Somehow Jeff and I just blew right past an enormous milestone, gracing it with nothing more than a brief conversation. I'm sorry, babe— I need to give it more than that. Jeff's heart surgery was just over a year ago, when I was pregnant with the twins. Back then, quite understandably, Jeff didn't want me to write about it on the blog. In his mind, he was determined to bounce back from something like a major valve repair surgery within a few weeks, and he didn't want me "making a big deal out of it".
Now that we're past it, it's liberating to discard my brave mask and admit to the world and to myself: OH GOOD LORD, THAT WAS SCARY. And agonizing. And exhausting. Watching your spouse or anyone close to you submit to a major medical trauma is tough enough on its own, but when you're 24ish weeks pregnant with twins, the feelings of fear and vulnerability reach new levels.
My mom, aka Mamie, swooped into town like the angel that she is to help us with Vivienne on Thursday, February 7th, the day before Jeff's operation. The next morning, Dr. Murphy entered Jeff's rib cage and cut 4 holes into the his right side in order to robotically repair his sad, ailing mitral valve.
For years now, and particularly after Jeff was deathly ill with endocarditis in 2011 (another story entirely) I would put my head on his chest and hear the pronounced, hollow sounding "thuh thunk, thuh thunk, thuh thunk" beating of his heart. Although Jeff was asymptomatic for the most part, that exaggerated beat was an undeniable indicator of what was really going on inside. I would gently place my hand over his heart and feel it struggling and working overtime to compensate for its deteriorating valve. In the meantime, he was getting checkups every 6 months with echocardiograms to monitor any heart enlargement or increase in regurgitation. In October of 2012, his doctor informed him that his heart had grown 5 millimeters—a sure sign that the faulty valve was taking it's toll. According to the surgeon, Dr. Murphy, Jeff could continue on and have a normal life expectancy if we acted right away. The surgery date was set for three months later.
We floated through the holidays and most of January of 2013 without talking much about the impending surgery—at least, not to each other. I had plenty of furtive, holy-shit-is-this-really-happening conversations with family and friends, but I put on a brave face and a cheery Mary Poppins type attitude with Jeff whenever we discussed it.
Choosing between traditional open heart surgery and robotic surgery was the no-brainer of the century. Open heart surgery: 2-3 months recovery at best. Robotic: 2-3 weeks recovery. Open heart: huge, gaping incision down the sternum. Robotic: 4 small incisions through the right side of the body. We were thrilled to have Dr. Murphy do the procedure, as he's pretty much the God of robotic heart surgery. Still, it was terrifying to know that Jeff would be packed down with ice and hooked up to a heart lung machine while Dr. M. and his attendants reached inside his body to get to his heart.
I'm not sure if the reality of the operation truly hit us until the drive to St. Joseph's on February 8th at 4:30 AM. We were quiet on that trip, and we held hands. I stared out the window and blinked back secret unwelcome tears, trying to think peaceful Deepak Chopra-ish thoughts and failing. When we arrived, we were almost immediately ushered back to the pre op room, where a series of nurses came in to prep Jeff. He changed into a hospital gown first (how is it that hospital gowns immediately make you look puny, sad and ill?) and put on those goofy looking socks with the tread on the bottom that they make you wear. Then a nurse came in with a razor.
"Hi, Mr. Gaines. I'm here to shave you."
She proceeded to take an electric razor to Jeff's entire torso while I made lame jokes about how I was digging his shaved chicken look, and how he should keep up the manscaping post-surgery. Then the final nurse entered the room with huge needle—a lovely cocktail of pre op pain meds, apparently— and asked Jeff which butt cheek he wanted it in. Within minutes we were wheeling him though a maze of hallways and elevators to his next round of pre op preparations. Everything looked creepy, artificially bright and Twilight Zone-esque as we made what felt like endless lefts and rights and ups and downs to our destination.
"Okay, mama. Here's where you say goodbye," said the nurse.
This was easily the worst part of the whole ordeal: watching her wheel him away. Jeff gave me an unconvincing half smile as I kissed him goodbye. "I love you...you're going to do great," I whispered in his ear. Then he was gone. It was 6 AM, and I was alone and scared. I numbly searched for the waiting room, where I'd spend the next 7 hours waiting for Dr. Murphy to emerge from the surgery and tell me whether the valve repair was a success.
