Loving Ingrid - Chapter 3
Holding on to hope amids pleas for help
By Janine Zeitlin Saturday, July 15 2011, THE NEWS PRESS
Craig Heller rushed down McGregor Boulevard in his van.
He swung into the emergency room's parking lot five minutes after Lee Memorial Hospital had called him at home about his wife, Ingrid.
A state trooper showed up with numbing details:
At 8:27 a.m., a dump truck had T-boned Ingrid's station wagon as she turned onto Alico Road from Interstate 75. The driver ran a red light.
For 45 minutes, Ingrid had been trapped until a fire engine weighing more than 15 tons managed to pry her car from under the truck.
Ingrid was four breaths per minute from death when the paramedics first reached her.
In the ER, Craig caught a glimpse of his wife of 16 years.
She was in a coma.
Her pale face was swallowed by a scramble of tubes to keep her alive.
Her curls had been shorn to clear space for a bolt bored into her skull to monitor the swelling in her brain.
Craig nestled her cheek into his palm, the way he had always calmed her.
"Don't worry. I'm going to take care of everything," he whispered into her ear.
Ingrid is a fighter, he thought. She'd see this as just another challenge. Her joy for life would pull her through.
No time to cry. This was the sickness and health that comes with marriage.
That evening, Craig stowed Ingrid's leather purse, fished from the wreck, in the closet.
She would need it when she returned to teaching Spanish at FGCU.
She would need it when she returned home.
Craig walked into son Victor's room and sat next to the 9-year-old on his bed, where Ingrid would read him stories.
"Mama's been in an accident," Craig gently told him. "She's going to be fine."
OK, he nodded calmly.
The night claimed the day and Victor and 4-year-old Casandra crawled into their father's bed, nestling into the space where their mother usually slept.
A week later, the worst seemed to be over. Ingrid was out of intensive care. She had surfaced from the coma.
One day, her eyelids fluttered. Another, she lifted Craig's hand to her lips. Once, she picked her nose.
Flocks of students, colleagues and friends from All Faiths Unitarian Congregation sent get-well wishes. Many visited.
Craig and four of Ingrid's friends circled her hospital bed on one visit and massaged her taut arms and legs.
They played Bob Marley and Sting songs.
A neurosurgeon told Craig and Ingrid's friend, Donna Roberts, that she might become more impulsive and less patient because of her brain injury.
They chuckled. OK, so she'll be more Ingrid.
"She's obviously coming around to us; who knows, she may really like where she's at and doesn't want to come back too soon (she knows she has papers to grade.)," Craig wrote in an online journal to friends and family.
The brain is a Jell-O-like mass, 3 pounds of mystery that controls every facet of our identity, from personality to memory to mood. It's the master of speech and balance.
Dr. Dean Lin, a neurosurgeon at Lee Memorial, couldn't tell Craig how much Ingrid would recover.
The first year is crucial.
"It's between that patient and God how well they're going to do," Lin would say.
Within a month of the crash, doctors took Ingrid off oxygen and removed the tube in her neck that helped her breathe.
She could go home.
Craig moved Ingrid to an empty house next door to their own to recover away from the frenzy of the kids and dog Lio.
He hired a medical team to care for her around-the-clock.
Shades of Ingrid emerged like a breath of light in a den of gray.
Once, she rolled over in her bed and kissed Victor and Casandra. Have you done your homework? she asked Victor.
She bit Craig's nose when he swooped in for a kiss.
But Ingrid needed more consistent therapy.
No one — not even the supposed experts — seemed to have answers to his questions: What's the best place for her? What should I do?
The biggest decisions of their lives weighed solely on his shoulders.
Ingrid's parents had died from cancer. Her younger sister was in Spain, as was her brother, who has Down syndrome.
Craig found most local care centers to be small and focused on geriatrics.
In late March, he moved Ingrid to Wauchula, 11⁄2 hours north. The Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation was like a country club with verdant grounds and a pair of lakes.
