What I remember most about that moment was the panic. Not mine — I was just coming out of an anesthetized haze and was still completely unsure of my surroundings — but the panic on the faces and in the voices of the people in that cold and sterile room with me, people who were supposed to be professionals of the calm, cool, and collected variety. I remember what seemed like shouting, although it could have been amplified by my confusion, and a piercing beeping noise. I remember a nurse leaning down on to me and whispering something indecipherable as she stuck the breathing tube back down my throat. And then I remember nothing more. Nothing, but blackness.
Sometime later I would be told that I’d flat-lined in the recovery room, that the surgeon had already left and gone on his (I’m assuming) merry way, when something unexpected caused my situation to go terribly wrong. My heart simply rebelled. Days later, I would be told about all of the confusion that followed my “event,” the term we started using to describe the horror of the days surrounding my surgery for paroxysmal — and later, persistent — atrial-fibrillation. I’d learn how the hospital staff in charge of keeping my family updated had misplaced me, how my wife took it upon herself to search “every goddamned inch of this place” until I could be located, how I had to be transported immediately to the ICU, how my cardiologist thought for sure they’d lost me both in the recovery room and then later in transit, how worried my family had been, and how on-death’s-door I looked when they were finally reunited with me many hours later. I would be told of all the details of my unconscious moments in due course, but the next thing I’d actually remember on my own was waking up in a bed in the ICU, tubes everywhere, strapped down tight, unable to focus my eyes enough to make out much of anything in the room except for my father in the chair next to my bed, noticeably tired and shaken.
Again, there would be panic, but this time it would be my own. Whatever this was, I knew it wasn’t part of The Plan when I checked into the hospital the morning before. Was it just the morning before, or had it been days or, my god, weeks? Time was lost, I was sure of it, but I had no idea how much. All I knew is that I was not warned of the possibility of straps and tubes and distraught family members, I had not been properly prepared for waking up with holes in my memory, much less my body, and I needed someone to explain it all to me immediately. Not being able to organize, much less communicate, my racing demands wasn’t helping the situation, either. So, with no other viable options on my clouded mind’s horizon, I completely surrendered to the panic, leaning into it fully.
I don’t remember her name or even what she looked like, but it would be the most wonderful night-shift nurse who would talk me down from the heights of that internal hysteria. She assured me that it was all okay, or at least it would all be okay, but I just needed to calm down and breathe. She kept calling me sweetheart in a way that was both entirely believable and somehow exceedingly helpful. Sweetheart, I’m right here. Sweetheart, you’re going to be fine. Sweetheart, breathe.
I would spend the next week in that same ICU room, with daily cardioversions — great fun, if you’re into that sort of thing — and a concerted (yet ultimately, failed) effort on my part to will my heart into submission. When I was finally released from the hospital, I was told that I’d need a follow-up surgery in six months, after my heart had been given time to recuperate. I lasted only three weeks, though, before the urgency of my worsening situation caused me to be re-admitted for Round Two.
I had a lot of time to think during that summer while my body slowly recovered. While I wasn’t left with any go-toward-the-light stories to recount at dinner parties, I did — and in many ways, still do — feel somehow changed by the whole experience. Whether that change came from the “event” itself or from the sort of prolonged introspection that can only come from weeks of being alone with one’s thoughts is anyone’s guess. I know that it was an important time for me to heal, one that I might not have granted myself otherwise, although in many ways the amelioration of my physical heart was the least of the necessary mending.
And so, April 24th marks the anniversary of that fateful day in 2007, the day I lost my life, and the day I started the process of reclaiming it.