I am one lucky son-of-a-bitch. You see, my father's ghost has haunted me for most of my years. He had open heart surgery in 1970 at the ripe old age of 48 and passed away of a heart attack two years later. I cannot imagine the rough ride my poor dad had, considering the technology and medicine of his time. That fact shadowed me: inspiring me in health conscious bouts and silently tinging my foolishness during times of total disregard.
The morning of my surgery, I was literally shitting myself. I couldn't stop going. Nerves, nerves, nerves. We make small talk, trying to find humor in my situation, but the inevitable happens. The friendly guy with the gurney knocks and it's time. My wife and friend can walk with me to the operating area. There's no resistance on my part. This has to be done.
Winding down this hall to this elevator and down another hall, I'm wondering about everything. There are many moments we share with others, but this one is mine alone. You're on your own and you have to make your peace with it.
We reach our destination. My wife and friend kiss me goodbye at the doors that lead into the operating areas while they are led to a visiting area. My wife's eyes have tears (I don't remember if I did or not). Dr. S, who was my anesthesiologist from my appendectomy, is there and wishes me well. To be honest, I'm not sure if he is there for personal or professional reasons. Professional if he is trying to insure that maybe I won't raise a ruckus over the whole cath/urethra trauma that occurred during the appendectomy earlier in the month.
I am wheeled into a holding area. It has the feel of an airport control tower, only with medical scrubs, hairnets, lab coats and monitors. There are people everywhere and none of them look worried or in a hurry. Just another day, as my friend astutely named it, in "the healing factory." Truthfully, there's probably more factory than healing.
I meet a cheerful man in scrubs and a hairnet (which look ridiculous on men...seriously. This is no fashion forward apparel) who tells me he's going to be my anesthesiologist. He's friendly and we exchange pleasantries. The serious talk follows about how shit could go seriously wrong and I can flat-line on the old table. Always a confidence builder that speech.
Me, being the full coward that I am, ask about calming meds before the surgery. No sooner asked then received. The Versed comes on strong, briefly makes you light-headed, then moves to calmer buzz waters. While the sacred drug is spinning around your brain, he continues to talk to you. He's testing your mettle, you see. The major onset buzz settles and I jokingly ask him, "Did you hear that during my heart cath I had six does of Versed?" I'm not sure if he's putting me on, but he smiles and says yes. Hmmmm.... I'm wondering how that been entered into record:
Dude can handle some serious V.
Patient has partied a great deal his whole life and can handle our meds like a strong martini.
Onto the Slab, Boy
I notice that the attention I get is far, far different than the social atmosphere I encountered before my heart cath. Of course, this is serious shit. To be honest, I was not afraid that I wasn't going to come out of the surgery. Though I had had many assurances from my cardiologist and other folks who were actually praying for my sorry ass, words are wonderful, but hardly much comfort before going under the knife (and saw). Still, I sensed that my time was not up. You can say it's faith, God, or sheer stupidity, but I wasn't worried about the operation as much as the shit I'd have to deal with on the other side.
Boy, was I right.
My surgeon words to my wife was that "the operation went perfectly." Not a hitch. I have a hazy memory of my wife grabbing my hand and tearfully telling me it all went well. Then I descended into the first level of hell.
During minor surgery, they chemically bring you out of the anesthesia so that you can start recovering quickly. When I awoke from the appendectomy, I knew immediately where I was and that things went well. Movement may be restricted, but pain would be managed. Not so after heart surgery.
I remember that the room was dark, but mostly I wanted that goddam tube out of my throat. With hands tied so that you can't rip it out, you are helpless and in a sense, you are not fully present to the world. In essence, you are alive, but hover between worlds. My aunt said it very poetically after her operation and consequent complications. She told me, "You hover between life and death. You are not really in life, you must let it pass you by." Indeed so, auntie.
My wife said her first visit, all the lights were on. I only recall darkness. She said I wrote in her hand over and over again, "T-U-B-E O-U-T" and "S-E-D-A-T-I-V-E." This is what I wrote in nurse Kristi's hand over and again as well. Both tried to explain to me that in order for the tube to come out, the sedatives would have to be slowly withdrawn.
Now, for all you people out there who have a delicate gag reflex like me (on my toothbrush all the time), you do not constantly gag or feel like vomiting nor choking. You ARE sedated and the tube is already in there. It's not so devastatingly uncomfortable that you feel like you can't breathe. The buffer is the sedative. The sedative must be withdrawn so the tube goes out when you finally breathe on your own.
All these facts didn't make a difference: I wanted it out. Now.
Kristi learned my backwards "air writing" very quickly. The sum and substance of which you already know. She was an angel and never ignored my repetitive and medically senseless requests. I know that I "told" her other things, but it's all a dream state and nothing really holds in your mind.
Kristi goes off shift and a new nurse takes over. Michael is his name. Poor bastard, he has to deal with The Man Who Cannot Understand a Damn Thing. Again, he learns my air writing and the tube out is my song. Over and again, I communicate through my right hand writing as the anesthesia is wearing off and the sedative is being withdrawn. There's the rub.
Somewhere in this process of re-entering the world, you can feel the rhythm of the lung machine begin to go against your own. The mind says, "Panic! You're not getting enough oxygen." The rational mind says, "Slow down, buddy. You're OK. Let the machine do its job." Oddly, I'm not aware of any chest pain yet.
At one point, my right eye begins to tear up. The salt of my tears brings on more and it starts to burn. The same begins to happen with my left. Both my eyes are burning and Michael is not in the room. Dear God, what will become of me? Finally, Michael returns (I suspect"Oh, there's a nurse he's dating or chatting up because I keep seeing this girl hovering.) and I snap my fingers to get his attention. "E-Y-..." He doesn't get the Y. Kristi had trouble as well. We try again. "E-Y-E-S." He looks, gets it and rushes to get a tissue to wipe out my burning orbs.
Out the Tube, Dudes
Michael keeps assuring me that the tube is coming out. He calls the surgeon and the usual long wait follows. We go around the proverbial Mulberry tree for God knows how long. "Your oxygen is a little low, but I'm going to page Dr. D again." (Kristi told me a few days later that the reason that I was low on oxygen was that I was breathing too hard. Hell, I'm hitting the panic button even when I'm sedated.)
Doc calls back and it's a go. Michael gives me instructions and basically you have to cough while el Tube from Hell is being taken out. Fuck, at this point, you can put a tube up my ass, just get it out! It's not pretty, but it comes out. My throat is not sore per se, but it is a little raw.
The voice is a coarse whisper post removal. It remains that way for a while, but this doesn't matter because deep inside your soul your realize one thing: I'm going to come out of this. With that breathing tube gone and the lungs back on duty, you sense almost genetically or primally that somehow you are now starting to recover. Recovery was not even a thought hours ago in that dark (My wife says it was always lit when she came, but I think Kristi keep the lights low when only she held watch on my helpless soul.), machine buzzing and blipping narcotic "dreamare."