Here’s the thing about being rushed to the hospital on a backboard and neck brace, covered in blood: It’ll change your perspective on what’s important.
On Aug. 26, I had just hailed a taxicab with a friend headed to gay night at Camden Yards in Baltimore to watch the Orioles close in on the AL East crown, when another driver ran a red light at full speed. We didn’t have time to fasten our seatbelts. He T-boned us, sending the sturdy Crown Vic over a curb, through a lamppost and ultimately into a rowhouse where we smashed through ground floor windows before finally coming to a stop.
My friend, the driver and I all walked away from the car. Looking back at photos of the wreckage, it’s miraculous that no one was killed. The cab driver had the benefit of airbags and suffered cuts to his face; my friend suffered a broken thumb and bruised ribs. It turns out while I was fine from the neck down, my face took the brunt of the crash. (I hesitate to use the word “accident,” because when you drive in a distracted manner at full speed and sail through red lights, what do you expect will happen?)
Shock and adrenaline kicked in immediately after the crash, as my initial thought was: We’re gonna need a new cab. Then something dripped into my eye and when I wiped my face, it dawned on me that I was bleeding profusely.
I broke several bones in my face, including the orbital around the left eye, and sustained a slew of deep cuts to my face that required so many stitches the ER doctors “lost count.”
Strapped to a stretcher, I was rushed to the ER as hospital officials greeted me with a slew of questions: “Are you married?” “Do you have an advance medical directive?”
I’m embarrassed to say the answer to both was “no,” despite a nearly 17-year relationship with my partner. We always seemed to have an excuse for putting off getting those affairs in order. When you’re healthy and (relatively) young, it’s so easy to procrastinate such things. Over the years, I’ve written about countless gay couples that found themselves in financially desperate situations after illness or accident because they weren’t married or lacked a medical directive. I’ve editorialized about the importance of marriage and other protections for LGBT people yet never got around to taking care of it for myself.
Lying there immobile and awaiting CT scans and X-rays with hospital staff buzzing frantically around, I felt like a hypocrite and worried about what would happen to my partner and family if I should die.
Two weeks later, doctors determined that I needed surgery to implant a titanium plate in my head to realign the bones. One of the broken bones severed a nerve, leaving me with no feeling on the left side of my face; my doctor gave me a 75 percent chance of regaining feeling there within nine to 12 months. And faced with hours of general anesthesia, more facial trauma and another long period of recovery, those mortality issues came rushing back. Upon check-in at the hospital, those same questions about marriage and advance directives were again asked.
I’m fortunate to have had terrific care at Sinai Hospital, a supportive partner, parents, siblings and friends. After a five-week ordeal, I’m on the mend, though facing much uncertainty about long-term vision problems and the potentially permanent nerve damage, as well as facial scars. But the scars don’t bother me. I’m grateful to be alive, to be able to walk and to have my vision. And I’m grateful for a second chance at so many things, including taking a more responsible approach to mortality and long-term financial planning.
Last weekend, my partner and I were married. We’d spent more than a year debating the details of the ceremony, the reception, guest list — all the details that seem so important on that all-important day.
In the end, we realized our wedding risked becoming more about those materialistic considerations and the expectations of others than about what we really wanted. And so, on Sept. 26 — exactly one month after the crash — we met the clerk of the peace on a quiet stretch of Rehoboth Beach under a flawless fall sky and exchanged simple vows, the bit about “in sickness and in health” carrying a special and deeper new meaning. It wasn’t the wedding of most couples’ dreams — we were barefoot and I wore sunglasses to conceal the extensive bruising around my eye — yet there was perfection in the simplicity of the setting and an overwhelming sense of gratitude to finally join an institution we’d been excluded from for so long. There was no guest list. No fancy reception or band or cake or any of those usual trappings. Just two people on a quiet beach committing to a life together.
“Marriage is a bond between two people who have pledged to love each other, trust each other, and face life together,” said the Sussex County clerk of the peace, John Brady. “There is no relationship that is stronger, yet more delicate, than the bonds of marriage.”
So we’re facing life together with a fresh point of view — and working on that advance medical directive. Take it from me: You’re not invincible or immune to life’s curve balls. There’s no guarantee that the hospital staff will recognize your partner as next of kin. Do all you can to protect yourself and loved ones now; it’ll save you a lot of added guilt and stress in the ER.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.