“You should be dead.”
I was finally awake and interacting with the world once more, after having my chest opened up, my heart and lungs detailed to clean out blood clots and repair cardiac birth defects, and then spending nearly two weeks unconscious while machines breathed for me.
As I slowly began my recovery, both mental and physical, I encountered many, many employees in the hospital who would greet me by name and tell me how glad they were to see me awake and moving around.
This was always followed by some variation of, “You should have died. We’re glad you didn’t!”
Even my surgeon told me he could hardly believe I lived.
(Not to put any pressure on me to get completely well again, or anything.)
I was extremely weak, and there was a lot of pain. And even though I had spent so much time unconscious, I was exhausted.
So the hospital staff began to torture me.
No, it wasn’t real torture; it just felt like it. I did breathing exercises to help my lungs recover. I was given special instructions on how to move and how to lift in such a manner as to protect my sternum while it healed. I learned how incredibly difficult it is to get out of bed without using one’s arms.
All I wanted to do was rest in bed and grimace; all the staff seemed to want me to do was sit in a chair, or walk around the care unit. Which I did, grudgingly and grimacingly. I wasn’t allowed to do the things I wanted; I didn’t want to do what I was allowed.
Even so, when I’d run into yet another nurse or orderly or x-ray technician who would smile, genuinely smile, when they saw that I was alive and kicking, it wasn’t difficult to smile back. While I still didn’t comprehend how dire my situation had been, I also was glad I was alive, pain and everything. I spoke so often to so many different caregivers during my recovery I became convinced that every employee at the hospital had taken care of me at some point.
I had a lot of thinking time. It was difficult for me to accept what had happened to me. While I could understand it, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the facts. To me, it seemed like I went to the hospital with a chest cold and woke up broken. The cognitive damage I was dealing with, combined with the memories of things that hadn’t happened, and the lack of memories of what did happen, made my experience feel like it had happened to someone else.
Except when I’d sneeze, or cough. That brought it all home when it felt like my chest was being torn in two.
A hematologist told me the clots had formed after the antibodies in my blood started attacking the walls of my blood vessels, roughening them and causing the blood to stick. What triggered this, however, is something we’ll probably never know.
He then told me I should have died (sigh) and that I had the worst case of blood clots he’d ever seen.
I told him I wasn’t sure if that should make me happy, or not.
My condition frustrated me. I expected to bounce back as quickly as I had from previous surgeries in my life, never mind how incongruent they were in comparison. My body was weak; more disturbingly, my mind was weak as well.
I tried to write with some paper and a pen one of my close friends brought me (among other things – between her and my roommate I was extremely well cared for on the civilian side of my hospital needs).
I managed to cover about a fourth of a page before my strength gave out. My disappointment escalated when I realized I couldn’t read back what I wrote.
Chickens wouldn’t be able to read what I had managed to scratch out. The only part I’ve ever been able to discern reads “Ha ha ha!”
The universe apparently laughed at my efforts.
Crafting a sentence was nearly beyond me as well. I confused words frequently. Homonyms were beyond me. Clarity was difficult to achieve. I started to believe that my writing career was at an end.
A small worry, however, compared to other matters I suffered through.
As humans, we’re constantly learning, gaining wisdom and insight where we can. For instance, while I was hospitalized, a quote from the show MASH came back to me time and time again: “No one ever died of embarrassment during a sponge bath.”
It feels like it though.
Slowly, my condition improved. I was a little stronger each day; I hurt a little less each day; I made a little more sense a little more each day. A month after my surgery, I was sent home with a cane to continue my recovery.
The cats were happy to see me.
Writing online updates for friends and family helped my mental recovery. Daily walks helped my physical recovery. But often it felt like I’d never be better again.
I spent my time reading, watching TV, and wondering how many gummy worms it would take to equal one serving of fruit. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavier than five pounds or a jug of milk. My jugs far outweighed both, as did practically everything else I encountered during the day.
The holidays came, feeling different than they had in the past. At Thanksgiving, I knew I had plenty for which to be thankful.
(Like my ability to not end a sentence with a preposition.)
Christmas was different, too. I felt more festive. I even put up a small artificial tree, with lights and ornaments, marking the first time in over a decade I hadn’t hung a drawing on the wall labelled “Tree”.
There were complications, of course. An e.coli infection at the end of my hospital stay had knocked back my progress. While I’d hoped to return to work at the beginning of the new year, in December it was discovered the wires holding my sternum together had pulled through the bone, leaving my chest in pieces that would require further surgery in January and delay my return to work.
I felt more medical anomaly than medical miracle.
The second surgery was smoother than the first, keeping me hospitalized for only five days. My sternum recovery time was reset to eight weeks again, but tempered by the joy I felt from having a solid rib cage once more.
Ribs aren’t meant to move independently any more than one should be able to see his heart throbbing underneath the skin where there should be breastbone instead.
This time, there were no chances taken. My sternum was reconstructed using heavy gauge wire and three titanium plates.
(I had secretly hoped for stainless steel plates so I could hang refrigerator magnets on my chest.)
Finally, I started back to my job at the beginning of March, five months after the adventure began.
(It seems my ability to write has returned, but as for quality … that’s really not for me to judge.)
An old friend mentioned online that he couldn’t imagine going through what I did.
I can easily imagine other people going through what I did because it wasn’t anything special, I told him. I dealt with it because I had to. That’s not bravery. That’s human spirit.
The heroes in my story are the surgeons and the doctors and the nurses and the respiratory therapists and the janitors and all the other healthcare workers involved in saving my life.
My roommate and my friends and my family and my coworkers and acquaintances and celebrities and everyone who gave me encouragement and kept me in their thoughts played big, heroic roles, too.
Heck, even my cats were more heroic than me, sticking right by me once I finally made it home with barely enough strength to shoo them to the side when they tried to sleep on my chest.
All I had to do was get better. And really, in comparison, I think I had the easy job.
Because I can’t imagine the helpless horror of watching any of my friends go through something similar. That takes a strength that I’m not sure I have.
Looking back, my recovery was slow and steady, with no real momentous breakthroughs.
Well, except for one …
When I was being discharged after the second surgery, the nurse bundled me into a wheelchair to take me to my ride home. The elevator was crowded with people. One family looked down at me, beaming smiles, and said just how happy I must be now that I was being discharged. Others nodded and murmured their agreement.
I looked back up at them all, and managed a tired, yet hopefully brave, smile.
“They’re sending me home to die,” I said.
The elevator fell instantly silent. The smiles froze on their faces as they tried to process and respond to what I had said.
I let the silence hang for a few uncomfortable seconds before I told them I was joking. Secretly, I was proud of myself for coming up with that joke on the spot.
It was that moment, right then, that I knew for sure.
I was going to be okay.