Prisoners Without Bars: A Caregiver's Tale

Prisoners Without Bars: A Caregiver's Tale

by Donna O'Donnell Figurski
Prisoners Without Bars: A Caregiver's Tale

Prisoners Without Bars: A Caregiver's Tale

by Donna O'Donnell Figurski


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Donna called 9-1-1. David slipped into a coma. At that moment, Donna was thrust onto the path of caregiver for her best friend and the love of her life. In her debut memoir, Donna shares how a neurosurgeon said that David would make a "great organ donor." She writes of arrogant doctors, uncaring visitors, insensitive ambulance drivers, and problematic nurses. She also tells of the many compassionate doctors, nurses, therapists, staff, strangers, family members, and friends who helped them on their journey. Donna compellingly describes her ability to appear positive as she experiences the horror of making life-or-death decisions. As her world crashes, she credits laughter as her lifesaver. More than 13 years later, Donna and David are living a "new normal" together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608082056
Publisher: Boutique of Quality Books
Publication date: 11/01/2018
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Donna O'Donnell Figurski has published with Scholastic, was a winner in the 2013 Legacies Writing Contest, and was recognized by the National Education Association for "Teacher's Pets," her review column for children's books. She is a frequent contributor to print and online journals, and she hosts a radio show on the Brain Injury Network. 

Read an Excerpt


Everything's Blurry

Each morning, David slipped from bed at 4:00 a.m. — quietly, so as not to wake me. He went to his home office across the hall and spent forty minutes in a series of exercises. He put on his headset and listened to "Sun Spirit" by Deuter or Chinese bamboo flute music as he performed his version of tai chi. It was his way of getting ready for the day. Then he showered, did a few chin-ups, and got dressed. Before he left for his lab, he would creep into our bedroom and leave a kiss on my cheek.

Sometimes I pretended to be asleep. Sometimes I sleepily waved goodbye. Other times I pulled him down for just one more "real" kiss before he left. Then I would roll over, pull up the blankets, and wait for my alarm to ring at 5:50 a.m. It was his schedule, and it was mine.

Ever since 9/11, when overwhelming traffic into New York City turned a thirty-minute commute into a one- to two-hour nightmare, David began this unrealistic schedule. Rising early to beat the morning traffic and not returning home until well after rush hour — 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. — was a very long day.

On January 13, 2005, David's morning started much the same as it did each day. The only difference was that he delayed his rising by one hour. He planned to work at home that morning, preparing a talk about his research that he expected to deliver at Wesleyan University in Connecticut on Saturday.

A long-time professor-friend was retiring from the faculty, and David was a featured speaker at his retirement symposium. It was an invitation and an honor that may have saved David's life.

If David's morning had been routine, he would have been in his laboratory at Columbia University in New York City by 6:00 a.m. — long before his students arrived. If the morning had been routine, he would have been at his computer returning email, poring over recently collected data, and conducting business in his office, a beautiful room flanked by his two laboratories overlooking the George Washington Bridge on Manhattan's Upper West Side. If the morning had been routine, I wouldn't be writing this story. The morning was not routine, and that is why David lived through January 13th.

* * *

I was dressed and had applied the finishing touches to my makeup — "Brush and apply," as my friend Danielle always teased me. I looked at the clock. It was 7:00 a.m. I'm okay, I thought. If I left by 7:20 a.m., I could make it to school with plenty of time to prepare. The children arrived at 8:40 a.m. I used to live in the same town where I taught first and third grade on alternate years. It was a roll-out-of-bed commute — only five minutes from school. So easy! But in 2001, David and I moved to a new home in a community fifty minutes away.

I loved our new home, but I was not crazy about my commute. Half of it was highway driving, and the traffic could be unpredictable in the City area. A fifty-minute, no-traffic commute could take just that, or it could take up to ninety minutes. I always left extra time for snarls or accidents. Throw in an early morning Pupil Assistance Committee meeting or a parent-teacher conference, and I had to leave even earlier.

Thursday, January 13, 2005, started out as a relatively normal day. I planned to leave by 7:20 a.m. But I didn't.

