I spent the first few hours of 2008 floating in a drug-induced haze. I have only vague memories of being moved from the emergency room to the intensive care unit. When I think back, it’s mostly sights and sounds I remember: the bright lights on the ceiling, the soft whirring of the CT scanner, the loud buzzing and banging of the MRI machine, the constant beeping of the monitors around my hospital bed. But I couldn’t forget about Kristin.
I kept picturing her face in my mind, trying to replace my last image of her lying lifeless on a gurney with the way she had looked hours earlier, her brown eyes sparkling with laughter as she danced in her gold dress. It was hard to wrap my head around the realization that I would never see my wife again. The rational part of me understood that she was gone, but the emotional part was still trying to process everything that had happened since we had rung in the new year, kissing as the clock struck midnight. I wished I could go back to that moment and live in it forever, or at least change what had happened afterward.
But there was no going back and no moving forward. I felt frozen in time, trapped inside my broken body. Nurses bustled around my bed, monitoring my breathing and blood pressure, pumping me full of medication, and making it almost impossible for me to sleep. I could have used a pair of noise-canceling headphones to block out the constant beeping of the heart monitor, the hiss of air flowing through the mask they’d put on my face to help me breathe better, and the hum of the blood pressure cuff inflating around my arm every few minutes. I was tired and had a pounding headache, but I couldn’t get comfortable lying flat on my back with the hard cervical collar around my neck.
I closed my eyes anyway and tried to pretend I was in my old bunk on the tour bus, listening to the engine rumble as the tires rolled over the road. The cool breeze I felt on my face would be coming from the window, which I always cracked open at night to let in some fresh air. The annoying blips and beeps were just Nick playing his video games across the aisle. Aided by the painkiller that was coursing through my veins, I let this little fantasy carry me away from the ICU and lull me to sleep.
Despite my discomfort, I must have dozed off at some point because when I opened my eyes again, I found my cousin Brian standing beside my bed. At first, I felt confused, thinking I really was on the tour bus. I quickly realized this couldn’t be true because I had quit the Backstreet Boys a year-and-a-half ago. That was when I remembered where I actually was and why. Reality was a rude awakening.
“Hey, cous,” I croaked, looking at him out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t turn my head because of the rigid collar around my neck, which still felt like it was strangling me.
Brian had been frowning, but when he heard my voice, he quickly forced a smile onto his face. “Hey!” he replied brightly, coming closer to the head of the bed so I could see him better. “You’re awake!”
As my eyes adjusted to the fluorescent lighting, I noticed his wife Leighanne hanging on his arm. I could tell she had been crying. Her face was a blotchy mess, with black streaks under her eyes where her makeup had run. She was staring down at me, unable to hide her horrified expression. Feeling self-conscious, I looked away from her and focused instead on Brian’s face. “What are y’all doing here?”
“Your mom called me after she found out about the accident. I think she was hoping we’d be at our L.A. house and could come to the hospital right away,” he explained. “We were actually in Vegas last night, but we got here as fast as we could.”
“What time is it?” I wondered.
“A little after seven.”
“AM or PM?” I had no sense of how much time had passed, no way to tell if the sun was rising or setting. There weren’t any windows in my room, and I couldn’t see the clock on the wall. All I could see was the ceiling, which looked exactly the same as it had when I’d closed my eyes.
“Seven in the morning,” said Brian, stifling a yawn. “Sorry… it’s been a long night.”
“Yeah… for me, too,” I muttered, taking a swift but silent survey of my body. I was still numb from the neck down, unable to move a muscle in my arms or legs. The only physical pain I felt was a dull throbbing in my head, which started at the base of my skull and descended down into my neck and back up again.
The mental anguish was much worse, the loss of my wife weighing on me like an elephant left sitting on my chest. My heart ached as I imagined Mason waking up and wondering where his mother was. He would be crying in his crib, waiting for her to come and get him, completely unaware of the fact that Kristin was never coming home. I knew Rachel was taking good care of him, but I wished I could be there to comfort him myself. It crushed me to realize I might never be able to lift my son out of his crib or hold him in my arms again.
“Is Baylee here, too?” I asked, looking around for Brian’s little boy before I lost it thinking about mine.
Brian shook his head. “We left him with Leighanne’s folks in Georgia so we could have a little adult getaway in Vegas.”
I swallowed hard as I remembered how excited Kristin and I had been hours earlier, as we got ready to go out for our own kid-free night on the town. Now I wished we had just stayed home. “Sorry for ruining your fun,” I told Brian.
“Stop,” he said, frowning. “This isn’t your fault, Kev. I’m sorry. About Kristin… about all of this.” He made a sweeping gesture over my hospital bed. “God... I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”
“It’s awful,” added Leighanne, giving me a look of sympathy. “But we’re here for you. Whatever we can do to help… just let us know.”
