The Night That Changed My Life

Like these bad boys only with way less structural integrity.

The worst injury I ever had was a traumatic brain injury (TBI). It changed everything about me forever. I had to drop out of college. I couldn’t do my job and had to quit. I couldn’t remember things from one moment to the next. I was useless.

I’ve talked a lot about the results of getting hit on the head (see the tag Brain FAIL), but I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the incident itself, mostly because it still makes me angry.

I was at a bar in Detroit even though I was under legal drinking age. They let us children in provided that we didn’t drink the alcohol. The place had once been a proper theater–Houdini performed there–but all the theater seats had been pulled out and replaced with tables and chairs. I was sitting at one of them with my back to the stage. A row of stage lights had been temporarily erected along the edge of the stage for a fashion show earlier in the evening. It was a flimsy construction job of galvanized steel poles held together by duct tape with five stage lights perched on top; the lights weighed approximately 75 pounds each.

Like these bad boys only with way less structural integrity.
Like this, but put together by kindergarteners.

Some moron disregarded the lack of structural integrity that was clearly apparent and decided to swing on the framework like a monkey, causing the whole thing to fall right on my head. I didn’t feel a thing. I had been talking to a boy that I liked. I thought I had somehow fallen out of my chair on my own and was embarrassed that I was on the floor. I quickly got up and sat in my chair again only to notice the horrified looks of those around me. At that point, I looked down and noticed that I was covered in blood. I put my hand to the crown of my head and it came back sticky and red. Uh oh.

Everyone was just standing there looking at me. Nobody moved. I decided that something must be done about this bleeding business that I had suddenly undertaken to great effect, so I barked at one of my friends to go get a shitload of napkins from the bar and at another to go tell the security guys to call an ambulance since I was in no condition to drive. This happened before the days of omnipresent cell phones. Calling an ambulance meant pushing numbers into a bulky telephone connected to the switchboard system by wires.

One friend came back with more napkins than one would think it was possible to carry and the other came back and told me they refused to call an ambulance. What do you mean they refused? I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding quite a bit actually. A concerning amount of blood is gushing out of my head. I’d like that to stop as soon as possible. Call a damn ambulance. They won’t do it, she replied. Fine. Maybe they just think we’re overreacting. If they see my head, they’ll change their minds. With one hand on the top of my head holding as many napkins as I could grab, I approached the door. My friends followed carrying the rest.

In case they thought somehow that I was faking it even though, at this point, every part of me was covered in blood and I looked like Carrie on prom night, I thought I’d make it as clear as possible to the bouncers who refused to call an ambulance, that one was, in fact, very much needed.

Somebody call the amberlamps! Carrie, 1976.
Somebody call the amberlamps!
Carrie, 1976.

As you can see, I said to them, I’m bleeding quite a bit from a head wound. I took the napkin off my head, bent my head forward, and as if on cue, a geyser of blood shot up like Old Faithful. I asked the bouncers to call an ambulance. Again, they refused. Why not? I am bleeding. I’m bleeding from a wound I received inside your establishment. Right over there, actually, I pointed. Bad for business they said. Bad for business? You know what else is bad for business? Head wounds. Head wounds are really bad for business, especially when one is received inside your place and you refuse to call an ambulance. Should I just stand here and bleed all over you then?

Like this, but with blood. Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park.
Like this, but with blood.
Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park.

Meanwhile, my friends were standing around slack-jawed, not quite knowing what to do. All except one who, unbeknownst to me until later, went over and punched the guy who swung from the lights squarely in the nose. When I was done arguing with the bouncers to no avail, I told one of my friends to go get her car and pull it up. Detroit Receiving Hospital was only a few blocks away.

We piled into her car and we headed off to the hospital. Weeee! When we got there, I felt about ready to lie down or something of that nature. Strangely, even though I had a huge gash in my head, mine was not the most serious wound there that night so I was sewn up by an orderly. He had never sewn up a head unassisted before, so to keep him calm, I started cracking jokes. It seemed to work. He tried to keep count of the stitches, but somewhere around the 500 mark, he lost count.

Five hours later, when my new friend was done sewing up my head, I exited the emergency room to find two people. One was my friend who had punched the swinging guy in snout and the other was the DJ from the bar where I got hit on the head, a total stranger to me. He came there unofficially after the bar had closed. My other friends had long since gone, but they had brought my car over to the hospital for me. The DJ and I ended up dating after that night, but that’s a story for another time.

I wanted to drive myself home, but sensibly, my friend would not let me. She drove my car while I sat in the passenger seat and the DJ followed in another car. They got me to my parents’ house where my mom began freaking out; she doesn’t handle blood well and I was still covered in it. I don’t remember much of the next few days other than being in and out of consciousness, in an incredible amount of pain and having my head itch like hell. I wasn’t allowed to wash my hair for quite a while and there was still dried blood in it for a long time afterward. It was all rather unpleasant.

I tried to go to college, but I couldn’t remember where I was or what I was doing there, let alone learn anything. I had to drop out of school just a week too late to get any money back. I had to quit my job because I couldn’t do it. I had to move in with my parents because I had no source of income and was practically a vegetable for a while. I barely remembered who I was at first.

My life, which had shortly before been one of an independent working girl going to college in what little spare time I had, now consisted of going from doctor to doctor, doing test after test. You see someone drop $20 in front of you, what do you do?; put the round block in the round hole; what does the ink splotch look like to you?; what’s the square root of 52? I failed all of them.

To make a five-year story short, I sued the place where it happened and got $10,000 for having my life ruined, out of which, my heartless and terrible lawyer took $7000 as a fee. Just the visit to the emergency room cost $3600. I lost my independence, my job, a higher education, my childhood memories and my ability to remember things; I didn’t even break even on my medical expenses. The venue that smashed my skull is still in business, though it’s owned by different people now. My memory got better, not perfect, not even good, but better. I was and will never be the same.

This post is part of the On Being Series.