I lay in a hospital bed on the fifth floor of Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego. The nurse was taking my pulse and checking my blood pressure. She had just drawn a few vials of blood to check my blood oxygen level. Since the accident it had been low but lately it was steadily climbing. That was a good sign. I was healing after coming extremely close to death. I had been saved by an experimental procedure that had drained fluid from my heart sac. Since then I had slowly improved. Fortunately, at 13 years old I had a faster healing rate than most adult patients. I had just gotten out of the ICU on the third floor two days ago but was still being watched very closely.
Four days earlier I had been waiting for my ride home from swim practice along with my brothers and other members of our team. It was about 7:30pm and being early February it was quite dark. The air was cold so I wore a corduroy trench coat handed down from my older brother Pat. He was two years older than me and I looked over to see him talking to Bob. Bob was one of my brother’s best friends and he had driven his parent’s Dodge Dart to swim practice for the first time. I was somewhat in awe seeing Bob so comfortably chatting from behind the wheel to my brother and a few other swimmers. All of them were older than me. My brother would be getting his learner’s permit soon. The two other’s at the window were Chris Micheletti and Dick Powell. I was the youngest swimmer in this advanced level team of about two dozen of the best from our town. I had earned my spot by being faster than pretty much anyone here including my brother. The next youngest was Chris who was only 9 months older. He and I had been best friends for awhile but lately he’d been more interested in girls than in hanging out with me. Chris had begun to mature physically. His voice had deepened and he had body hair and muscles while I was still just a skinny boy. I was just thirteen but could easily be mistaken for a few years younger. Dick Powell was laughing loudly now. He was fourteen but looked like a man already. He and Chris had become much closer recently. I heard they were both smoking Pot. Of course I’d been offered a joint many times but had abstained because I didn’t want to harm my body. I liked being a fast swimmer and didn’t want anything to impact my ability to breathe as well as possible.
I felt like I was being excluded from the older guys for being a kid. I hated not being noticed. In the pool the coaches often held me up as an example of how to work hard and get faster. My strokes and turns were textbook and sometimes the coach would have me do demonstrations for the other members of the team. I enjoyed the attention but I had noticed the other swimmers didn’t smile at me afterwards. It seemed to annoy them that I worked so hard. Chris, Dick and my brother were all busy talking to Bob as he sat behind the wheel of the car. They were on the driver’s side and leaned casually against the car in a way they would never do if a parent were driving. A dozen or so other swimmers watched from the sidewalk along with me. Lisa Mclaughlin, Gloria Unger and a few other girls were giggling and admiring the guys at the car.
Suddenly I had an impulse to steal the show. I walked up to the front of the Dodge and slammed myself against the hood. Pretending to be hit I rolled onto the ground in front of the car. I thought it would be funny and get everyone’s attention but as I looked up for their anticipated laughter I heard screams instead. The car had begun moving forward and I was already halfway under the front bumper. The screams grew as I felt myself begin to roll like a rolling pin beneath the heavy vehicle. I could feel the breath being pushed out of me as my rotation speed increased. I heard a sound coming out of me I’d never heard before. Like a long deep groan but with the broken rhythm of an object rolling unevenly on a bumpy surface. Just as I began to understand what was happening I felt a very sharp pain and…
I heard voices off in the distance and then saw little spots of light like pinpoints randomly building my complete vision. Slowly I began to be aware of faces above me. I tried to breathe but there was nothing. I tried again more desperately. I felt panic immediately rising as I struggled for air. Just as I thought I would die or pass out an oxygen mask was over my mouth and nose. “Breath normally.” said a soothing voice. I gasped in the oxygen feeling relief spread over me. I looked up to see a man in a navy button down shirt and navy slacks. I could tell he was a paramedic. There was another paramedic behind him and now I could make out the shadows of a crowd behind them. I recognized one for a second. “Chris?” I tried to speak but the paramedic put a hand on my shoulder and said, “save your air.” “You’ve had an accident and you need to just relax and breathe.”
I was loaded into an ambulance and in a few minutes I was in the ER of Scripps Memorial Hospital. The paramedic who had administered the oxygen had stayed with me during the trip, He asked me questions and smiled. He made me feel like everything was OK. At the hospital he helped roll me into the ER and then lift me onto another bed. “You’re going to be just fine” he said looking down at me with a broad forehead and soothing brown eyes. Short cropped strawberry blond hair framed his smiling face. “Your in good hands.” “I’ll come check on you later.” I hadn’t known this man at all but I felt closer to him now than almost anyone I’d ever met. He saved me from drowning.
