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Six: Living in oblivion
("#41", Dave Matthews Band)
Pacey could hear voices. They sounded far away, muffled most of the time, but he could hear them. He recognized that they belonged to his mother and father, and to Doug. Pacey realized, rather abstractly, that he didn’t understand what they were saying. He knew they were talking, he knew he should be able to understand them, but for some reason he could not. What he did register was the tone of the voices. He heard his father’s voice raised in anger along with Doug’s and the hushing whispers of his mother. He wondered what they were talking about, but he was not really concentrating on them. He found he couldn’t do that either.
Something was definitely different. Pacey felt himself floating in a kind of darkness that was tangible and imaginary all at once. He had never experienced anything like it. Unable to analyze where he was or what was going on, Pacey just floated. He wasn’t hot or cold, happy or sad, frightened or apathetic. He didn’t really feel anything beyond slight curiosity and a strange sense of safety. He had no idea how long he existed in that state, time had no meaning or relevance where he was. But then he started hearing his family’s voices.
It was the sound of his father’s booming voice that finally reached him in the dense blackness. Pacey felt a familiar chill of fear run through him, and he grew more alert. The darkness was more oppressive now as he became increasingly aware of where he was. He still had no idea what was going on, but now he needed to know. The murky blackness slowly turned lighter shades of gray until Pacey was completely surrounded in a bright white light. He felt himself being pulled away from wherever he had been… where to he did not know. It wasn’t until he opened his eyes that he understood any of it.
Pacey blinked several times with difficulty, his eyelids heavy and uncooperative. He was so drowsy that he was tempted to fall back into the darkness where he felt safe. But then the voices grew animated and he blinked again. This time his mother’s face appeared before him. She was smiling down on him, tears in her eyes despite the smile she wore. He heard her call his name, much clearer this time. Then he saw his father and Doug above him as well. His father was frowning, his stern face looking pinched and drawn. Pacey tried to focus his eyes better as looked at them, and he slowly became completely awake.
He felt strange. The first thing Pacey was conscious of was the presence of something in his throat and mouth. He tried to swallow but whatever it was scratched against throat so he soon stopped. He tried to move his lips to ask what was going on, but he made no sound. Frowning, Pacey tried to remove the foreign object, but discovered he could not move his arms. He was frightened now. Pacey was starting to process different sensations and he realized he could not feel much of anything below his neck. There was a dull aching pain on either side of his head just above his ears, but the lack of feeling scared him the most. He looked anxiously from his mother to his father, silently begging for their help, some kind of explanation, anything…
"Pacey? Son, can you hear me?" his mother asked loudly and clearly, just like she spoke to foreigners who didn’t understand English.
Frustrated that he couldn’t answer her, to scream that he didn’t understand what was going on, Pacey just blinked, holding her gaze intently.
"Everything’s all right, you’re all right…" She stroked his cheek and Pacey was relieved he could at least feel that. His mother smiled calmly at him, and he felt the rising panic he had been experiencing starting to wane.
"You’re safe now, don’t worry," she continued, glancing quickly at her husband. "You’re in the hospital, Pacey, there was a car accident. Do you remember?"
Pacey watched her carefully while still trying to comprehend her words. He was busy concentrating on finding the memories somewhere in his clouded mind. An accident… He was having difficulty remembering anything until he suddenly saw a flash — there was a blinding light, terrible screeching noises and then the impact. It didn’t really mean much to him, but then he suddenly saw something else — another flash, this time a smile. It was a familiar smile, one Pacey knew by heart. He realized with a wrenching feeling that it was Joey’s smile. Focusing on that image, Pacey suddenly remembered more than he wanted to. He remembered seeing Joey beside him, hearing her scream his name…
Mrs Witter watched the fear flood her son’s face as he remembered the accident. His eyes filled with tears and he tried again to speak and move his hands, this time with more vigor. But the ventilator tube prevented any speech and she hushed his futile attempts to remove it.
"Shh, Pacey, try not to talk. You’ve been in a coma for four days and the doctors have you hooked up to a machine to help you breath."
"Try to stay calm now," Mr Witter said gruffly, although not unkindly.
