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2/14/13 at 02:40 PM 0 Comments

Hope Unseen (BOOK EXCERPT, PT 5)

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Captain Scotty Smiley made American history while serving in the military. The book Hope Unseen: The Story of the U.S. Army's First Blind Active-Duty Officer tells his story. This book excerpt comes from chapter 9.

Surgeons at the American military hospital in Balad moved rapidly to save my life and mitigate the long-term impact of my traumatic brain injury. The shrapnel stuck in my left frontal lobe had placed my life in peril, but the swiftness of my evacuation from the battlefield lowered the danger level from grave to worrisome. A multihour operation that removed the metal from my brain and repaired my damaged dura mater (a thin but tough layer just underneath the bone of the skull) also left my brain badly swollen.

To guard against the potentially fatal implications of untreated swelling, the doctors next executed a craniotomy. They sheared my hair (something I think back on with sadness—I was proud of my hair), gently sliced through a layer of skin (tracing from the midpoint of my outer ear to the peak of my head), peeled back my scalp, cut through some muscle, and then removed the front left quarter of my skull. To preserve the hand-sized portion of bone flap for future use, the doctors next cut open the left side of my abdomen, just above the hip, and slid the piece of bone into a newly formed kangaroo pocket. It was supposed to stay there in my side for half a year, waiting to be removed, and when the swelling in my brain receded, that slice of my head could be placed like a puzzle piece back in its rightful location.

While doctors tended to my brain, eyes, and skull, Tiffany’s family trickled into her house one by one. Her mom returned from a trip to Portland. Her sister Nicole came back from a friend’s house. Her brother drove across town. The clock ticked slowly and loudly. There was not much to say. Apparently, someone suggested that Tiffany get a passport, in case she needed to rush to Germany to be at my side for the last time. Or—unspoken as it went—in the event that she needed to escort my body home.

At around breakfast time, Tiffany received her second update, an unorthodox but welcomed call to her cell phone from a doctor in Balad. He shared the results in the wake of the craniotomy: after clearing the metallic debris from the inside of my head, the surgery team then completely removed what remained of my left eye and sewed my right eye shut. It was not clear to Tiffany why exactly the medical practitioners had troubled to suture my right eyelid closed, especially if I had “no real hope” to see again—but even confusing news was better than the uncertainty that had filled the previous several hours.

From an “Is he going to live?” standpoint the rest of the doctor’s report moved Tiffany’s attention from curiosity to anxiety. I was not retaining fluids, and the surgeons could not restore my blood pressure to normal levels. I had not yet escaped death. The doctor from Balad also suggested Tiffany secure a passport in anticipation of a trip to Germany. And when that doctor hung up the phone, Tiffany says, it was maybe the most real moment of her life. She felt in ways she had never felt; she employed emotional muscles she did not know she had. Seriously? Is this happening? How am I going to live? I absolutely forgive Tiffany for slipping into selfishness for an instant. The bond of marriage turns two into one. My blindness suddenly became her blindness. The next fifty-five years of my life became the next fifty-five years of hers.

The gray Opel and its driver were not what shattered Tiffany’s world—she had been sleeping peacefully when they burst into a meteor shower of shrapnel and knocked me unconscious. The subsequent cell phone call with a doctor’s assurance that I would never see again was her moment of pain. Just after sunrise on a Wednesday morning in Pasco, gravity of circumstance pulled Tiffany’s entire future into a tiny blip of the present and collapsed the life she thought she would have. The explosion engulfed a nursing career, dreams of a family, a second honeymoon—it even robbed her of the compliments I would pay her smile. “For better or for worse” once meant that I sometimes came home grumpy. Those five words would soon take Tiffany somewhere altogether unimagined.

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