“We started today as a family of four. I’m not ready to end it as a family of three”. This is the sentence my brother would later tell me imprinted on his brain on the worst night of our lives. We had been sitting in a parking lot when my mother called.
“You guys need to come back to the hospital. Dad is going into surgery tonight.”
We had just left a half-hour earlier. My eyes were stinging from the tears, which hadn’t stopped falling. On the drive back, the road felt endless and the streetlights were blurry.
My brother, who had broken down earlier that day, tried to prepare me. “When they call the family back, that must mean there’s a chance he won’t make it”. I knew he was right, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. “We started today as a family of four. I’m not ready to end it as a family of three”. I told my brother through all of the tears that only God knew how this night would end. I knew he was right that things didn’t look well, but I wasn’t ready to believe that this would be it. I tried to convince us both that all would be okay.
I parked the car and felt like I was numb. My body was taking us back into the cold sterile building where so much life had surely started and ended that same day. When we made our way back into the hospital room, I saw my mother by my father’s side. He was quiet, but he greeted us warmly. I held his hand and tried not to cry in front of him, as I didn’t want to rile him up and make his already fragile heart undergo any more stress. Just a couple of days before, he had broken down suddenly when we all had left him to go home for the night. Although his tears were warranted, it was the most painful thing I had witnessed. I knew if I cried, he would cry, and we would both spiral.
My brother had his hand on my father’s leg, but refused to make eye contact. He was trying his best to keep it together, too.
We all took turns telling him this surgery would save his life. We were happy he was getting the care he deserved. We would see him again in the morning and be excited to know he had a new and improved heart. Shortly after, his cousins arrived and they prayed over him. My dad liked that. I could see in his eyes that he was doing his best to stay calm. I will never appreciate the strength that man mustered in what I know was one of the most terrifying moments of his life, surrounded by a family he didn’t want to leave behind.
The time came. They wheeled my father away and I kissed his forehead. I couldn’t say “goodbye”, so I said “see you soon”. And then I fell apart the moment he was out of view. My body fell and I started to crumble, but was picked up by my aunt, “don’t cry, child. It’ll be okay.” The Eastern European nurse with a kind smile who had urged my mother to call us back said, “your daddy will be okay, sweetie. You’ll see”.
For the next four hours, my family waited anxiously. My mother shattered into a million pieces. “what will I do without him?” she asked. And that question has never made more sense. She married dad when she was at the tender age of 17. Their marriage was far from picture-perfect. They almost divorced at least twice that I know of, and growing up, my household wasn’t always a peaceful one. Yet, they stuck it out. And as a 60-year-old woman, my mother unashamedly refers to my father now as her best friend. They do everything together and share a genuine love as partners who have undergone and overcome so much.
My dad’s cousin tried to reassure her through his own tears. He urged her to think positively. My brother and I took shifts with our own crying spells. When we saw the Assistant Surgeon walking towards us, the fear was ominous. But then… he shared the good news. Dad still had 40 minutes to go, but he was doing well. The Surgeon came in shortly afterwards to explain that this surgery was indeed life or death and couldn’t have waited. He told us he was surprised dad had still been living, and that his case was one of the worst he had seen in years. Nonetheless, he reassured us that everything was a success. Dad had required a quintuple bypass, so the five arteries taken from his leg and arm had now been inserted into his heart. His vitals were looking good, but because of the anesthetic, he would be asleep for several more hours. We took turns visiting his sleeping body and told him we loved him. My brother fell apart in a way I didn’t know was possible for him. For the first time in 24 hours, there were finally tears of joy that came out like streams with no end.
The next morning, my mother and I visited my father in the Intensive Care Unit. His body was swollen and he couldn’t speak. But shortly after arriving, his beautiful green eyes shot open. They fluttered back shut again and he slept most of the day. But after many hours, he started to utter some words again. Looking at me, he did his best to smile and weakly muttered, “hi, beautiful”. He whispered an “I love you” to my mom. Before nightfall, he asked us both: “how many days?” We hated leaving him, but knew we needed sleep, too, as we would be by his side the following morning.
Over the next few days, he was moved into the Cardiac Unit where he was greeted with nurses and physiotherapists. They taught him to get up from bed safely while hugging the sternum, so he would protect the healing bone. They worked with him to slowly get him moving in the tiniest of ways. Things were looking up… until they weren’t.
On the day before we expected him to be released, there was a set-back. The physiotherapist on call asked dad to go with her and attempt walking up and down a few stairs – a necessary test before discharge. Dad was in good spirits. “Let’s go”, he merrily said, excited that he was one step closer to going home and feeling proud of himself for having progressed this far. So, the three of us went. Dad joked with the nurse as we strolled to the small flight of steps. He walked at a pace that seemed good considering what he went through. He climbed the steps with what seemed like little effort and did the same on his way back. She tested his vitals and affirmed they looked good. We made our way back to the room, and we continued to smile and joke. But as she spoke to my mother and I about some after-care tips, our happiness soon got sucked away and was replaced by terror and anguish.
