Wonder Woman’s Wake-up Call

(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.

rose moss3

About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
This entry was posted in Advice, Death, Fears, Gratitude, Health, Photography, Regrets, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Wonder Woman’s Wake-up Call

  1. Thank you for sharing your”wake up call” and reminding us all that we need to live each day that is given to us, for it is a gift. Hugs and so glad that you’re ok 😀

  2. June Wemlinger says:

    So sorry to hear of your hospital issues, I know this sounds lame but I do know how you feel…since in 2007 I went into hospital for what was supposed to be 4 days with a surgery that was supposed to laproscopic..none of this happened. I had 3 surgeries, stayed 30 days, and had massive open wound..needless to say when I did go home it was with a nurse coming by to change IV bags and dress wound, nothing by mouth,not even water for 2 months, and 2 drains intact to deal with..so I only knew I had developed a very nasty infection and it kept coming back and since I don’t sue people, and I survived, I let it go with just being grateful to get home and still be here today. Needless to say, I was healthy when I went into hospital and when I left, not so much. But I’m fine now and happy to be able to enjoy my days with my family and friends. So glad you’re OK too and able to enjoy your retirement, I’d miss all those beautiful photos you take, you have a gift with photography.

    • Wow, June … I had no idea. What a terrible ordeal to have endured–but what a courageous spirit you have! I’m glad everything turned out okay (eventually) and that you can still have such a positive outlook. Yes, life is most definitely good. And I’m glad you enjoy my photos–I love taking them and sharing them.

  3. RayEtta says:

    So sorry to hear about the problems with your surgery. Those things do happen and not always with an OK conclusion. We do need to live life more fully each day. I have mentioned this before, but again I say, I spent my life, 45 years anyway, doing jobs that were not really satisfying and since I retired I have run myself ragged trying to do all the things I wanted to do all those years. I keep being afraid my time will run out before I do them all. I am going to try very hard not to obsess and live one day at a time. Hope you are now feeling much better.

    • Thank you, RayEtta, and yes, I am feeling better. I was fortunate to spend 30 years in a career I loved, but it kept me so busy doing things for others that I seldom took time to do things for myself–and I’m not sure I would go back and change that even if I could. But I know that feeling of “time running out,” now more than ever, and I have so much yet to do, to see, to feel. The wake-up call was a good thing.

  4. Debbie Davenport says:

    A little over a year ago I had my gallbladder removed, I had the same fears as you did, and I actually wrote those letters to those I love, just in case. The letters weren’t needed, and as scared as I was going into surgery, I knew that the words I left behind made me feel better. Things just often go unsaid, or not said often enough, and I wanted to make sure my family knew how much they meant to me. Of course, after I survived the surgery, lol, I felt like a complete nincompoop!

    I’m sorry to hear about your experience, and glad that you will make a complete recovery! And shame on hubby for not wanting to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth! We all know how it is when someone says not to worry or only tells us a part of the truth. We want to know more and we have lots of questions!! We WILL find out!!!

    • I’m impressed that you actually wrote the letters (and glad they weren’t needed). So many times I use writing as therapy, and I should have known that writing the letters would have made me feel better. My sons will probably think Mom has gone off the deep end when they eventually get theirs–but then, they have thought that before. And my husband really just didn’t want to tell me until I was well enough that my worrying wouldn’t interfere with my recovery–but he also knew that once he told me what he knew, I would dig and dig until I knew everything.
      (And by the way, thanks for stopping by! Comments are always appreciated!)

  5. emjayandthem says:

    Yikes! Sure glad you are here to tell us about it … great lessons learned.

    I was going into surgery once when I stopped breathing BEFORE they put the air bag on … yep, the chest just … stopped. Scary as hell. Still remember it. Not looking to repeat it!


    • That would have been terrifying! I know I have at least one more surgery in my future, and I can’t even imagine the fear of going into another surgery AFTER a respiratory failure following (or preceding) the previous one. I’m glad you’re here to tell about it, too–and here’s to living life to the fullest while we still can!

