The next thing I knew…

Published on: April 6, 2010



mitchI got the much-feared “call in the middle of the night.” Except it wasn’t night — it was in the afternoon. My Mom needed heart surgery. It is something that happens to people all the time, it seems. But it is still a big deal. Especially when it involves a Mom. My Mom.
The next thing I knew, I was on a plane bound for the upper Midwest. Shortly after that, I was walking in a grocery store with my Mom the day before her surgery. I was astounded that she didn’t show even a hint of nervousness considering the scope of her impending operation. After that, I was jolted awake by my cell phone at 2:00 a.m. and we were on the road to a Sioux Falls, SD hospital by 3:30 a.m. Just after that, my brother and I walked away from her shortly before she was wheeled into the operating room.
Fifteen minutes later the phone rang in the waiting room. It was a nurse telling us they had started the operation and all was well. An hour later, she called again. All was still well, she said and nothing more.
Tears of sadness and tears of joy mingled in the waiting room. Some people conversed in clipped words and sentences, loudly as if assuming a tone of defiance over a situation in which they had absolutely no control. They appeared to feel as though carrying on with normal conversation would make everything else normal. But there is nothing normal about any situation in which you would find yourself in a critical care waiting room. A volunteer brought in a plate of cookies. Ten minutes passed with them untouched and then one or two disappeared. And then suddenly they were all gone. Perhaps it was some sort of cookie protocol — or maybe someone just needed to break the cookie ice. In one corner, a man of the cloth hovered over a family looking at a Website for a local funeral home.
Less than an hour later the nurse called again. They were closing her up and the surgeon would be out to see us soon.
She came through just fine. We could go see her in the intensive care unit. He told us to be prepared, that there were numerous wires and tubes connected to her. And indeed there was. The technology available today is incredible. She was still completely out but everything was monitored on multiple computers that surrounded her. Even the ventilator — a seemingly archaic machine that moves air into and out of the lungs — has had a high tech update with a flat screen computer monitor reporting on everything. In all, there were more than half a dozen tubes and at least a dozen wires attached to her.
She was completely unaware of it all.
Late that night my Mom spoke. She had no idea where she was or what had happened. She said she thought she had died. Given what the doctors and nurses just had to do, that was understandable. What is less understandable, for me, at least, is how those doctors and nurses could possibly do what they just did. How can they borrow pieces and parts from one area of the body to use in another area? How on earth can anyone work on a live human heart and expect the human to remain… well… alive?
Yet they did all of that and my Mom survived.
The next thing I knew I was running back and forth between the small town of my youth and the hospital in Sioux Falls. The hospital staff was incredible — I had a growing fear that she would decide she needed to be a patient there forever; that she wouldn’t want to go home. They were young, attractive, smart and every single one of them was attentive in ways that your best friend would be if you really, really needed them. They touched her arm when they talked to her. They looked directly into her eyes as though they had known her forever — and as if her welfare was the most important thing to them. Spending time in that hospital has relieved any angst I may have felt about younger generations. Yes, there are bad apples but there are really, really good ones, too. To a person, the young people working in that hospital were better than me. It was refreshing and encouraging. Seeing them, watching them connect to people that were recently strangers, people that in a few days they’ll likely never see again, seeing their professionalism and compassion, I know that as a nation we’ll be just fine.
The next thing I knew, my Mom was going home. Her small bag was packed and a young, attractive and amazingly attentive registered nurse wheeled her out to the hospital entrance where my brother was waiting with his car. Now at home, she has gone on the move.
It takes her a while to sit down — slowly, unsteadily until “plop,” she’s down. And then she starts getting right back up again. It takes time and effort but she does it anyway. She is fidgety. She walks through the living room, into the kitchen and around the table. She picks up something on the counter and then ambles unsteadily back into the living room to slowly, shakily sit down before getting back up again. Just this morning she was walking with the assistance of a nurse — now she is shuffling all over her house. She’s like a five-year-old and I am exhausted from chasing her around. It has been just one night. How on earth did she put up with me for all those years? How on earth did she manage four kids?
While she shuffles, plops down and gets back up again, we are discovering ways to make the house somewhat more user-friendly for a person who just days ago had her rib cage pulled apart and her heart stitched up. Making the chairs and seat cushions higher was a big success — that limited the “plop” and the associated shifting and grimacing involved in rising up again. A few changes to the bathroom and shower were also in order. Tomorrow there will be new discoveries, more ambling, more chasing my Mom around. I’m thankful for that — she is alive and getting better by the minute.
I live far away from home and, as such, my brother and sisters do the heavy lifting. Mike, living in the same small town, visits her almost every day. Pam gives her the bright lights and the big city and a view of the world that she would rarely otherwise see. Paula has for years been her caregiver in most respects. She is her sounding board in good times and bad. Me? I fly in at Christmas and during the occasional crisis and try to tell myself I am doing something. In comparison to my siblings, I most certainly am not.
The next thing I knew it was midnight and I was ready to plop somewhere, anywhere. On that night “anywhere” was in a spare bedroom in my Mom’s basement. Plop. A few seconds later I was grimacing and straining to stand up again – from upstairs I heard more shuffling noises. Time to check on her again.