real life

"I can easily recall the worst day of my life."

As I’m writing this I can easily recall the worst day of my life. On that day, I didn’t lose my job, break up with my boyfriend, or miss tickets for my favourite band. At 23, I’m part of a generation who exaggerates as readily as we breathe, but I can without contemplation say that July 8, 2014 was actually the worst day of my life. It was the day my brother died.

Jordan was driving on his way home from work in the rain. It was the heaviest rain we had had in Niagara Falls, Canada all summer. I spoke to a cab driver some months later who remembered this as the day his basement flooded—but I’ll always remember it as something more. After swerving into the opposing lane, my brother hit an oncoming van and veered into the ditch. The family in the other vehicle was fine, but my brother was not.

An ambulance was called and arrived on the scene. Paramedics pulled my brother from the car, and at this time he was unconscious and seizing before them for over five minutes. An on-scene paramedic told me that in his experience, when he has seen an accident victim seizure for more than 30 seconds, the person is a “goner.” And according to my brother’s lawyer’s reports, he should have been right: Jordan died on that scene.

But he was revived.

All the while that my brother was fighting for his life I had no idea. When a knock came at the door I was surprised to see a police officer on the other side. I dialed my mother’s phone number since he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. It wasn’t until I overheard their conversation that I knew something terrible had occurred. My chest tightened up in a panic I’ve never felt before. The officer hung up the phone and told me that someone driving my brother’s car had been in an accident and was in the hospital.

Jordan, my brother. Image: Supplied.  

Led by this now-heightening panic, I ran there. During that run, I’ve never felt more afraid or weaker. In that moment my legs were too slow and my lungs were too tight and my body seemed to barely move. I got to the hospital and asked a janitor where car accident patients would be. He answered in a nonchalant way, not realising that saying the words out loud to him was the hardest thing I had ever had to do up until that moment. Saying it out loud made it real. And as I moved in the direction appointed, hearing my mother crying made it realer still.

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In a room with lighting and wallpaper as bleak as the immediate prospects of any person forced to sit there, hospital attendants briefly explained what happened. I barely listened. The only thing I wanted to see or hear was my brother. They lead us down the hall into a private room. My brother was lying on a stretcher in the middle of the space. He looked like he was asleep, except for the seizing and the machines that were hooked up to him.

From the moment I saw my brother's comatose body, some part of me had no choice but to start grieving his loss. It was the most surreal moment of my life. The man lying unconscious in front of us was the same one who came home every day from work, who played with our dog, cooked us steaks, and made us laugh harder than anyone else could. But as I looked at him in that hospital bed I was forced to separate him from the memories of our everyday life. To allow my mind to fully grasp what was happening was too much.

We took a photograph of just some of the people who were still there the first night and everyone signed it for Jordan over the weeks to come.

 When my father walked into the room and saw his son’s unresponsive body, all colour left his face and he had to use a table to support himself. We were informed that Jordan was next in line for the helicopter that would take him to get the treatment that could save his life; it was between him and one other patient, and the patient whose situation was direr would take priority. My brother was chosen to go first.

I don’t remember much of the scene that followed. Looking down at my brother I felt constantly dizzy and fought my body’s instinct to pass out. I called two of Jordan’s best friends and my father called my cousin. Hearing my father say the words out loud hurt more than saying them myself had. When I left the local hospital Jordan’s two best friends were waiting. When we arrived at the Hamilton Hospital, at least twenty of his closest friends and family were gathered. Together, we waited to hear if Jordan would live or die.

By the end of the night we were told that it looked like he would live. But there was swelling and bleeding in his brain and the next 72 hours would tell if he would need surgery. We all went home, emotionally and physically exhausted, except for my father, who stayed behind.

The next day, we were told that Jordan would need a bi-frontal bone flap removal of his frontal skull. They would remove two pieces of bone from his head on either side in order to relieve the now growing pressure of his ever-swelling brain. The surgery was done routinely, and my brother’s life was saved once again—but just how much of a life that would be, no one knew.

For the next while, I went to the hospital wearing Jordan’s plaid shirt every day. It made me feel closer to him in a time when he had never felt further away. I made it to two weeks straight before my mother said it would have to be washed. Throughout the next few weeks Jordan’s vitals remained relatively stable, but his blood pressure was high. High blood pressure meant the swelling in his brain could not go down, and it was this that would cause permanent damage.

