Sepsis shocked my body into a coma on October 16, 2012. Jefferson Medical Center in Port Townsend applied emergency procedures to keep me alive and then airlifted me by helicopter to Swedish Medical in Seattle, so I’ve been told. A series of procedures followed, and my wife monitored them diligently. I was blown up like the Michelin Man with fluids, paddled to stop my gone-crazy heart, put on dialysis, etc. All the time, I was living in the most vivid and weird world all my own. But I had moments of lucidity. I remember viewing fingers that looked like charcoal sticks and wondering when they would return to normal, then sinking back into my world. I remember finally becoming completely conscious and viewing my heavily bandaged hands.
Just before Christmas, with my kidneys functioning on their own, my wife took me home. I was 40 pounds lighter, no fingers or thumbs, balance problems, and memory problems, but I was one of the lucky ones. My wife had been told by a sympathetic doctor that “Some people have survived this.” I had been in excellent health for a 76-year-old when I was struck down.
At first my recovery was slow. But with lots of physical therapy, persistent encouragement from my wife, and my own desire to “become normal” again, I began to put on weight, recover some energy, learn to maneuver a spoon and put on my own clothes. My recovery took on momentum. Getting healthy was my obsession. Soon people were remarking how well I was looking.
But there were things I would never be able to do. Upkeep of our 2-story house and half acre property fell on my wife or hired help. I could no longer mow the lawn or clean the gutters. And then a year and a half after my illness, I experienced what I learned is often experienced by septic shock survivors: post-sepsis syndrome. Depression, lack of confidence, self-doubt, feelings of worthlessness, and withdrawal from others. I tried to hide these feelings, but they became too painful, and I tearfully confessed them to my wife, and then to my family physician. An antidepressant was prescribed and worked wonders. Counseling was also suggested, but ended after three sessions when the therapist kept falling asleep as I was revealing my feelings of inadequacy.
My wife and I decided we needed a smaller place with less upkeep, closer to town. We also wanted more friends and a sense of community. Coincidentally, a group within our Unitarian church was in the process of forming a senior cohousing project. It was described as a group of like-minded seniors who wanted a community that they formed to meet their needs. After move in, they would share governance, resources, and responsibilities. It promised to fit our needs.
We joined and soon were involved in various committees planning our village. There were social events aimed at cementing a sense of community. It gave us purpose, involvement, friends, and in the end would provide us a low maintenance home in a committed community of supportive people. What more could we ask for? But it wasn’t always easy. We had to commit our money with the possibility that the project might not succeed. There were conflicts and different ideas as to how we should proceed. We decided on three unit sizes in groups of three to four units in eight condominium-style buildings on six and a half acres of pasture close to town. We chose a large common house for shared meals, other social affairs, and guestrooms. Our excitement grew as the earth was moved, the concrete poured, and timbers stretched into the sky.
I had concerns about my ability to participate due to my lack of fingers and an impaired memory, but that has not proved a problem. I’ve written press releases about the progress of our community, have managed to physically set up a platform for speakers at our groundbreaking, and along with my wife constructed a framework to hold the large banner announcing our village. This, in addition to being a member of three committees and on the staff of our newsletter.
There does seem to be compensation, a bright side, something gained from a tragedy. I learned greater humility, empathy, and patience, partly due to my illness and partly by joining a vibrant community of friends. My life in the vivid, weird world of the coma also added something to my psyche. What, exactly? I can’t put my finger on it.
Jim Daly is a published novelist (Running in Darkness), short story writer, and a former fine arts painter. He has resided the last 12 years in Port Townsend with his wife Pam and his 14-year-old feisty terrier. They have sold their house and temporarily moved to a town close by, awaiting move-in to their cohousing village in the summer of 2017. Photo by Deja View Photography