Pacey looked at his father and obeyed him out of instinct. He tried his best to stop himself from panicking again but it wasn’t easy. He was too concerned for Joey. Silently he begged either of them to tell him if she was all right, but they couldn’t understand him. Pacey remembered hearing Doug there too and he strained his eyes to see him again. He found he couldn’t move his head at all, but finally Doug moved past their father and Pacey could see him clearly.
"Hey, Pacey. Joey’s fine, don’t worry about her. She just got a bump on the head but she’s okay," Doug said, somehow knowing it was the only thing Pacey needed to hear. He watched as his younger brother’s face softened with relief, and he shut his eyes.
"‘Course she’s all right, even though this whole thing was her damn fault," Mr Witter grumbled loud enough for Pacey to hear. "Making him take her all the way to Daleman in the middle of the night to see that no good Potter trash… What the hell were you thinking about, Pacey?"
Pacey opened his eyes with a start, just in time to see Doug turn on their father in anger.
"You son of a bitch, is that all you can say to him?" Doug snapped furiously.
Pacey recognized the same anger in his voice he'd heard when he was in the darkness. He realized now what they had been arguing about.
"Don’t you think you should be more worried about your son than whose fault the goddamn accident was?!" Doug continued.
"Don’t you speak to me in that tone of voice, Douglas!" Mr Witter bellowed.
Mrs Witter tried to silence both of them, but her husband and son paid her no mind. They squared up against each other, and she was almost afraid they would come to blows. The tension between them had been mounting while Pacey was in a coma, and now it seemed they had reached boiling point. If it had not been for the doctor entering the room at that moment, Mrs Witter did not know what would have happened.
"Oh, Doctor," she said hastily, covering up for them. "Pacey’s awake!"
Dr Donnell eyed the two men beside the bed carefully, taking in the belligerent atmosphere in the ICU. But he was not concerned with the likes of them. He moved over to Pacey and smiled down at him.
"Well, it’s good to see you finally awake, Pacey. I’m Dr Donnell," he said cheerily. Noticing the boy trying to speak over the ventilator tube, he nodded in understanding. "I know, it feels awful. That tube’s been helping you breath while you’ve been asleep. But I think we can take it out now if you’d like."
The doctor rang for a nurse and gave Pacey the once over while they waited. After making some notes on his chart, Dr Donnell greeted the nurse when she walked in.
"We’re going to extubate Mr Witter here, I think he’s quite eager to talk to everyone."
The nurse ushered the Witters away from the bedside with a gentle murmur and took her place on the other side of Pacey’s bed.
"Okay, Pacey, I need you to listen to me carefully," the doctor said as he undid the tape that was holding the tube in place in Pacey’s mouth. "When I tell you to I want you to take in the deepest breath you can and blow out hard. Now, it’s going to hurt a bit because you’ve got some broken ribs and one of your lungs was punctured in the accident. But just do your best okay?"
Pacey didn’t know what else to do but blink.
"All right, on the count of three, a deep breath and then blow. Okay? One, two, three…"
Pacey did as he was told, and felt the tube snaking out of his throat as he blew out the painful breath. The irritation to his throat caused him to gag and cough at the same time, but the nurse and doctor were holding him down. Pacey couldn’t cough very successfully anyway, his chest hurt so much and he couldn’t move at all. His body just spasmed as he tried to get rid of the terrible soreness in his throat and lungs. It was several minutes before he stopped feeling the urge to cough. He was exhausted from the effort, and barely felt the nurse wipe the tears that had fallen unnoticed down either side of his face.
"I know that hurt like hell, but you did great, Pacey," Donnell reassured him. He was inserting another kind of tube into his nose now. "This is just going to give you some oxygen, okay? It’s not as bad as the other one."
Pacey was powerless to do anything to stop him even if he wanted to. He was suddenly so tired and had no energy at all. His mother appeared beside him again, smiling.
"It’s all right, darling," she soothed.
"How do you feel, Pacey?" the doctor asked.
Pacey licked his lips and tried his voice. It hurt to make any sound, but he forced himself to speak. He managed to make a noise, not really a word, but both the doctor and his mother looked at him encouragingly.
"What’s… wrong?" Pacey finally whispered hoarsely. When no one answered straight away he thought maybe they still couldn’t understand him, but then the doctor cleared his throat.
"The accident was very serious, Pacey. Your back was injured, that’s why you can’t move properly. We’ve got your neck in a special brace so you won’t do any more damage." Dr Donnell pulled out an instrument from his pocket. "Now, I need to test how much sensation you have in your arms and legs, so can you help me out? I want you to tell me when you feel a pin prick, all right?"
