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Sleep Attack: A Cautionary Tale 

by Naomi Cavalier

It was as if I had ritualistically prepared for the accident. That morning I had shaved my legs which I'd been meaning to do for weeks. My hair was clean. So was my underwear. The previous weekend I had moved two bureaus away from the wall to wipe off the accumulation of dust behind them, just what I might do if I expected someone to peer behind the bureaus to see what kind of housekeeper I was.

The day of the accident was warm and sunny. My car windows were down as I drove the hills of Berkeley, California on my way home to nearby Walnut Creek from my writer's group meeting at a member's house. A haze hovered over hills bleached almost white by drought and sun. Lake Anza lay far below like an ink blot. Despite the demands of the narrow, winding road bordering the edge of the heights, sleepiness made brief forays into my concentration: a sensation neither unfamiliar nor threatening. I'd been drowsy before behind the wheel but had never had a problem staying awake. Sounds contradictory, I know, but falling asleep while driving was something I simply didn't do. It was something other people might do. Not me. Sleepy or not, I had driven for more than forty years without an accident. Like someone sexually promiscuous who has lost the connection between promiscuity and disease, I had lost the connection between sleepiness and falling asleep while driving.

As I left the Berkeley hills and eased into eastbound traffic on Freeway 24, frequent yawns signaled my growing drowsiness. The prospect of catnapping in my favorite chair only half an hour away loomed large, like the promise of a good meal to the hungry. Traffic was light. I could almost drive on automatic pilot. Just before I reached my freeway exit at Pleasant Hill Road, fifteen minutes from where I had entered the freeway, my eyelids started to droop. I blinked hard and they lifted as if they had missed their cue. I could hardly wait to get home to my favorite chair.

Looking back, I say to myself: Complacent idiot. Had your head been screwed on right you would have taken any one of several easy steps to safety, such as pulling off the road for a quick doze or turning up the air-conditioner to chill yourself awake or driving a fingernail into a thigh to set yourself ajangle. But no. At the time, all you could think of was: maybe you needed more than a catnap when you reached home, maybe you needed a serious lie-down. Little did you suspect how serious that lie-down would be.

About a mile from my freeway exit, Pleasant Hill Road divides into Geary and Taylor Roads. I take Geary which is close to my home. I was on Geary driving the speed limit (35 miles an hour) when it happened. The curtain of sleep dropped of its own volition and the world vanished (even as I write this, I gasp). No more than a second or two later I was jolted awake by the impact of my car, a Honda Accord, slamming into a fire hydrant alongside the road. A geyser of water erupted from the hydrant as the car veered and crashed into a telephone pole.

The front of the car was crushed like a balled-up piece of aluminum foil and the shatterproof windshield was shattered. A seat belt helped to protect me from the impact, but my body, normally in pretty good shape for a 72 year old woman, was twisted and thrown hard against the steering wheel striking my right breast. Although I remained conscious and felt no pain (that would come later), I knew I was hurt.

A witness called paramedics on her car phone. They arrived quickly, strapped me onto a stretcher and gently put my head into a kind of metal halo to keep it stationary. As the ambulance got underway, I was aware of the paramedic beside me making casual conversation to divert me, I assumed, from the crash. Even in my dazed state, I appreciated his kindness. Suddenly, my right breast began to sting. I told this to the paramedic who immediately stopped talking, took a pair of scissors from a specially designed pocket in his uniform and cut the blouse off of that side of my chest. My breast was rising like baking bread. Looking worried, he pressed a stethoscope to the area.

Ordinarily, a doctor's forehead has only to furrow while examining me to make me nervous. Actually, a doctor's forehead doesn't even have to furrow while examining me to make me nervous. All she has to do is to appear in the examination room and I react as if she were hiding a gun pointed at me (a type of anxiety common enough to warrant a name, "white coatitis," but I've got it so badly I could be its poster person).

