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Nightmare on 17th Street:
How One Man's Life Changed on Halloween Night
By Kathleen Mahony
At 29, Mike Morrissey led a life that would make many men his age envious. He lived in an apartment with two good friends in the heart of San Francisco, the city he loved. His job as an editor at IGN. com, a computer game web site, required him to play the latest video games. Weekends were spent enjoying pints with friends at the Dubliner, debating which restaurant to try next, and searching for rare albums at Streetlight Records on 24th Street.
Now life is different. Morrissey lives with his family in Indiana and relies on his mom and dad to assist him in daily tasks such as showering and dressing. Weekdays are spent attending occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Morrissey may have to wait a year to enjoy his next beer. Leaning over his plate is a challenge. Walking half a mile is tiring. The life he knew seems very far away.
October 31, 1999, changed Morrissey's life. It was an Indian Summer night. He took a taxi to a party near the Castro, at 17th and Prospect streets. Sounds of laughter and music filled the air. Morrissey stepped out of the taxi on the curbside and walked behind the cab to cross the street. He headed toward the prom queens and Count Draculas who crowded the sidewalk outside the Victorian flat. Then, just steps away from the curb, Morrissey was hit by an oncoming car.
The Explorer first hit Morrissey on the right hip, shattering his bones. The impact propelled him into the air. Morrissey landed on the hood of the car before he was thrown to the ground. The music stopped. The crowd was silent. Eyeglasses from his Roger Ebert costume lay broken in the street. A bloodstain from his head injury marked the pavement where he lay unconscious.
The collision shook Morrissey's brain inside his skull. His blood vessels were broken and bleeding. His brain was so severely injured it shut down. Morrissey was nearly dead.
When the ambulance crew arrived, they pushed a breathing tube down Morrissey's throat, but they got no wince, no movement, nothing. His eyes did not respond to light.
At the hospital, doctors were uncertain if he would make it through the night. But Morrissey survived 21 days in a coma and endured five months of inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation. He now faces anywhere from three months to a year and a half more of therapy.
"It's shown me just how precious life is and that it really can all be taken away in just half a second," Morrissey says.
* * *
Morrissey doesn't remember the 30 days he spent at San Francisco General Hospital, days that family in Indiana and friends everywhere will never forget.
Morrissey's family came to know the waiting room intimately, but not as intimately as the fourth floor, which housed the intensive-care unit. This is where Morrissey spent 24 days.
Beyond the curtain, machines and equipment kept Morrissey alive. Beeps and what sounded like a pump used on bike tires filled the room. Tubes needed to sustain his normal bodily functions surrounded him like a spider web. A teddy bear in a pinstriped baseball uniform peered down at Morrissey from the traction device that held his right leg up in the air. Hip surgery would need to wait until he was no longer in critical condition.
"I'd never seen anything to that extent before -- the ventilator, the traction device, all the tubes -- it was a pretty eerie sight," said Morrissey's dad.
Morrissey's head was swollen, the right side shaved to reveal a deep gouge in the shape of a U, extending the length of his head. It was closed with staples. This is where doctors had cut into Morrissey's skull to evacuate the blood clot that was pushing on his brain. He had a few scrapes on his knuckles and one on his nose from being thrown 25 feet down the street.
Inside Morrissey's head, the parts of his brain responsible for processing information, memory, and comprehension had been severely injured. Following the brain surgery, doctors were uncertain of the extent of the damage. Morrissey could wake up paralyzed, suffer from seizures, or remain in a vegetative state.
Doctors warned against holding Morrissey's hand. The stimulation could cause his brain to swell, preventing the flow of oxygen. Friends found it difficult to fight back the tears. The week following the accident, Morrissey's dad kept a 24-hour vigil, leaving the hospital only to shower and change clothes.
Seventeen days after the accident, Morrissey was still in a coma. But doctors could wait no longer to fix his shattered right hip. It was necessary for Morrissey to endure one more surgery. Monitoring the pressure in his brain during the surgery was critical. If it got too high, Morrissey could sustain further damage to his brain. Two large curved incisions, 3.5 lost liters of blood, and seven hours later, the repair was complete.
Near the end of November, visitors began to see Morrissey's brown eyes open and two fingers raise. Friends felt hopeful and excited. He soon reached out to hold a hand or crack his knuckles on the bed rail. Sometimes he yawned, though his eyes were closed. This was the "waking-up stage."
