I’ll never forget the phone call. Friday night. We jump in the truck in the grocery store parking lot to head home at 6pm. John’s phone rings. It’s the cardiologist. My heart fell to the seat of the truck. I already knew. There’s no way a cardiologist would be calling on a Friday night with good news. Our doctor was stuttering little and it seemed a little difficult for him to get the words out.
“Your aorta looks to be 5.5 cm wide, and I would like you to meet with the surgeon so he can have a look.”
All I heard was:
What the hell does 5.5 cm mean?
I had no idea.
And, we already knew what it meant. Surgeon got us in right away in two weeks time. Those two weeks were a complete blur. Our appt day finally came. His aorta was actually 6 cm, and they recommend surgery at 5cm. It doesn’t get smaller. It gets larger. Any larger there’s no living through it. He said, “We need to fix it. I can fix it.” He then proceeded to tell us a little bit about the surgery and the man made aorta he was going to put in John’s heart to replace the enlarged one. NBD.
(One of my friends taught me how to shorten ‘no big deal” into three letters. Thank God because those three words are so cumbersome.)
Surgeon grabbed his scheduler and moved another woman’s spot to get us in in two weeks. NBD.
He told us to take it easy; no exercising, no weights, nothing. John will be in the hospital for 5 days and they he’ll be good to go. NBD.
Just another day at the office.
I mean, on the one hand, that’s what you want in a surgeon: someone who has done this exact same surgery 5 times a week for 15 years. And, because of that, it’s just another day in the office for him. Not so much for us.
The next two weeks were a blur, too. I know I cried at everything. I can’t remember details. We wanted to make the most out of every second together. I wished we could have just flown to Maui and spend those two weeks alone, but that wasn’t going to work out. I just remember tears. And fear. That would be the theme for the following 5 months as it turns out.
3 Days before surgery, he had an angiogram where they put a teeny camera into your veins (arteries? both? Not sure) to see if there are any clogged arteries to go along with the aorta-about-to-blow. The doctor found two. He usually keeps patients over night after those procedures, but John’s sales skills sure come in handy sometimes! He let us go home late that night.
1 day before surgery we went to the hospital to get all the pre-surgery testing and instructions. We came back to the dealership to say goodbye to everyone and thank them for holding down the fort while we were gone. Before we left, they handed us a leather wrapped journal and told us not to open it until we got home.
It was filled with handwritten notes, quotes, and jokes from everyone on our team. with tons of photos snuck in between the pages. We actually couldn’t read them all. It was so moving and we were too raw. Too emotional. John was incredibly touched to see the care and love shown by each of his team members. I think he knew that they cared about him, but he’s never been given anything so special from anyone he’s ever lead in his 40-year career in the car business. We shed more tears.
After tossing and turning for a what seemed like 100 hours but was really 5, the alarm clock went off at 3:30 am. We had to report to the hospital at 5am. We didn’t sleep at all. But John was ready to get in there and get it over with. I wasn’t. I wasn’t ready. How can anyone be ready for this? It’s impossible.
When we first arrived, they only took John back to get him ready. Then they called me back and I was able to sit with him until they took him into the surgery room. John was in good spirits. He was anxiously awaiting the moment when he could say to the surgeon, “Let’s get this show on the road.” He thought he was so clever. The anesthesiologist came in to talk about putting him to sleep. The surgeon came in to check on us. We were kissing and he told us to knock it off. He is a great doctor, seriously. He put us at ease and said he was headed to the operating room. Then the nurse came in and reassured us that Dr. Amabile was an amazing surgeon and that John would do great. We were in good hands and there was nothing to worry about.
She was really convincing. She’s been a surgical nurse for 4 decades, and I was grateful for that bit of hope. I didn’t know what to expect, but she did. I gave John one more kiss and they wheeled him away! He had a smile on is face and said “See you soon!” to that I replied, “I’ll be right here!”
I took all of his stuff to the car. He wasn’t going to use any of that for a while. I walked outside quite frequently because it was 90 degrees outside, and negative 97 inside!!!! I had three long-sleeved layers on, and one of them was Under Armour. I was still freezing. And then the first of two angels called me to see how I was doing. I was fine, until I heard Stephanie’s voice on the other end of the phone. And then I burst into tears. For the most part, I could convince myself that he would be fine and I would see him in a couple hours, but then, the possibility of that NOT happening crept in. And I was terrified.
My second angel, Deiudon, called me shortly after. She was one of my bridesmaids in my wedding, and I was one of hers. We haven’t seen each other very much since, but she’s still right there when I need her. I was so grateful have someone to talk to. Keep my mind off of what was happening inside that huge hospital building. It made the first 2 hours go by so much faster than it would have with me just sitting in the waiting room. I had flashbacks to when I was waiting for my daughter to get out of surgery when she was 2 days old, many years before.
I got the first call from the hospital. He’s on the bypass machine. Which means the machine is keeping him alive while they work on his heart. She said the next call will be letting me know he’s OFF the bypass, his heart is pumping and they are sewing him back up.
The time in between those two calls seemed like 87 years. The time was creeping by. My amazing sisters, who all live out of town, asked me what they could do, and I told them to send me videos of their kids. So I had videos pouring in, all my adorable nieces and nephews who make me laugh so much.
