Just My Luck – Chapter 11–2
I was disconcerted that for some six hours I was not self-aware. My body was fully alive, but my “self” was AWOL.
Move over Buster Keaton
Just My Luck. I had a coronary emergency and by a somewhat circuitous route I stumbled into one of the best cardiac hospital facilities in the country, the Gagnon Cardiovascular Institute at Morristown Memorial Hospital.
My surgeon was not just an excellent practitioner of his valuable profession, he was a really nice and concerned fellow. He explained to me that this time I was going to need a double by-pass. He’d only performed a few thousand such surgeries so far, but he assured me he was really getting the hang of it of late.
I took him at his word.
Despite our lighthearted banter, I knew this was serious surgery. I would not be up and around the following day as I had been years before with the angioplasty. I was in much greater immediate danger than I’d been in during my original coronary event. They were wasting no time, I was going to be opened up tomorrow.
The surgeon explained what was to come. He would need to break my sternum from top to bottom to gain access to my heart. If all went well, I would awake with tubes sticking out of me and with a stapled-shut wound the length of my separated sternum. (We didn’t discuss what might happen if things didn’t go well.) The vein he’d use for the first by-pass was already available near the heart. It was a vein that all humans have, but that have a purpose only in women. For men, it was like a spare tire: there in case needed in an emergency. He would need to harvest the vein for the second by-pass from my left leg, so I would have a wound to care for there too. Both wounds would be vulnerable to post-operative infection. The recovery would be weeks-long and uncomfortable.
Doris later told me that the nursing staff was willing to take bets that I wasn’t going to be able to attend my son’s wedding in Maui six weeks hence.
But at least I had insurance.
I had a lot to live for when I prayed for help before my first cardiac procedure. Now I had a son-in-law, a soon to be daughter-in-law, and a beautiful grand daughter, not to mention even more great friends to add to the list. So despite my rational doubt that God will sometimes intercede in the work of the Grim Reaper, my emotional side prayed long and hard for God’s help.
I guess it’s true: there are no unbelievers in a fox hole.
The following morning I was prepped for surgery, met the anesthesiologist who would assure I was asleep but not dead during the operation (another funny guy), and was transferred to a narrow, hi tech gurney. The operating rooms were surrounded by a space where the players about to take the stage waited in the wings, sort of like the locker rooms at a sports arena. Unmasked and ungloved they joked with one another as if I wasn’t even there. I was glad to be an observer of their camaraderie, I could tell they were a real team.
The anesthesiologist arrived at my bedside and asked if I was ready. I had no choice so I was. He did the “count backwards from a hundred” thing though we both knew I’d not make it to 96.
In literally no time, and I mean no time, I was in the recovery room. It was all done. I woke and realized that I was no longer where I was when my countdown nearly reached 96. It was as though I’d just “apperated” (a Harry Potter term) from the surgical bull pen directly to the recovery room in a flash.
No passing “Go” and no $200.
The only evidence that the continuum had been interrupted was that I didn’t continue the countdown to 95. All that build up, the tension, the drama, the countdown at 97 – and now at 96 it’s all over? Wait a minute, I missed the best part! Replay the video.
What an anti-climax.
Where Did I Go?
My operation repaired my diseased heart once again, but in the process it raised some strange and troubling questions in my mind. I’d been under general anesthesia before, but for much shorter periods. Somehow this time it was very different.
This time my “me” fundamentally didn’t exist for six hours and for some strange reason, when I awoke I could feel the lingering absence of my “self” in my bones. It wasn’t sleep. I didn’t dream nor did I have the slightest cognition of any sensation whatsoever.
For six hours I was simply unaware that I had ceased to exist. One cannot be much further gone than that. For all intents and purposes, a time had just ended when there was no “me.” When my awareness of self was gone, everything was gone. It was as though a piece of my life had been surgically removed.
During those six hours of course, being aware of absolutely nothing, I wasn’t comfortable or uncomfortable. I was literally nothing. It was only now that I had become aware again that I was disconcerted that for six hours I was not aware. My body was fully alive, but my “self” was AWOL.
Was that a foretaste of death? Is death really the door to nothingless? Or had my self/soul just gone dormant for a while?
