SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A LIFE BEYOND POLIO (excerpt)
Gary Presley's autobiographical work Seven Wheelchairs was published in 2008 by the University of Iowa Press. A review of the book will appear in the March 2009 issue of Wordgathering.
I am awake. I am alert. But all that was normal has been locked away.
I am in an iron lung. The fever of polio and pneumonia have burnt me down to the ashes of self. I have yet to decide if I will rise up out of the cinders to begin again. I have yet to learn that I am only a remnant of that person I had been shaping into me.
My progress from the confusion of fever down into oblivion, and then up to a different reality, has been seamless. I can draw no line. I can find no border between the real and the unimagined. Somewhere in the circles of light to dark, and then light to dark again, and once more and again, I begin to feel the seductive rhythm of an iron lung. My parents, the doctors, and the nurses explain where I am. Once, twice. Once more. And then again.
I remember seeing an iron lung in the hallway while I waited in an emergency room, my legs paralyzed. How many days ago? No one says. Is this the same device? No, it can't be. This is a different hospital. I recall an ambulance and the bumpy, shifting, swaying nervousness I felt, stretcher dipping and tilting, as it was lifted, rolled, and carried. An ambulance. Yes, I was being moved—I knew that. From Baptist Hospital to another hospital, one I would learn days later was called Surge Protestant Hospital.
"Careful, don't let me fall," I said then.
Now I say, "I'm awake. You can let me out, okay? I don't want to be in this thing."
A nurse says, "No. Not right now, hon. You need a little help with your breathing."
I cannot see her, but I believe her. I stop. Focus. Attempt to think.
But I am tired, so tired I can barely move my fingers. Wait. I can move my fingers, a bit, one or two on each hand, but I can't move my arms. I feel the pressure of the great lung; I feel it release. I do not ask again for them to open the machine and let me try to breathe naturally. I am tired, too tired to fight, tired enough to know I have lost, but not what I have lost. I do what I am told.
I am unable to breathe, the machine reminds me—hum, flap, thump!—sixteen times a minute. They say I can't walk. I remember, yes. That's why I'm here. I couldn't get out of bed that morning . . . when? Days. A week?
Even though I'm too weak now to move my arms, so weak I can only flutter my fingers, I can feel my legs, waiting, impatient to escape the pain that scorches down my spine. I will move one now, yes. I feel the impulse surge to my toes, but nothing happens. I feel dead. Trapped. Mind racing. Body still. Why?
I could walk. What's wrong? I could run. I could run a mile, sucking in air to drive my legs, running past the pain in my ribcage, running with purpose, running toward a destination, running out of joy.
I am awake, and then tired once more. I am out of kilter with the clock-regulated world. Light reflects through the curtain, and then no light. Lights beyond my head burn continuously, beyond where I rest flat on my back. No matter when I open my eyes, I am greeted by their glow. I drift, awake, asleep, always exhausted, always hurting too badly to drop off into the darkness completely. "Nurse, can I have something for the pain?" "Wait till the doctor calls in. We'll get you a hypo." Machine rhythm infuses the pain in my back, hips, and legs, flowing in, flowing out, fingering the nerves constantly. I feel the great cylinder vibrate imperceptibly, below the level of sound. I begin to listen to the beast, take in its metallic smell, feel it mindlessly working even when I think of other things.
I begin to believe in it, trust it to keep me safe, hiding within its core, humbled and defeated.
The iron lung hums, electric, like a refrigerator or a clothes dryer. The drone is low-pitched, constant. Over that, there is a plaid pattern of other noises—a flap, a sigh, a mechanical flexing, and then another flap as the sequence begins once more. Its mechanics—motor, piston, bellows—palpitate. The soft collar around my neck flutters with the beat, and my chest expands and contracts as the lung carries on its lonely dance.
Iron machine, soft collar, burnt-up body.
Now, flushed by the virus, I see only the great metal circle which surrounds my neck, the cap on the tube more than three feet in diameter, my face—yes, my face, I'm sure, although it is not me, instead a gaunt reflection of my shadow—resting in a mirror hanging above me. I fly through dreams, through sleep, through the odd uncountable waking hours, as part of a huge machine, cumbersome, heavy, and thoroughly unnatural in its appearance.
It is a lung in practice, but a robot lung surrounding a human body rather than a fleshy one inside the body.
Be human ... muscles surround the chest cavity to expand the ribcage and create a negative pressure. Air flows in, bringing oxygen to burn.
Be human ... lungs dormant, muscles alienated, left unfired by a short-circuited neurosystem.
Be human, afraid ... and live on, live inside a pseudo-lung, a steel cylinder perhaps seven feet long by three feet in diameter. Live on, within God's tool, this divine machine, this metal being with a life-sustaining vacuum at its core.
I breathe, or rather the machine forces me to breathe, and so there is no line of demarcation. I breathe now, lung-encased, and I do not remember not breathing. I remember illness, the emergency room, and the hushed, urgent voices of my parents talking with doctors and nurses, but I cannot recall the point when the physicians said I must be placed in the machine.
Did I cry after the decision was made and the end-cap was locked down? Or did they give me sufficient morphine so that I would submit without struggle? That most natural of acts, that involuntary firing of nerve ends and muscles, all that which sets a human being to breathing unconsciously has been swept away. No death is possible by choosing not to breathe—we can hold our breath until we faint, but our bodies will prevail, will not accept the choice of death, will instead suck in air after will has diminished in unconsciousness.
And then all goes awry, and the electrochemical engine is skewed by a minuscule virus.
Never mind. I am safe now, at least so the doctors and nurses tell me. "Relax. Everything's going to be all right."
My body has failed me, but the machine will not allow me to die. The only necessity is that I submit to its functioning.
I have lost the use of my body and control over its function, and I’ve lost the memory of their theft.
Soon I sleep fewer hours and begin to assess this new world and my place in it. I talk little. I remain weak; even the effort to speak seems to drain me. And I must obey the direction of the machine when I want to speak. It pumps, and it releases, and my speech marches to its cadence. I speak in snatches, in partial sentences, in brief thoughts as it lifts me to exhalation.
The iron beast cranks, flaps, and sighs.
"... get me a..."
"... drink of water?"
I am ultrasensitive to every touch. I even feel the odd little shift in air pressure tickle my skin when a nurse or an aide opens one of the access ports to tend me. The nerves along the tops of my thighs burn constantly; with portholes ajar, I sense cooling air but get no relief.
Another day passes. Or two. Perhaps three or four. Or more. Time does not require that I measure it, only that I endure it.
I arrive at the day when I will learn all that once was simple is now complex.