“I feel dizzy”, my father said. “You feel dizzy?” the physiotherapist responded. My father didn’t reply back, but instead started to sink in his chair as uncontrollable sounds escaped his mouth, as if he was having a seizure. Without hesitation, the physiotherapist hit a “staff assist” button. In no more than a single second, a nurse ran and slid into our room in what felt like a movie moment. “What’s happening?” she frantically called, as 4 or 5 more staff raced in a similar fashion into the room in 2 or 3 seconds. They all picked my father up and transferred him to the bed. They elevated his legs, put his head back, gave him an oxygen mask, and one of the nurses hit the “code blue” button to signal that someone was possibly dying. Security raced next into the room just as my father’s eyes opened and darted quickly around the room. He laid there dazed and confused with the team of staff standing over him. I made eye contact with him and said, “you’re okay”, as my mother repeated the same message. As soon as his eyes closed again, my mother left the room to cry and I stayed back stunned at what had just transpired. The team later reassured us that fainting spells weren’t unheard of, and this wasn’t a real code blue, but just a mistake; they let us know he’d be okay. They checked in on my mother, as well to make sure she had support.
My father was disoriented for a while after that. “What happened?” he asked. “I didn’t fall down”, he said mostly as a statement rather than a question. And that’s the part that broke me. Less than an hour ago, this gentle spirit was excited to go home and excitedly embarked on a small adventure that he thought would bring him there sooner. And now he laid in this bed hooked back up to oxygen, unsure of what had happened and confused as to why he was wired back up to a machine when he did such a good job walking. I didn’t know what to say, so I told him, “you just got a little dizzy, so they might keep you here a little longer and ask you to try the steps again one more time before we go home. It may not be tomorrow. It might be the day after. We’ll see, but it’s okay. You’ll be home soon, either way. Better be safe than sorry”. I saw the disappointment in his face.
I never felt more scared and heartbroken than I did at that moment. I realized that every other ounce of pain I had ever experienced in life was selfish. I thought about the time when work was stressful and I had a mean colleague. I reflected on the romantic loves who had rejected me. I remembered the stupid arguments with my mother over the years that got me overly excited and dramatic. Nothing could compare to this: the pain of seeing someone you love so helpless, knowing you’re just as helpless. In that bed, there was a man who loved me fully, and I feared that although he had survived the surgery, any moment could rob him of the next. I went home that day and felt like a zombie. Not the kind we usually talk about here where you’re living kind of mindlessly, but going through the motions. I felt like I had nothing left inside me to cry, share, or give. I escaped to the bathroom and noticed my period had come a few days earlier – a pretty atypical occurrence for me, especially since beginning a hormonal birth control. I knew it was stress-induced. I tried to center myself and stay calm. My mother stayed back in the hospital that night to keep dad company since he had shared that he hadn’t been sleeping very well. We hoped that with a familiar face in the room, he would feel more relaxed.
The next day, I woke up at 5:30am. I prepared my father’s car for his arrival since we weren’t sure if he would be released after his episode or not. I remembered the instructions I had learned in the discharge class to help get into the vehicle safely. I walked into the hospital feeling hopeful and terrified. I wanted him home, but I wanted to make sure he was safe. I napped on the chair by his bedside after eating a bagel from the downstairs coffee shop. I felt like I knew the staff there at this point. As the hours ticked away, my father had a moment or two of overwhelm. Over the last week, he had many visitors check in on him and he was feeling beyond loved, which was catching up to his spirit. He told us he wanted to thank everyone in a few weeks when he was home. Despite being homebodies and classic introverts, my mother and I eagerly nodded – “of course! We’ll invite everyone over!” And sure enough, with that promise looming in the air, my father received the okay to go home.
It had been about a week since he had first gone to the ER with chest pain. The roller coaster that had ensued afterwards as they transferred him around before and after surgery seemed to be coming to an end. Of course, a new one was about to begin.
Dad has been home now for about a month. He’s lost the water weight and is getting stronger every day. We worry about him constantly, but his joyful spirit – the “let’s go” attitude he had once before is still very much there. We’ve had our challenges along the way. As people who aren’t trained as nurses, learning how to physically move him at first was especially difficult. But now that he’s more independent, we’re optimistic again.
I’ve never prayed a more desperate prayer than I did when he was in hospital. I had never felt as weak and vulnerable as I did during that week. And yet, I’ve never felt more blessed. When I drove dad back home, he quietly said, “thank you, Kayla” before we helped him leave the car. I told him it was no trouble; I’d happily drive him any time. He clarified, “no, thank you for everything” and he got teary before he re-entered our home.
The gratitude my father feels to me and the family is beautiful. On my end though, I’m just so grateful to have him with us again.
Death is a funny thing. We’re all inching toward that end eventually. It’s inevitable that I’ll have to face this trauma again in life. And yet, I can’t help but hope that the next time is far from now and that it’s less traumatic, but more ease-filled despite the hurt that will surely still be present. Coming to terms with one’s own mortality is terrifying. But watching someone you love—who you know loves you back with every ounce of their being—face it is an experience I could never wish upon anyone.
If you’ve read this story, thank you for sticking with it. I hope you hug your loved ones tightly and remind them how you feel about them. I hope you live life to the fullest and embrace love at every chance you get, so your years are spent making incredible memories with people who will become more than parents, siblings, or partners, but also your best friends. I hope you remember to thank medical professionals when they give you someone back from the edge of death. (My dad’s rockstar surgeon and team had pulled a 24-hour shift to save his life because their sleep mattered less than his beating heart.) I hope you cry in the safety of people who can hold your tears. I hope you send the text you’re afraid to because your ego will never matter as much as your soul. I hope you accept help from the friends who are there with hugs, and baskets of food, and phone calls to check-in. I hope you prioritize your well-being and those of the ones you love.
And if like me, you hadn’t thought too much about heart health before, please feel free to check out these resources to help you understand more about this very important topic that impacts so many:
Heart Surgery Recovery
Heart Disease Symptoms