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Jordan and some of our friends in our hometown hospital.

I sat next to his bed quietly, holding his hand and watching the numbers on the machines. I memorized every medication being fed into his body— Fentanyl, Ciprofloxacin, Propofol, Midazolam—and I listed them over and over in my head to keep from crying. The nurses said he could hear us crying, and I knew this to be true from watching the numbers. Anytime some one would get audibly upset in Jordan’s vicinity, his blood pressure would rise. So I sat there in silence and waited.

During the first week post-accident, we were called into a private room for a meeting with a neurologist. It was in this meeting that we learned that the areas of the brain responsible for personality and memory were, though damaged, relatively the least affected. But the motor function areas had been hit the worst. It was called a “shearing” head injury, charting a three on the Glasgow Coma scale, and several nurses said it was the worst possible brain injury one can acquire. A few days later we were told that the damage was irreversible.

When I was with my friends and family I was distracted. They wouldn’t for a second—at least not out loud—let anyone believe that Jordan wasn’t going to get better. And sometimes, I believed them. When I was alone, it was harder. I wondered if my brother would survive, and if he did, would he have a life worth surviving for? I wondered what I would do if Jordan didn’t live, but knowing that he would need me when he awoke kept me strong.

And he did. Jordan woke up from his coma about two weeks after the accident. This was both a blessing and a shock. We still had been holding onto the flimsy hope that when Jordan woke from the coma he would be himself. But he wasn’t. His eyes were open but they couldn’t register. He couldn’t see us and we weren’t sure if he could hear us anymore. But I talked to him and told him stories. There were a few nurses who said Jordan would stay in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. I couldn’t let myself believe this because any moment where I did was the darkest I’ve ever had. But not long after waking, within the third week, Jordan started proving those nurses wrong—and since then, he hasn’t stopped.

Jordan finding out the expected day he could finally go home from physical rehab.

The first significant indication that my brother was still responsive came in the form of a simple hand gesture. After countless attempts, my father asked Jordan to give him a thumbs up, and he finally did. My dad told the doctors, and they excitedly confirmed it to be a true cognitive reaction. Jordan was acting against all odds and medical precedent.

From there progress was small but steady and significant. Jordan’s eyes began to focus more, he responded to more gesture commands, and he was sat up in a wheel chair with support. Still, despite all progress, even after moving back to the hospital in our hometown with secure vitals, it was unclear whether Jordan himself was still there.

Amongst the hardest days of my life was also one of the best. One of Jordan’s friends, my father, and myself were sitting beside him. I was playing his favourite songs, while he tapped his feet. Then, my dad made an inappropriate joke and Jordan laughed. Seeing him smile and laugh for the first time since the accident was one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced. I left the hospital that day feeling genuinely hopeful not because I had to be, but because for the first time, I really felt I could be.

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From that day on Jordan continued to progress at a remarkable rate. He went from a man who was predicted to be catatonic for the rest of his life to being fully responsive. The first time we heard him speak was an indescribable experience. The first full sentence he managed to say was, “Tell Alex to go back to Australia, I’ll be fine.”

Steadily, Jordan got his voice back and started physical therapy. He went from moving his arms and legs to sitting up and eventually to standing. After being moved to a physical rehab centre, Jordan began walking. Each day he walked further than he had the day before. It was a surgery that saved his life, but Jordan’s motivation and will are what got him as far as he has come. A few months after the accident occurred, Jordan finally got to come home.

A few months after the accident occurred, Jordan finally got to come home. Image: Supplied.

Now, having had his final surgery to place the pieces of his skull back in his head, my brother is walking totally unassisted. He works out three times a week, increasing weight steadily. He sees his friends every day, golfs and fishes often, and even cooks us dinner again. But most importantly, Jordan is himself. His personality hasn’t changed. He still has the exact same humour, the exact same stubborn streak that we love, because it was that stubbornness that made him survive.

On the day of the accident, when we first arrived outside of the hospital as Jordan’s helicopter touched down, there were two rainbows casting their mark in the sky. I chose to interpret this to be a sign that Jordan was going to be okay. I took a photograph and decided I would show it to him when he woke up. Now, almost two years later, the shadow of that day has retreated. Jordan is alive and well and I couldn’t possibly be more relieved and thankful to know that today, I have my big brother back.

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