Just after 7:00 a.m., David stumbled into our bedroom. His hand covered his right eye. "I can't see!" he cried, panic in his voice. "Everything's blurry!"

Pain etched his face as he collapsed on the bed. When he removed his hand, his right eye was filled with blood. He told me he had been doing chin-ups. He did thirteen of them — one more than he had done the day before. That's David — always pushing, trying to surpass his last accomplished goal, only to surpass that achievement the next time. I remember thinking, Why? Why did you have to do one more? Why wasn't twelve enough?

Or ten or even five? But it wasn't enough. It never was.

I wanted to call the paramedics. I had the phone in my hand.

It was like a lifeline, but David refused to let me call. He wanted to wait a few more minutes to see if his pain subsided. He sat at the edge of the bed, continuing to cover his eye. Soon the pain spread. I told him to tell me what was happening in case I had to tell a doctor. The pain spread down his cheek, then through his forehead. As it intensified, it moved quickly to the back of his head, and I would wait no longer. He agreed. I dialed 9-1-1.

The dispatcher sounded bored. I guess after hearing emergency calls day and night, the essence of emergency wears off, and anyhow, it wasn't her emergency. It wasn't her husband who was suffering. To me, the call was surreal. It seemed to be matter-of-fact, business-as-usual for her. "What is the nature of your emergency?" she asked (sip of coffee). "What is your address?" (bite of bagel). If we had been talking about the weather, there would have been more emotion.

"Can you believe it's been raining for two weeks?"

"I know! Make it stop!"

The dispatcher showed no emotion, and my emotion soared off the scale. It would have been helpful if she had shown some compassion, even pretended to understand the crisis David and I were trapped in. defines "emergency" as "a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence or occasion requiring immediate action." I wanted immediate action, but the paramedics were not magically at the door as soon as I dropped the receiver into the cradle. I wrapped my arms around David, who was writhing and groaning in pain on the bed.

"They're coming, David. They're coming. Everything's going to be all right. Just hang on, David. I love you so much. I love you. I love you!" I spouted this litany like a broken record.

If love or words could have made a difference, the emergency would have ended immediately. Love was not enough, and it didn't end. David kept saying variations of "Donna, I love you.

My life has been good. We've had a good life. I love you!" And he added, "Tell the kids I love them too ... and Treska and Kaya.

Everything you need is in the file. The papers are in the file."

The papers! I didn't want to hear about papers. That was too serious. The papers meant only one thing: David didn't think he would come home again. I couldn't let my mind go there. I wouldn't listen. I had a general idea of where the papers were, but I wanted nothing to do with them.

"David, I don't need the papers! Don't worry about that.

Everything's going to be okay. I love you!"

Where were the paramedics? I ran to the window. No sign of them. Panic struck me — I had forgotten to give the dispatcher the gate code. It was too early for the guard to be on duty. How would they get in? I dialed 9-1-1 again. Same dispatcher. (I hope she finished her bagel.)

"Sorry to interrupt again, but I forgot to tell you the code to the gate." I rattled off the numbers. It didn't occur to me that emergency vehicles would have access to the code at the gate.

But they surely didn't have access to my front door, and it was locked. I ran down two sets of stairs in our brownstone-like townhouse. Slipping and sliding would be a better description, as I took the stairs two at a time. When I nearly tripped on the first staircase, I realized I had better slow down. I would be no help to David with a twisted ankle, but I needed to get to the door. I wanted to leave the door open, so the paramedics could rush in and take charge.

By the time I got back upstairs, David writhed on the bed, moaning, and sweat poured from his body. I could do nothing but rub his arm and try to comfort and reassure him that everything was going to be all right. But I didn't believe it. I had never been so scared. Though he was the one in physical danger and pain, I saw my life draining away. We had lived a normal life, and now we were sharing a tragedy.


Paramedics Don't Always Rush

Finally, the ambulance arrived. I dashed again to the door to guide the paramedics to the bedroom. I expected them to rush.

Instead, they slowly ambled around their truck to gather their equipment. Then they slowly climbed the stairs to the bedroom.

