One For the Heart

A UN of doctors saves a little American from ventricular septal defect

I wonder myself what that stuff was. Within five minutes he was goofy-groggy. He smiled and his head lolled a bit, his speech a little slurred. He was now drunk and fearless, and we both gave him a kiss.

He lay back and they wheeled him off.

The three handsome Mine boys, with little Joey in the middle; Doug and Nicki, rear
Steve Satterwhite
The three handsome Mine boys, with little Joey in the middle; Doug and Nicki, rear

I don't know if this kid is normal. I mean, I'm astounded by the fact that never, not once, in the days and hours leading up to his operation, in the week he'd known about it, did he have a moment of discernible fear or even anxiety. Both Nico and I had expected and been preparing for the times he'd get choked up and fearful and whimper that he didn't want them to do this to him, that he was scared. We thought maybe the night before. But no. Not even in the pre-op room. No fear. No hugs or reassurances.

He didn't need that.

If we'd been asked beforehand, both of us would have said Joseph would be the one of our three most likely to fall prey to anxiety, and to show his fear. He's the one with the most fertile imagination, the most sensitive to background emotional vibes, and the least "tough" in your basic old-school backwoods scheme of things.

But he proved himself the toughest of all of us. A rock.

For me, the worst time was what you might imagine. About an hour after they'd wheeled him off. Shortly after Nurse Jane had come to advise us that he was completely under, and they were going to begin. We'd been sitting in the waiting room up on the cardiac surgery intensive-care wing, the big room with oversize chairs that at night the parents can extend into beds. After a while I got up and went to a big window that looks down on a parking lot for the doctors, and leaned on a rail there. I was looking down at the cars shining in the bright hot sun, the fronds of the palms waving, their rustle inaudible. You've been resisting letting your thoughts become visual, but when you know these are the minutes when they've bared your boy's breast and are sawing into it ... well. I leaned there and started crying. No big chest heaving or flood ... just a couple of thick beads of desolation.

My back was to her, but Nicki saw what was going on. She came over and hugged me from behind, and said everything was going to be okay.

You know, I knew that. That wasn't what was making me feel so bad. It wasn't fear. I had been afraid in the previous weeks. The night Joe and I came home from the cardiologist in January, I was sleeping, it was the middle of the night, and I woke up with a start and thought I'd just had the worst nightmare -- but it was no dream. Fear was there for me until the previous day -- then, from somewhere, I had the sense that Joe would be fine.

But what I felt anyway was sadness. I was dejected that Joe had to go through this, and we -- I -- couldn't go through it for him. Maybe that substitution impulse defines fatherhood?

So we'd been dealing with these things for several weeks. And were still dealing with them, Nicki and I, there in the waiting room. After a while, Jane, a fine woman, came back and told us they were operating, that he was on the heart-lung machine, and that she'd be back from time to time for updates.

We weren't the only parents on the ward. In the few hours since we'd arrived at dawn, we'd spoken with two families. One was a couple from Nebraska, whose fifteen-year-old girl Carrie had been operated on three days before. It was her second open heart surgery in seven months. They'd been living in Miami, and Carrie had had some extensive reconstruction of her aorta. That had seemed to go well, and a few months after she'd recovered, they moved to Nebraska. Then suddenly she'd suffered heart failure, and came close to dying. This was because some supposedly new and improved heart-tissue patch material had proved eminently useless, and had begun to come apart. After she'd achieved some degree of stability in Omaha, she was flown on a medevac jet back to Miami and they'd operated again. According to her parents, the surgery had gone well. The only thing was, she wasn't waking up, even three days after the operation. She wasn't in a coma, but she wasn't regaining consciousness, and was still on the respirator. She would open her eyes a couple times during the day, and seem to recognize Mom or Dad and glance around and maybe understand where she was. But she just wasn't coming out of a post-operative sleep and breathing well on her own.

The other parents were from Missouri. Their little girl was named Kinley. She was born with a syndrome called Marfan, which includes heart defects, abnormally elongated hands, and, in Kinley's case, extreme thinness. She was two-and-a-half, and had had successful heart surgery in St. Louis a year earlier. She had been doing quite well over the winter there in Missouri, walking and talking. A bright little girl, with blue eyes and dark blond curls.

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