In many ways, having a husband recuperating from a major surgery is just like having a newborn. (Except, you know: no sweet, delicious, tiny newborn.) In the beginning, when you first get home from the hospital, people are kind and bring you home-cooked meals. There is an entirely new schedule to keep track of—meds instead of breastfeeding, but it’s almost as time-consuming. You worry about germs. You feel grateful everything went smoothly and (truth be told) occasionally get a little bit stressfully obsessive about how it could’ve gone wrong. You don’t do much except stay at home.
You never, ever sleep through the night.
Which is likely why I’ve not posted the details of Kendell’s surgery so far. Three weeks later, he is slowly recuperating. This time has definitely been harder than the first time. But, he’s doing a little bit better every day. He’s going on walks and starting to exercise just a little bit (can’t do much until the sternum heals fully); he has officially entered the I’m-so-bored-I’m-grumpy stage of getting better (wheeeeeee!).
He’s coming along.
The cool thing about getting bumped from a Friday surgery and having to come in on a Saturday instead—a Saturday that’s also a holiday—is that you’re the only one in the pre-op rooms. The doctors, nurses, anesthesiologist, and surgeon all spent much more personal time with us than I think they would have if there were other surgeries. I joked with them: if you come in to do a surgery on Halloween, do you operate with a skeleton crew? They laughed but were quick to reassure me that they weren’t cutting any corners. Kendell would get just as good of work on a Saturday Halloween as he would any other day of the week.
I think they told the truth. I’m honestly a little bit in love with all of the surgical team. They kept me informed and made sure I was OK. Kendell’s surgeons warned us that surgeries like this—replacing a previously-replaced aortic valve—can take longer than the first time, up to twelve hours. Kendell’s took about six. When I first went into the waiting room (after leaving the hospital to get myself some breakfast) it was entirely empty. Once it got a little bit later, four people came in. They were siblings or maybe in-laws, and oh my goodness, they made me nuts. They were all trying to talk over each other in that self-important way that some people have. I kept thinking about how miserable their Christmases must be. I started thinking of them as the bossy family and tried to just tune them out, by reading my book (The House at Riverton) and writing in my journal.
Once the surgery was finished, the surgeon came out to tell me how it went. When he got into Kendell’s heart, he discovered that two of the three valves were covered with some sort of growth. He said he’s never seen anything like it—after doing this surgery for nearly thirty years. He has no idea what it is, and sent the old valve off to pathology so they could figure it out. (We haven’t seen the surgeon again yet, and I am dying to know the results. It’s just so strange.) The growth was so heavy, it made the valves too weighed down to open, so only one cuspid was letting blood through. The growth also made the valve difficult to remove, because it was so stiff and they didn’t want to dislodge anything while they worked. But Kendell’s body handled the procedure well and he didn’t have any complications.
After the surgeon left, I still had to wait another two hours or so until I could see Kendell. (This is because they don’t let anyone into the ICU until the patient has been extubated.) During that time, some of the bossy family had left, and other siblings had come in. They would take turns rotating in and out of the ICU to see their father. Eventually the bossy mom also showed up, and some grandkids who were too young to see their grandpa. One of them was about ten years old, and the grandma was explaining what had happened to him. “Remember how Grandpa had that problem with the big vein in his heart? And he didn’t want to have a surgery? Well, yesterday it broke, and so the doctors had to go in and fix it.”
I know: totally rude of me to eavesdrop. (But, hard to not hear when they were all just so loud.) I was putzing on my phone and half-listening to their conversation when it clicked. I contorted myself so the grandma could see me, and I said “I’m sorry, this is totally none of my business, but I’m just wondering—was your husband the man who had an emergency surgery yesterday? To repair his burst aorta?” She said “yes, how’d you know?” and then I explained that Kendell had been bumped because of his surgery. (I wasn’t rude about it. At least, I hope I wasn’t rude about it.)
Apparently, this man had known about the bulge on his aorta for more than two years, but refused to have the surgery to repair it. Just Kendell’s luck that it would burst on the day of his surgery! (That sounds flippant, but if you knew Kendell’s bad luck you’d know what I mean. If anything is going to go wrong, it goes wrong for him.) The crazy thing is that something like two-thirds of people who have burst aortas don’t make it, but it was looking like he would be OK. She apologized profusely and thanked me very sincerely for letting her husband have our surgeon. “You made 38 grandchildren very grateful,” she said.
We didn’t talk very long—Kendell’s nurse came to get me just ten minutes or so after we started talking. But it totally changed my response to the rest of the day. (This was true, actually, for his entire stay in the ICU, because the burst-aorta grandpa was next door to him, and I talked to several of his adult kids, and even though they continued to be bossy and self-important and loud, they were also kind and made sure to ask about Kendell as well as give me updates on their dad.) It made me think about the fragile nature of the heart—even though it is such a strong muscle, so many things can go wrong. Not just the heart, though. Existence itself. So many things can go wrong. And I just don’t know. In seven years, Kendell has had four major surgeries. Each time, he’s been able to rebound and then go about his life. Aside from scars, he is mostly physically normal, a walking billboard for modern medicine.
We have been blessed in so many ways. From finding the exact right surgeons for his conditions to the oddest and most life-saving timing. Blessed to avoid complications or infections. Blessed to be able to move forward with him healed.
But I keep thinking about that growth, and the one flap that was entirely normal. When they removed his original aortic valve six years ago, they were surprised to find it was a unicuspid valve. All his life, he lived with one cuspid opening and shutting to let blood leave his heart. One cuspid. And then, when we repair it, what did his heart do? It worked splendidly for a while, but eventually returned to a single working cuspid. It’s just so strange to me. Why would a growth develop on just two cuspids? Why not all three? I know that no doctor would ever tell me this, and that it is probably some medical version of magical thinking. But it is as if his body wanted stasis. Wanted to return to what it was used to for so long, and it did what it had to do. A clumsy, potentially life-threatening return to a sort of balance.
Maybe after we see the surgeon again and find out the pathology reports, I will feel differently. Maybe this unease will fade as Kendell continues to heal. But I think it won’t entirely go away—this little nagging worry. I want what he wants, for him to go many, many years without any health issues. I want his scars to fade and not need to be reopened. I want him to not need a fifth surgery, or an eighth. I want his body to cooperate and work properly.
I want him to one day been a grandpa. We likely won’t ever have 38 grandchildren, but I hope we’ll have some, and I hope they will love him and be grateful he’s here. I hope his heart keeps beating and that his new valve will settle into his heart without any other issues.
I hope he can find a new stasis.