The first time Morrissey spoke was 27 days after the accident. His voice was raspy, his words spoken slowly.
"The nurse had him sitting up in a chair, and he looked at me and said, 'What's goin' on?' When we asked him if he knew where he was, he responded, 'In the hospital.' That was it, but I knew then he would make it," said Morrissey's dad. The few words spoken by his only child brought feelings of amazement and joy.
* * *
On Nov. 30, 1999, Morrissey was moved to Kentfield Rehabilitation Center in Marin County, to begin his battle against lasting physical and mental impairments. Morrissey could not talk, walk, or eat. He needed two people to help him sit up, brush his teeth, and get dressed. A month after the accident, Morrissey was more awake, but he was confused. He thought it was 1998. His hands had to be kept in big padded mittens, like potholders, to prevent him from ripping the feeding tube out of his nose. When Morrissey was not in therapy, he was in a bed that had four net walls. When visitors departed, it had to be zipped closed, in case Morrissey forgot he couldn't stand up on his own.
Soon he was allowed to eat soft food. He wanted pizza. A sign was posted above his bed warning visitors to leave no food unattended. His inability to swallow could cause choking.
Morrissey was in a whole new world, one where pizza wasn't an option.
He was full of smiles, but he couldn't initiate a conversation. An afternoon nap had become a necessary part of his day. Standing for seven minutes was a great accomplishment, as was scooting across the floor. Eventually he could talk to family members in Indiana, but often the phone was difficult to hold and he would drop it. He wanted to celebrate his 30th birthday on New Year's Day with friends in Indiana. He gave out his cell number, forgetting his cell phone was destroyed in the accident.
Fifty-two days after the accident, Morrissey was machine-free and strong enough to push himself in a wheelchair. The chair was like a car, releasing him from the confines of bed. Morrissey tried to do a "wheelie" in his room. That got him a sitter for the hours he was not in therapy.
Seventy-seven days after the accident, Morrissey flew with his dad back to Indiana. It was at a rehabilitation hospital in Fort Wayne that Morrissey had his best day in two and a half months. "I was able to walk without anything for the first time," he recalled. "It was so nice to be on my own two feet. It gave me a sense of freedom for the first time in a long time."
On Feb. 15, 2000, 108 days after the accident, Morrissey got to go home to his family. But home was different than what he knew last. He didn't go to work, but continued his rehabilitation as an outpatient. A family member needed to supervise him at all times. "It's like I am 5 years old again," Morrissey said. "I miss my independence. I'm tired of counting on other people all the time."
* * *
Six months later, Morrissey is now able to eat pizza, but he needs regular reminders to lean over his plate. He is able to walk with a cane, but balance and coordination are difficult, and sometimes he falls. He can stand up on his own, but needs help getting in and out of the shower.
But the roughest part for both him and his parents is that Morrissey's short-term memory seems to be erased on a daily basis. Reminders to brush his teeth and shave are given every day. Morrissey asks what day of the week it is several times a day. He requests a friend's phone number five times within two days.
"I think sometimes I get more frustrated and upset than he does," says Morrissey's dad. "We go through the exact same situation every day."
The injury to Morrissey's brain has also affected his social behavior. Morrissey might use the "F" word in front of his grandmother, or talk in a loud voice while seeing a movie at the theater. Friends notice he has lost some of his assertiveness, and approaches life with wide eyes. His attention span is short. He finds it hard to stay interested in the TV or a video game.
One thing that hasn't changed is Morrissey's positive attitude toward life. "There are no days that I want to give up, or that I feel an overwhelming sense of doom and gloom," he says. "I know therapy will help me to get back to my friends and life in San Francisco."
He looks forward to going out to dinner at Firefly and meeting his friends at the Dubliner on Friday nights. Or just hanging out at home with his roommates and watching '80s movies on TV.
Mike Morrissey still has a cubicle at IGN.com. His bedroom on Alabama Street is as he left it on Oct. 31, 1999. This is where his cat, Moe, still sleeps at night. His friends are not sure when or if he will be able to return to San Francisco. But his roommates still have his voice on their answering machine.
To reach Mike Morrissey, and parents Mike and Pam Morrissey, email mikiem @pacbell.net. To contact writer Kathleen Mahony, who is also a friend of the family, email firstname.lastname@example.org.