“Thanks.” Still thinking of my son, I said, “It would be nice if someone could go over to my house and stay with Mason. The babysitter’s been there all night; she probably needs a break.”
Leighanne looked at Brian. “Leigh and I could do that.”
He nodded. “That’d be great, baby, thanks. I’ll stay and wait for Aunt Ann to get here.” To me, he added, “Your mom’s on her way. She should be here by this afternoon. Kristin’s folks are coming, too.”
“Good,” I replied, but inwardly, I was dreading having to face my in-laws. Would they blame me for what had happened to their daughter? After all, I was the one who had been driving. Was it my fault? The accident had happened so fast, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t remember many details, except that I had been drinking earlier in the evening. Had I given myself enough time to sober up before getting behind the wheel? Was I distracted? Could I have avoided the collision if I had reacted faster? The questions raced through my brain, but I didn’t have any answers. All I knew was that if it turned out my actions had gotten my wife killed, I would never be able to forgive myself.
Brian and Leighanne stayed for a few more minutes, then sent Howie and his wife Leigh in. I was touched to find out all four guys and even one of our longtime bodyguards, Q, had come. “Of course,” said Howie, brushing my gratitude aside after I thanked them for being there. “That’s what brothers are for. You would have done the same for any of us.”
I wanted to believe him, telling myself I would have dropped everything in a heartbeat if one of them was hurt, but in the back of my mind, I had my doubts. It was different now that I was a parent. My priorities had changed. Yet a part of me still felt guilty for putting my own personal goals ahead of the group. Family came first - we had always agreed on that point - but my Backstreet brothers were family, too.
Nick and AJ were the next to come in. They both looked uncomfortable being there, especially Nick. His blue eyes were bloodshot, and I couldn’t tell if it was because he’d been crying or because he was high. You could never tell with Nick anymore, which was one of the reasons I had wanted out of the group. I loved my little brother, but I was tired of waiting for him to grow up and get his shit together.
They hadn’t been there long when one of the nurses kicked them out so the doctor could come in and examine me. “How’s your breathing?” she asked me after they left, leaning over to listen to my lungs with her stethoscope.
“I’m still a little short of breath,” I admitted, realizing that the heaviness in my chest may have been a symptom of more than metaphorical heartbreak. Lying flat on my back made it hard to take a deep breath.
She pursed her lips. “Your oxygen level is on the low side,” she said, looking up at the monitor behind my bed. “I’ll let the doctor know. He should be coming by any minute for morning rounds.”
“If you could just loosen this collar a little…” I tried again to reach up and touch my neck brace before I remembered I had no control over my hands. “It’s really tight.”
The nurse shook her head. “Sorry, I can’t - not until your spine has been stabilized.”
I didn’t know what she meant by that, but before I could ask, a group of people in white coats walked into the room. They gathered around my bed, staring down at me like I was some sort of specimen. “This is Kevin Richardson, a thirty-six-year-old male injured in a side-impact MVA early this morning,” one of the doctors said to the others. He looked even younger than Nick, barely old enough to be a real doctor.
What is this, Doogie Howser? I wondered, my mind wandering as he rambled on, rattling off a bunch of numbers and acronyms I didn’t really understand. It was like trying to watch TV in a foreign country; I could catch a few words here and there, but most of it went right over my head. The medical lingo must have made sense to the other doctors, though, because they nodded as they listened to his report on my condition.
None of them seemed to be paying much attention to me until a high-pitched dinging sound made them all look up at the monitor mounted behind my bed. “His sats are down to ninety-two,” said the nurse who had been taking care of me, as she silenced the alarm.
Another one of the doctors stepped forward, pushing her long, blonde hair behind her ears so she could put on her stethoscope. She frowned as she listened to my chest. “Diminished breath sounds bilaterally,” she murmured. “Call respiratory to bring in a vent. He needs to be intubated before he desaturates any further.”
As the nurse disappeared from my bedside, the three doctors continued their conversation. They threw around some pretty frightening phrases: respiratory dysfunction… paradoxical pattern of breathing... spinal shock… flaccid paralysis.
Even though I was lying right in front of them with my eyes open, clearly awake, they were talking about me like I wasn’t even there, like I was unconscious or incapable of hearing them. Frustrated and scared, I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, but… what are you saying?” I asked, struggling to make my voice heard through the bulky oxygen mask.
The female doctor looked down at me and offered a sympathetic smile. “Sorry, Mr. Richardson, I should have introduced myself first. I’m Dr. Bone, senior neurosurgical resident. This is my attending, Dr. Pinkerton, and my intern, Dr. Poynter, whom I believe you’ve already met.”
I had been so out of it, I barely remembered the younger doctor being in my room before, but I didn’t bother to contradict her. All I said was, “You can call me Kevin.”
