A Dose Of Vulnerability - 05.03.99

Last week was one of those seven-day periods that seemed to last much longer than it really should have. Part of the reason was because I had a busier-than-normal time at work and with trying to get other things done at home, but the thing that piled on top of it all and made each day stretch out even more was finding out my Dad had to have surgery. It wasn't just an everyday surgery either. Just 10 days ago he went into the doctor complaining of a shortness of breath and slight pain, and then after a few tests the doctors told him he would be having bypass heart surgery in three days.

Just to give you a little more information, my Dad is only 52 years old. While I've known younger people to have heart surgery, it didn't really ever occur to me that it would happen to my Dad so soon. While he wasn't a portrait of perfect health, he was fairly fit, had a decent cholesterol count, and didn't smoke or drink. I knew that he was going to be in the hospital for some testing, but I guess I put it out of my head that he would actually be in line for some kind of surgery. When he called me from the hospital and told me all the news, I was shocked to say the least.

They kept him under observation for the few days prior to the surgery to monitor him, and I went in every day to drop by for at least a short visit. I knew what was going to take place on the following Monday, but perhaps my way of dealing with things was to think the best about every situation at every possible time. I knew that although it was a major surgery, it was done thousands of times every day across the United States, and really had become almost commonplace. I got up extra early on Monday morning to go in and see him before the surgery, and left the hospital knowing that while I was at work, doctors would be cutting into his chest and through his ribcage, stopping his heart while keeping his heart circulating on a machine, then bypassing the clogged arteries with veins from his leg and arm. It was all strange to think about, so I tried not to.

Throughout the 4-5 hour procedure, my step-mother called me at work and kept me informed on the doctors progress reports. Everything went as planned and no unexpected complications arose at any point. The next thing I knew, they told me he was out of surgery and they had seen him.

When I left work and headed to the hospital that day, I knew that I would be seeing him in Critical Care. As I walked through the corridors of hallways, I could feel my own pulse start to rise wondering what had happened and what he would look like.

My aunt and grandmother were both in the room when I entered, and at that point I suddenly became unsure quite what I should do. Although I've been in hospitals many times before in my life, I always tend to be uncomfortable in them (as many do, I'm sure) and so I hugged them both and then went around to the side of the bed where my fathers head was facing. He still had his breathing tube in and I could hear different machines beeping and glanced up at monitors as numbers noted changes in his condition.

I looked down at his face and said his name, but wasn't sure if he even recognized me. His eyes were both glazed-over and glassy-looking and I wasn't sure if his slight head nod was to acknowledge me or whether it was simply a reflex. I stood there for awhile and said a few things I can't remember now, then moved around and talked to my other relatives in the room. I felt a completely strange blend of emotions as I sat there and looked at my father who wasn't moving, save a slight rise and fall of his chest.

One of the many emotions I know that I felt was vulnerability. Here was the person who had helped teach me several sports and who I had just played pool with only 2 weeks before, laying in a hospital bed and having some difficulty breathing. It made me sort of nervous just watching it all, counting a rhythym of breathing and heart rate, then becoming slightly alarmed every time one of them fluctuated a little. Not only was one of my parents lying in a bed as helpless as a child, but there was really nothing that I could do to help.

I ended up staying for several hours that night, basically just sitting and watching and sharing a few words with others in the room. That night when I went home, I couldn't get to sleep and I wondered what he would be like the next day when I visited and whether he would even remember I was there the night before.

As it turns out, I was greatly surprised to find him sitting up and eating a turkey dinner the very next day when I stopped in after work. He was talking (albeit a bit more quiet than usual) and moving in slow, deliberate motions. Still, it was much easier for me to see than the previous evening.

Each day was almost incremental in the amount of improvement that showed. The next day, the nurses had him walking a bit, and by the day after that, he was moved out of the Critical Care unit and back into his own room in a less care intensive area. Now, only a week later, he's back home and taking it easy (something which he has to do for the next 2 months). He can't lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk, and won't be driving for well over a month as well.

I know that I'll be visiting him quite a bit, and probably even end up mowing his lawn several times over the course of the rehabilitation, but really it's a small price to pay to not feel what I did when I first walked into the room and saw him the day he had surgery.