To Hell and Back

On April 20, 1998, Jan Reid was shot in the abdomen during a robbery in Mexico City. Doctors told him he might not walk again, but after three years he's regained much of the physical and psychological ground he had lost.

June 2001By Comments

Photograph by Kenny Braun

There’s a line from an old Rolling Stones song: “Please, sister morphine, turn my nightmare into dreams.” In the first of my dreams at Houston’s Hermann Hospital, I was riding in a truck driven by an Asian woman. It was early in the morning, the sun just up. I wanted to trust this woman, but she ignored me. On a country road she stopped at a store with grimy windows and a dusty soda pop machine on the porch. After a moment she came back out, started the truck, and we drove off. Still she said nothing; she had an air of making her daily rounds. We came to a river that was running brown and high. It was up to the throats of the water buffalo. Water buffalo! Where was I? The woman sent the truck down the bank toward the swollen river. She was going to try to ford it.”Listen here,” I cried. “You get me back to Dr. Red Duke right now. He’s supposed to be taking care of me.”

In another dream, I was in a house. I could see and hear a man and a woman moving about. They spoke English with French accents. They had contracted with the state to care for me, but they were con artists, and their fraud had been discovered. They took their time packing, but they meant to be gone by dawn. “Wait,” I cried. “You can’t just leave me here. Please. You’ve got to find Red Duke.”

Ignoring me, the man carried things to a car in the garage. The woman stood by my bed and watched me for a moment, coolly smoking a cigarette. “Do you know what’s happened to you?” she asked.

Another dream took on aspects of a novel I had been working on. For generations there had been rumors and lore of a great lost house on the Brazos River, a sort of Texas Camelot. It was the home of Sam Houston’s family, the patriarch’s, and I had found it. The large front room had a marble staircase, bookcases, and oil portraits of elders. I was in this house, and I could walk. I moved around freely and enjoyed myself. Sam Houston was there, ragging his son Temple for being drunk all the time. “You’re one to talk,” Temple shot back, pouring himself another. It was a rowdy gathering. Tall, striking old women flung good-natured taunts at the men. The Houston family seemed to have merged with the Parkers, another prominent Texas Hell and Backclan. The family gathered proudly on the staircase to be photographed by a man who stooped at the rear of a camera and tripod. “Wait,” one of the women insisted, and the uproar resumed. Quanah Parker deserved to be in the picture, the sisters maintained. He was blood kin, even if he was a half-breed Comanche.In the flesh, I was in that room. Then the voices receded and the focus narrowed, leaving the staircase blurred. I saw my friend Jim Anderson. Tall and slender, he gave me a nod of greeting. “Jan,” he said.

And I greeted him, thinking, “Jim, what are you doing here?” It was entirely seamless. Jim handed me a telephone, and I found myself talking to my sister, Lana, in Wichita Falls. Very much for real. For the first time since I’d been shot in Mexico City.

“Mother’s all right,” Lana told me. “She’s just very shocked. She needs to hear your voice.”

My 81-year-old mother. I thought, “Man, you’d better rally, because you’re not going to reassure her very much at all.”

I put up a cheery front as long as my family and friends were around. At night the morphine held the pain at bay, but it wouldn’t let me sleep and forget. I obsessed about magazine assignments and thought if I just had a laptop computer I could get them done. Why they mattered anymore, I can’t say. I watched NBA playoff games that I had no interest in. I pondered Christianity one night. I decided my reconversion would take place in a tiny Episcopalian church near our home in Austin. In large type their yard sign stressed that they used the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. I saw myself strolling to church on a bright sunny day in bow tie, shirtsleeves, and suspenders, fanning my face with a straw boater. Then I dozed, and when I woke, my reborn faith was gone. Another trick of the mind and the drug.Two weeks earlier a Mexican doctor had told me, phrasing it gently, “We’re afraid you’re going to lose the mobility of your legs.” But I’m alive, I thought. I’ll deal with paralysis. Then I saw my friend Norman Chenven, who had been our family doctor for many years. I thought it was night, and I was outside (actually, we were in my room at Hermann). Norman stood in a crowd pressing against a chain-link fence. In his matter-of-fact way, he said that paralysis was just one possible effect of a lower-spine injury: “The bladder and bowel and sexual function?” he said. “We’ll just have to wait and see about that.”