“Okay, Kevin. So here’s what’s happening: the muscles that help your lungs expand when you inhale have been paralyzed or weakened because of your spinal cord injury, which means you’re having to work a lot harder to breathe. Even with the pressurized air you’ve been getting through the BiPAP mask, the level of oxygen in your blood is too low. We need to put you on a ventilator now.”
“For how long?”
“That’s hard to say. Hopefully just for a few days, but it could be longer. If the swelling in your spinal cord continues, you might never be able to breathe well enough without mechanical ventilation, in which case we would do a tracheotomy so you could still talk and eat.”
What about sing? I wondered, but didn’t ask. What did it matter? I wasn’t a Backstreet Boy anymore, and my dreams of doing a solo album or being in another Broadway musical had died alongside my wife. The only thing I had left to live for now was Mason.
As my son’s face appeared in my mind again, I felt overwhelmed with a sudden sense of panic and urgency. With Kristin gone, I was the only parent he had left, and here I was in the ICU, about to be put on a life support machine. What if something went wrong, and I didn’t survive? I had to make sure Mason would be all right.
“Can you wait just a few minutes?” I begged Dr. Bone. “I need to talk to my cousin while I still can.” I remembered the doctor in the emergency room telling me I wouldn’t be able to talk while I was intubated. It was important that I touch base with Brian before they put the tube down my throat. He was the only family I had there, and I knew I could count on him to take care of my son.
“My cousin Brian. He’s probably out in the waiting room; he was just in here a little while ago. Can someone go find him for me? Please… I really need to talk to him first.”
Dr. Bone seemed to hesitate, staring up at the monitor, but finally nodded. “I’ll go get him.” She glanced at the other doctors. “Page me if he goes south,” I heard her mutter before she hurried off.
She walked back in a few minutes later with Brian. “You okay, cous?” he asked as he came up alongside my bed, looking concerned.
I didn’t bother to answer his question. My wife was dead, and my body wasn’t working right. How could he think I was okay? “Never mind me,” I said. “I need to make sure Mason’s okay.”
“Leighanne and Leigh are heading over to your house now. He’ll be fine,” Brian assured me.
“But if something happens to me… if I don’t get better… will you take care of him?” Tears welled in my eyes. It was getting harder to breathe, which also made it harder to talk. I tried anyway, wanting my wishes to be known. “I’ve thought about it, and... I’d want him to go with you. My mom’s getting older... she’s already raised three sons… I wouldn’t want to put that responsibility on her... or Kristin’s parents. My brothers are both settled… and-”
“Kev.” Brian held up his hand to stop me from speaking. “Of course, man. Of course I would take care of Mason if it came to that. But it won’t. You’re gonna be fine, okay?”
“Thanks. I know you and Leighanne would give him a good life... and Baylee would make a great big brother...” I trailed off, trying and failing to take a deep breath. Rather than making it easier for me to breathe, the mask suddenly felt like it was suffocating me.
Brian smiled. There were tears in his eyes, too. “Just like you’ve been to me these last fifteen years. I love you, Kev.”
“Love you, too, Rok,” I barely managed to reply before the alarm went off on my monitor again, dinging faster and more frantically than before.
“His sats are down to 89,” said the nurse.
“We can’t wait any longer. I’m going to have to ask you to step out now,” Dr. Bone said to Brian. “You can wait in the hall, and I’ll come talk to you in a few minutes.”
Brian nodded. “Hang in there, man,” he said, as he backed away. “And don’t you worry about Mason. We’re here for you both, whatever you need.”
“Thanks,” I whispered again, as Dr. Bone took Brian’s place at my bedside.
“Can I intubate?” I heard the younger doctor ask her, sounding eager.
She shook her head. “Not this time. Intubations can be tricky in patients with cervical spinal cord injuries. He’s also a singer, so we need to be extra careful not to cause any damage to his vocal cords.”
Up until that point, none of the doctors had given me any indication that they knew who I was, but now I realized Dr. Bone had recognized me - or maybe she had recognized Brian and the rest of the guys in the waiting room. In any case, her words made me feel a little better. At least one of them seemed to care more about me as a person than just another patient.
Leaning over me so I could see her face clearly, Dr. Bone looked me in the eye and explained, “We’re going to give you some medication to make you sleep while we put the tube down your throat. When you wake up, there will be a machine breathing for you. You won’t be able to speak. You’ll be sedated to help you relax until the tube can be removed. Don’t worry; we’re going to take good care of you, Kevin…”
Her voice seemed to fade away as my vision grew fuzzy. I tried to focus on the fluorescent light in the ceiling above me, but it also faded as I drifted toward darkness. When I closed my eyes, I could suddenly see my wife’s face again, and some of the fear I felt went away. My last conscious thought was of Kristin.