A Year Without Christmas

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…

“You’re sure you didn’t fall and hit your head?’’

Oh what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh, hey!

“You don’t remember falling at all?’’

Jingle bells, jingle bells…

I don’t remember the radio playing after that, but I don’t remember shutting it off either. I got out of the car and packed her bag. Socks, bras, underwear, a toothbrush. I got back in the car; the radio must have still been on. I forgot her shoes! Did I call Uncle Johnny? Does he know?

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It was a brain bleed. A bilateral subdural hematoma, the doctor said.

She didn’t fall. She wasn’t in a car accident. She just had a headache.

It was supposed to be a sinus infection. What the hell happened?

More than 2 million people take blood thinners every day to keep them from developing dangerous blood clots and my mom was one of them. Some people prescribed coumadin are on the blood thinner for an extended period of time, but that longevity can increase the risk of bleeding. My mom has been on coumadin for 13 years, so when she was first prescribed the drug a lot of these warnings were not as well known.

She said her headache felt like a vice closing in on her temples, but was told it was a sinus infection; she was told to take ibuprofen and an antibiotic–both of which can exacerbate the side effects of coumadin.

Newer drugs Pradaxa and Xarelto were designed to sidestep risks of warfarin, including brain hemorrhages and other dangerous bleeding, and become mainstays of a new therapeutic market worth at least $10 billion a year, according to Reuters. Patients taking warfarin require close monitoring and regular blood tests as well as dietary and lifestyle changes, and it was believed patients on these new drugs could negate the need for those precautions.

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However, these drugs have also led numerous deaths related to bleeding. In 2011, 542 reports of deaths associated with Pradaxa were reported to the FDA in 2011, topping all other medicines, including warfarin, with 72 deaths. The positive side for Coumadin is that there is a drug that can be administered by iv to reverse the effects of coumadin in less than 15 minutes–a reversal that the other two new drugs do not have. A reversal that prevented my mom from needing surgery.

It was Christmas eve and my mom was curled into a small ball, tied to wires, ivs, and beeping machines in the Neuro ICU at Brigham and Women’s hospital. She whimpered in her drug induced sleep, moving her hand towards her head.

It was a year without Christmas. The tree was decorated with beautifully wrapped presents arranged artfully underneath, and the house was covered with white bright lights, and the radio was playing Nat King Cole, and the family Christmas eve party still took place. But instead of laughter there were tears, and the scent of cinnamon rolls did not wake me up on Christmas morning. Instead of sitting by the tree I was sitting in a white washed room by my sleeping mother who looked peaceful for the first time in days.

There were others in the ICU with me, others curled on a lumpy waiting room couch catching their breath, taking a break from being strong, who may not have been so lucky. An intensive care unit’s waiting room is an odd place where complete strangers become a makeshift family. They’re the only people in the world, it seems, who have any idea what you are going through, at the exact same moment as you.

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It’s Christmas again, and, one year later, my mom is recovering. Her headaches are subsiding. Her speech is almost back to normal, though her short term memory is still a little fuzzy. She’s off the blood thinner that almost killed her.

I almost lost the wonder that is Christmas, but my mom is here and on her way to being healthy. Christmas is not a date on the calendar, it’s that feeling of wholeness that happens when I’m putting the finishing touches on the peanut butter blossom cookies my mom baked. When I’m finding the perfect branch to place my mom’s favorite angel ornament on the tree. When we’re sitting down as a family to Christmas dinner. Last year, I didn’t know if I would ever have it back as I held her hand and watched her chest fall and rise.

As I sit by the tree and the scent of cinnamon rolls wafts through the air this Thursday morning, my thoughts are with those who are feeling lost and disconnected from Christmas, my thoughts are with that makeshift family of strangers. My thoughts are with my mom. I missed Christmas because I missed her.

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