It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted. Life, somehow, always seems to prioritize where our time is spent and 2011 has brought significant changes that have definitely reprioritized everything about our families life.
On Feb 18 of this year my husband, Mike, a young and active 60 year old man, was getting dressed to go somewhere. It was taking an awfully long time and, impatient as ever, I wanted to know the delay. His response? “I’m sitting down. Is that OK?” I asked him if he was sitting in the middle of getting dressed and he said yes. I told him he better hustle up the stairs…that something was wrong and so he did. When he reached the kitchen he had to hold himself up on island and other counter, hunched over, gasping to catch his breath, sweating profusely. I directed him to sit down. He was opening and closing his mouth very widely…his jaws hurt. Recognizing heart attack symptoms, I insisted Mike chew an aspirin and I called the cardiologist to get an appointment. They had none and suggested the ER as a precautionary measure. They said I could drive there, but if I felt an ambulance was necessary to just get one. I drove.
We arrived at the hospital and Mike was fine. They took us into the ER and began the battery of tests to confirm or eliminate MI from their diagnosis. EKG looked good. Mike was in no distress, no pain. Enzymes came back fine. So did all other tests. We sat in the ER yukking it up, Mike was hungry and was badgering everybody so he could get out of there and stop at BK for the new jalapeno burger.
Soon the PA for the cardiology group came in. She began to speak to Mike telling him about angina and ischemia. It was a slow conversation. Being a less than patient woman I said “Look. I’m worried about blockage.” She said, “So am I and I want you to have a cardiac catheterization now…not later, not tomorrow and not Monday”. Mike did not agree. I agreed for him. Shortly, the cardiologist came. Mike told him he didn’t feel it was necessary…the cardiologist told him he agreed with the PA and though it would likely be routine and baseline, it would be good to have. After all, it’s a routine procedure these days, they do thousands of them.
We were taken up to the cath lab. The doc came in and explained the procedure. They would try to use his wrist for the catheterization. He explained that there is always risk but it was routine and very safe. Mike signed the papers. I was sent out of the room when the nurse arrived to prep him. I was summoned back. He told me they shaved and washed his wrist and groin and asked if he had a living will. He asked them “What’s that?” They told him if something happened his wife would be in charge of making decisions about how to treat him and whether or not to perform life support if it were required. He told me he thought “Oh no. There goes the plug”. I asked him what he would want since we had never seriously discussed it. His response? “I don’t want to die over this…that’s for sure. I don’t want to die over this.” I said “So then you won’t. I’ll see you when you get out and I’ll be waiting right here. Now give me a kiss.” He told me he didn’t want to do any kissing. As they wheeled him out to the lab he told them to stop. The nurses asked what they were stopping for exactly and he replied “I think I want that kiss”. We kissed, and they wheeled him away into the cath lab. I was directed to the waiting room and told it would be 30-40 minutes if they found nothing, another 30 if they had work to do.
After about 20-30 minutes, the surgeon came out to see me. Smiling he said, “I found his problem!” I asked if it was fixed and he laughed kind of wryly and said “Oh no. That’s going to take some fixing I can’t do…come on and I’ll show you the pictures”. Off we went to look at my husband’s lovely and patent right cardiac arteries…and the 98% blocked left main artery. The doc explained that we do not stent left main arteries in the US…that double bypass would be required. And, since it was late Friday afternoon and most of the key personnel were already gone, so he’d stay in CCU over the weekend and unless something emergent happened, would get double bypass Monday morning. He was being cleaned up from the procedure and they would wheel him past where I was sitting in the waiting room and I could follow them to his room. He started to talk to me some more…and checked his beeper, turned and began to walk. I asked if I was coming along and he said no, I was going to the waiting room. As I got back to my chair I heard Code Blue Cath Lab and immediately Code Blue 3a. My initial panic subsided as I concluded either my mind was playing tricks on me or the hospital had made a mistake since 3a was immediately behind the Cath Lab.
I called the family…my kids, my sister-in-law, my brothers, my friends… I told them he was fine and would require double bypass on Monday but that all was well. And I waited. And waited. I went to the restroom. I came back. And I waited some more. I felt surely I must have missed him when they wheeled him back to his room while I was in the bathroom. I made my way to where I thought he would be going and asked if he had been brought to his room. They had no record of him being there. Panic set in. They asked where he was coming from and I told them cath lab. They asked his name again. A woman I recognized as having seen in the cath lab informed me they were still working on him. I said “No, that’s not possible. They were done almost half an hour ago” and she informed me he was still being worked on. When I said NO again, she asked “Hasn’t anybody come out to talk to you?” Terrified now, I said “No. But somebody better come talk to me now…and very fast or I’m going in there looking for my husband.” I was redirected to the waiting room where I waited and realized I had never felt so alone or frightened…so desolate…in all my life.