Somehow I found the dark, empty waiting room and collapsed on a long bench. I took out my pillow and lay down, determined to try and make up for my sleepless night. As I drifted off, I sensed a person standing above me. Wearily, I looked up and saw that it was a woman—a stranger— holding two blankets, which she draped over me and said, "I tracked down some blankets. Looks like you could use them."
Her simple act of kindness made me tear up. I thanked her sleepily but profusely, and managed to doze off for an hour or two. The babies woke me up occasionally with their kicks. I told myself that they knew something I didn't—that they were sending me secret fetal communications, telling me everything was going to be okay. At 8 AM I sat up, gathered my things and scouted out some prime waiting room real estate. I spread out all of the essentials to distract myself from the inevitable obsessing about where exactly Jeff was and what they were doing to him. iPad. iPhone. Magazines. The best distracter of all was my friend Kat, who showed up to keep me company and help me kill another four or five hours without going insane. I love my Kat. The girl is ALWAYS there for me. Every time I started to panic or dwell on the heaviness of our situation, Kat piped up behind her US magazine and said something like, "Can you even believe that Kim Kardashian is pregnant with Kanye's baby?"
With Kat there to entertain me with celebrity gossip and the latest scoop on her love life, the minutes ticked by at a tolerable pace. Jeff's brother, Jamie, joined our waiting party. Jamie maintained a pretty decent poker face, but I knew he was scared, too. I killed more time by updating family, pacing the halls and taking dozens of pee breaks, thanks to the twins. It was all fairly manageable until the last hour or so when I knew Dr. Murphy would walk in any moment with news. I compulsively stared down the main hallway, waiting to see his familiar figure walking towards me. Why wasn't he here yet? Something must be wrong. What if something went wrong? Oh God...
Mercifully, I finally saw him. It wasn't a mirage—he was walking towards us. I jumped up and ran—or waddled, really—over to him with an expression on my face I'd venture to say he'd seen a thousand times. What's it like, I wonder, to have that sort of responsibility? It has to be the heaviest weight on earth to carry...to walk up to a person and tell them how their loved one fared on the operating table. Especially a very pregnant, sleep deprived, hormonal person. He was probably incredibly relieved to tell me that my husband did remarkably well in surgery.
I'll never forget what he said: "Nothing occurred outside of our expectations. He handled the surgery quite well."
I threw my arms around him and hugged him, hard. This may have been a little awkward for him. I didn't care.
I knew it wasn't over. Jamie and I still had to go back into the post op room and see Jeff. Dr. Murphy tried to prepare us, saying that Jeff would not look like himself—that he'd still have a breathing tube, and that he'd be unconscious. It was possible we'd find it disturbing. He was right to warn us. This is a part of the ordeal I don't like to reflect back on, and I'd venture to guess that Jeff probably wouldn't want me describing it in too much detail.
The next several days were rough. Jeff's not a good patient. (Sorry hon, but you know I speak the truth.) He tends to argue with nurses and doctors and negotiate early releases; that sort of thing. He wanted out and he wanted out NOW. His body was rebelling against him, though, breaking out into fevers that wracked him with unbearable pain. I had the unlucky task of forcing him to get up out of bed and do laps around the hospital floor. The docs said that moving would speed the healing. One lap. Two laps. By the time we reached three laps he was discharged, five days after we admitted him.
Many of you know the rest of the story, I think. A few weeks later when Jeff was still recovering, we were both admitted to the hospital on the same day. My baby boys were trying to show up much too early for the party, and Jeff was having complications from the surgery.
So why would I possibly want to relive everything here, on this blog? Writing about it summons up all kinds of unpleasant memories of a time when we were living in a continual state of unrelenting fear and anxiety. And yet, this exactly why I want to remember. Life goes on. New stresses replace old stresses. It's so easy to forget how transient good health is. I look back on all of it: the surgery, the scare with my twin babies, the constant uncertainty...and I'm overcome with gratitude. The problems and challenges of the present loosen their grip on me when I'm reminded of what we've faced before. We're strong, this family. We've been though hell. So I say to life: bring it on. We'll just keep coming back.