In my previous post, I covered the experience of having my left foot amputated because of vascular disease. That was a challenge, to say the least. But within a matter of days things got worse.
I was doing well following the surgery. The morning after the operation a physical therapist came to my room and encouraged me to get out of bed and try walking with a walker. I was able to walk—or more accurately, hop—a little down the hallway and back, and she was enthusiastic about how well I did.
A case worker signed me up for the rehab program that I was to be transferred to within a matter days. I was already making plans to squeeze in some work time between the exercise sessions at the rehab facility. My sons went home thinking I was on the mend.
A few days later, however, my health began to deteriorate. I woke up one morning feeling extremely weak, and thought I was dehydrated. Breathing became increasingly difficult and my blood pressure began to drop. My body wasn’t getting enough oxygen. I went into respiratory failure and then congestive heart failure and my kidney function began to decline.
The doctors moved me to the surgical intensive care unit (ICU) in critical condition. I was given a respiratory device to help with breathing, and the continuous influx of oxygen made it difficult to speak. The truth is, I was dying and I knew it. I could feel it.
It soon became clear that this had gone beyond surgical complications; it had become more of a heart issue. As a result, I was moved into the cardiac ICU. Each move involved multiple staff members and devices to ensure my safety during the transfer.
My wife called my sons to let them know how bad things had become. They both hopped on planes and came back. The resident cardiologist in the ICU and his team came into my room to discuss with us the possible diagnostic and treatment options. All of these sounded frightening and unappealing, not the least of which was open heart surgery.
The first procedure they would perform would be a transesophageal echocardiography(TEE), a test that produces pictures of your heart using high-frequency sound waves. This would give the doctors more detailed information so they could decide what to do next.
To do the test, and to help my organs get the oxygen they were so desperately in need of, I would need to be put on a ventilator for an indefinite period. Even in my semi-conscious state, I was adamant about not wanting to be on the ventilator for a prolonged period, and Reneé understood my wishes on this.
With my body failing and my spirits declining, I was leaning toward not going ahead with any more procedures. I felt as if I was done. It was then that Reneé, Andrew and Tim all said they thought it was worth at least doing the test to get a better idea of what condition my heart was in and what the options were. They were not ready to give up.
I struggled with my feelings, not wanting to fight what seemed like an unwinnable fight, but after a while I ultimately came to the same conclusion. As much as I didn’t want to face additional and potentially major procedures, I could not let my family down. I couldn’t give up my life without at least giving this a chance and fighting a bit longer, although I thought at that point the odds were against me.
As we waited for the staff to put me on the respirator, I couldn’t speak easily because of the breathing device I was on, so I began writing goodbye messages to my family. It was heartbreaking but I forged ahead. I scribbled on notebook pages as best I could, blinking the tears out of my eyes. I felt an urgency to complete the letters before the medical staff arrived. It felt like a final deadline after decades of facing deadlines for articles in my career as a writer.
In turn, my sons wrote me letters. It was a beautiful expression of love between us. My hope was that my letters, what I thought would be my last words to them, would be something they could hold on to after I was gone. I treasured the words they wrote to me and will continue to treasure them. This was truly a special moment in the midst of a very difficult time.
While we continued to wait, a Catholic priest came into my room. My family was all gathered around. The priest led us in a few prayers. It was very comforting and provided me with a sense of hope and peace. When the medical staff arrived to do the procedure, I waved goodbye to my loved ones. Although I was sad, I wasn’t really afraid. After being given a sedative I drifted off to sleep, saying a silent prayer.
I’m not sure how long I was out, but as I slowly regained consciousness I opened my eyes and saw a sign on the wall that said “Welcome to the Cardiac ICU” or some such thing. I was happy to have made it through the procedure. Because I was still on the respirator and heavily medicated, I experienced a surreal feeling of being alive and yet not alive at the same time.
I felt as if I was existing in a strange place between life and death. It was a struggle to come to grips with exactly what was going on. One thing I immediately realized was that I was on the ventilator. It was uncomfortable; I kept drooling down my neck and couldn’t relax. How long will I need to be on this, I wondered.
To communicate, I continued to scribble messages to family members and the hospital staff on notebook pages. The hours drifted by slowly. Still sedated, I drifted in and out of sleep.
Then, a remarkable thing happened. My body began to recover. The doctors were amazed as the condition of my heart and lungs began to improve dramatically over the next few hours. My kidney took a bit longer to rebound and there had been some talk of putting me on dialysis. Fortunately, the kidney doctors following my case were positive that my kidney would also make a full recovery, and dismissed the idea of any immediate intervention.
Within a day I was taken off the ventilator, which made me feel so much more comfortable and that I was going in the right direction. Soon after I was moved out of the ICU to a regular cardiac floor, where I would remain for a week and a half before moving on to the rehab facility.
It was especially encouraging and exhilarating to see my kidney function improve so quickly. I received this kidney through a transplant from Reneé 27 years ago, and it has seen its share of hard blows over the years and bounced back again and again.
Shortly after the transplant we had nicknamed my kidney “George” and Reneé’s remaining kidney “Georgette”. I’m not sure why, but it has stuck over the years. Even the resident cardiologist in the ICU began referring to my kidney as George after he heard the name mentioned. We were all rooting for George to rebound.
There’s so much to take away from this entire experience when it comes to gratitude. Again, it starts with my family. Reneé visited me every day I was in the hospital, often getting there early in the morning and staying until the evening. The support she provided was incalculable, and I don’t think I would have made it through without her.
My sons and their girlfriends had to make abrupt changes in their plans to come back to the hospital on short notice, and were at my side during some of the most difficult times. Other members of my family and Reneé’s family also visited.
It meant so much to me to have them all there for support. Sometimes it’s the most challenging of life’s experiences that enable us to realize how much we are loved and how much we appreciate those around us.
During my five-week stay in the hospital and rehab facility I got to see, once again, how hard-working and dedicated a medical staff can be. Dozens of nurses, doctors, aids and technicians treated me for one thing or another. They provided a tremendous sense of positivity. Of all those dozens of people, I can’t recall a single person who did not act upbeat, positive and encouraging. This is incredible, considering all the stress and challenges they must have to deal with on a regular basis.
This episode was the second time within less than a year that I nearly lost my life due to serious illness. It was traumatizing, scary and humbling. But it also gave me lots of reasons to be grateful. Ultimately, I was even grateful for the ventilator because it helped stabilize my breathing as I began to recover.
The near-death experiences have given me reasons for deep soul-searching. One thing is clear to me: those of us who have been given extra chances in life have every reason to be grateful for each day. And maybe even more important, we have the opportunity to serve as inspirations for those around us to cherish each day and not take a single moment for granted.
It’s easier to be grateful when things are going well, but maybe not so much when you’re facing real difficulties. There certainly have been moments when I felt zero gratitude. But a lesson I’ve learned is that even in the darkest times, there is light. We just have to give ourselves a chance to see it.
“This is a wonderful day. I have never seen this one before.”—Maya Angelou