Dr. M sat in the Waiting Area, accompanied by (daughters) Rachel and Anna, and Anna’s b.f., Colby, who generously took off work to participate in the vigil. I was told that the Operating Room nurse emerged every hour, bringing updates on the procedure. “He’s doing fine.” “It’s going smoothly.” “He’s attached to the heart-lung machine.” (Yikes!) Then, at a quarter to twelve – forty-five minutes before we’d been told the surgery would be over – the surgeon himself came out and announced, “Everything's shipshape; all hands doing well.” Though not as nautically.
I spent time in the “Post-Op Room” with a lot of tubes sticking out of me, among them a “Breathing Tube.” I’d been worried about the “Breathing Tube.” I get gaggy when there’s stuff down my throat, even if it’s, like, a dinner roll. But I apparently did okay, and they soon took the tube out, after which I politely rasped, “Thank you.” (I probably didn’t, but I like to think I’m polite even when semi-comatose.)
My next stop was the “Intensive Care Unit”. When I woke up there, Dr. M and Rachel were sitting nearby. They looked happy and relieved. Or, more honestly, I think they looked happy and relieved. I don’t really know how they looked, because, before the surgery, I had relinquished my glasses, so I couldn’t actually “see” anything, which is how I wanted it, because if I could see things, I was sure I’d be concerned – read: “Ahhhhhhgh!!!” – at the sight of the tubing and I.V.’s sticking out of my body. I once touched a cactus, and afterwards, there were all these spiny things sticking out of my finger. I thought it would be like that. A human porcupine.
Apparently, one of the first things I asked after regaining consciousness was if, while performing my heart surgery, they had also straightened my (wandering) left eye. I was informed they had not, to which I was told I replied, “Fuck!” Rachel, who’s been around me for over thirty years, confessed that, during all those years, this was the first time she had ever heard me utter that word. Of course, I was kidding about the eye straightening thing. On the other hand, you know…I’m already asleep, why not give it a shot?
My first “Intensive Care” nurse (nurses switch off every twelve hours) was named Jackie. Jackie was from the Philippines. Turns out the majority of the nursing staff was from the Philippines. If, for some reason, the immigration from that country had been cut off, my hospital would have found itself so short staffed, the patients would have been relegated to treating each other.
“I’m putting in your I.V.”
“Do you know how?”
“Sort of. I watched another patient put in mine.”
With Jackie came my first test. I’m always anxious about tests, whether in school, at work, or in hospitals, especially tests you can’t prepare for. This test related to efforts to reactivate my surgery-deflated lungs. It required me, after exhaling all the way, to inhale as powerfully as I could into a tube on this toy-like plastic device, which, if inhaled into successfully, would cause three plastic balls, colored different shades of blue, to ascend up three paralleling columns. All the way to the top.
I had learned, after reading the hospital’s orientational Heart 2 Heart brochure, that, unless you could exhale all three balls to the top ten times in a row, you were not permitted to leave the hospital.
My first attempt? One ball. Half way up. I thought I heard the plastic device scoff,
“This dude’s never going home.”
Aside from a test that could change my permanent address to “Hospital”, the other worrisome issue involved sleeping. They’re doing stuff to you round the clock in hospitals, especially in “Intensive Care.” To them, the important concern is not your getting a good night’s sleep – that’s your concern – their primary focus is on keeping you from becoming dead. Their signal that you’re okay is your complaining, “Leave me alone; I’m trying to sleep.” Dead people don’t do that. They just lie there.
The morning after my surgery, the surgeon came by and removed a lot of my tubing, the exception being the tubes in my chest, which was unfortunate, because those were the ones that were giving me the most trouble. Apparently, one of the downsides of robotic surgery is that these, apparently necessary, chest tubes irritate some nearby nerves, causing your back to ache after the surgery – at a spot just inside your right shoulder blade. It’s like a discomfort-inducing knotty cramp that won’t go away. (I’ll try to go easy on the pain description. That spot in my back tightens up just by my writing about it.)
After the tube removal, I was released from “Intensive Care” and wheel-chaired to a regular “Recovery Room.” Before I was released, however, Mark (who had replaced Jackie) delivered two “Look at my face; I am very serious” instructions:
“When you get out of bed, sit on the side of it for a full minute, or you’ll get dizzy when you stand up. And, for six weeks, you are absolutely forbidden to bend down and pick up anything off the floor.”
The “side of the bed” thing was blah. I did that before I was sick. It’s natural. You get to a certain age, and when you get out of bed in the morning, you drop your feet to the floor, and you just sit there. I thought this was a personal negativity thing. “Do I really want to start another day?” But apparently it’s something real.
On the other hand, “No picking stuff off the floor?” You can’t tell me something like that. I’m Laverne and Shirley. Read me any rule, I’ll break it.
Making things worse, I happen to be a congenital “dropper.” Things fall out of my mouth, they fall out of my hands, they fall out of my pockets, and where else can they go but the floor? If I left everything I dropped in an hour just lying around, my house would look like a pigsty.
Fortunately, I have agile toes. Especially my Big Toe and The Toe Right Next To It. I am a-mazing with my toes. I can snatch up a toothpick with those babies. Sorry, deniers of evolution. There is definitely some “monkey” in me.
On the day I changed rooms, I remember gingerly lowering myself to the floor, and taking the first steps since my surgery towards the wheelchair, that would carry me to a location of diminished intensive care.
It felt pretty miraculous. I was just one day from “Open Heart Surgery” (I hate the term “Open Heart”; it sounds so Mayan.) And I was already walking.
Another sure sign that I wasn’t dead.