Soon a nurse came out and told me she would see what she could find out. Then another nurse to tell me a lot of people were with him and working on him and he was in good hands. Could she call anybody? Did I want the chaplain? Still, they had not told me what was wrong.
The cardiologist came out within minutes. He told me while he was talking to me he had gotten paged. he had told Mike he would need double by-pass surgery on Monday and had come to talk to me. Evidently, after he left, Mike had gone into A-Fib…probably from anxiety and fear. He so feared all things medical and counted on me always to decipher and control medical situations. I wasn’t with him…I had wanted to be but they wouldn’t permit it. From A-Fib he went into some other form of arrhythmia, his blocked artery collapsed and he had arrested on the table.
They immediately began CPR, opened the artery, stinted it, and inserted a balloon pump up into his aorta through the femoral artery in his groin. They had performed CPR and worked on him for 27 minutes and he was currently with the Cardio/Thoracic surgeons who were doing a procedure called Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation…ECMO I came to learn later. The picture was very grim and I would need to think about making decisions. Dumbfounded, confused, bereft, I heard myself asking “Are you saying I need to be calling my family together to say goodbye?” Their response? I think that would be wise. The nurse asked if I wanted the chaplain and I said no, my priest. I called my kids and my brother, hysterical and barely able to catch my breath enough to speak, I told them they needed to come to the hospital. The nurse tried to call our priest…she finally found somebody in the church office…a friend…I begged her to find my sister-in-law. I could only get voice mail and I couldn’t leave something like this about her baby brother on her voice mail. And I begged her to find the priest to come and anoint Mike.
I sat, alone, and waited for my family and the surgeons to tell me what my husband’s condition was. A young woman who I had been speaking with earlier whose husband had been brought to the cath lab, held my hand, hugged me, got me water and stayed with me until my family showed up. I will never forget her kindness.
Soon, the kids, my brother and the priest arrived. Shortly thereafter the cardiologist who did the cath and the cardiologist from the emergency room approached me from different directions. Both looked ghastly…grim. They sat down and held my hand and explained the surgery was done. My husband was being kept alive on full life support and the question was now not his heart…it was whether he would wake up neurologically. He had been about 55 minutes without oxygen perfusion to his brain and it was unlikely he would ever wake up. They were or had just taken him to his room in the Open Heart Unit, we needed to prepare ourselves for a frightening sight when we saw him as the ECMO was a portable heart/lung bypass machine (his blood was being pumped in and out of his body and filtered in the machine at his bedside), he was on a ventilator, had a endotrachial tube for the ventilator and there was a lot of swelling and trauma. He had numerous IV’s and blood hanging. And we needed to say our goodbyes and find our way to a decision about pulling the plug and ending his life. They told me he was in God’s hands. And, since I had to make decisions, apparently mine. I asked about his heart. They told me if he survived, which was highly unlikely, he would require cardiac caths every 6 months to watch for that artery to begin to close up again. If it blocked, the resulting MI would be fatal. When it was 60-70% blocked they would consider doing the double bypass. But again, they told me the heart is not the issue. His brain was deprived of oxygen so long he would likely never wake up. I closed my eyes and silently prayed “Please. Give him back to me. You don’t want him yet…I’m not done with him. However he comes back to me is fine…I’ll take it, I’ll deal with it…we’ll deal with it…just please leave him with me longer”. I steeled myself for the first glimpse of my husband.
We all gathered in the waiting room of Open Heart waiting for access to the room. I barely recall what happened there, only that family members began to come. Mike’s sister and her husband, a girlfriend, my brother. They took me to his room. Nothing could have prepared me for how he looked. Frightened, I held his hand and whispered…”I love you. Now fight for us. You fight and get well and come back to me because I am fighting for us and won’t stop”. I felt a barely imperceptible squeeze of my hand…which the nurse told me was probably reflex. I knew better. I knew that God had heard and answered my prayer…and for a woman who had been pretty agnostic but hedged her bets prior to this, that was a pretty profound realization. Somehow I knew…God would be taking care of us and everything was going to be OK.
Later I learned that about the time the cardiologists were telling me he wouldn’t wake up and I prayed my silent prayer, the nurse had brought Mike to his room…with no heartbeat of his own. The only heartbeat was that provided by the balloon pump and the ECMO. She was getting him ready for us to come into the room. She had gotten him settled, turned away to do something…and when she turned back, he had established a heart rate of his own and was in sinus rhythm. God had given us a miracle. I knew he had some plan for my husband and me and I could trust him to show us what it was.
Part Two …the journey, the setbacks, the current status. http://wp.me/psKET-8G