Bladder and bowel and sexual function! I could be incontinent and impotent too? I took that harder than being told I was paralyzed. I felt like my manhood had been chopped off at the waist.

One night I set out to prove Norman wrong. I asked a nurse to bring me a bedpan. I wedged it under my hips, pulled up my hospital gown, and lay in that posture for half an hour or so. I couldn’t feel if I was straining. Hell, I didn’t even know how to use a bedpan. In disgust I wrenched it out from under me and dropped it on the floor. A doctor in Mexico had said I had the physical conditioning of an athlete—it was one of the reasons I had survived. It was a flattering thing for him to say. But all of it seemed to be gone.

Most afternoons, Red Duke came to see me, and it was a huge boost to my morale. He did this, he told me later, with all his patients. Believed in it. Disliked this new breed of doctors who wanted nothing personal to do with their patients and jealously worshiped their “lifestyles”—a word he voiced like an oath. Slouched in a chair with one long leg crossed over the other, Red said the bullet had so narrowly missed my “business district” that it was pretty much a miracle we were having these conversations. He said the bullet’s force had “slapped” my spinal cord pretty good. It had to be injured. But he told me not to worry too much about the changes forced upon me. Having to use a catheter to piss, for instance. He said he ran across an old cowboy who had lost his bladder control to prostate woes. The old fellow had figured out that his catheter tube made a perfect fit in the crease in the crown of his Stetson. Whenever the time came to empty his bladder, the gear was right there in his hat.The doctors wanted to give me a new MRI. The complicating factor, much discussed in my presence, was the external fixator holding my broken left wrist in place. The doctors and technicians were very careful about removing rings, watches, coins, and other metal from patients before sliding them into the long tube. The reason, a technician told me, was that the magnets producing the imagery could jerk metal in this direction or that and could cause injury. I looked at the metal contraption the Mexican orthopedist had screwed into my hand and arm and said, “What?” Twice the MRI was scheduled, then postponed for that reason. Finally, late one night, nurses shifted me from my bed to a stretcher. The nurse on duty told me to ask for a Valium. Some people thought the tube was claustrophobic, and the pill would make the time pass easier. “But what about this?” I said, raising my arm and the fixator.

“They say it’ll be all right. With that kind of metal.”

“Who’s they?”

“I don’t know.”

I looked at the orderly, a young black man who had strapped me in and was preparing to roll me down the hall. “I don’t know nothin’ about it,” he said.

“Of course.”

The ride took me into the bowels of the hospital; the technician greeted me perfunctorily. “Can I have a Valium?” I asked him.

“Not unless a doctor prescribed it. And there’s nothing on your chart.”

Sometimes I’m blessed with great patience. After the test began, I gripped the fixator, and I was fine. I was in no danger and in no pain. I simply had to lie still for a while in a long pipe that sounded like it was being beaten by a drummer with two ball-peen hammers. I listened to the patterns and smiled. It was the ultimate in heavy metal.

The next afternoon my neurosurgeon, Guy Clifton, swept into my room. He was a small, lean man with closely trimmed hair and an infectious grin. He carried a large manila folder that contained the results of the MRI. Clifton was upbeat; the Mexican doctors had done an excellent job, he said. He wouldn’t have to operate on me again.

“You may walk and you may not,” the surgeon told me. “This is going to take a year to eighteen months to play out. If you have to get around in a wheelchair, you know you’re going to have at least some movement of your legs. You can still work. You can drive. You can get on an airplane.”

“A productive life,” I said, trying to match his enthusiasm.

