Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"I don't want to be a surgeon...they have to cut people up. They're gross."

Ethan shared these words of wisdom with us the other night. My mother tried to explain that surgeons, while they do indeed need to "cut people up", they do it because they are saving lives, not because they are "gross". Ethan thought this over and said, "No. I don't want to do that. I'll just be a regular doctor." A doctor. Or a "bad" guy, he says to me later.

Surgery has been a hot topic of conversation in our house these days. Eli had his little ears fixed today. (No big deal, is upstairs napping comfortably) And just three days ago, we celebrated what I've decided to call "Happy Heart Day", the anniversary of Adam's open heart surgery.

My memories of last fall have been trickling in to me, showing me the difference that a year can make. I struggle between trying to let the memories go and giving myself permission to remember them and the emotions that come with them. After all, it isn't everyday that your husband has heart surgery. Sure, you might anticipate the possibility of such a serious health problem when you are approaching your 60's and have 30 plus years of marriage behind you. But you certainly can't be prepared for that when you barely have thirty years of living behind you.


I remember, last September, sitting at my breakfast bar, finsihing up whatever I was doing before I headed to pick Ethan up from preschool. The phone rang. It was Adam and I cheerfully said, "Hey!".

Immediately, I know something is wrong. Immediately, I understand that my life is about to take a seriously drastic turn. Isn't it amzaing how one phone call, one single, solitary syllable of "Hi" can change your world? I have now learned to become grateful for boring phone calls, where no bombs are dropped, where no alarm or panic exists in the voice on the other end, where only time is expended. I used to believe those types of phone calls were an annoying interruption, now I understand what a precious luxury they are.

In this moment of hearing a certain, palpable weariness in Adam's voice, I learn that there is an abnormality in one of his routine heart tests. He is scheduled for a heart catheritization the next week. My mind races, swiftly and surely remembering both of my grandparents' (hello! grandparents! old people! no offense) heart caths where each of them ended up just fine. So this will be fine. Adam has no real symptoms of a heart problem. He is young, not overweight, and appears to be healthy.

And then just as soon as I soothe myself with these thoughts, a tsunami of terror shoots through me and I immediately realize that cardiologists don't generally order routine heart caths. And that voice...that little voice in my head...kept telling me this was not a fire drill.

My dear friend Julie offers to sit with me at the hospital. I tell her that is ridiculous, that we will be in and out in under an hour, there is no need to inconvenience her family to do that. But secretly, I am yelling silently, "Yes! Please! Come sit with me!".

The cath does not go well. I am summoned by the doctor who tells me that they "found something", a 100 percent blockage in Adam's LAD (aka the Widow Maker). Attempts were made to open up the blockage but it couldn't be done safely.

The two months that followed were dramatic and filled with uncertainty. Finally, after weighing and reweighing all of our options, testing and retesting Adam's heart and making and then unmaking all of our decisions, we decided to go ahead with a coronary artery bypass.

The morning of his surgery, the drive to the hospital seems more like a drive to an execution rather than to a medical facility. We alternate uncomfortably between sitting in silence and making small talk.

When we arrive at the check-in desk, we are prepared to sit for several hours but within minutes, a nurse appears and calls Adam's name. Hearing it, I am immediately struck with a deep and wounding shot of pure dread and utter sadness. This could be...this could be the last time I see him. It probably won't be...but knowing it could be....Adam looks at me with the eyes of a child. Scared, sad, pleading eyes. I don't blink. I don't cry. I look back, sure, confident. His safe haven. Then the nurse tells him to take off his wedding ring and his eyes fill with tears. My sureness and confidence leave me. I suddenly hate this room, hate this hospital, hate this moment because I know I will never forget it. I know the memory of it will keep me up at night (and it turns out I am right on both counts). I am angry at the nurse. I feel cheated out of more time with husband, as if I thought we could somehow manage to enjoy sitting in the surgical waiting room together, as if it could make this situation almost normal. I slip his wedding ring on my thumb where it will stay for the next several days. We quickly hug and kiss and Adam disappears down a hall. I sit down, feeling very alone, though I have Adam's mother and one of his sweet friends from our synagogue sitting next to me.

A little later, a lady at the front of the room calls my name and hands me a big plastic bag with the clothes and shoes Adam wore into the hospital. Seeing his socks and underwear in that bag sickens me. I don't want his clothes to be sitting next to me in a bag. I want him to be sitting next me. Adam's bag of clothes becomes a vicious and insensitive reminder to me that only a few minutes earlier, he was safely sitting next to me, dressed and in control. Now he is down some hall, alone, where I can't get to him.

An hour later, I pretend to eat breakfast sensibly. I feel Eli kicking around inside of me. I am surrounded by my dear friends and family. I am hunkered in the ICU waiting room for the day, not expecting to hear any word until at least 11:30 or 12:00. Around 10:00, I see Adam's surgeon, Dr. Guyton, walk into the waiting room and I figure he is there to see another family. But his gaze locks mine and my mind begins to do the math and I start to prepare myself to hear the worst because there could only be one reason why the surgery is over so soon.

Dr. Guyton says, "Hello, Jennifer. The bypass is complete and......." I hear nothing else even though he continues for several minutes. He leaves and I look up at the cieling and say thank to you to G-d and I try to breathe choking on heavy breaths and tears of relief. And part of me knows that this was easy part and now the hard part (his recovery) has begun.


So yes, last week proved to be an emotional week for us. Not only because with Happy Heart Day approaching emotions were running high while we were busy remembering what we were doing at this time last year, but also because we received word that Adam's beloved cardiologist died. The man he viewed as almost a father and who took such amazing care of this ridiculously young, pregnant and frightened couple, the man whose son sits in our synagogue and worships with us on Shabbat mornings who only through his father's death we have had the pleasure of officially meeting, the man who has a lovely and loving wife, grandchildren, patients who revere him for his beautiful bedside manner. The doctor who calls on Sunday nights to check in, who practices medicine the way it has stopped being practiced by other doctors. Who would spend countless hours in conference rooms answering even the silliest questions with seriousness and compassion. Who hugged my husband tightly not more than two weeks ago to share the happiness of a full recovery. Dr. Mark Silverman, who was kind, and gentle, and quite literally held my husband's hand through one of the darkest times of his life. We visited his home during Shiva on Monday night and it was clear to me that we were among the many (hundreds!?) of people whose lives he has significantly touched. I know Adam thanked him countless times for his guidance and care and I'm so glad he was able to do that. It reminds me (as if I needed reminders) of how important it is to tell the people in your lives what they mean to you while you have the chance.

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