They asked David what was bothering him. David attempted to speak, but his words tumbled over each other. He was nearly unintelligible. Maybe he should have said, "Oh geez, I have a headache!"

These guys must be related to the dispatcher, I thought. I wondered why they didn't comprehend the urgency. David continued to writhe and moan as I recounted the details — the thirteen chin-ups, something bursting in David's head, the rapid spread of pain. When one member of the crew finally placed an oxygen mask over David's face, relief came. David became silent, and I was grateful. He looked peaceful. I later realized that David had slipped into a coma. That was bad, but at least for the moment, it brought him peace.

The paramedics strapped David to a gurney, securing him for the trip down the stairs. It was a good thing too, because they bounced him and the gurney off of our newly painted walls — black smudges on Sugar Cookie in the hallways and black splotches on Suntan Yellow in the foyer. Later, I tried to scrub away these reminders of this unpleasant memory, but they could not be erased. Dabs of paint would cover them in time, but my memory of that morning would never be erased.

"Which hospital do you want to go to?" one paramedic asked me.

"Columbia-Presbyterian," I quickly answered. "David works at Columbia. It's where he will want to be."

"Sorry," he said. "We don't go to the City."

"But that's always been our hospital of choice."

"Can't cross the George Washington Bridge. It's out of our jurisdiction," he told me. "Sorry."

I didn't know what to do. I didn't know any hospitals here.

We had moved to the area a few years ago, and hospitals were not on our minds. I guess we should have thought of it. We should have had a plan, but we didn't. I asked the paramedics to suggest a good hospital. They skirted my question, as if they knew there were good hospitals and ones not so good, but they refused to recommend one. That was likely protocol, and I understood their need to remain impartial, but it did not seem fair. This was life or death, and the right hospital could make the difference. I am sure, with all of their transports, they knew the best hospitals.

Since they would not suggest one, I asked which hospitals were nearby. A paramedic suggested several. Two were fifteen minutes away. At least now I had a choice — Sierta Hospital or Blum Hospital. I had never heard of Blum, but I had passed Sierta while running errands. Though I never paid it much mind, at least it sounded familiar. We went to Sierta.

The paramedics loaded David into the back of the ambulance. David tells me now that he vaguely remembers being jostled in, but he remembers nothing after that. I wanted to ride in the back with David, but the driver firmly suggested I sit up front. Though he did not say anything, I could discern the seriousness on his face. I realized I would only be in the way. I debated following in my own car. When I asked the paramedics if they could return me home after David was through, their incredulous expressions helped me realize how out of it I was.

It was my first experience riding in an ambulance. I had no idea when I left my home that morning that it would be days before I returned.

As I rode in the front, I could not see what was happening in the back, but I could hear. It didn't sound good. About a mile from our home the ambulance pulled to the curb, near Dunkin' Donuts. What's happening? Why are they stopping? We are supposed to be rushing to the hospital. This is an emergency! These thoughts rambled through my head. The driver told me not to get out. I did not. I was too scared. Another ambulance pulled up behind us, and another crew hopped aboard. We were off again.

They began to work on David. I don't know what they were doing, but one attendant kept yelling at the driver to go more slowly. More slowly? We were only going twenty miles per hour. I wanted to go eighty, a hundred, but even at twenty, every bump seemed like being dropped from a cliff. I thought that an ambulance would provide a soft, gentle ride — like riding in a limousine. Not true! It was more like being pulled down a dirt road in a rickety red wagon. How can this be good for an injured person? Slowly, slowly we continued our "fifteen-minute" journey to the hospital, which took more than double that time.

When I finally saw the hospital, I breathed more easily.

Now everything will be all right, I thought. The emergency doctors and nurses will make David better. The ambulance stopped at the emergency entrance. I hopped out and went to the back of the truck. The doors did not open. I sensed movement and heard voices inside, though they were indiscernible. What was taking them so long? Hurry! Another ambulance pulled up.

I wanted David's ambulance doors to fly open, and I wanted the paramedics to rush him into the emergency room. I did not want some other emergency to go ahead of him. What if there was only one doctor? What if this were like the deli, and we had to take a number?

