily, usually takes the overpass. For some reason, on this night, she took the crosswalk. She was the first to come upon Julia. She thought it was a bumper. Cars were going around her. When she saw it was a woman, she nudged her, “Ma’am, are you alright?”
Emily called 911 and was asked if the woman had a pulse. Julia’s clothes were up above her head and she was faced down. Emily put her head against Julia’s back, but all she could hear was her own heartbeat. It was impossible to tell if she was breathing. A Septa driver pulled over who had an AED, which is a defibrillator that sends a shock to the heart if the person is not breathing. In a CPR class Emily was not supposed to be in, she was trained to use one. The Septa driver did not want to be involved so he put his lights on and directed traffic.
Julia needed to be turned. A non-servicing female ambulance driver pulled over and together they turned her. They pulled her clothing down because it was cold. It was cold… At this point, the driver of the car that hit her was pacing around asking Emily, “Is she breathing?” It wasn’t till they cleared her face that Emily recognized it was Julia.
“Julia! It’s Emily!”
And with that Julia gasped. Breath!
Within minutes the EMT arrived and took Julia to Lankenau.
The First 72 Hours
Watching the trauma team at Jeff is like watching a symphonic orchestra. The number of “teams” involved in “Polytrauma” is incredible, and they all work fluidly in concert. Julia was hooked up to a gazillion machines. Ones to keep her breathing and fed, streaming antibiotics, and sedatives to keep her in a coma. Ones monitoring her temperature, her O2 levels, her blood pressure, brain activity, and most critically, the swelling in her brain. Brain swelling is determined by a measure called ICP – Inner Cranial Pressure. Ideally this number is under 15. When Julia was admitted her number was 36.
We were told that over the next 72 hours, it would be touch and go. Through medication, they were able to get her ICP under 20. Once her brain stabilized, it was a “wait and see’ game. Every hour they would pull back on her sedation to see if she would move. The first time, she got agitated and tried to pull out the tubes down her throat. Movement! Her arms and legs work! But she would not squeeze our fingers or respond in any way. Every hour her response got less and less. And each time it ripped something inside of me because I knew they were intentionally inflicting necessary pain. After 24 hours, they stopped looking for a response and put her on machines that respond or don’t respond for her.
Members of both my family and in-law family began pouring in, along with friends. I was stunned by the sheer generosity of people. And the love they had for Julia. Relationships which had been strained were instantly healed. It was like Julia’s “sickness” opened a rain cloud of salve to heal the rest of us and our own fractures. We commandeered an entire waiting room with an “overflow” room down the hall. Food poured in as well, along with flowers, cards, pictures, momentos… Everyone with a different story about how Julia had touched their lives.
My siblings so much more than met the moment. I can’t turn around without bumping into my sister Maureen. The first 72hrs she got as much sleep as I, which was basically zero. Susan has been my spiritual advisor and support and has every church in the parish where she sings storming the heavens. Karen flew from Florida on a moments notice to pick up my mom at the shore and bring her here. That, along with all her healing momentos from her trip to Lourdes and to see the pope. She also rubbed my back. My niece, Alyssa, who’s been here almost daily, brought a box full of Eagles (wear she works) gear, and with her sister, Lauren, (who conveniently works here at Jeff), plenty of food. Dr. Bill has been here to translate medical jargon into lay person’s terms and keep my siblings looped in. Richard spent hours vetting 9 attorneys for our legal representation, and Rob, in St. Louis, was the one to pick up and alert us that the driver was on Saturday on 50K bail. $5,000 and he may be in Canada by now. I feel very protected by my siblings.
Thanks to my in-laws, there were laughs. Plenty of them. My sister-in-law Norine, reminding me how she got kicked off the Archmere cheerleading squad, my brother-in-law Rich’s imitation of Stormy the cow running down Broad St. (Google it), my nephew Sean, with autism, discouraged from coming to the hospital, staying home researching “Jokes to tell people in a coma”. All this and more tested my bladder. I forgot the comic genius of my in-law family. Especially en masse. Passerbys who saw me in the waiting room doubled over in hysterics surely thought, ‘That poor mother… mad with grief.’ My sister-in-law Lisa, who has been keeping the waiting room that we overtook tidy and keeping everyone’s mood up in general, basically bought me a new wardrobe for the week and Target. Nieces Jeannie and Reesie, who’ve been here every day, went to Julia’s dorm room and brought some essentials back to decorate her hospital room.
SJU faculty have been traipsing through as well, telling me countless stories of her intelligence, compassion and eagerness to learn in class and what a “beacon of light” she was on campus. I laughed when I heard her Faculty Advisor, Julie, say, “Julia squeeze my finger about how much we hate Trump.”
On Friday, her 17 year old brother Bo came to see her for the first time. We gave him the choice whether he wanted to play in his basketball game the night before. He said he wanted to. The team wore arm bands for Julia and wrote her initials, JFB, on their arms. The coach said, the only word to describe his performance was, “inspired.” Bo had 27 points, an all-time high. In the 4th quarter, the other team wouldn’t let Bo have the ball. Pat was told that if Bo got the ball, he was fouled. That didn’t stop him from sinking two 3-pointers in the 4th and they won the game by 2. He will absolutely have my head for writing any of that so hopefully he’s not reading. Watching him see his sister for the first time that morning was difficult. “When is she going to open her eyes? When is she going to talk?” Because I’m his mother, I know in his head he is thinking of his friend from St. Edmonds, Anthony, who recently died in an auto accident and who, if he lived, would have been paralyzed.