I was calm; however, while the paramedic listened to my chest sounds and remained calm as I wondered if his concerned expression suggested that I had punctured a lung or done something equally terrible to myself. Like a dental patient under local anesthesia during a root canal, I knew an awful thing was happening but I scarcely felt it. Later I learned that shock, mercifully if temporarily, had filled me with a kind of sludge that had dulled my reaction to everything including pain.

"Lung sounds are good," the paramedic said to the ambulance driver, "Let's go NOW."

The ambulance siren seemed to part the traffic as effectively as Moses did the Red Sea. Within minutes we were at the Trauma Center at John Muir Hospital several miles from where the accident had occurred.

I was wheeled into the Center and put onto a gurney in the emergency room. Medical personnel fluttered around me like paparazzi around a celebrity, hooking me up to an array of Rube Goldberg-like machines that would test my entire body for injuries. While an orderly removed my jewelry including only one earring (I had lost the other in the accident), the doctor examining me asked if I remembered my address and telephone number. He was testing I suppose, for brain damage. Luckily, I remembered both (under ideal circumstances I sometimes forget, which I choose to regard as normal for my age). Then he asked if I knew what had caused the accident.

"I fell asleep," I said, scarcely able to believe it myself but having no other clue as to what had happened.

"Did you have on a restraint?" the doctor asked.

"What do you mean, a restraint?"

"A seat belt. Did you have on a seat belt?"

"Yes."

"You're one lucky lady," he said, "it probably saved your life. But airbags would have reduced your injuries."

By then he might as well have been talking to himself. Bodily payment for the accident was coming due. Shock was wearing off. Pain was gathering force like a tsunami approaching shore.

In the past, while awaiting my annual mammogram in the x-ray department of Kaiser-Permanente, where I am a member, I have averted my eyes from patients on gurneys or in wheelchairs who were brought to x-ray for the inside story on their ailments. I didn't want them to think I was pitying them (although I was) nor did I want them to remind me of the awful vulnerability we shared (although they did).

While I lay on a gurney in the hospital corridor waiting for an elevator to take me to the room where I was to spend the next three days, nearby visitors glanced at me and looked away probably for the same reasons I had looked away at Kaiser. They needn't have bothered. I cared not at all what they thought. They could have wished me dead and it wouldn't have mattered. All that mattered was what had happened to my battered body and its as yet unknown consequences.

I have always cared, often too much, about the impression I make on others. Lying there helplessly on the gurney, I realized what little difference those impressions actually make, and for a moment wondered if the x-ray patients at Kaiser felt the same way.

Since falling asleep behind the wheel is often a fatal accident, the doctor who examined me was right. I was remarkably lucky. I had neither broken bones nor severe internal injuries, but bruises the color of oil slicks mottled my body and hematomas (swellings filled with blood), the worst in my right breast, had dramatically changed the topography of my body. The breast had swelled from its normal size: 34B to approximately 42B in purple. My right leg was puffed up as well. The doctor said I was going to be fine but God how I hurt!

A few months and many physical therapy sessions later, I was at home but still a long way from comfortable when I received another blow: a notice from my automobile insurance agency that my premiums had taken a quantum leap (I wasn't surprised they had gone up, but so high?). To add further insult to injuries, a few weeks later I received yet another blow: a notice from the city of Walnut Creek that I owed ten thousand dollars for damages to the telephone pole and to the fire hydrant I had hit while under the influence of sleep.

As a brand-new perpetrator of self-inflicted car accidents, I hadn't considered the cost of damage to city property, only to myself and to my car. So my shock at the size of the bill was compounded by my shock at having received it in the first place: a triple whammy, indeed, considering that I was still in shock from the twelve thousand dollar hospital bill to repair me.

Although the accident hadn't injured me seriously, my shock at the size of those bills nearly did. I know it could have been worse. But were it not for insurance covering the bulk of the expenses, I might have been deluged by the financial avalanche that fell on me.

Thus ends my cautionary tale.When I drive (which was as hard to resume as getting back on the horse after you've fallen off), the memory of the crash rides shotgun beside me reminding me that although one yawn does not necessarily an accident make, ignoring that yawn may be as risky as ignoring the orange road sign that says: Danger Ahead. To which I add: Amen.

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