The doctor started with Pacey’s hands and arms, touching a sharp pin to his skin at regular intervals. Pacey murmured each time he did. Dr Donnell then moved to the foot of the bed, lifting up the blankets and exposing Pacey’s bare feet and legs. As he proceeded to apply the same technique, there was silence in the room. The Witters looked on as Pacey remained staring at the ceiling while Donnell continued to prick his legs and feet. The doctor glanced at them but said nothing, covering Pacey up once more.
"That’s good, Pacey, all finished."
"Okay?" he asked, trying to catch the physician’s eye.
"Not bad. We’re going to send you for some tests though, to see what’s going on," Donnell replied, not allowing his concern to affect his expression and tone of voice. "They won’t take too long."
The doctor squeezed his arm and then nodded to Mr and Mrs Witter. He left the room to make the necessary arrangements. A nurse came in to administer Pacey with more pain medication to keep him from feeling the full pressure of the head clamps and the pain of his broken ribs. As the drugs took effect, Pacey felt himself beginning to float again, so he almost forgot to ask his mother something before the orderlies came in to take him away for the tests.
"See Joey," he whispered as they were wheeling him out of the room.
Mrs Witter was walking beside him, still holding his hand. "I’ll call her, son, I promise."
She stopped when they came to the elevator and the orderly said it would be best if they waited in Pacey’s room. Mrs Witter remained standing there until they had disappeared inside the lift, then she walked away quickly find a telephone.
* * *
Joey and Bessie walked quickly through the hospital corridors towards the admissions desk. Joey was too intent on seeing Pacey to feel the familiar dread that consumed her whenever she came near the place. This time the hospital wasn’t a place where someone she knew was dying, it was where Pacey had been saved and was now awake.
"Pacey Witter?" she asked the desk staff a little brusquely, impatient to see for herself that he was all right.
The receptionist tapped away at her keyboard and then stated, "Level two, room 18."
"Thank you," said Bessie hurriedly when Joey forgot to. She was already walking towards the elevator.
When they found his room and it was empty, Joey let out a frustrated breath. She just wanted to see Pacey and now he wasn’t even where he was supposed to be. Looking around in annoyance for a member of the hospital staff to berate, she was stopped by Bessie shaking her arm. Her sister had spotted the Witters waiting in the lounge at the end of the corridor.
"How is he?" Joey said immediately when they reached the small waiting area. They were all holding half-drunk cups of coffee and looking rather haggard. Joey realized how long four days must have been for them, waiting at the hospital for Pacey to regain consciousness.
Mrs Witter smiled as soon as she saw Joey and Bessie, having always liked the Potter girls. She felt sorry for them more than anything, since they lost their mother under such tragic circumstances. She also knew how much Pacey cared for his friend, and how worried he had been about her when he woke up. Mrs Witter stood up and met them in the middle of the room.
"He woke up a while ago, and they’ve taken him upstairs for some more tests. The doctor says the swelling around his spinal cord should have gone down some so they'll be able to tell… how much damage there is." Mrs Witter finished the sentence with difficulty. She had been trying not to think about the seriousness of Pacey’s situation, she was just so relieved he had finally woken up from the coma.
"But he’s awake? He’s okay?" Joey said in a small voice. The images from her nightmares were still in her mind and she need reassuring that it wasn’t as bad as she had been imagining.
"The first thing he wanted to know was if you were all right." Mrs Witter smiled. "He wants to see you."
Joey smiled shyly and looked at Doug and Mr Witter. Pacey’s father was sitting turned away from them, and she couldn’t help but think he was ignoring her on purpose. Feeling slightly uncomfortable, Joey turned to Bessie for support.
"Do you mind if we wait with you?" Bessie asked, imagining that Mrs Witter could do with some support of her own. Her husband certainly didn’t appear to be doing a very good job of it, and Doug just looked stressed.
"Of course not."
The three women sat down awkwardly as silence fell in the small waiting room. Each of the occupants was thinking about Pacey, but no one spoke of their thoughts or feelings. They had to wait nearly an hour in the oppressive silence before they finally caught sight of Pacey’s doctor coming down the corridor.
