Kevin Richardson felt relieved when the physical therapist came to see him, carrying a pair of crutches. Finally, he thought. After being confined to his bed with his broken leg elevated for the last few days while he finished a course of IV antibiotics, he was looking forward to getting some exercise.
“Hi, I’m Jeanie,” the therapist introduced herself, setting the crutches aside. “I’m here to help you get back on your feet.”
“Hallelujah! Thank God,” said Kevin, who wasn’t used to lying around like this. He had always been active, athletic. The recuperation process was killing him.
Jeanie grinned. “That’s the spirit. Have you ever used crutches before?”
He nodded. “Oh yeah. I played football in high school, so injuries are nothing new. Twisted knee… sprained ankle… but nothing as bad as this,” he replied, looking at his right leg. It was wrapped in a thick brace and propped up on a pillow. Peeking out of the bottom of the brace, his foot still looked puffy compared to the left one.
“Sounds like you’re a pro already,” said Jeanie. She helped Kevin sit up on the edge of his bed, carefully lifting his bad leg off the pillow and lowering it over the side. It felt good to at least get one foot back on the floor. She gave him a robe to put on over his backless hospital gown and wrapped a gait belt around his waist.
Then she picked up the crutches and brought them over to him. “Now, the main thing to remember is not to put any weight on your right leg. The hardware inside is only meant to stabilize the bones until they finish fusing back together, not support your body weight,” she warned him. “You don’t want to risk reinjuring yourself.”
She helped him stand up on his left leg, tucking the crutches underneath his arms. She used a tool to measure the angle of his elbows as he held on to the handgrips and made a few adjustments. “Do those feel okay?” she asked finally, stepping back to study the position of the crutches compared to his body as he stood in place. “We can always adjust the height again if we need to.”
“No, I think they’re fine,” said Kevin, slowly shifting his weight from side to side, testing the stability of the crutches. “Can I try taking a few steps now?”
“Of course,” said Jeanie with a smile. She stood on his right side, slightly behind him, and held on to the gait belt as he swung his bad leg forward, then stepped with his left foot while the crutches supported his weight. “Doing great, Kevin,” she coached him, as he headed toward the door of his room. “Do you want to take a walk down the hall and back?”
Kevin nodded. He knew exactly where he wanted to go, if she would let him. “I wanna walk to my cousin’s room. He’s in the ICU.”
Jeanie’s eyes widened. “Wow… well, that’s a lot farther than I usually have my patients go on the first day.”
“I can do it.” Kevin was adamant. “If you don’t wanna come with me now, I’ll just have my mom take me when we’re done.” His mother had been going back and forth between his room and Brian’s, offering support to her brother and sister-in-law as they stayed at their son’s bedside. She had kept Kevin updated on Brian’s condition; he knew his cousin was finally being weaned off the sedatives that had kept him in a coma for the past three days. Now they were all just anxiously waiting for him to regain consciousness. Kevin wanted to be there when he did.
Jeanie blinked. “Well, all right then. We’ll go to the ICU. But let me know if you get too tired along the way; we can always get you a wheelchair.”
“I’ll be fine,” he insisted, eager to keep moving.
“We need to go down a floor to get to the ICU,” she said, directing him toward the elevator at the end of the hall. By the time they reached it, his arms were already getting tired, but Kevin knew better than to complain. “How are you feeling?” Jeanie asked while they waited for the elevator to arrive.
“Fine,” he fibbed. Truthfully, his whole body was still sore from the accident and weak from lying in bed for the last few days, but he wasn’t going to admit it. He was determined to make it to Brian’s room.
The doors slid open with a ding, and he hauled himself inside. As they descended, he loosened his grip on the crutches and leaned against the wall, giving his arms a little break. Too soon, the elevator reached the next floor, and he repositioned his crutches to keep going.
“Are you sure you don’t want a wheelchair?” Jeanie pressed, as they passed an empty one sitting in the hallway.
The offer was tempting, but Kevin saw it as a sign of weakness and wanted to be strong for Brian. “Nope,” he replied, his arms screaming in pain as he pushed himself on. Each sign on the wall leading them to the ICU became a sort of milestone, another step forward on a long journey. When he finally passed through the doors of the unit, Kevin felt like he was on the last leg, both figuratively and literally.
As he crutched down the hall, focused only on finding Brian’s room, he heard a voice call out, “Hey, where you going, gimp?” He looked up to see AJ waving at him from a wheelchair, a few doors down the hall. Nick was next to him, hanging on to an IV pole and grinning.
Kevin had never been so glad to see the two of them. “Speak for yourself! What are you guys doing here?” he cried happily, hurrying toward them as fast as his crutches would carry him.
“Careful,” Jeanie warned as she jogged alongside him, still hanging on to his gait belt, but Kevin continued as if she hadn’t spoken.
“We came to see Brian,” said Nick, and AJ nodded.
“We couldn’t keep them away,” added Denise, who was pushing her son while Jane Carter walked with hers.