During the next few minutes there were many people working on or around me. My clothes were cut off and I remember feeling embarrassed at my lack of pubic hair when they cut off my underwear. Lots of tubes. needles, clip boards, nurses and doctors seemed to work feverishly on me for about 30 minutes. I was taken into an x-ray room and the big lead apron lain over me as the technician took the photos. I drifted in and out of consciousness until I finally woke in a hospital room with a heart monitor beeping and an oxygen mask on. Every time I exhaled it made a funny sound. “Hi Bear-bear” I heard next to me. “Mom!” I tried to say. “You’re going to be alright.” she said looking down at me. Even from my position she looked frail. She had breast cancer and was gravely ill herself. She rarely left our house at all anymore. Most of the time she lay in her own hospital bed breathing out of her own oxygen tanks behind her bed. “Mom!” I tried to speak again but the sound was muffled by the mask. She smiled. “Don’t talk honey.” You need to save your breath. “I brought Father Jacobs to speak with you. He’s right here.” A priest with salt and pepper hair and sad eyes stepped into my field of vision and looked down at me. “Hello Jerry” he said. “I’m Father Jacobs.” “I’m going to say the Lord’s prayer for you.” You can say it along with me in your mind but please don’t try to speak.” I nodded. “Our Lord who art in Heaven…” he began. I followed along. At the end he dipped his hand in something cool and touched my forehead in the sign of the cross. I realized I had just received my last rights.
I heard my mother sobbing quietly and speaking in hushed tones to the priest as he left. My mother came back. “You are going to have an operation bear-bear.” “I’ll see you when you’re done.” “Everything is going to be ok.” She kissed my forehead where the priest had touched me and left the room. A nurse walked in and said, “Hello Jerry.” I nodded at her. She smiled back. “I know you can’t talk so don’t try.” “We’re going to take good care of you.” I could feel the bed being moved and watched as the acoustic ceiling tiles moved in front of my eyes. After a few minutes and going in and out of an elevator we rolled into a darkened room. “Hello Jerry” said a man’s voice and a doctor wearing green surgical scrubs and glasses came into view. “We’re going to do a procedure to help out your heart Jerry.” “Can you understand me okay?” he asked. ” I nodded yes. “Good” he said. “You look like a smart young man so I’m going to explain what’s going on.” I nodded. “When the car rolled over you it crushed the left side of your chest.” He went on. “Unfortunately that caused a couple of problems.” “Besides breaking some ribs, it collapsed your left lung and bruised your heart.” “The problem we’re having is that the fluid in your heart sac is making it hard for your heart to beat.” I nodded. Now I understood the last rights. “The way we’re going to fix that is to first inject you with some dye that we can see on a video x-ray monitor.” He said pointing to the monitor above my bed. He motioned to a surgical nurse that was setting up an I.V. in my right arm. “It will feel very warm and you will want to cough but I want you to try not to, Ok?” I nodded. “Good boy.” he said. He nodded again to the nurse. I could feel a very warm sensation begin around the I.V. and quickly begin running up my arm and across my chest. It was almost burning. Suddenly I really wanted to cough but I fought it. Tears welled up in my eyes as I held back the urge. “That’s it” said the doctor.” “That’s the worst of it.” “Good job!”
The doctor had gone on to show me the entire procedure on the X-ray video monitor above our heads. It was a brand new device and I learned later the whole procedure was experimental. They ran a catheter through the same I.V. in my right arm all the way into my heart sac. I watched as the tube snaked up my arm, across my chest and into my laboring heart’s surrounding pericardial sac. After a few minutes the sac was drained and everyone seemed relieved. “Very well done!” the doctor said to me and the nurses. Smiles all around. I felt as if we had all accomplished something.
That had been four days ago. I spent two more days in the ER as they monitored me and periodically drained my heart sac again. During that time I’d had no visitors except my Mom. She had been there quite a bit and I couldn’t help but worry about her exertion level. I knew it must have taken a tremendous toll on her physically to come at all. Other than these visits and constant checking by the nurses I had drifted in and out of sleep for two days. Yesterday I had been moved to this room. My brothers had come to visit along with my older sister, Kerry who had come down from Sacramento, seven hours North of here by car. I was surprised to see her but realized she would have come down not only to see me but to make sure that my Mom was OK and take some of the pressure off of her having to visit me and drive to the hospital. My brothers all looked at me oddly. We were all used to seeing my mother in a hospital bed but this was the first time the tables had been turned. We were a robust, healthy group and were rarely ill. Besides Pat there was Kelly who was a year older and Brendan my only younger sibling. “What’s wrong with your eyes?” Brendan asked. I had been shocked when I first saw myself in the bathroom mirror too. The nurse had warned me ahead of time that the pressure from being crushed had caused all the blood vessels in my eyes to burst. This made the whites of my eyes turn completely red. I looked like a monster. “It’s gonna clear up.” I said. “That’s kinda cool!” he replied. “You could scare anyone with eyes like that!” We all laughed a bit. It still hurt but my breathing had improved so I could talk and be without oxygen for up to an hour at a time. They left me some comic books and some things to draw with. I loved to draw and that was their way of taking care of me.