“But there’s nothing on here,” he said, tapping the MRI’s manila folder, “that says you can’t walk.”

The bullet meant I was a cripple. But I could wiggle my toes; I knew that some of the wiring still worked. I had a vote in how crippled I could be. When Dr. Clifton raised that MRI and said, “There’s nothing on here that says you can’t walk,” something in me decided I would. It would require a lot more courage than taking a pistol-whipping and facing off with the thug who shot me. But I was going to pull myself up and try.

On Norman’s advice my wife, Dorothy, and I decided I would remain in Houston a good while longer. Tucked away in the Texas Medical Center is a small hospital called the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research. Known by its acronym, TIRR, the facility is considered one of the premier rehab hospitals in the country. On May 1, 1998, I left Hermann Hospital and the care of Red Duke for an ambulance ride of five or six blocks. It was the first time I’d been outside since the shooting. Like a released prisoner, I stared at patterns of tiled roofs, the brilliant greens of ordinary grass, a couple in shorts jogging with a baby carriage. Pushed along in a wheelchair, I arrived on my floor in the early afternoon. My new home was a suite with four beds and a bathroom in the middle.My daily uniform consisted of athletic shoes, socks, sweatpants, and a T-shirt. The schedule was unrelenting. Every morning and every afternoon, therapists had me straining against the bonds of my injury. The work was hard, frustrating, and repetitive. Some patients didn’t respond, and they were quickly discharged to their homes and outpatient programs. Screenwriter Bill Broyles, an old friend and editor who had almost lost the use of his arm in an accident, had written me an invaluable letter. This was my job now, he told me. Forget everything else. If they asked me to do some dumb, boring task ten times, I would give them twelve repetitions.

I had to transport myself to and from the sessions on the ground floor. With a standard wheelchair, all I could do was roll in an endless left turn. One of my physical therapists, Theresa Gregorio-Torres, and the therapist in charge of supplies found in storage an old chair that a patient could steer with one hand, by gripping and releasing a set of gears. “I want that one,” I told them. “I want the exercise.” But the one-armed bandit rolled like a wheelbarrow piled with rocks. I needed help from nurses to get from my suite to the elevator. Downstairs, the corridor to the gym had a considerable dip in the floor; I couldn’t build enough momentum going down to clear the ascent. Pulling with all the strength I possessed, I inched and struggled until someone came along and took pity on me. People raised their gazes from mine because I crept along so pathetically.

But I could never feel sorry for myself at the TIRR. On the next machine or mat someone huffed and puffed with injuries far worse than mine. Friendships formed around the bond of our injuries. Jim Copeland was a Rice University linguistics professor who had made his life’s work penetrating the mysteries of the Tarahumara Indians in northern Mexico. He was also a competitive cyclist who had gotten bashed almost to extinction doing his daily miles in the Houston traffic. Jim was much farther along the road to recovery, yet every movement for him was agony. A flight of stairs and a walkway to an office had been built along two walls of the gym. One day I watched awestruck as Jim’s legs gave out climbing the stairs; he got to the top by lifting his hips with shoves of his hands, then onto the landing as a therapist goaded him to crawl. “I’ve got to walk again,” Jim told me. “There’s no other way to get to the Tarahumaras.”

In the afternoons Theresa put me to work screwing bolts into nuts or kneading therapeutic putty. The most encouraging drill was when she had me sit on one of the raised mats and twist and stretch to catch tosses of a big, soft inflated ball. This was an important test of my balance. “Awesome,” remarked one student therapist. Afterward I sat beside Theresa at a table and watched her fill out a form for me. She came to a line for my status and wrote “paraplegic.”

My reaction was absurd: Who, me?