“How are y’all doin’?” Kevin asked as he stopped in front of them, his eyes panning over the two younger boys. Nick looked pale in his patterned hospital gown, one hand held protectively over his stomach. There was a thin tube running into one of his nostrils and an IV in his arm, tethering him to the pole he was wheeling with his other hand. AJ was wearing a bulky back brace and had an IV bag of his own, which was hanging from a shorter pole hooked to the back of his wheelchair. His legs didn’t move beneath the blanket that was draped over his lap.
Nick just shrugged, but AJ smiled. “Better - right, Jeanie?” he replied, raising his eyebrows at the physical therapist.
Kevin turned to look at her, surprised. “You two know each other?”
“We just met earlier today,” said Jeanie, smiling.
“She did a test on my legs, and I actually felt something - for the first time since the accident!” announced AJ, looking elated.
Kevin felt his heart lift with hope. “No kidding? That’s incredible, bro! Way to go!” he congratulated him, balancing on his good leg as he reached out to grasp AJ’s hand. The day just kept getting better and better. Now all they needed was for the fifth member of their group to be all right.
Denise wheeled AJ into Brian and Howie’s room first, followed by Kevin, Jeanie, Nick, and Jane. Kevin found his mother waiting inside with his Uncle Harold and Aunt Jackie, Brian’s parents. Howie’s mom and dad were on the other side of the room with their son. While Howie was awake and happy to see them, Brian was still unconscious, seemingly oblivious to the sudden flutter of activity around him.
As his family and friends all greeted one another, Jackie Littrell glanced up at Nick’s pale face and said, “You look like you could use a seat, sweetheart. Here… take mine.” She rose from the padded chair she had pulled up right next to Brian’s bed and ushered Nick into it. “Thank y’all so much for being here for Brian,” she added, tears sparkling in her blue eyes as she smiled at the others. “We’ll give you boys some time alone with him.” She patted Kevin on the shoulder as she went past him. The other parents took their cue and followed her out, leaving the five boys with the physical therapist.
Jeanie helped Kevin get comfortable in the recliner on Brian’s side of the room, so he could elevate his broken leg. “I’ll be right outside in the hall,” she said once he was settled. “Holler if you need me.”
AJ rolled himself further into the room, parking his wheelchair right between the two beds. “How you doing, D?” he asked Howie.
“Not bad,” replied Howie. His head was still wrapped in gauze, his right eye bruised and swollen, but he looked and sounded a lot better than he had the last time Kevin had seen him in the recovery room after surgery. “I still have headaches and some stiffness in my neck from the whiplash, but all things considered, I think I was pretty lucky. How about you guys?”
AJ repeated his good news, and Nick and Kevin each gave a brief progress report. “What about Brian?” Nick was the first to ask, his eyes focused on his best friend. “Has he woken up at all yet?”
“Hard to say,” answered Howie with a shrug. “His eyes have opened once or twice, just for a few seconds at a time, but he hasn’t really focused on anything or acted like he recognized anyone.”
Kevin frowned, not sure whether this was a good or bad sign. On one hand, the eye-opening suggested Brian wasn’t brain dead, which was a huge relief. But on the other hand, they still didn’t know how much brain damage Brian had sustained. He remembered his mother using the phrase “persistent vegetative state” as she filled him in on what Brian’s doctor had discussed with his parents. It was too soon to diagnose him with the condition, but Kevin knew it was a possibility if he came out of his coma without fully regaining consciousness.
“Yo, Bri,” he called softly, studying his cousin’s face. “Can you hear me, man? We got the whole group here.” He waited hopefully, watching for a positive sign, but there was no response. Lying motionless within a web of tubes and wires, Brian looked almost as lifeless as he had in the emergency room. But at least his color was better, less pallid than it had been before. He still had a breathing tube, but his heart was beating all by itself. Kevin watched its rhythm on the monitor above his bed, reassured by the sight of the line peaking regularly as it snaked across the screen. Yet his blood ran cold when he remembered how long it had been flat. Was he naive to think Brian could wake up with
no permanent disability after being without a heartbeat for more than an hour?
Kevin’s attention was drawn away from Brian when a woman with dark, curly hair came in through the open door. She was wearing cranberry-colored scrubs like the rest of the nurses, but after a moment of deja vu, he realized he recognized her. “Carol?”
Carol smiled. “Hi… Kevin, right? How are you?” She looked around the room, noticing Nick and AJ sitting on either side of Brian’s bed. “The band’s all back together, huh?”
“That’s right,” said Kevin, returning the smile. “What are you doing here? I thought you worked in the emergency room.”
She nodded. “I do, but a couple of nurses called in sick, so I’ve been floated up here for the day.”
“Wow. Paramedic… ER nurse… and now ICU? You really do it all, don’t you?”
Carol laughed. “When you put it that way, I guess I do.” She slipped between Kevin and Nick’s chairs to check on Brian. “It’s good to see you guys again,” she added, as she made a note on his chart.
“Is he getting any better?” Kevin asked, tipping his head toward his cousin.
