A Year Ago

It doesn’t feel appropriate to write about writing, or publishing, or my books today, so I won’t. I’ll write about a kind of anniversary, but not the kind you look forward to.

Just over a year ago, my family was told Dad was going to die. No ifs, ands, buts, or hope offered, just cold, sharp fact. He was too damaged to live, he would never get out of ICU, he’s on too much support, he doesn’t have to go through this, we can end it right now.

Like most families, we have our problems. We don’t always get along, or even like each other. But Dad was always the “boss,” or at least thought he was. He couldn’t be laid so low, not by something as simple as a heart attack.

It started on a Wednesday. He thought his asthma was out of control and went to the doctor. The doctor agreed and shoved a new inhaler into his hand while shoving him out the door. All right, he didn’t, but later that’s how it felt. When Dad was no better, was in fact quite a lot worse that Friday and was severely out of breath after changing a light bulb, my CNA/CMA, asthmatic sister made him lift his shirt. When she saw him retracting (for those that don’t know, it means his sides were sinking in whenever he took a breath, like the skin was shrinking around his ribs), she and Mom didn’t even give him a choice before dragging him to the emergency room.

Of course it wasn’t asthma. He’d had a heart attack on Wednesday. They were told it was a mild heart attack, and based on the EKG readings, the doctor said if it had to happen, it had happened in the best way possible. So he was given a hospital room, hooked up to monitors, and waited for the cath lab to have an opening. The next Wednesday when he went down, I took the day off work, though my attendance record really didn’t need it. And after all, they were just going to put in a stent, right?

Nope. As it turned out, just about the worst things that could be wrong, were. It had not been a mild heart attack, it had been massive and he should not have survived it. The blockage, in one of the main arteries into the heart, was almost complete and in a bad place. A stent turned into an emergency triple bypass. He spent a couple days in ICU, but walked his way to his room in Telemetry when they transferred him the Friday after surgery. Saturday he wasn’t feeling very well when we left the hospital, but no one thought much of it after what he’d been through, even the nurses. We went home with the safe, secure knowledge that he would be in the hospital another two or three weeks, then come home.

That didn’t happen either. Sunday morning as we were getting ready to leave for the hospital, the nurses called and said we had to get there NOW. When we arrived, we found out he’d gone into V-fib. V-fib is a heart rhythm defined in one medical dictionary as “a heart rhythm incompatible with life.” It had lasted less than a minute each episode, but they’d had to use the crash cart on him. Twice. He was in an induced coma, breathing with assistance from a ventilator.

It was that night that a doctor who shall remain unnamed told us he would die. He was on too much support and too many heart rhythm medications to ever leave ICU. He doesn’t have to go through this, we can end it right now. He had to be resuscitated, he’s not responsive to neurological tests, if he wakes up he’ll have severe brain damage. It was not a gentle offer from the doctors and nurses, it was a suggestion, and felt like an order. Mom agreed to take him from the full resuscitation list to limited resuscitation-they would try for a few minutes, not an extended time.

When Mom asked what she should do, I asked to wait to talk to his cardiac surgeon before anybody made any decisions. We agreed, especially after we all reminded each other, immediate and extended family, that Dad had said in the beginning that he wanted to fight. That was a long night, waiting for his surgeon to appear with the sunrise like some Old West hero. And he lived up to the simile. Yes, he could die, he told us. Yes, there could be an outcome we don’t want. But there’s no reason not to let him fight. His heart had never been out of rhythm long enough to cause severe brain damage. He could die, but he could heal, too.

I can’t describe how grateful we all were for just those few words of cautious hope. And how furious we were. Had we made any hasty decisions that night, he would have died immediately. His last breath would have been on our hands. We would not have known, of course, not for sure, but we always would have questioned.

Dad did not die. He spent an additional four weeks in ICU, during which we had dire warnings and assurances that this and that would happen at every step. The doctors, nurses, even the social workers, who I know were not trying to do harm but were trying to keep us grounded sow we wouldn’t feel that much more pain when “the inevitable’ happened, could give us the blackest predictions. He wouldn’t be able to get off the ventilator and they’d have to send him to Minneapolis to a hospital that specialized in long-term respiratory assistance. He would have to go to a nursing home. He would do this and not do that.

He proved every prediction wrong. He wasn’t allowed to walk out to Telemetry this time (he couldn’t walk more than a few steps after being kept unconscious or in a Propofol haze for a month), but after a much shorter stay in Telemetry during which an implantable defibrillator/pacemaker was installed, and an even shorter stay in a transitional unit, he came home. He had to use a walker, but he came in the house on his own two feet.

Later one of the head nurses told us she could count on one hand how many people survived the complications Dad went through.

I was back to work by then and wasn’t there to ask her how many of those families decided to end their loved one’s suffering.

All I know is that my living will is going to order them to do whatever is necessary to keep me here, to let me fight. It might be a cliché, but where there’s life, there is indeed hope. Give it a chance.

I guess I can tie the story in to my writing, cheesy as it is. After spending a night without hope, I learned that it’s one of the most uncomfortable feelings there is. Hope is what keeps my book out there for sale even after selling a total of one in the not-quite-month since publishing. It’s what keeps me going sometimes too, the (admittedly very, very faint) hope that I can someday make a living as a writer.

Hope is a good thing. My Dad is still here because we wouldn’t let hope be destroyed by the educated people who thought they knew better. Don’t let anyone destroy your hope, at least not without a second, third, fourth opinion. Don’t let anyone tell you not to dream. We’re humans, we need our dreams.

Good night, my writers. Keep the faith and keep fighting.


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