I paced, and I waited, and my mind screamed. I could do nothing ... but wait. I would be perfecting my skill of waiting over the next few years. Finally, the doors to the ambulance opened, and I sighed in relief. I saw David on the gurney, his eyes closed, not moving. I looked for the rise and fall of his chest. The blanket moved slightly, but it did move. Then the legs on the gurney dropped down, and David was pushed through the doors marked "Emergency."


No. I Mean, Yes

The paramedics pushed David down the short hall into a little cubicle, an examining room. They moved him from the gurney to the observation bed. The doctor and nurses quickly took over. They did not pull the privacy curtain closed, and though I was surprised, I was grateful. I did not want to be separated from David. I needed to know what was happening.

I watched from the reception desk, where I had to produce my insurance card. I hoped it was in my wallet. I rarely used it. It is the kind of thing you put there and forget about. I found it and handed it to Janis, the receptionist. She did not seem particularly friendly or compassionate — what you would expect from someone in this position, who sees emergencies and distraught people every day. She was business-like, just doing her job.

She handed me a clipboard. I sighed as I glanced at the numerous forms and endless questions. This was the beginning of the paperwork, which would stalk me throughout this journey. When I completed the forms and returned them to her, she had even more questions. But she probably got more than she asked for.

Janis asked if I had called my family. I shook my head no. I said I had a cousin who lived down the street from me, but she was in Florida visiting her parents. Her husband, who had remained home, was working in the City, and I didn't want to bother him. I had another cousin who lived about a half hour from the hospital, but she and her husband were also working. They were not an option either. I explained that we were all from the Pittsburgh area and that we had all moved here at different times. Essentially there was no one to call. I told her that the next nearest relative was David's father, who lived in Erie, about 450 miles away. There was no point in calling. I did not want to scare him. I would tell him when this was over ... when everything was better. I could handle this. Sure I could! I bit my lip to hold back the tears.


Excerpted from "Prisoners Without Bars"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Donna O'Donnell Figurski.
Excerpted by permission of Boutique of Quality Books Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Dr. Michael Kailas vii

Preface ix

Prologue xi

Chapter 1 Everything's Blurry 1

Chapter 2 Paramedics Don't Always Rush 7

Chapter 3 No. I Mean, Yes 11

Chapter 4 Unthinkable Odds 17

Chapter 5 Calling the World 21

Chapter 6 Breathe, David, Breathe! 27

Chapter 7 The Squeeze Game 37

Chapter 8 Over the River 41

Chapter 9 What a Mess! 51

Chapter 10 Packing for Uncertainty 57

Chapter 11 Hearths 61

Chapter 12 Rip Van Winkle 67

Chapter 13 Campuses 71

Chapter 14 Surprises 79

Chapter 15 Emotional Roller Coaster 87

Chapter 16 Third Time's a Charm 95

Chapter 17 Phew! 101

Chapter 18 Colorful Roommate 107

Chapter 19 Befriending the Staff 115

Chapter 20 Catching Up 125

Chapter 21 "Don't Worry" Means "Worry" 129

Chapter 22 "I Love You!" 139

Chapter 23 Music for Healing 153

Chapter 24 ETR (Expected Time for Recovery) 159

Chapter 25 Close Living Wears Thin 163

Chapter 26 Prisoners without Bars 169

Chapter 27 April Fool's Joke? 175

Chapter 28 Barely Staying Sane 181

Chapter 29 Betty 185

Chapter 30 An Invitation to Speak 193

Chapter 31 Open-air Gym 205

Chapter 32 Definitely Not a Vacation 213

Chapter 33 Kristin 217

Chapter 34 Parade of Helpers 221

Chapter 35 Angela 225

Chapter 36 Returning to Work 231

Chapter 37 Monique 235

Chapter 38 Rocky Look-alike 241

Chapter 39 Wind River 245

Chapter 40 Invisible TBI 251

Chapter 41 New Normal 255

Epilogue 259

Afterword David Figurski 269

Acknowledgments 287

Additional Information 295

About the Author 299

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