“He’s stable,” said Carol, studying the monitor. “His numbers are right where we want them to be. We won’t know more until he wakes up.”
“When will that be?”
Leaning over the bed, Carol lifted each of Brian’s eyelids, one by one, and looked into his eyes. “His pupils are becoming more reactive to light, which is a good sign,” she said, as she lowered his lids. “He’s also responding to pain.”
“He’s in pain??” Nick blurted, his mouth dropping open in an expression of outrage. “Why aren’t you giving him pain medicine?!”
“No, I don’t mean that kind of pain,” Carol replied calmly. “Let me show you.”
She made a fist and rubbed her knuckles roughly over Brian’s breastbone. He writhed away in response, his brow creasing as a frown formed on his face, and pulled his arms up toward his chest as if to push her hands away. His eyelids fluttered, but didn’t fully open, and once Carol removed her hand, his body began to relax again, his hands falling back to his sides. The wrinkles in his forehead smoothed out as his face returned to its former blank expression.
“When I saw him the day of the accident, he wasn’t doing that. He wasn’t reacting at all,” said Carol. “The fact that he’s able to feel and respond to painful stimuli shows that his brain is still functioning on some level. That’s why we test for that. Otherwise, we’ve been keeping him comfortable.”
Kevin hated to see his cousin in any kind of pain, but he felt encouraged by Carol’s explanation. “Is there anything else we can do to help him wake up without hurting him?” he wondered.
“Talk to him,” she said simply. “Touch him. Squeeze his hand. Stroke his hair. Let him know you’re here. It may not help, but it won’t hurt.”
AJ rolled himself closer to Brian’s bed and reached for his right hand. “Hey, Rok,” he said, squeezing it in his. “Bone here. You ready to wake up, bro?”
On the other side of the bed, Nick laced his fingers through Brian’s. “C’mon, Frick,” he added, rubbing the back of Brian’s left hand with his thumb. “Quit bein’ lazy. Just open your eyes and look at me.”
AJ laughed at Nick’s words, but Kevin didn’t understand why. His recliner was too far away from the bed for him to reach out and touch Brian, but he kept his eyes focused on his cousin’s face, curious to see if he would respond to their voices. Without really thinking, he started softly singing, “We-e-e’ve been waiting so long, just can’t hold it back no more…”
To his astonishment, he saw Brian’s brow furrow again, and he abruptly stopped singing. “Did y’all see that??”
“Yeah… he doesn’t want you stealing his solo!” said AJ with a loud cackle. “Right, Rok? C’mon, dude, wake up and tell your cousin to knock it off!”
Brian’s eyelids fluttered. They all leaned forward, watching with anticipation. Nick and AJ clutched both of Brian’s hands, as Howie and Kevin whispered words of encouragement. “Come on, Brian… You can do it…”
They could tell he was listening. His eyebrows wiggled as he worked to lift his lids. Finally, his wispy lashes rose to reveal two slits of blue.
“That’s it, cous,” Kevin whispered through the lump that had risen in his throat when he found himself looking into those familiar eyes. Brian’s face became slightly blurred as his own eyes filled with tears.
Nick was beaming from ear to ear. “Welcome back, bro,” he said, gripping Brian’s hand tightly. As the other guys watched, Brian’s unfocused eyes suddenly found Nick’s and locked onto them like tractor beams. His fingers brushed against his best friend’s, giving Nick’s hand a weak squeeze back.
“Did you see what he did?!” Nick gasped. “He squeezed my hand! He knows who I am!”
They all nodded. Kevin was wiping away tears. Nurse Carol glanced up from her notes, smiling when she saw that Brian’s eyes were open. “Want me to go get his parents?” she asked.
“In a minute,” replied Kevin. “Let us talk to him first.” He couldn’t stand sitting back in the recliner, unable to reach Brian, so he lowered the footrest, found his crutches, and hauled himself painfully to his feet. He hobbled forward and stood by the head of Brian’s bed, balancing on his left leg. “Hey, Bri,” he said softly, brushing the hair back from Brian’s forehead the way his mother would have.
Brian frowned, a fog of confusion filling his eyes as they shifted slowly toward Kevin.
“You’re in the hospital,” Kevin continued, trying to clarify things for him. “Do you remember what happened? Blink once for yes or twice for no.”
After a pause, Brian’s eyes closed and opened again once… twice.
Kevin nodded, swallowing hard as the lump in his throat returned. “We were in an accident,” he said hoarsely, still stroking his cousin’s hair. “But Nick and AJ and Howie and me… we’re all right. And you’re gonna be all right, too.”
He looked around the room, fresh tears welling in his eyes as they took in the four faces of his bandmates, his brothers. Howie, whose good eye was gleaming with moisture. AJ, who was nodding as he grasped Brian’s hand. Nick, who couldn’t stop grinning. And Brian, who blinked again - just once this time - without taking his eyes off his cousin.
Kevin smiled down at him. “Yup,” he agreed, feeling more hopeful than he had in days. “The five of us are gonna be just fine.”