There was a therapy dog roaming around the waiting room with her mom. She said she has been doing this for 30 years. Visiting waiting rooms with her pups, helping us “waiters” distract our minds and put a smile on our faces. It works too!
1,000 days later, the surgeon finally came through the door. More tears. He said John actually had three arteries that were clogged, and so he did a triple bypass in addition to putting in his new bionic aorta. He said, “John has a lot of plaque on his heart. Does he have high blood pressure?” To which I replied, “Yeah. He’s been in the car business for 40 years.” Dr. Amabile replied, “Try being a surgeon.” I died. Folks, always know your audience before you speak.
He said he had another surgery after John’s, and then a heart transplant that same night. ALL IN ONE DAY! I was happy that we were first! Not because I didn’t want the surgeon to be tired, but because the surgery lasted 5 hours, and if we had been his second surgery, I wouldn’t have been able to see John wake up. Visiting hours were over at 6pm every night.
The thing we kept visualizing before surgery was the moment he would wake up and I would be right there looking at him. Well, just like every other aspect of this journey, nothing happened the way we envisioned.
He wouldn’t wake up! He’d open his eyes a bit and then fell back asleep. This went on for hours.
The nurse was changing his dressings and found that one of the tubes coming out of his body was GUSHING blood. I had to look away. They didn’t know what to do and at that exact moment, Dr. Amabile came in to check on him. He asked the nurses to run and get the supplies to stitch him up and then told me to apply pressure! What?!?!? No! I didn’t become a nurse for this exact reason! I panicked, pressed hard onto my husband gushing stomach, and looked the other way. The doctor stitched him up right there in the ICU.
It had been enough time, we now needed him to wake up and breathe on his OWN so they could take the trachea tube out (I think that’s the name) He kept closing his eyes! I turned on music, I patted his feet, and I kept saying, “you want that tube out of your throat, right? You gotta wake up! You gotta stay awake. It’s the only way we can get that tube out.” The respiratory therapist was leaving at 6pm, so we had a deadline. I wanted that tube out before she left for the day.
We had 30 minutes left.
We blasted the music, we kept telling him to breathe hard. He had to breathe for a certain amount of time and a certain amount of intensity in order for the tube to be safely removed. This was also something I did NOT want to witness. Finally, at 10 til 6, he passed the test. The nurse and the respiratory therapist said, “one, two, three” and basically ripped it out of his throat. I was watching the window. And when it came out, his first words were,
(Sorry, mom, for the swearing)
I think he’s allowed to say anything he wants after what he just went through!
Man I’ve never been so happy to be married to a tough mofo who grew up on the streets (literally in the projects) and had already survived 19 times he should have died. John is a SCRAPPER. He’s insane.
He could have some water and ice I think at the beginning. He pain was out of control, his mind was not working, he was on a thousand medicines and just the anesthesia alone does a DOOZY on your body.
He doesn’t remember any of the hospital stay.
The only things he remembers are the things that didn’t actually happen. He was hallucinating big time. Another thing they didn’t warn us about, but that they see every day. Thanks for the heads up!
Like the second night when he thought the security guards were going to kill him, and he called 911. The operator, not surprised by his location, assured him that no one was going to kill him and he was in the hospital. He kept calling me every 10 minutes saying that he was going to die and that they were coming after him. This was hours before the visiting hours began, so I just assured him that I was on my way. Every time he would just hang up on me. Angry that I wasn’t there.
Later that day, our older kids came to visit. Only two people at a time are able to visit him, so I came down to the lobby while they went up to see their dad.
When they came back down, they told me about him relaying his almost-homicide-near-death experience he “had”. The nurse was in the room and she said to him, “And when you called 911, they told you you were in the hospital, right?” to which he replied, “Yes, but I’m still suspicious.”
I can’t stop laughing about that one.
All of the days in the hospital were the same. I showed up at 10am, nurses and doctors and more nurses and more doctors came in and out, waking him up every second, checking all his vitals, giving him medicine. He was miserable. I didn’t do much. In fact, as it turns out, he wouldn’t have even remembered if I had been there at all. Every night, I’d leave at 6pm and go home. So happy that visiting hours had ended and I could sleep in my own bed.
Finally the day came where both the cardiologist and the surgeon came in separately and told us he was good to go home!
I had every emotion on the planet. Relief that he was cleared to go home. Happy that he would be able to sleep finally. Afraid of what I was going to be like the next 5 weeks he couldn’t drive or work, and mostly dread… and Fear. What is he going to need? Am I going to be able to give it to him? Will he be in pain? What if something happens? What if the medicine isn’t working? What if we run out of pain meds? What is he going to be like on drugs for weeks?
What if what if what if…..It’s a horrible thing to play over and over in your head. I don’t recommend it.
Just driving him home is weird enough. He always drives when we are together. Everything was weird. Nothing was normal. I had no idea at that time that “normal” was gone and wouldn’t really return for many many many months. To say I was unprepared for the following months would be the understatement of the century.
But I have to say, I’m grateful I had no idea.
— COMING UP —
— Story will be continued next week —