One For the Heart

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

I was giddy almost. Nico looked a little shaken by the sight of him, so still and white. We held hands and walked the hall a couple of times before Jane came and told us to go to the ICU.

Now the sheet was down, so you could see a lot more. He was very connected to all sorts of stuff. The incision was visible under nearly transparent steri-strips. At its lower end, a tube emerged, one to drain the chest cavity of fluid. Joe was unconscious, and cadaverous-looking, his lips blanched. A yellow tube, called a central line, which goes into the carotid artery and runs down to the heart and is used to administer medicine, was stitched into his neck. He had an IV tube in his right hand, a red E.T.-kind of light over his left index fingertip, a diaper on and another tube, which was around his penis, coming out of that. There were also several electrodes stuck on his chest and extremities.

Nicoletta broke down in sobs.

It's true, Joe looked bad there. But I remained elated. He looked like I'd imagined, but his chest was rising and falling, so everything seemed great to me. He was hooked up and super-monitored, in the best hands, and everything was downhill from here on. I hugged Nico and said, "Amor, he's doing great, he's great."

"I know," she said, between sobs. "It's just seeing him like that."

Debbie, a young South African woman who is very kind, asked Nicki if she was OK and put a gentle hand on her shoulder.


From there, it turned out, it wassmooth sailing.

Joe was on antibiotics and a solution to keep him hydrated, and morphine for the pain he was going to feel once he woke up. Nico and I both pulled up chairs to his bedside and watched him sleep. We soaked in our sense of relief. He began stirring about a half-hour later, and over the next 45 minutes, came out of his deep sleep. His first sounds were whimpers, and weak calls for Mamma. She stroked him and told him she was there.

When he'd come around a little more, he started rolling from side to side on the bed. I mean, rolling from his back onto his right side, then rolling over to his left side, across the bed, then trying to sit up, opening his eyes and starting to complain, though still more with sounds than with words. And I thought, What the hell is this? An hour ago this kid's chest was pried wide open, and now he's rolling around?

"Debbie," I asked, alarmed. "Can he roll around like that?"

"Oh, yes. He can't hurt himself. Everything is all held together tightly," she said, and I remembered Burke had told us they'd put six steel rings around the sternum to hold the two sides together. Rings that will remain there throughout his life.

That afternoon, Joe struggled out of the dark hole he'd been in. The first coherent thing he said, in a voice that sounded just like his old one, was: "I'm really, really thirsty."

And that made us laugh, like most everything he would say over the course of the next hour.

Debbie gave him a paper cup of water, which Joe, half sitting now and almost completely aware of his surroundings, gulped down. About a minute later he threw it up. He threw up at least three times that afternoon, after drinking water or eating Popsicles.

He was enjoying the Popsicles, though. In the course of about an hour and a half, he ate first a red one, then a green one. It must have been around 3:00 p.m., and I'd raised the head of his bed some and he was half-sitting, seemingly quite comfortable despite the tubes and wires. I think it was the morphine. He was explaining to me that the next Popsicle, he wanted it to be blue. Then he stopped and looked at me, with his normal expression, and asked, "Dad, you know what I just realized?"

"What, Joe?"

"That I'm not talking as good as I used to."

I laughed, and he smiled.


Like the operation itself, the recovery went extremely well. Joe spent Wednesday and Thursday nights in Intensive Care, and Nicoletta and I slept in the waiting room; whenever Joe woke up, the nurse would come get one of us. There were some ugly moments. Taking out the central line was bad, with Joe yelling and kicking, held down by three adults. But even that feistiness was seen by the doctors as a good sign.

On the second day, still in ICU, he said he wanted to do caca. So I got him down off the bed -- he was unattached to the tubes and monitors by now, though he still had the IV input taped to his hand and flopping around -- and took him over to the swing-out toilet.

He hadn't defecated since Tuesday, and had been on morphine, which tends to constipate. So I'd figured this was not going to be easy. Sure enough, when he pushed even slightly, he winced.

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