When my eyes blinked open after my quadruple bypass, I was in the Intensive Care Unit. I couldn’t move. A plastic tube blocked my view; it went into my mouth and down my throat. Tubes stretched across my forehead, too, taped in place. They ended in a vein in my neck. I could turn my head enough to see my wife sitting by my side. I tried to speak but nothing came out.
There was a nurse buzzing around, checking stuff, changing things. She was a nice woman, blonde, I think, athletic. She was blurry without my glasses. When she saw me looking around, she peeled the tape from my face and one, two, three— slid out the intubation tube.
The next hour or so were flashes, pieces of moments. Eventually, she decided my care didn’t need to be intensive anymore and it was time to take me to the cardiac floor: room after room of people just like me— except older. I said thank you to her as the orderly wheeled me away.
Northwestern hospital sprawls across several city blocks near Lake Michigan among the high-rises of downtown Chicago. With its diagnostic facilities, rehab buildings, and towers devoted to specialists, one for obstetrics, and another one strictly for surgery, it’s a formidable presence. My new home was a corner room, twenty stories up, with views of the city on two sides. It was quiet except for the woman next door who continually yelled at everyone— in Russian.
When they lifted me from the gurney to my bed, I could see three tubes trailing from my rib cage, ending in bulbs filled with bloody liquid. Two wires came out of me, too, actual electric wires that could be used like jumper cables if my heart suddenly stopped. A tube stuck into the incision as well. That led to a box with a button I could push if I needed more drugs.
I’ve never been hit by a car but I imagined it felt a lot like this. Coughing, sneezing, clearing my throat— all hurt. My chest was numb. “Oh, that’s natural,” they told me. “You’ll have some numbness for six months, a year, maybe the rest of your life.” It felt like a big plate or a shield. They kept me pumped full of painkillers, morphine that made me see things crawling on the walls and gave me weird dreams.
The next five days were a blur. Injections and pills and scans. Nurses measured fluids that came out of me— pee from the catheter bag, that red stuff leaking out of my lungs. I wasn’t going to fight them. I didn’t yell at them in Russian. I did what they told me. If they needed blood at 2am I figured they knew what they were doing and I went along.
The nurses taught me a little routine to get out of bed which they made me perform the day after surgery: roll to one side, swing my legs toward the floor, and tilt my top half up until I’m sitting. This way I could eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner sitting in a chair. I could also take walks three times a day around the cardiac floor, gingerly circling the nurse’s station, one, two, three times, then back. Ten or twenty nurses, techs, mostly women, buzzed around, a flock of moms ready to help me if I asked.
Little by little, day by day, they pulled stuff out of me. The catheter one day. The jumper cables, the next. The day came when they decided I could leave. A nurse yanked the last two drainage tubes from my chest— ready? On three… I could feel them pull through my lungs like a ripcord, first one— zip, then the other. She pulled the catheter from my arm and the sticky, EKG patches off my skin.
My wife helped me get dressed, everything in slo-mo— pre-planned, deliberate movements, easy. Everything tentative. It had been a week since I had worn clothes and I was pretty gamey without a shower. I left a brown patch on the pillow where my head used to be. There was nothing stuck in me anymore, no reminder of what they had done. They gave me a red, heart-shaped pillow to take home. It was a cute way to “splint” myself whenever I sneezed.
A smiling Jamaican orderly performed the customary wheelchair ride to the front door, talking the whole time. I could move pretty well by then and slowly took the ten steps from the chair, through the blast of cold, January air, to the car. I sat gingerly in the back seat as my wife drove us home to spend the next month learning to live my life again.
The worst was over, I guess, but I wasn’t the same person. My life had taken a hard, right turn almost overnight. My world was shakier now, unstable. It showed me what, I suppose, I already knew: that life is temporary and anything can happen. But with the help of my flock of moms I got through it.