The TIRR has a wise practice that married couples should spend a weekend at home not long before the patient is discharged. Because of the distance to Austin, Dorothy and I got permission to check into a favorite hotel in Houston. As soon as I rolled my wheelchair through thick carpet into our hotel room, I realized I had forgotten something essential when I packed—the diapers, or maybe it was the disposable catheters, objects I had not come to terms with possessing at all. She had to go back out in the heat and traffic and retrieve them. Saturday afternoon we were reading and then lolling in bed. To my utter surprise, we found I wasn’t impotent. Once more I was lucky: Despite the bullet’s shock force against my spinal cord, for me the fragile and mysterious system of nerve connections had considerable healing capacity. But I wanted things to be the same, at once, and I was numb—as shattering a discovery as the one just before had been joyous.

Later we lay quietly, her back against me. Not far from my mind was the humiliation of that morning, when I hadn’t moved fast enough getting to the bathroom. It is a horror for someone of sound mind to drop shit like a pony or dog. Dorothy started crying now, and in trying to console her, I found out that part of it was my failing to take any responsibilty for the daunting tasks that awaited us outside the institution of a hospital. I had, she said, gotten all too glad to lie around and have people wait on me. We quarreled.

“Are you depressed?” she said.

“I’m starting to be.”

“I knew you were going to say that.”

Communication between men and women is hard enough without psychological trauma and debilitating injury. The next night I was back in my TIRR cocoon, resting in bed and watching television when Dorothy called. Without spelling it out, she wanted to talk about our weekend together. To her it had been a disaster. But I was distant on the phone. I’m not a TV addict, and I know now that I should have turned it off—or at least explained myself and told her I’d call her right back. But it happened that when she called I was transfixed by the drama of the last minute of Michael Jordan’s last basketball game with the Chicago Bulls. As she and I talked, Jordan made the impossible play—stripped the ball from Karl Malone and, seconds before the buzzer, hit the title-winning shot. What a way to go out. What a gifted man!

And, of course, what an irresponsible thing for me to do now as a husband and a lover. Dorothy wasn’t aware of that basketball game and probably wouldn’t have cared if she’d known. All she knew was that once more I had been insensitive to her emotional needs.

In morning sessions my physical therapist, Sherry Dunbar, tried to get me on my feet by using a tilt board, but just that small change in altitude made me nauseous. Then one day, first with Sherry’s help and then on my own, I discovered that I could stand up, sit down, stand up again! She and another therapist got me to walk the length of parallel bars, supporting myself with my arms on the bars. My right leg was much stronger than the left; I dragged that foot, and the knee kept buckling. They improvised a knee brace with plastic bands, and with my elbows and forearms propped on the padding of their most stable walker, I walked about 25 feet, then did it again. A TV crew from Dallas happened to be there that day. The reporter asked me how it felt. My winded reply was silly but honest, straight out of my Texas upbringing: “Like I just scored a touchdown.”But the next day, Dorothy drove in from Austin and came into the gym with an anxious look on her face. “You’re not ready to go home,” she said. “I can’t take care of you, and you can’t take care of yourself.” Sherry absorbed this with a nod, then hurried off to inform the doctors. Dorothy and I met that afternoon with a counselor. We both got a lot off our chests, and as the week slowly passed, our mood lightened. Whether we were ready or not, the Friday of my discharge arrived. It was two months and one day since I had lain in the Mexico City street thinking I was dying.

Dorothy, our daughter, Lila, and I stuffed clothes and medical supplies in a suitcase and boxes. Florence, a Jamaican nurse who had grown close to us, came to say good-bye. “Ah, well, the nice people come and go,” she said, uncharacteristically quiet and shy.

Sherry walked with us as I pushed the wheels of my chair along. As a good-bye present, I showed her that I didn’t need the slide board anymore. I stood up from the wheelchair, grasped the car door, and swung my hips into the front seat. Sherry grinned and hugged us, then we were off, but stalled in the Houston traffic. I reached for Dorothy’s hand and held it, squeezing. Finally we pulled onto the interstate and left the city behind. We rolled the windows down for a few minutes. The breeze carried a mingled scent of grass, dust, and heat that was oddly sweet—the smell of Texas summers I’d known all my life.

Godamighty, I was almost home.

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