Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Vicky: My mother, my child…

My mom Victoria
Those telephone calls you dread… I got one in June 1984. It was to say my mom, Vicky, was in hospital and risked going into a coma.

Although always there, the memories came flooding back this week when a close and loved relative went into a coma. As my thoughts and prayers are constantly with the family, it took me back to those difficult months 28 years ago and the eight years that followed.

I was in Cannes, with my sister Asma, already dealing with a misfortune when the phone rang. My magazine had asked a London friend to reach me. I had to fly back to Beirut as quickly as possible.

That was easier said than done. I had left Beirut with much difficulty. Lebanon was still in the grip of a civil war and Beirut airport was closed. I had to fly out from Damascus and make the return trip the same way – by plane to Damascus then by road to Beirut.

My magazine, Monday Morning, made all the arrangements. I flew to Paris and then to Damascus where I arrived at night. My colleague, Nadim Abu-Ghannam (who has since passed away), met me at the airport. We drove to Beirut by night, passing through Syrian and Lebanese checkpoints manned by different factions. I think the state of my puffy eyes eased our way through the lot.

A neighbor who had our house keys got worried when, by noontime June 23, she didn’t see Vicky leave the flat. She decided to check on her. She found mom slumped on her bed. She quickly alerted the neighborhood and called an ambulance that whisked her to the American University Hospital (AUH).

Mom had suffered an aneurysm at the base of the brain. I had no idea what that was. The next 24 hours, I was told, would be crucial. She would either regain consciousness or have spasms and go into a coma.

During the journey back to Beirut I was praying for the first scenario and hoping at least to make it back before the second. It was not to be. She did go into a deep coma before I arrived.

By coincidence, while in Cannes, I read an article about a child in a coma in a village in Latin America. The whole village had rallied to take turns caring for the little boy. They were talking and singing to him and trying to trigger something that would wake him up.

We are talking about a time when there was no Internet, no Google search, and no telephone lines, electricity or water in Beirut… Hard to imagine, I know.

The first shock of seeing Vicky with tubes all over and helpless was devastating. Mom was strong, opinionated and full of life. She was the soul of any gathering, the busy bee of the family, always on the move and with something to say.

With Vicky in hospital
But there was no time to feel sorry. Acting on what I had read in that magazine, I got the hospital room looking homely in case we were there for the long haul and started the agonizing days of trying to bring her back to us.

I was very lucky in that my friend and soul mate, Zepure Hamparian Mansour, was at the time, and until a few months ago, the head of radiology at AUH. Zepure, her husband Yorki and her team at the radiology department, especially Elo Artinian and Seta Kazandjian, were good Samaritans. They did everything to help me overcome the absence of my sister and brother from the war-torn country.

There was no question of my going to work, a decision I paid for dearly. I lost my job at Monday Morning, which had changed ownership. It also meant having to move to London eight months down-the-line.

Strange how with one phone call, your whole life is shaken, stirred and turned upside down. Nothing would be the same again. It was a time to dig deep for all the strength the human body and mind can muster. That’s when love and caring take over.

Spending whole days in a hospital and losing contact with the real world are never easy. The hospital becomes your world, and one I got to know well along the years with long spells at AUH in Beirut and Charring Cross Hospital in London. I was there for more than 16 hours a day despite arranging for a night nurse.

The hardest part was leaving Vicky at night. It took me three to four hours each night to say good-bye and leave the room.

The days were one long, continuous soliloquy. Zepure, Elo and Seta helped relieve the pressure and we would joke and talk and involve Vicky in all our conversations.

We also kept up a chain system of massaging Vicky’s legs and arms to keep them mobile and avoid thrombosis. We had to turn her every couple of hours to prevent bedsores, keep an eye on of all the electronic devices Vicky was hooked on, make sure mucus did not gather in the tubes and choke her, as well as other innumerable tasks.

It was also our mission to keep it happy. I alienated a number of “aunties” who came into the room crying over Vicky. They were quickly shooed out.

Do people in a coma hear you? We didn’t know then and I still don’t know now. But there is always the hope and conviction they do.

Vicky was in a coma for five weeks, which felt like five years. Then one morning, I got a phone call from my cousin Dalal to ask about her. I told mom, “Come on, wake up and talk to Dalal.” Suddenly, her eyelids fluttered and she opened her eyes. Panic followed. Hanging up, calling the nurses, paging the doctor…

The first test was to find out how alert mom was. The scans showed that one of her front brain lobs had been drowned in blood, but we didn’t know the exact effects.

One question puzzled us during the five weeks. I couldn’t remember where she had hidden her little box of jewels. So I asked, “Mom, where is the jewel box?” And she looked at me exasperated and said, “You know it is behind the cartons on the balcony.” So that was that.

Celebrating so many things in September 1984
Vicky had lost her recent memory. She had no recollection of anything that happened since the aneurysm. She didn’t realize she was not well, which during the next eight years would prove to be a blessing. At first, they didn’t want us to leave hospital, because they thought it was a matter of time for her. But Vicky proved the doctors wrong and fought for eight years in which we could bask in her warmth and love.

It is an experience that makes you appreciate every second of your life, your health, your family and friends. It puts many concerns in perspective and you learn to let go of trivial issues.

After five weeks, my mom was back, but more as a child.

When the coma patient wakes up is when the tough work begins. It is exactly like having a child on your hands. It is particularly difficult when you leave hospital and have to cope without the gamut of doctors and nurses and equipment.

The eight months after we went home were hard. As were the eight years that followed. They were dedicated to getting a child on its feet and trying to recover a mother. There were many complications along the road, especially in a country ravaged by civil war. And perhaps one of the many blood infusions she received when blood banks were still slackly controlled infected her with Hepatitis C. But all that is for future posts.

For now, I wish our patient well and my relatives patience and strength.

Related posts:
Dearest Mom – March 21, 2011
Soulmates for life  -- November 2, 2010