(An Unexpected Addendum)
My worst fear was just a breath away from becoming a reality.
Two weeks ago today I had surgery–not exactly minor surgery but a routine one nonetheless, and I was expected to go home later that same day. I didn’t.
In my blog that morning, I wrote about the impending surgery and my fears of going under anesthesia and under the knife–the same fears that, I’m sure, everyone else has in the sleepless hours and nervous minutes leading up to such an event. Of course, my greatest fear of all was simply not waking up . . .
I have no memory of what happened–I know only what the doctors, nurses and my husband have told me. At the time, I was blissfully unaware of the drama that unfolded in the operating room after the surgery was over . . . after the doctor left to tell my husband that it had been a success . . . after the doctor left the hospital and returned to his office. It was later that night before he, the anesthesiologist and the pulmonologist took turns at my hospital bedside, each sheepishly supplying a few mysterious, anchor pieces to the puzzle, but it was an entire week later before my husband supplied all the remaining pieces that a frenzied nurse had given him and before my groggy mind cleared enough to comprehend the rest of the story–what happened and what almost happened.
I was being weaned off the anesthesia, and my breathing tube had been removed when I suddenly, unexpectedly, just stopped breathing. My oxygen level dropped, my blood pressure nosedived, the monitors sounded their piercing alarms, and for a few frightening moments (I hope it was no more than a few) everyone else in the room worked frantically to revive me. And luckily for me, they were successful.
I don’t remember my doctor’s visit later that night, but apparently he wanted to focus only on the fact that the surgery itself had gone as planned. I remember little of the anesthesiologist’s visit–something about my “post-operative respiratory failure” and “no one being to blame” (really?)–and the pulmonologist, who was called in afterward to review x-rays, had a lot of questions but very few answers. Was I a smoker? No. Did I live with a smoker? No. Had I recently suffered from a cold or the flu? No. Did I have asthma? No. Did I have sleep apnea? Not anymore. Did I have acid reflux? Sometimes. The pulmonologist said I had developed something called “Mendelson’s Syndrome,” a respiratory condition caused by the aspiration of gastric fluids into the lungs; he also said he wasn’t sure how the fluids got there (really?) but that I would need to stay in the hospital for a few days until the fluid cleared because they were afraid I might develop pneumonia. He obviously hadn’t noticed my invisible Wonder Woman cape.
I have no idea how many medicines were pumped through my IV that night or how many times I was awakened to do breathing treatments, but by the next morning my x-rays were much clearer, and I was allowed to go home. And before I drifted off into my first of many delicious naps, I devoured my bag of peanut butter M&Ms while I Googled “Mendelson’s Syndrome” (of course I did). What I read scared me a little, but when my husband finally told me the rest of the story a week later and I immediately accessed my surgery and radiology reports online (of course I did), they scared me even more.
I’ve had too much time to think during my enforced down time. How long was I not breathing? The reports don’t say. How many brain cells did I lose in the process? Nobody knows, but since I’ve already voluntarily killed off a few with occasional glasses of sweet white wine, I’d prefer not to have lost anymore unnecessarily–especially if they’re the few remaining ones that have limited control over my emotions or my mouth. My husband wishes now that he hadn’t told me, but he should also know by now that telling me not to worry and obsess is like commanding a mosquito not to bite or a weed not to grow. Besides, I had a right to know.
But after a week’s worth of fretting and obsessing over the “what ifs,” I’ve finally accepted that the important thing now isn’t so much what happened but how I choose to respond to it. What’s done is done, and I’m obviously okay, but after coming so close to having my worst fear realized, maybe I should start living my life a little differently.
I need to try harder to tell others how much they really mean to me. I need to I say “I love you” more often and “I’m sorry” more honestly. I need to be more appreciative of all that I’ve been given in this great big, wonderful, crazy life. I need to be bolder, stronger, sillier–definitely sillier. I need to stop wasting so much energy striving for a perfection that can never be attained and spend more time softly inhaling the sunrise and basking in the moonglow. I need to eat more turtle cheesecake and gooey chocolate chip cookies because they make me happy and therefore must be good for me. And I need to get off my lethargic derriere and start doing all the things I said I was going to do when I retired.
I had actually considered writing a few letters to loved ones–just in case–the day before my surgery, but I decided the idea was too morbid and melodramatic, and I abandoned it. I wish now I had written those letters and stashed them away–and I know now that I still need to. I think about all the loved ones I’ve lost unexpectedly in recent years–my parents, my mother-in-law, aunts and uncles and cousins, dear friends and former students–and in each case I have regret for words I never spoke and kind deeds I thought about doing but never did. Another opportunity almost slipped past me.
We all know we can die at any moment or that our loved ones can be taken from us just as suddenly, but we assume we will always have tomorrow, next week, next year to say what needs to be said or to do what needs to be done. And we become complacent and nonchalant, forgetting how truly precious and uncertain that next breath is. I don’t know whether it was a Higher Power or my invisible Wonder Woman cape that was protecting me that day (or maybe both), but the underlying, take-away message was the same: This is your wake-up call. Your work here isn’t done.
Brace yourself, world.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.