By Linda Lane
Editor’s note: Last month, Linda Lane described learning that her husband, driving home alone from Kentucky, experienced an “aorta dissection”, a tear in the major artery. He was airlifted from Elizabethtown to Louisville, and underwent repair surgery. An early report of successful surgery changed as Lane was told that a new tear had been discovered.
Now I was terrified. Phone calls to my friends were met with hesitations, deep breaths. They told me this news wasn’t great, but that the surgeon was working like crazy and was going to do everything possible he could to save him. I kept feeling like I was going to throw up. I paced around a path in the open waiting area, texting for something to do, and going back to stand before the door leading to the operating room. I stared at the door and willed it to open with a nurse coming out to give me good news. I was mentally sending my husband the strength to come through this, telling him not to give up. To come through this. That I needed him.
Hours later, still no news. My nursing friends asked questions that I didn’t know the answers to: How many liters of blood has he lost? They used eight liters on him (there are only five liters in most people). How much “product” have they given him (meaning blood products such as red blood cells, blood platelets, blood plasma and other blood clotting agents)? He had had over 20 units. Not good. Have they taken him “off pump” (meaning the heart by-pass pump)? At 3:30 a.m. I called and asked the circulating nurse to come out for me and had her talk to one of my nursing friends. On speaker phone, my dear friend, a heart-team RN, asked all the questions she’d been asking me. Both nurses hesitated frequently, eyes darting as the answers weren’t indicative of positive things happening in the operating room. I could hear the bad news and concern in my friend’s quivering voice when she spoke to me privately.
Grueling hours passed. A different nurse came out to inform us that they had repaired all the tears, and redone the previous repairs. They had tried to take him “off pump” again but it wasn’t working and they had to put him back on. They’d give it more time and try again. I paced for two more hours with no news, still scared to death.
Finally, at 6 a.m. the surgeon came out, clearly exhausted. He had performed two previous heart surgeries during the day and had just finished the second one when my husband arrived. He thought he was going to operate for 6-10 hours, but it was 12 hours before he was done.
“Let’s go in this room so we can have a little privacy,” the surgeon said. That cannot be good, I thought. He could barely keep his eyes open as he heaved into a chair, pausing to think about where to start with me. He draws a picture that takes forever to draw and I cannot breathe. He goes through a lengthy description of what happened with the aorta dissection, what pieces he repaired, undid, fixed and repaired again. I still cannot breathe. I’m waiting for him to tell me, “This is where it all went wrong.” “Here’s the spot we couldn’t fix.” “We did our best, but he’s gone.”
It takes him forever to tell me, “Well, we finally got him off the heart by-pass pump and he’s been taken to recovery. He’s still a really, really sick man, but he’s made it through the surgery. There can be lots of complications yet, but we’ll see how he does in the next few days.”
I finally breathe. I think, “He could have started with that!!!”
I can’t get in to see him for a few hours. They needed time to get him settled (“cleaned up after surgery”) in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). I wait two more hours, unable to sleep. I finally buzz the intercom and ask to see my husband. “I’m sorry. It’s 10 more minutes before visiting time. Try back then.” I was furious. I’d been ill with worry and waited for 14 hours. I needed to lay eyes on him. My friend tells me, “You can wait 10 more minutes. You’ve waited this long! They’ve got to get him cleaned up for you. When you go in to see him, he’s going to look really, really rough. There’s going to be tubes coming out from all over on him. I don’t want you to be frightened when you see him, but he’s gonna look pretty bad.” I wait the 10 minutes and they finally buzz me back.
His face is the color of the light gray-green wall. His tongue is half sticking out with the endotracheal tube down his throat, and he truly looks near death. He has tubes going out his neck, another near his clavicle, two chest tube drains below his ribs, and an arterial IV in his hand. With all the wires and tubes and electronics blinking, he looks sort of like a robot. The surgeon had sawed his sternum (chest bone) open to perform this surgery, so there is a 14-inch incision from his throat to above his belly button. His arms had been strapped down straight out to the sides as if he were crucified for the surgery. His arms, hands, shoulders, chest, and legs bear the bruises of the brutal nature of the 12-hour surgery.
But his heart is beating. I see it register on the monitor with flashing red lights.
My prayers came true. He survived the surgery. Christmas in Louisville, Ky. was going to be OK. I had my Christmas miracle.