2006-01-20 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

by Stuart W. Mirsky

Roughly nine months ago I lay writhing on an ambulance gurney in the emergency room of a local hospital, struggling to breathe in the midst of a full scale heart attack. I couldn’t quite figure out how I’d gotten there. Though fifty-seven years old, I still felt like a kid of eighteen. But there I was, dimly aware of the doctors and nurses hovering over me, tinkering with the equipment to yank me back from wherever it was I seemed to be going, trying to save my life. The attending physician was just out of my line of sight, talking to my sobbing wife, telling her there was only a 50-50 chance for me and urging her to “get your papers in order.” My son, who had raced down to the hospital in the family car in the wake of the ambulance carrying me, stood by mutely, shocked (as he later said) to see his father flailing helplessly on his back.

They pumped me full of morphine to dull the discomfort (I can’t call it pain) that had me gasping with each breath I took and I slipped in and out of awareness, losing track of the time and the people around me. Now and again, opening my eyes, I saw my wife or son still there, looking at me in confused concern, my wife’s eyes welling with tears, my son’s wide and swollen. The hospital staff seemed confused, too, unable to figure out why I wasn’t settling down in response to the treatment they were struggling to administer intravenously.

And then I was being wheeled out again, transferred to another hospital, still only dimly aware of the rolling gurney beneath me, of the hubbub of activity in the emergency room I was leaving, of the rocking vehicle that transported me, sirens blaring intermittently, through the potholed streets of Queens.

I was awake when they wheeled me into the second hospital, met by the cardio unit’s nurses and the on-call physician, awake and watching my reflection in the long array of windows as they rolled by. An old man with an oxygen tube in his nose, gray hair... what there was of it anyway... thinning and askew. Gray beard matted with saliva. I saw my father looking back at me.

My wife was walking along beside the gurney, talking to the receiving physician who met us just inside the admitting area vestibule. She wanted reassurance but the doctor, a young woman, wasn’t prepared to give it.

Plied with questions all the way up to the cardio unit, I replied as best I could, the physician rapidly jotting notes on my new chart, probing my history. No, I wasn’t in a lot of pain, I said. On the scale of 1-10 she proposed I said it was maybe about a three. But there hadn’t been much real pain at all since the start, just increasing discomfort and an inability to breathe freely, to draw enough breath to sustain life. “He’s under the morphine,” the young doctor told my wife. “He can’t feel it.”

And so they brought me into the glass-walled cubicle that would be my home for the next four days, though I didn’t know it then, a room eerily reminiscent of the one in which my own father had lain after suffering a heart attack during his open heart surgery more than twenty years before. I recalled watching him lying there then, unconscious at first, later struggling to come back... though he never did. He lay there in various stages of incomprehension, regaining lucidity for awhile but losing it again and deteriorating steadily, until I left him on that last night to take my mother and sister home, both of them exhausted. Me too, I think. He died that same night, six weeks after his disastrous bypass operation, never having recovered, never having regained his voice to speak with us again. He died just after we made it back home and while we were cleaning ourselves up in preparation for a brief night’s rest and then another trip back to the hospital and his bedside again. The phone call from the hospital caught us all unawares.

He had been thrashing about on the bed when I left him, his eyes shut, the hospital gown barely covering his shriveled flesh, seeming smaller on that huge bed than I had ever remembered him before. Could he hear me as I spoke to him on that last night? He seemed to thrash more strongly when I spoke my parting words into his ear, as though something was getting through. But he never opened his eyes. He hadn’t been conscious for at least a day, maybe more, before we left him on that night, and I hadn’t wanted to leave him then, either, but I had my mother and sister to worry about and they were wiped out.

We were there in separate cars and they’d be driving theirs home with me following that evening. I was afraid they’d never be able to do it if we stayed much longer. And we’d been there every night for the six weeks he’d been trying to recover. And in the mornings. And the afternoons. Me coming directly from work each day. I’d barely seen my wife and two little girls in weeks. And so I’d left him there to die alone on that night and took them home, regretting it to myself all the way during that long drive home. And now it was me, lying in his place, behind the glass walls with tubes up my nose and needles puncturing my flesh. I was the one tied to the intravenous tubes now, electronic equipment beeping ominously overhead.