Insurance wouldn't foot its $700-a-day bill, but Craig hoped the state-of-the-art center could restore the Ingrid he and many others loved.
During one of his twice-weekly trips there, Craig arrived to see Ingrid returning from therapy.
Her aides asked Ingrid who the man in the glasses was.
"That's my husband, Craig."
Craig's heart warmed.
A week later, she spoke with him for an hour but didn't know who he was until the visit ended.
Language was coming back in gushes, yet she could no longer talk for hours about the meaning tucked in poetry.
That's beautiful, she'd simply say when a friend read the poems of Pablo Neruda.
First only speaking German, Ingrid used more English and her native Spanish.
She sometimes uttered a cascade of curses, spilling phrases without connection. Still, one day, she held a two-hour conversation.
Craig had hope.
"All the signs are positive for a stupendous recovery," he wrote in the journal.
Lucidity had repercussions. Doctors scaled back her anti-depressants to maximize her progress, but dark moods invaded.
Ingrid's frustration with relearning basic skills like walking made her lash out.
A pregnant aide wouldn't come near Ingrid because she would kick those who tried to help her. Her ankles and wrists had to be strapped to her bed.
To Craig, those were signs that the fire in Ingrid's soul was starting to ignite.
Ingrid could feed herself soft foods like pureed beef stroganoff and could take a few steps with the help of someone's arm or a railing.
Craig held faith, though big pieces of the woman who loved to laugh over red wine with friends, danced when the occasion arose and inspired her husband and so many others were still missing.
A doctor described what was absent in clinical terms.
"Still has deficits on bowel/bladder management ... Unreliable for any meaningful engagement," he wrote. "Totally impaired for instrumental activities of daily living."
The courts declared Ingrid incapacitated in July 2008.
Craig wasn't just Ingrid's husband anymore.
He became her guardian.
Days were unrelenting: Craig spent hours haggling with the insurance company and bill collectors and by his wife's side. He tried to give the kids normalcy by keeping them in school, Little League and ballet classes.
Plodding through on as little as two hours of sleep a night, he sometimes locked himself in the bathroom after Victor and Casandra went to bed.
He'd drop his head into his hands. How can I get up in the morning and do it again?
It was a scream of silence the kids would never hear.
Soon after the accident, Victor would chat soothingly with his mother in the Spanish they spoke with each other.
Casandra and I are behaving, Victor would say, holding her hand.
Now, her son stood in a corner during visits to an assisted-living home in Naples, where Craig moved Ingrid for the oxygen therapy he hoped would repair her brain.
The mother Victor and Casandra knew had been replaced by a woman who didn't speak or look the same and who hugged like a stranger.
Once, Ingrid grabbed her daughter's tiny wrist when she wanted to color; Casandra screamed.
Then around 5, she told a baby sitter she wished she had two mothers: the mama she had now and the mama she had before.
The Naples center saw Ingrid as a problem. Staff once found her pounding on a roommate.
From March until the summer of 2009, Craig contacted 18 nursing homes he knew of in Lee County. He looked into places in Cuba, Germany, Spain, Georgia and California.
He was told:
We can't help her.
Craig didn't think he could handle caring for Ingrid and the kids at home, and he didn't have money to hire help.
Medical bills and other expenses had drained $350,000 from their savings and most of the $826,000 settlement from the lawsuit Craig filed after the accident.
Her insurance was gone. She was on Medicaid.
Craig reached out Aug. 1, 2009, through the online journal, asking for suggestions. He contacted lawmakers.
"After 18 months I'm out of energy."
At a hospital where the Naples center sent her, Ingrid asked a nurse to help her kill herself.
The hospital eventually found a nursing home, but Craig kept looking for places that could draw out more of the Ingrid of before.
"We'll find a good place for you," he told her one evening. "You'll progress to a point where you can come home."
"What if I don't progress?"