You start coming out from under the deep anesthesia. First your eyes start to open. They work. Then you haphazardly try to move an arm, your head, and your lips to speak. And none of that works at all.
You’re strapped in and breathing through a machine and taped up 32 ways against Tuesday. So you go back to your eyes, which work. Mounted over the foot of the bed is a clock. Those big, easy-to-read hospital clocks. You’re a little dopey, but you slowly realize it says three minutes to six. The last time you were conscious, you think, was about 8:45 in the morning.
Now you’re not dopey; you’re stunned and scared and reflexively lurch to get up. But all the medical machinery holding you down keeps you down.
And for some reason there is no pain at all, even though you are already suspecting you’ve been filleted like a flounder.
You look along the bed rails and see two comforting faces in the antiseptic intensive care unit—my wife Susan and a Stanford nephrologist friend with tears in his eyes, Dr Norm Coplon. Norm was there to fight for every one of my organs for three decades. They were waiting to welcome me back to life. It was Palo Alto, California, 1995.
This is what happens when you have a Coronary Arterial Bypass Graft, known in the trade by its acronym: CABG. Veins have been sliced from other parts of our body to replace clogged ones serving the heart. Inside me, they had to replace three of the five major ones. So it was a triple CABG.
Usually there is a build up of disease over weeks or months or years, leading to a smooth, well-planned surgery. For me it’s almost never been like that. I was innocently going for an angiogram to see how my own heart vessels were doing. I was relaxed, in the hands of one of America’s leading cardiologists. I’m in awe of him as a physician, but I love him even more as a human being.
Dr Edward T. Anderson is a rock, an Ivy League/California star who has saved my life more than once. But first of all, he’s a damn good friend, a man we all just call “Eddie”.
Seconds after Eddie put me under sedation for the angiogram, he realized that a vessel he stented a week before had begun to unravel—actually shred.
Now there was no time for strategy—just action. From the cath lab, Eddie phoned upstairs to his sidekick, the nationally-recognized cardiovascular surgeon Vince Gaudiani.
Thank God. Twice. Vince was there. And the phone was free.
And that’s how a procedure that only has become the norm in our generation was done for me: On exactly five minutes notice. Across six hours. Three times over.
While I was oblivious to all this, my wife and family spent a mortifying day, in agony. It’s the way these things work. Dr Coplon’s wife sat numbly with Susan for all those hours. Once again, the patient suffered least. Once again we learned that sometimes medicine works.
There are those who’d also say once again it just wasn’t my time yet. And they were right. Vince and Eddie joined the band of saviors, back to my birth, who refused to give up on me.
Not all doctors are like that. So choose your specialists carefully. Judge them as people as well as physicians. Some day your life will probably depend on them.
My brother, a healthcare executive, tells me that they say in the industry that God gives us about 50 good years; after that we’re on your own.
That triple CABG jumped up and bit me in my fiftieth year. The decade and a half since have brought one challenge after another.
Alexander “Sandy” Prisant has branded a division of the International Red Cross for the US and has brought new ideas in public health care policy to the Middle East. He is awaiting a kidney and heart transplant after a lifelong struggle with a congenital kidney ailment. This is the fourteenth installment of “The Journey We Take Alone?” published at My Story Lives.