For three days I lay there, immobile, barely able to turn about on the narrow hospital bed, dependent on the nurses who came by with pills, brief conversation and pale liquids in small paper cups which they pressed me to drink. I could barely eat anything at first. I tried, fitfully, after the first day, to lift myself in the bed. But my limbs were too weak. Gradually, though, I started to become aware of my surroundings and, when I asked a nurse to remove the oxygen tube, to my surprise she did. When I asked to be disconnected from the monitors so I could move about more freely it wasn’t long before they did that, too, though they kept me on remote monitoring with a heavy box and wires hung against my bare body just under the hospital gown.

The hardest part was the tube they’d run up the vein in my groin during the operation on that first evening when they’d brought me in. When my blood pressure had dropped on the operating table, they’d added a balloon pump to aid my damaged heart as it struggled to drive the blood through my system. That meant I couldn’t move about for days lest I crimp the line penetrating me. When they finally took it out there was no anesthesia, nothing to lessen the pain and I tried not to look at the doctor as she drew the long contraption in excruciatingly tiny increments out of my flesh.  

I suppose I came closer to death in those few days than I ever had before, though it was all something of a haze then and I barely recollect most of it now. I left the hospital on the fourth day, in the afternoon, under my own steam. I had dressed slowly and no one came for me with a wheel chair as you always see on those TV dramas. They just assigned an attendant to walk me down by elevator and I, having long scorned wheel chairs, found myself silently wishing they’d offered one to me. Every step was exhausting, despite the bravado I’d shown to the nurses before they let me go, and when I got to the car, driven up to the hospital entrance by my wife, I was barely holding myself up. I just gritted my teeth as I got in and then, nauseous and weak, fell asleep, my wife working her way through the traffic on the long ride back.

I don’t recollect much of that return except how weak I was and how hard it was getting up the front stairs into the house. I could barely shower by myself afterwards and I lay in bed for long hours, afraid to move. Sleeping. Or I sat quietly in a den chair, a blanket on my shoulders for warmth despite the sunny spring day outside. My wife made me get up and walk with her as often as I could do it. To the end of the block, at first, was all I could manage, me creeping along beside her at a pace that barely matched her own artificially slow steps. Pills three times a day. Handsful them. Relentlessly she urged me on and slowly, almost imperceptibly, I began to grow stronger.

It takes nine months for a baby to be born and now, nine months after the day my body nearly gave out, nine months after I lay at the brink, first on an ambulance gurney and then in a hospital bed, it looks like I’ve made a similar journey. The recurrent twinges and the soreness in my chest, which troubled me for long months after I’d left the hospital, are now largely gone and I can walk at a brisk pace again, my wife panting to keep up. I can do a couple of miles, too, when I push myself, and, except for the weakening in my leg muscles, I’d never know I was once able to go more briskly still. The flesh on my face looks a bit more flaccid though, more wrinkled and mottled. And my hair and beard are grayer. I know I’m not eighteen anymore. But I’ve mostly forgotten the intensity of those days and the impressions that assailed me then, lying there, a mound of dying flesh.

I don’t know why I wasn’t praying in those moments. It just didn’t occur to me. Instead I was just there, watching myself and the others all around me, thinking of the sensations, about the book I’d been working on just before it began, and about what it would be like when I was finally gone. It’s hard to say what we take away from experiences like these... when we come away from them at all. But over the past nine months I’ve all but forgotten what it felt like to die. And what it will feel like.

Having grown stronger and come back, at last, to my old self, I’ve lost that valuable perspective which gives us everything in a crisper, keener light. After nine months a baby is born, entering the world, bathed in a sea of newly breathable air, in contact with the flesh of its fellow beings, reaching out to mother and world. Perhaps, then, I’m just doing the same thing now, having forgotten the pangs of what must surely be a second birth experience, as the baby forgets the birth canal, and having been pushed back into a world I’d once taken as my due. Having been handed a second chance. 

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