Some of you may remember that I started a thread asking about experiences with triple bypass surgery (CABG or “cabbage” in the trade). What actually happened was so improbable and melodramatic that nothing will do it justice more than a 1950s comic book splash panel treatment!
The operation was a success! I had no pain at all from the giant cut down the center of my body. All the medical people who moved through my room remarked at how perfect the incision was. It’s healing fast.
But! The horror crept up slowly at first. What sent me to the doctor were extreme shortages of breath at seemingly random times – walking upstairs, rolling over in bed – making all the oxygen in the world go away, leaving me figuratively clawing the air to get air into my lungs. Nothing sends you into a panic faster than being without air! I knew the proper way to fight it – breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, what they call the huff-puff – but I couldn’t grasp hold of the technique through the panic. These sessions would last five minutes or more before I returned to normal breathing.
The horror returned! These panic moments continued in the hospital after the operation. I rationalized them by telling myself that I was at the start of a long recovery, made worse by the weakness of my body after a major operation. No miracle cures. And I passed all the tests needed for discharge. False hope!
I went home on a frigid Sunday afternoon, huddled in a ball. By Tuesday morning I was a wreck. I got barely a bite of breakfast down. My blood oxygen never hit 90, the lowest safe point. I was essentially a lump, who checked off all the boxes on the “if you feel like this, call 911” sheet in my discharge packet. My wife called. An ambulance showed up in about 20 minutes. The EMTs heard “shortness of breath” and kept telling me that if I had COVID they would just send me home. Nothing would persuade them otherwise. Ruined my first ambulance ride.
I only stayed in the ED for 7 ½ hours, short for these days, before they re-admitted me to my unit. But not the same room. Here’s where we meet our uncanny central character! Room 2!
The units in this section of the hospital all follow a similar plan. A corridor from the main hallway opens up on a central nurses’ station surrounded by 14 rooms forming a rough, incomplete circle. All doors are only a few steps away. But the rooms are cut up into irregular shapes, no two alike, and the double rooms are so narrow that stuff has to be moved to get a walker through. This isn’t some relic of an ancient building; the unit was gutted to the walls and rebuilt a year ago. They’re moving to a new building in five years so nothing will be fixed. This is one of the country’s major teaching hospitals, and a big name in cardiac care.
Would a VIP condescend to stay in such a hole? I always wondered where they were stashed. You anticipate me, I’m sure. The answer is: Room 2.
Room 2 is in the corridor, as far away from the nurses’ station as physically possible, opposite the staff break room and probably larger. Equipment is standard; the same hospital bed and recliner and television. What it offers is space. Huge amounts of space. Everything plugged into the walls needs long extension cords to reach both to the bed and to the recliner. It’s full of light from a giant window and has an assortment of bulbs including a sunshine mimic. The bathroom was a full separate room with niches for the toilet and shower area, easily double the size of the one in my earlier double room.
Not that I cared. I spent a day getting tested for everything they could think of, while they kept pumping more and more oxygen into me, peaking at 7 liters a minute, which is a lot. They found a blood clot in my right lung, a not uncommon pulmonary embolism, and started me on a heparin iv, a blood thinner to let the cells slip past the clot. My hematocrit fell to a dismal 23 (normal minimum 40) so they started an iron iv. Weak as a kitten was not a metaphor. The cardiac doctors sensibly knew they needed help, and a pulmonary expert was brought in to evaluate me.
He solved the mystery! My left lung was full of fluid, a partial collapse known as a pulmonary edema. Again, this is not uncommon by itself. But the combination is unheard of outside the operation of the Infinite Improbability Drive. I hit the losing number of two lotteries simultaneously!
That little two pronged tube in the nose you see on every hospital show was a garden hose at a three-alarm fire. I went up tthe big step to a mask attached to an air bag. The world roared from the pump but I got no better. I didn’t care. Despite the cliches, I had no interest in fighting my death. I wasn’t raging. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t sad. My brain had retreated to a spot attached to the inside of my skull, observing events from a far distance. Human I no longer was. I had no fear, no anxiety, no hope. I wanted it to stop, but I was perfectly aware that it probably wouldn’t. Death was the likely outcome but that was just an intellectual curiosity. I felt sorry for my wife, true, but abstractly, like a greeting card.
The clot needed time, so no sudden cure there. Couldn’t the fluid be drained? Well, yes, except that poking a long needle into a lung while a patient was being pumped full of blood thinners was simply too dangerous, said my surgeon. He was got to, probably by the pulmonary specialist. (Actual quote afterward: “you were right, I was wrong.”) Suddenly the room filled with people, at least a dozen. No other room on the floor could have handled the crowd, only Room 2. That obviated the need to find an open procedure room and move me halfway across the hospital. Did minutes count? I’d like to think so. My life may have been saved because I accidentally got placed in a room that could accommodate my need.
I was perched on the side of the bed, bent over the tray table covered by a pillow. A small prick of lidocaine numbed my back. I was still wearing the roaring oxygen mask, but I heard the surgeon explain step by step what he did to his band of residents. Some nurse held my hand during the procedure, which I greatly appreciated.
He drained at least a liter of fluid from the lung, and installed drains so that more could drizzle out for another day. A large bottle of Coke inside a lung. No wonder I couldn’t get any air. Removing the fluid made all the difference! I started breathing without the bag! The rest was maintenance. Lonely maintenance, since no visitors were allowed. To rub my face in my luck that policy ends tomorrow. (If it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all. Sing it, Albert.)
I’m home now. It’s not over. I have a nasty case of phlebitis in my thigh, an inflammation from the removal of the vein to use as a bypass. I’m old enough to remember when we made fun of Nixon for having this funny-sounding ailment after he resigned in disgrace. For the first and hopefully only time in my life, I feel sympathy toward Richard Nixon. I need to make that stop.
Now comes the long road of walking, exercises, diet change, and strength gaining that will fill the next few months. I’ll be back on the Dope, acerbic as ever. I’ve been lurking the whole time. You know what I found? Someone is wrong on the internet. This must be corrected!
Anyway, as a story this was too good not to share. I can’t remember ever reading about an experience like this. I don’t recommend it, even though I lost a pant size in weight. All I can say is that when you need help, trust the world’s largest superhero: Room 2.