On the way to get Bo, Pat was worried he would see us tearful. He told me, “I tell the kids, there are 2 reasons why I cry – when I’m joyful and when I’m scared.” He didn’t want Bo to perceive me as scared. “I’m not crying because I’m scared”, I said, “because I’m not scared. I cry because her body is broken and there is so much pain for her to learn from. And because I’m proud of the way I know she’s going to face it.”
That afternoon, her ICP shot up, out of nowhere, to 50. That means her brain is swelling too much and too fast. Despite efforts to stabilize her, her ICP kept climbing and in one fell swoop the Orchestra was whisking her up to the OR where they performed a craniectomy. Which, effectively, is taking off half of the skull cap for the benefit of releasing the pressure caused by the swelling. And that it did! She came through with flying colors and her ICP dropped immediately.
I wasn’t worried about seeing her when we were allowed to, because when I see Julia I see right through to her spirit. And also because of the absolute apathy she has regarding her image and appearance. But I was worried about her dad. This is his little girl, after all. When Pat saw her there, with her shaved head covering half a skull, he smiled and said, “Sinead O’Connor!” Just then I remembered why I married him.
When Shawn finally did come to see Julia, he went up to her and said, “Julia, I gotta tell you, you’re kinda freaking me out.” Then he adds, “Don’t worry, by the time you’re better, I’ll have a whole new comedy routine for you.” Sean’s dad: “Julia you might wanna stay asleep for that one.”
Now the clock was re-set. “For the next 72 hours it will be touch and go.” On Tuesday, the doctors began stepping back some of the trauma supports and slowly lightening up on her sedation in preparation of waking her up.
THE NEXT DAYS
On Sunday, 30+ members of my family came for an early Christmas celebration at a restaurant down the street. The most amusing surprise was my Duke all-star athlete niece, Sarah, who’d just had her own intricate foot surgery, wheel down the hall on her scooter, with a Santa hat covering her bare foot that a sock would not fit over. “Julia”, I said, “this is the first time I really wish you could open your eyes.”
On Wednesday, the breathing and feeding tubes down her throat were removed. In their stead, a Tracheotomy was performed so the respirator could be attached directly to her throat. She was still dependent fully on the respirator. A feeding tube called a PEG tube was inserted directly into the side of her stomach. All of these procedures require consent where they scare you with a litany of risk factors. She came through this procedure well except for the valve in her head which rates her ICP was dislodged and had to be reinserted. More waiver forms. One hurdle at a time…
My sisters, sister-in-laws, nieces and girlfriends have been taking turns with the graveyard shift at night so Pat and I can get some rest and keep as normal a schedule with her younger brother Bo as possible. Rich’s fraternity brothers kicked in for a hotel room for Pat and I to shower or rest 4 blocks from the hospital. When I’m not with Bo and Julia is covered, I’ve slept there and its been wonderful. On Monday, Pat and I got the following text from Bo:
“I don’t want either of you guys to come to any of my basketball games for the next few weeks because I will feel much better if I know that you guys are with Julia at the hospital and spending as much time with her as possible.”
(Sorry Bo.) (I’ll never get another text from him.)
How Am I Doing?
When you grow up, as Julia did, with the understanding that pain is a necessary part of life and a necessary part of growth, you stop avoiding it. Moreover, you learn to embrace it. Soon, you learn to mine pain for the treasure it has to offer. And find what it has to teach you. Buddhists define “suffering” as “the avoidance of pain”. Rehabs are filled with people who avoided pain by escaping through drinking, gambling, eating, working till it became a habit. A habit of hurdling over pain. But the only way over pain is to go through it. Julia knew this. It isn’t enough to endure pain, we must sift through it for the opportunities it offers. She was always an eager student.
Glennon Doyle says, “Pain is a traveling Professor. It knocks on everyone’s door. The really smart ones say, “Come in and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.” My daughter puts out a full spread for the traveling professor.
That is why, for the most part, I am not scared. That is why, for the most part, I am not sad. That is why I keep my head up and my heart open for every nuanced moment of learning this experience has to render. Just like Julia would. If I told you I’ve experienced more joy, richness and hope this week than I have in several years you might think I’m crazy. But it’s true. The human capacity for love, connection and forgiveness is astounding. It’s like she’s orchestrating all of this from deep down inside her where she is alert and not only absorbing it all energetically , but participating and co-creating it too.
Since she was little, I tried to inculcate an enthusiasm for learning in Julia. She loved the word enthusiasm, by the way. The Latin translation is En Theos which literally means in spirit or In God. She had an enthusiasm for learning by any means and pain being the greatest teacher of all, she never shunned it. She will make miracles of this I am certain.
All my life I’ve heard the expression, “Live every day because you never know, you could walk out in the middle of the street and get hit by a bus.” No one really ever does get hit by a bus, it’s just a metaphor. But my daughter did. An SUV, but a desperately fast and reckless one. There is a reason and a plan for this, of course. Our job is not to understand it but to believe in and trust the loving Hand that’s behind it. I know Julia does.
Today’s gift is she is breathing on her own. Thank You, God.