Today I’d only seen my sister in the morning. She had come by to visit to make sure I was doing OK. Other than that I had just been sitting in bed watching daytime television. I was beginning to feel much better. I heard a tap at my door. “You’ve got visitors” said the nurse who walked in first. “Are you Ok seeing them?” “Sure!” I answered. I guessed it might be my sister again or my brothers. “Hey Jerry!” I heard a familiar voice say. It was Chris Micheletti and he walked in with his Mom. “Chris!” I said recognizing my former best friend. “How’s it going?” he said as they walked over. “I been better.” I said smiling. His eyes widened as he looked at my eyes for the first time. “Woah.” he gasped. “I know, it’s gonna heal.” I offered “I kinda look like a monster now though.” “Yeah.” he laughed uncomfortably. “Show him what you brought him.” his mother suggested. Mrs. Micheletti was a slight middle-aged woman with short thick dark hair. She had a somewhat straight forward business like way about her. She had 5 sons a daughter and a husband. She ran things in the Micheletti household like a military camp. The five boys were each 2 years apart and the daughter was the youngest. The boys all slept in one large room set up like a dorm. I’d spent many nights over there with Chris coming up with fun and mischievous things to do when his parents weren’t watching. That was most of the time since both parents worked. Chris looked a lot like his mother. Dark thick hair but stockier build and the same olive skin. He had a slight speech impediment which I’d always found charming. “Here” he said. He handed me a white large paper-back book. The title read, The Paper Airplane Book. “Wow! I said. “It’s a book on how to make paper airplanes.” “It’s pretty cool.” Chris continued. “I tried a couple.” “Chris thought you might like to make them up here while you are recovering.” offered Mrs. Micheletti. “Yea.” Chris added. “You wanna try one?” He walked over to my bed. He opened the book and thumbed through a few pages. He stopped and opened the book to a page and set it down in front of me. “This one is rad.” Chris said pointing at the page. I looked and it read at the top, “Paper Helicopter.” Below were instructions on how to fold a paper helicopter. “I brought you some paper if you want to try it.” said Mrs. Micheletti. “Sure, yeah.” I said.
For the next 10 minutes Chris and I worked on our paper helicopters. “I think I’m done.” said Chris holding up his paper copter. “Me too.” I said holding up mine. “Let’s try’em.” Chris suggested eagerly. “Ok.” I answered. I held mine out over the edge of the bed. He stood up and held his next to it. “Ready…GO.” he said. We let the copters drop. They fell and the blades’ shape made them twirl a few times before hitting the floor. “COOL!” Chris and I both said in unison. We tried it a few more times. Just then the nurse walked in. She was young, blonde and had a big toothy smile. “What have you boys got there?” she asked. “Paper airplanes” Chris responded for the moment still more of the 13 year old boy interested in toys than this attractive nurse. “Really?” “Let’s see them!” she said smiling broadly. We dropped them for her. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “really neat!” “You boys want to try them out the window? We looked at each other and Mrs. Michletti. “It’s OK with me if the nurse thinks it is.” “It’s fine.” said the nurse. You can open the top part of the window there.” She walked over to the edge of the room and pulled the curtain back. There was a big metal framed window which had a bar running across at about chest level. Above that she grabbed the frame and slid the window open. I could smell the warm dry air of San Diego waft in. It smelled of cars and eucalyptus. “You can drop them from here.” she said pointing out the window. We were on the fifth floor and the side of the building dropped straight off from the window to a metal grating surrounded by eucalyptus trees below. Next to the grating was a fence and then the hospital parking lot.
The nurse helped me out of bed and I teetered for a second still weak from so much time in bed laying down. “Are you OK?” she asked. I nodded. Chris and I carried our copters over to the open window. We were just tall enough to get our arms over the edge of the sill. We both looked at each other. “Ready?” he asked. “Ready.” I answered. “One… two… THREE!” We dropped them at the same time. Both fell against the outside of the window almost immediately as we dropped them and were pinned there. They were too far to reach from where we were. “Shoot.” Chris said with some disappointment. “Too bad.” said Mrs. Micheletti. “Wait, they’re moving!” I said pointing at the window. They began bouncing almost fluttering against the window and then suddenly unexpectedly they lifted off the window and began to twirl upwards! “Wow!” Chris and I both blurted simultaneously. The two copters began rising away from the window as now Mrs. Micheletti and the nurse both stood beside us. “Incredible.” said the nurse. “That’s amazing!” said Mrs, Micheletti. The helicopters continued to spin and rise and drifted further away from the window. “It’s an air conditioning vent” said the nurse pointing to the grate beneath the eucalyptus trees. That’s where they vent the exhaust from the air conditioning for the hospital.” “No wonder they’re rising.” said Mrs. Micheletti. “The exhaust is all warm air.” We all smiled at each other realizing we had really discovered something. We watched as our little copters spun all the way up to the eighth floor and then went around the corner of the building and disappeared. Everyone laughed at the unexpected surprise. Something about watching those paper copters fly so much higher and further than we expected had raised all of our spirits.
Chris and I made a few more planes and tested them out the window for about another 30 minutes and then they had to leave. The nurse had already left to go back to her duties but that paper airplane book stayed and kept me company for the next two weeks as I recovered there in the hospital. I made some amazing flying craft during that time and some soared on miraculously long flights while others crashed in disappointing spirals to the ground. By the end of my hospital stay I had worked my way through the entire book. I eventually recovered completely from my injuries and have had many other difficult times including the loss of my mother, a divorce and failed businesses. But now when I have those difficulties I think of that moment when something small and unassuming flew higher and farther than seemed possible and it buoys my spirits every time.