Sunday, June 04, 2006


Wake up...
I slowly became aware of hands shaking my shoulders as I began to come out of a heavy sleep.
The shaking grew more urgent.
Please, Tommy...wake up.
I opened my eyes to see my wife sitting at the edge of the bed, leaning over me with a worried look on her face. I had been home babysitting our 3-year old son while she had left several hours earlier to perform with a local theater group downtown. "What's the matter?" I asked, still a little groggy. "How was the show?"
Something's wrong...I can't breathe.
* * * * * * * *
I quickly sat up in bed and got the full story. Liz had skipped dinner before heading to the theater and ate some food that had been placed offstage for the cast just before the show began. She felt her lips, mouth, and throat begin to swell up, and had immediately recognized the symptoms of an allergic reaction. During intermission she repeatedly used her asthma inhaler and took some Benadryl that another cast member had offered. She felt a little better but decided to skip the cast party and instead began to head straight home. While driving on the expressway to our house, her condition took a sudden turn for the worse.

I tried to calm her down and set up a nebulizer machine with a mask that fit over her mouth to force the asthma medicine down into her lungs with compressed air. After several minutes her condition didn't seem to improve, so we began to get ready to go to the nearby hospital. She went downstairs to get her purse and search for a stronger inhaler with steroids, while I pulled on some jeans and carried Brendan from his bedroom. I had just reached the front door when I heard the engine of our car begin to roar furiously at full throttle from the parking lot outside.

I hurried past the other apartments and approached the open driver's side door. "Jesus, Liz. You're going to wake the whole neighbor--"
My words cut off as I looked down to see Elizabeth unconcious behind the steering wheel, her foot locked into position as it continued to push the gas pedal all the way to the floor. Brendan's hands pressed against his ears as I set him down beside the car. I reached in to turn off the engine and lifted Liz out of the seat so I could place her flat on the ground. I tried doing mouth-to-mouth but could see that my breaths were not reaching her lungs at all.

We lived about two miles from Chestnut Hill Hospital, which lay on the other side of Fairmount Park and could be reached by a single road that wound down to the bottom of the Wissahickon Gorge and climbed back up to Germantown Avenue on the other side. I quickly decided that driving her there would be much faster than waiting for an ambulance to reach us at this time of night. I strapped Brendan into his car seat and laid Liz out across the rear wheel wells of the compact 2-door car that we owned at the time. I took off through the park, steering with one hand and reaching behind me with the other to shake her as I called out her name. Brendan looked down and asked "Mommy, are you sleeping?" I told him that mommy was sick and that we were going to the doctor's to make her all better.

Right about that time I took a curve too fast and our car drifted off of the road. The driver's side front wheel slammed against a large rock and blew out. We were near the top of the hill on the other side of the park and just about a mile from the hospital. I threw the car in reverse and drove back onto the road. As we turned onto the main street leading to the hospital, the rubber tire came completely off of the axle. I continued to drive forward and could see sparks flying up past my windshield as the steel rim cut into the asphalt. The steering wheel kept pulling hard over to the left but I pressed down even harder on the accelerator, not caring if the car flew apart so long as it got her to the hospital in time.

* * * * * * * *
We pulled up to the ER less than a minute later. I ran inside and shouted for help. I went back to the car to lift Liz out and was met halfway by an orderly with a stretcher, which was immediately surrounded by several nurses and a doctor. They quickly pushed her through a set of security doors separating the treatment area from the waiting room, and from that point on she was out of my sight. A nurse explained that no one was permitted back there while the doctors treated her, and she led us to a private family waiting room with several chairs and a small bed. She promised to give me updates as soon as they knew anything. I dimmed the lights and tucked Brendan under the covers, climbing into bed next to him to wait until he fell asleep. I looked up at a clock to get my bearings and saw that it was just past one o'clock in the morning. The room became still as I lay beside my son, but no matter how hard I shut my eyes, I couldn't block out the sound of a screaming engine from piercing the silence.