My self did re-awaken, fully intact and ready to resume its existence from where it had last been. The fact that it could and did re-awaken gave me comfort. But I also realized that my belief in the immortality of the soul was likely too simple. The soul may be immortal, but how that all works has to be more complicated than I can understand. I simply don’t know how to account for the absence of my “self” for six hours. I have no idea if it existed then or where it may have gone. I still believe that my soul is immortal, but this conundrum confirms that I don’t know that it is.
Faith is a belief in knowledge we don’t have.
Can you experience a temporary state of absence of being? If so, how can you determine that you have? I’m getting a headache.
Anesthesiologists must be wizards.
Another Difficult Road Back
The recovery period after my surgery was the most physically painful six weeks of my life.
I’ve never met a hospital bed that I liked. They all must be designed by insurance companies to compel patients to make their hospitalizations as short as they can. The first couple of days I was basically a biological bag of sore: uncomfortable, weak, and bored beyond endurance. On day three I had my first taste of relief when the surgeon removed the draining tubes from my upper body. It felt like a full quiver’s worth of iron spears was withdrawn from my chest.
The surgeon told me that all had gone well as planned and that I was lucky not to have had a heart attack beforehand. He told me that the artery with the stents that were put in years earlier now resembled a length of linked sausages where the artery had collapsed in the spaces between the stents. It was possible that it might have been a matter of a days or weeks before my emergency would have been far more serious.
Dumbstruck by dumb luck again.
Never able to find a comfortable position is a pitiable situation. Not allowed to lift anything, including myself, meant that to sit up, lie down, roll over, and do other canine tricks, I required help. Being helpless as a baby is definitely not conducive to the self esteem of anyone who has already graduated from infancy.
Hospital food can be good or bad, but it’s always just hospital food. Morristown Hospital’s kitchen was better than most, but I wouldn’t choose to go out to eat there. Daytime television was simply torturous, but you can only read so much when you’re under the weather. There has to be some undiscovered law of physics that says over a prolonged period, time slows to a pace inversely proportional to the number of times you look at a clock (e.g. the more you look the slower it gets).
All in all, I was an impatient in-patient for ten days that felt like a baseball season. Nonetheless, I was grateful to be alive and on the mend.
Despite my long hospitalization, when I was finally released I was still about as close to being an invalid as I’d ever been. Weak and wobbly and in need of constant close attention, I returned to Lauren and Tim’s house where Doris and I were in residence for the duration of our condo renovations.
Being the superb friend that he is, Bob drove down from Connecticut just to drive me there from the hospital. Doris, who had been at the hospital every day of my stay, led Bob and me along her now too familiar route between Morristown Hospital and Lauren & Tim’s home in Warren, NJ.
Tired and shaky, I made progress every day thereafter. I had one major goal: I would be strong enough and healthy enough to be able to fly to Hawaii in the last week of February and stand on the beach to watch, with great pride and happiness, as my son, Tom, married the love of his life, Katherine.
I heard through the grapevine that Katherine had told Tom that if I couldn’t make it to Hawaii, they should still go there to vacation but postpone the wedding and have it in New Hampshire when I could be there. Knowing that a Maui beach wedding had long been Katherine’s dream, I doubled my resolve to be there.
It was a great wedding. I was elated to stand on the beach with whales breeching in the distance while Tom and Katherine exchanged the vows they authored.
What a special place Maui is.
What a blessing it was to be there.
Just My Luck.
Coincidentally, in my recovery from both of my “coronary events,” I had similar extra incentives to “get well soon.” Both of the motivations involved the opportunity to take long flights to attractive venues. As mentioned here, in my most recent recovery the carrot-on-the-stick was flying to Maui for the wedding. Not long after being released from my angioplasty procedure nearly a decade earlier, I was scheduled to fly to London with Bob for a meeting with our firm’s European Strategic Account Managers. I’d been advised by my cardiologist that I might want to call in as “still sick” for the trip. I took a wait-and-see strategy and would make my go/no-go decision after taking my pulse a day or so before the trip.
A week before our scheduled flight to London, I received a notice from British Airways that Bob and I had both been “bumped up” at no additional cost from Business Class on a 747 to seats on the super-sonic Concorde for our flight to London. My recovery immediately went super-sonic. After a thorough stress test on the treadmill, my cardiologist decided not to advise against going. In both cases, the final decision was mine. In both cases I celebrated the end of my ordeal with a trans-oceanic flight. In both cases I’d been warned that if something should happen while in flight, it could be several hours before I might receive proper attention. In both cases the flights were uneventful.
Just (More of) My Luck.
©2016 James Ash