June 17, 2008

June 17, 2010

(Strokes, if treated within an hour or so, can easily be survived. It was over six hours before Mariah was able to reach any professional medical care, and nearly two days before an accurate diagnosis would be made. Ironically, of all the medical professionals involved in the first 48 hours of her ordeal, only one suggested the correct diagnosis. Only Mariah figured out what was wrong, and she wasn’t in charge.)

Two years ago on Tuesday evening, June 17, Diana and I were in our living room in Newton, Massachusetts. We were watching the Celtics on TV as they fought in the deciding game for the 2008 NBA championship game against the Lakers.

It was late when the phone rang in the next room. Irritated at the interruption and keeping an eye on the TV,  I took the call. It was Mariah’s best friend, Suzanna Strasburg (now Fitzpatrick). Distracted, I asked what was up. Then I heard worry in her voice as she said, “I got a call from the tour group in Peru. Mariah’s had an accident.”

In the beat of a heart there was no game and no sound but Suzanna’s voice. My stomach plunged and I saw Mariah slipping from the side of the mountain. Before she could fall, I heard my quavering voice ask, “What happened?”

“Mariah had a stroke.”

Unable to make any sense of the message, my racing mind tried to fit it together with a fall. “What?” I asked, thinking, “But, but what about the fall? How could a fall..? A stroke? Mariah had a stroke?”

“She had a stroke, but it’s a very mild one. They think she’ll recover almost 100%.”

Panic made room for disbelief. Stomach churning I put my hand over the mouthpiece and looked into the living room at Diana watching the game. I gestured wildly to get her attention. When our eyes met, pleading I said, “Mariah had a stroke. She had a stroke!!”

Diana rushed to my side and handed me a pad and paper. Suzanna gave me contact info for the hospital, doctor and tour operator’s office all in Lima, Peru, as well as the phone number of the insurance company that covers Army personnel. Hand shaking, I tried to write carefully knowing this information was the only link to my poor daughter thousands of miles away.

I thanked Suzanna. She said, “They said she’ll be ok. I’m so sorry, Mark.” I didn’t know that would be  the first of thousands of expressions of sympathy over the next two years.

Making international calls always stumps me, but I finally got the dialing prefixes right. I don’t speak Spanish, and at that hour, the hospital staff didn’t speak English. The doctor wasn’t available, but the tour group representative in Peru answered and spoke English. He reiterated what Suzanna had said, that the stroke appeared to be very mild.

When the calls ended, I paced the room in shock asking over and over, “How could this happen? She’s a kid. A stroke?”

Diana was back on the sofa with her laptop, looking up flights to Lima. She called Continental and explained the situation. The sympathetic ticket agent offered a reduced emergency fare, about $800, for a flight the next morning. “When do you think you’re going to come back?” Diana asked me.

I couldn’t focus, couldn’t find an answer to the question. Somehow I  recalled a flight to Florida the next Sunday for my work’s annual meeting. “Sunday,” I said.

With flight arrangements connecting through New Jersey and arriving in Lima late Wednesday night, I called the tour group rep back. He said he’d have a driver at the airport in Lima and would make reservations at a hotel near the hospital for me. He said the hospital ICU would be closed at that hour, but offered to pick me up at the hotel early Thursday morning to accompany me to where Mariah was being cared for.

Shaking and numb, I thanked him and rang off. Still unable to focus, the idea of packing for an emergency international flight was completely beyond me. Diana helped me upstairs where I moved slowly, robot-like in a daze of terror and disbelief to pack for the next day’s journey. I tried but couldn’t even imagine what might lay ahead.

– Mark


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