Strawberry

I would meet Strawberry because of a seizure. He was a Vietnam vet, working as a janitor on the night shift at St Cloud State University. He was also an alcoholic, and it is assumed he had a seizure related to alcohol withdrawal.

In essence, Strawberry wasn’t as drunk as he usually was, and his body freaked out, resulting in the seizure that almost killed him to death.

Withdrawal seizures occur in about 5% of detoxing patients. 90% of withdrawal seizures occur within the first forty-eight hours. The mortality rate of alcohol withdrawal is pretty low nowadays, maybe 2%, but really severe alcohol withdrawal can kill you to death.

I doubt Strawberry had much of a meaningful life prior to the seizure that would irreparably damage his brain, but he had no life afterwards. He would only exist. The person he had once been would disappear, never to be seen again.

Strawberry was mopping the floor of a long hallway at SCSU when his seizure hit. No one knows how long he had been seizing when he was found laying on the floor, but he was in convulsive status epilepticus, a very serious medical emergency.

Convulsive status epilepticus is a seizure lasting more than five minutes, or a series of seizures that occur essentially one on top of the other, with no time in between for the person to recover. This results in hypoxia, a decreased supply of oxygenated blood to body tissues.

Brain cells start dying when deprived of oxygen for about five minutes. As a result of lengthy seizure activity, Strawberry’s brain was deprived of oxygen for an unknown, but extended period of time.

Someone found Strawberry laying on the floor, and called 911. EMT’s probably administered IV Ativan to control the seizures. He was taken to the St Cloud Hospital, and eventually was transferred to the MVAMC, where we would meet.

He was short, and slight; about the same size as me. Light brown hair, brown eyes. I think he had a mustache. He was six or seven years older than me. We probably had a lots of stuff in common.

I would be his nurse for at least the next six months or more.

* * * *

Strawberry was the most cognitively impaired person I’ve ever known. He could walk independently, but that was just about the extent of his skills. He needed help getting dressed. He could take his clothes off all by himself, and he did so semi-frequently.

He would eat if you put food in front of him. If you sat him down on a toilet, he’d poop and pee. He could speak, but he couldn’t converse. He’d randomly utter a word or words, maybe a complete sentence, but he couldn’t say where he was, how old he was, or even his name.

I started calling him Strawberry because he seemed to like the name, and he tended to be more cooperative when I asked Strawberry to do something, as opposed to John. That was his real name.

John...  No response.

Don’t like that name? How about Fritz? Nothing.

Yo, Strawberry…

Yeah.

You like that name? Strawberry?

Strawberry.

That’s how that got happened.

* * * *

For you cinematic aficionados, Strawberry was a character in Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke. He was Cheech’s buddy, a Vietnam vet with one bitch of a case of PTSD.

That’s where my inspiration for John’s nickname came from. He was also a Vietnam vet, and more than likely also had a bitch of a case of PTSD. There was probably more than one reason why he drank as much as he did.

At least one of the nurses I worked with wondered why I didn’t call John by his real name.

“He doesn’t know who is anymore. And he seems to like the name.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you can call him whatever you want.”

“He doesn’t seem to mind.”

“John. John!” the other nurse said. John didn’t respond. “Hey, Strawberry!”

“Yeah.” Strawberry/John replied, probably randomly. He may have even looked at the other nurse.

“Wow. That’s really weird.”

“See? I told you.”

* * * *

I don’t think Strawberry had a seizure disorder before he had the seizure that would change his life forever, but he had one afterwards. We ended up buying him a magic helmet to keep him from splitting his skull open the next time he had a seizure.

It was your basic protective headgear, made of firm molded foam. But it was as magical as Siegfried’s Tarnhelm to me. It kept Strawberry as safe as humanly possible, as long as he kept it on.

Aside from major concerns about his safety, Strawberry wasn’t that difficult of a patient, most of the time. The hardest part of his care was getting him to cooperate with whatever it was we wanted him to do.

If you handed him a toothbrush, sometimes he brushed his teeth, sometimes he’d put it in his pocket. Sometimes he tried to put it in your pocket.

He wasn’t combative, but he could be very uncooperative and resistant to care. I came out of Strawberry’s room more than once with Strawberry clinging to one of my legs. It was easier than trying to wrestle with him, and overly strenuous resistance from Strawberry almost always triggered a seizure.

Actually, it didn’t take much to trigger seizure activity in Strawberry. He had a lots of seizures, despite the medications we gave him to control his seizures.

