Christmas will be different this year, and it’ll be okay~

Christmas will be different this year, and it’ll be okay~

COVID-Chronicles 1: Originally published on Dec 12, 2020 on amytanmd.medium.com~

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Photo Credit: Amy Tan

It was our first Christmas together as husband and wife. We had just gotten married in September, and moved into our first home we purchased with our own money (and a little help from a big bank in the form of a nice mortgage). On December 1, 2002, we excitedly put up our new (fake) Christmas tree in front of our large picture window in the living room and decorated it with whatever decorations were on sale that year. We were just starting out and excited to do all the Christmas things that new homeowners and newlyweds did. This was well before Instagram and Pinterest but HGTV was my favourite channel, and we were brimming with excitement with starting our new holiday traditions. Our plans included having some semblance of turkey and the trimmings, stockings, gifts, gatherings with friends and extended family, a cocktail party at our new house, tickets to the Nutcracker ballet and more.

It became apparent the next day that Christmas would be different that year. Driving to work as a resident the next day, I swerved on black ice and my car careened across the 2-lane highway where I teetered over the edge of a small bridge. My blue Toyota Echo seesawed over the edge for what seemed to me like forever. Things literally went into slow motion for me. My car finally flipped over and under the bridge, crushing the bubble-like roof with me trapped inside and upside-down.

I have a smattering of memories from my weeks in hospital. Full c-spine precautions, a chest tube, being confused (yes, you can remember being confused!), surgery, the ICU, log rolls, late night strange lights and sounds, machines around me, dimpled ceiling tiles, nightmares, hospital roommates screaming in pain, CT scans and many Xrays. I remember learning how to balance on my feet again with a heavy plastic whole body clamshell cast immobilizing my broken spine from my neck to my tailbone and my left arm casted after surgery to repair the tendons and nerves, and the difficulty I had breathing because blood and fluid had collected in my right lung from where my crushed ribs had punctured my lung. My husband’s birthday came and went without any fanfare a week into my hospitalization. The days were getting closer to Christmas Day. Would I be spending our first Christmas as a married couple in the hospital?

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The clamshell brace/cast that I spent more than 6 months in while my broken back healed without risky surgery. Photo credit: Amy Tan

To be home for Christmas meant I had to prove to everyone I was safe to go home. To get out of bed, I needed to learn how to log roll myself onto my side as I couldn’t twist my unstable back, and my husband needed to learn how to put the clamshell cast on me. That was the first lesson. We practiced many times that day. The next day, it was turning on my left side after my husband got the clamshell on to pull myself up to a sitting position with my right hand because my left hand was out of commission from its injury. Over the next few days, I had to fight through dizziness, nausea, pain, fear, despair and defeat. There were so many sobs and tears. There were many times that I was convinced that there was no way I would be home for Christmas. But I kept on practicing getting up to a sitting position in my clamshell with the use of the bed grab bar. Slowly, I made progress — steps to the chair next to the bed, sitting down on the chair with a raised cushion seat, taking a few steps with a cane for balance. Then, it was learning how to walk to and sit on the (raised) toilet seat with the help of a grab bar.

On December 23, I proved to myself, my husband and my medical team that we were ready to go home. I was scared but determined. The next feat was having to be driven the thirty minutes home in a friend’s van while it was snowing without decompensating into a panic attack. Remember, the last time I had been in a car, I had almost died and it was snowing too that day. But I made it.

I was home for Christmas!

On Christmas Day, after a sleepless night due to pain, and my husband waking up every 2–3 hours by alarm to log roll me in bed (he slept on the floor next to me in our bed), we woke up and marveled that we had made it to our first Christmas morning in our first home after our ordeal. There weren’t many (any?) presents under the tree because we’d been a bit distracted. I didn’t last more than twenty minutes at a time before having to lie down and nap due to pain. I had an ice cream milkshake that day as that was the only thing that didn’t take a lot of effort to take in and tasted good at the time. I don’t remember what we had for Christmas dinner that day. There was no way we could have had any visitors that day. We were just trying to get through each day, hour-by-hour the first couple of weeks at home.

“Years later, all I truly remember is the feeling of Christmas that day.“

The awe that I had that I was alive, the gratitude of my husband taking such amazing care of me, the courage we had to face fear directly, and the amazement that we had convinced my medical team that I would be safe going home for Christmas, rather than the rehabilitation hospital. We had each other, very short phone calls with family and a few friends (as this was before texting and video chats), the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, which took on a visceral level of poignancy that year, and our basic first Christmas tree in our own home. I also had deep gratitude for disability insurance and my husband’s understanding employer at the time. We didn’t get to host our first Christmas party as planned, there was no Nutcracker ballet that year, and we didn’t get to do any of the other fun holiday things around town that everyone else was revelling in. I would be lying if I didn’t say that there were moments that felt like I was missing out on the fun, but other pressing concerns forced me to accept the reality of the situation in the moment.

Christmas was different than we had planned that year, but it was okay. It was actually more than okay. Despite being isolated, in pain, and very uncertain of what our future would hold after my injuries, all that was important was right there with us that Christmas day.

“Let’s reframe how we view our holiday season this year. Instead of focusing on what we cannot do this month, let’s focus on what we can do and what these holidays are all about.”

This is all that any of us need this year — a simple Christmas and holiday season connecting virtually with our loved ones with the hope for brighter times in the future, and more celebrations to come down the road. For now due to where the world is with the pandemic, we need to dig deep and distill the holidays to the most essential elements. The holidays are about the feelings. Let’s embrace those feelings of loving each other and our neighbours by staying home to keep everyone safe this holiday season. Those who sadly must be in hospital over the holidays would give anything to be able to “just” be home. Let’s not forget that.

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The holidays are about the feelings. Photo credit: Amy Tan

For us all to be safe, we all need to do our part. If a million people bend the public health rules about COVID-19 in Canada, that’s at least a million more links to possible spread that we can’t afford right now, not to mention a lot of travel on winter Canadian roads that could land someone in an overstretched Canadian hospital over the holidays.

Eighteen years later, my husband and I don’t dwell on what could be described as a very difficult first Christmas. I don’t dwell on the fear and great physical pain I felt that day, or the thoughts of missing out. We look back at that Christmas with love and gratitude that we had the opportunity to have that first Christmas together, and the many more together that we’ve been so lucky to have since then, including now with our son.

And if that’s not the magic of Christmas, I don’t know what is.

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