  6. SUE says:

    Well………….Even tho you’ve told me about this, reading it in black & white just now – for a couple of minutes – put me in even more of a panic mode about how it went. (I had tried not to sound horrified when I heard about it so you would be calm – I’m not very good at that.) It was just plain scary. period…….I am so very thankful you are fine now, so keep your chin up & smile while you are doing ALL the things you love doing.

    • Thank you, Sue. It took me a week to find out what happened and another few days to “wrap my head” around it, but I’m okay now–physically and mentally (or, at least, as okay as I was before).

  7. liliofthefield27 says:

    Karen, you lovely American blogger gal, LOVE the Rumi quote! Exquisite, turbulent, swirling, and so true.

    “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
    – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

    Whether a year ago, a season ago, a day ago, or a crescent moon aglow, our self that inhabited our past is indeed a dispersing speck. Some gaze into their rearview mirrors with poignant regret; others with awe, and some with a wide smile. I’m so glad to hear you made it through your surgery and indeed your post-op incident. It simply wasn’t your time to take leave your physical body…indeed, yes, you’ve still got “stuff” to do here.

    It’s funny (well, not in a comedic sense) that, no matter how we attempt to convey through words and speech our encounters with life and what life throws at us, in the end, words cannot express how deeply singular and intensely personal each of our journey’s truly are. We’re all solo vagabonds and gypsies on this place called Earth. That said, fret not, and worry not and think not of prologue…there are too many open roads under big skies and flowers galore that beckon to you.

    If I may, I sat down with each of my children and we videotaped “interviews”. Each asked me questions about myself, my past, our relationship, etc. I asked them questions, and we discussed life, family, etc. It’s a wonderful “momento” for my children to have and to hopefully cherish. This way, after my “journey to the stars”, they’ll have my face and voice preserved, along with their interacting with me. God only knows I wish I had done this with my dad and aunts now gone. My husband is going to sit with the kids so he too will have his face, body language, voice and laughter preserved on tape for them. Then, I and husband will sit down together for a videotaped chat, so the kids will have their parents’ “interview”, too. Think about it, and yes, write those letters!

    Girl, we’ve made ir thus far, and damn it all, there’s GOOD reason for it! 🙂

    “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
    – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

    Sweet dreams…and live them.


    • liliofthefield27 says:

      Grrrrrrr…”We’ve made IT thus far…”

      BTW, if you’ve never read Kerouac’s “On the Road”, then DO. Brilliant, angry, prolific writer. He captures my vagabond, rebel woman soul…and…he was hot! 😉

    • Miss Lillian, your responses are always so inspiring and thought-provoking (and lyrical!)–thank you so much for sharing. “That said, fret not, and worry not and think not of prologue…there are too many open roads under big skies and flowers galore that beckon to you.”–I LOVE that line! I also love your parent/child interviews–what a wonderful legacy that will only grow in value as the years pass by. I did read Kerouac’s On the Road many, many years ago when I wasn’t old enough to truly appreciate its message–I may need to go back and re-read it. I just discovered Rumi about a year ago, and no other writer so perfectly speaks to my soul. I’ll try to live my dreams–and hope that you do the same.

      • liliofthefield27 says:

        Thank you for the compliment, Karen. My responses mirror the thought-provoking words you write.

        “Miss Lillian” makes me feel like a rather refined, genteel Southern lady, sitting on my Georgia porch on a summer’s evening, waving a hand-held paper fan and sipping a mint julip! 🙂

        I simply cannot resist one more quote:

        “To see a World in a Grain of Sand
        And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
        Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
        And Eternity in an hour.”
        – William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

      • You’re welcome–and thank you. Although my physical being has always resided slightly north of Dixie, my heart and soul have always belonged to the South (so the “Miss Lillian” reference was intended to invoke that exact feeling). 🙂 Magnolia blossoms perfuming the night breeze, a full moon peeking through the weeping willows, and yes, a tart mint julep dancing on my lips … ahhhh. And as a former high school English teacher, of course I love the Blake quote!

  8. Sorry to hear about your operation – but a marvellous life affirming post! Be well.

  9. bronxboy55 says:

    Once again, I’m three weeks behind in learning about your latest adventure. I’m so glad you keep dodging these unexpected bullets, Karen. The world needs your wisdom, and your humor. Keep breathing.

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