One day Strawberry came out of his room and headed down the hallway. When he didn’t return in a few minutes, I went looking for him, but he couldn’t be found. I asked my buddy Paul Anderson to help me find him.

We found him Carl’s shower. Carl was a frequent flyer, an old bipolar guy. Carl told us Helmet Boy was in his shower. Carl put him there when he started having a seizure.

“I turned the cold water on. I thought it’d do him some good.”

* * * *

I called Strawberry’s family to let them know he was in the hospital. He had a daughter. She was an ER nurse at Regions Hospital in St Paul. I can’t remember her name, but she was an attractive young woman.

Strawberry tried to take her clothes off the one and only time she came to visit. He had no idea who she was, and she left in tears.

His brother visited several times. Strawberry gave no indication he knew his brother, either.

“How long is he going to be like this. He’s going to get better, right?”

“No. He’s not going to get any better. He’s going to be like this for the rest of his life. He’ll never be able to live independently again. He needs twenty-four hour supervision.”

“Hey, John. It’s me, Scott! Wow, he acts like he doesn’t know who I am.”

“It’s not an act.”

It took three or four visits before reality finally set in for Scott. His brother was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. Scott eventually stopped visiting, too.

* * * *

It was my birthday. My shift was just about over. I was reviewing my notes when Strawberry walked out of his room and headed down the hallway. There was something weird about the way he came out. He almost looked like he knew what he was doing.

I probably sighed. It was my birthday. I’m pretty sure I was planning on going out for drinks and stuff with my lovely supermodel wife and some of my co-workers. The last thing I wanted to do was work right about then, but I went down the hallway to see what Strawberry was up to.

I found him about halfway down the hallway. He held a turd in his hands that was probably ten inches long.

I’ve tried to figure out how the hell he did that more than once. He was fully dressed when I found him, and he wasn’t out of my sight for more than five minutes. And that turd was a whopper, it took two hands to handle that sucker.

And then I had a dilemma. How the fuck was I going to get that thing away from him without both of us wearing it?

“Come on, Strawberry. Let’s go to the bathroom.” He came willingly, and I stood him in front of the toilet. But I couldn’t get Strawberry to understand what I wanted him to do. I pantomimed throwing stuff into the toilet, then I decided to have a little funeral service, much like you’d have for a pet goldfish.

“Dearly beloved, were gathered here today to say goodbye to this…turd. As far as turds go, it was a fine turd, one of the best turds ever, probably. But as in all things in this world, it’s time to say goodbye to this one, and let it complete its journey to the sewer system. So, with a heavy heart, and smelly hands, we bid thee farewell, O best of turds.”

I threw a crumpled wad of toilet paper in the toilet, and motioned to Strawberry to do the same. But that seemed to be more than Strawberry could do. He turned toward me. I don’t know if he wanted me to do the honors, or if he wanted to put it in my pocket.

Either way, I wasn’t going to let him complete that handoff. I grabbed Strawberry’s wrists and yelled for

“HELP!!!”

And the weirdest wrestling match in the history of the world ensued. A whole lots of nurses came running, then ran out to get gloves. I pulled Strawberry into his shower, which was, thankfully, huge. And that was a good thing because there were six nurses, one patient and a ten inch turd in it.

One of the nurses connected a showerhead and turned the water on. In a matter of moments we were all drenched with water and fecal matter.

We got Strawberry cleaned up and dressed again. If I could have burned my clothes before leaving the unit, I would’ve done it in a heartbeat, but it was December in Minnesota, and it was barely 20° that day.

I think my clothes froze walking through the parking lot to my car. I couldn’t get the smell of shit out of my noseholes. And there was a reason for that. I was literally wearing liquid poop.

I threw the clothes I was wearing in the garbage when I got home, and took one of the longest showers I’ve ever taken, and everything still smelled like crap.

I have no doubt I ended up getting totally drunk that night.

* * * *

I’m not sure how much longer Strawberry stayed on my unit after my birthday. It seemed like forever. Our biggest issue with him was placement, and there were very few facilities that were willing to take patients like him. In fact, there was only one.

Ah Gwah Ching was a state hospital way up near Walker, MN, originally built to treat people with tuberculosis. It eventually became the last stop for people like Strawberry, patients with challenging behaviors. It’s Minnesota’s version of the Hotel California. You can’t check out of The Ching. Death is the only way out.

I gave report to one of the nurses there. They said they’d discuss his case and get back to us. I know I couldn’t believe it when he was accepted. I packed up Strawberry and all of his worldly belongings and sent him off to Ah Gwah Ching.

He may still be there, but for his sake, I hope he isn’t.

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