Hospitals don’t scare me.
I feel calm when I walk through the sliding doors. As if nothing physically bad can happen, because its walls and staff surround me like a bubble. Emotionally though, I’m as vulnerable as a cancer patient’s immunity is weak.
Despite my positive association, the majority of hospital visits have been traumatic, including saying goodbye to my mom’s best friend before she died from cancer, my 10-day stay due to an almost deadly kidney infection and pneumonia, and now this, today, visiting a friend after a motorcycle wreck.
I met Aaron over a year ago at my 6 a.m. boot camp class in Austin, Texas. Our mutual friend, who coaxed him into coming, begged me to really let him have it. His 27-year-old agile body doubted the difficulty of my workouts. But about 300 burpees and countless sprints later, Aaron’s white t-shirt was soaked in sweat and stained in soot from the parking lot. He could barely catch his breath.
For the next 8 months I watched Aaron’s mobility and body transform. He had always been lean and strong, but not as lean, not as strong, not as mobile as he was becoming. As a trainer, I felt proud.
As I walk onto the 9th floor at Brackenridge Hospital, I’m trying to prepare myself to not see that Aaron, but instead a defeated, weakened boy, broken. I stop a random nurse in the hallway and ask how to be with him. “Act normal, but don’t ignore what has happened.” Tears fall onto the tile but I pull my shoulders back in a false proclamation that I’m ready. The nurse nods her head and walks away.
Aaron is combing his freshly washed hair and vibrantly announces, “I just had my first shower in 10 days!” His body is imprisoned within the hospital bed: an IV is rigged into his upper right arm, pummeling a liquid painkiller stronger than morphine into his blood every time he clicks a button; his left arm is fully covered in bandages and secured with a brace, bent at 45 degrees to allow the steel rod to set properly; surgical bandages bind his right leg, leaving only his foot visible, his knee having been shattered and then reconstructed; a brace covers his entire left leg, hiding the point at which his calf and foot was removed, just below the knee. His right foot is cold to the touch, his lips are chapped, his facial hair is scraggly, his hands are orange in color.
But despite all these physical injuries and limitations, Aaron smiles. Big. Hope and determination pour out of every cell and seep into the air around me. He tells me about his surgeries, the plan to move to a rehabilitation center in a day or two. He gets physically excited about rehabbing in the pool with me and eventually being back at boot camp. He speaks about Jesus and how “he was with me after the wreck. I wasn’t scared. I felt calm. I’m so thankful to have found him a year ago. He is my savior. He has plans for me.” I listen intently, and though my natural inclination is to reply, “If God exists, why would he let horrible things like this happen?” I remain quiet, I remain supportive. And despite body parts missing, and hundreds of staples tattooing his left arm and legs, it’s still Aaron. Energetic, sweet Aaron.
We talk about healthy foods he should be eating and drinking. We readjust the pillow under his left arm so his shoulders are in alignment, we exercise his left arm and right leg, raising them up and down, slowly, carefully, with purpose. Pain sparkles in his eyes, his feigned smile and grimace are real, but it’s still Aaron. Weakened, physically broken, but spirited.
And I wonder how.
If I lost the ability to walk, I would want to die.
A powerful statement, I know. A scary statement for my parents to read. But the anger and frustration and depression that would pervade my whole being would be unstoppable. I find heaps of joy from physical activity, the freedom of movement, the tingling sensation and burning muscles and lungs when biking and running and skating and jumping and swimming. To deny me that would mean I’d rot inside. But Aaron isn’t. Has he successfully tricked his mind? Does he really feel and see Jesus? What can one attribute to such positive vibes after a catastrophic accident?
Two hours later, I walk out of the hospital and hop back on my bike and revel in the joy that I am mobile, that I have free will to move about as I so please, that my body is my vessel, that I don’t have to press a painkiller drip for excruciating pain, that I’m not Aaron right now.
I call my mom, naturally, and her words resonate. “We have to be grateful for what we do have. He’s lucky to be alive.”
I think about the man I often watch running down South First Street, in shorts, his prosthetic metal leg gleaming in the sunshine. He’s fitter than I. And as I pedal and feel the wind against my skin and through my hair, I imagine Aaron being that man one day soon, running, inspiring.
From wreck to revival.
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