"John," Mrs Witter murmured, catching her husband’s attention. He had been pacing the room in annoyance but now he stopped in his tracks.
"I’m sorry it’s taken so long," said Dr Donnell, coming into the lounge area and shutting the sliding glass door behind him. His movements were smooth and deliberate, his demeanor unwavering as he pulled up a chair opposite the waiting family and friends of his patient.
"You must be Joey," he continued, smiling in acknowledgment at the dressing she still wore over her head wound. "Pacey keeps asking when he can see you. I’m glad you’re here."
"Do you have the test results, Doctor?" Mrs Witter asked, trying not to sound impatient. She got the feeling he was trying to stall talking to them.
"We have some preliminary results, yes," replied the doctor, gravely this time. "While it will take some time until we know the full extent and outcome of Pacey’s injuries, we know enough now."
"Well?" Mr Witter snapped when the doctor stopped again.
Donnell took a deep breath. "The swelling around the spinal cord has subsided enough for us to see the damage. The fractured vertebrae we already knew about were masking the cord injury. But these latest tests show that Pacey’s spinal cord has been affected… It’s been severed at T5 and 6."
No one said anything for a few seconds as the news sunk in. Mrs Witter was frowning. "What does that mean?"
"It means Pacey will be paralyzed from the waist down. I’m sorry."
"But there’s rehabilitation, isn’t there? How long will it take for him to get some movement back?" John Witter asked.
"I’m afraid his injury is classified as complete paraplegia… When the spinal cord is completely severed there is no sensation and no movement regained. Pacey’s condition is permanent. He won’t walk again."
"My God," Mrs Witter moaned into her hands which now covered her face. Doug moved beside her and put his arm around her when he saw his father was not going to.
Joey just sat numbly in her seat. She understood everything that had been said but she couldn’t feel anything yet. Nothing was sinking in.
"What happens now?" mumbled Mr Witter. His face was stony and Joey wondered if he was experiencing the same disbelief that she was.
"We’ll have to operate to repair the fractured vertebrae, inserting a metal plate into Pacey’s spine to aid bone fusion. We’ll be able to take him out of traction, and once his spine is a little stronger he’ll be able to start rehabilitation."
"He’ll be in a wheelchair…" Mrs Witter said to herself more than anyone else. Doug squeezed her shoulder and looked wretched.
"The rehabilitation process can be long, but it’s necessary to help Pacey adjust to the wheelchair and the new limitations he will have. There are other issues he’ll have to learn about and deal with, including loss of bladder and bowel control. But he should regain full use of both arms with physiotherapy and will learn to be quite mobile without the use of his legs. He’s young, so he should adjust well."
Dr Donnell noticed that none of them were really taking in what he was saying now. The news was too much of a shock for most people, and it would take a while for them to see the full picture. He did not want to force the issue — they would have plenty of time to adjust just like Pacey would.
"Does he know?" asked Doug.
"I haven’t said anything yet… Because Pacey is a minor I thought one of you might prefer to break it to him instead. Sometimes these things are better coming from a parent." Neither Mr or Mrs Witter volunteered for the task. "Of course I’ll be there to answer any questions he has so you won’t have to do it alone…"
"I’ll do it."
The doctor nodded at Mr Witter, relieved to see he wasn’t going to make his wife do it. She had begun crying now, and would only upset Pacey further. Dr Donnell looked at the girl Pacey had been asking about, wondering if she would react similarly. But she just continued to sit there with another woman, seemingly still in shock.
"Before we talk to Pacey, I think he would appreciate seeing you, Joey."
She looked up, startled, when the doctor said her name.
"He made me promise I’d let him see you after all the tests were done and I gave him my word… Do you think you’re up to visiting him, knowing the full extent of his injuries?"
Joey looked at the Witters and at Bessie, wondering if she really could go in and see him now without revealing what she knew. She was concerned that Pacey would be able to read her expression and immediately know the truth, but then her desire to see him overrode her fear. Joey just wanted to touch him, to see for herself that he was awake. Her nightmares of his death haunted her and now Joey had to prove to herself that he was really alive.
"I want to see him," she stated firmly. The conviction in her voice belied her doubts.
Dr Donnell stood up and held out his arm to usher her out of the waiting room. Joey didn’t have to time to change her mind or question her own strength. She took one last look at the others and stepped out of the waiting area towards Pacey’s room.
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