It was a fairly normal evening: we ran a few errands after Kendell got home from work, we picked up some dinner. We watched an episode of The Vikings while we waited for Jake to get home from his night class and Nathan to be finished at his friend's house; we tucked Kaleb in, we talked to the Bigs about a few different things.
We went to bed.
Kendell woke me up a few minutes after I'd fallen asleep, because his nose was whistling. I nudged him and he mumbled something and then we were back asleep, except maybe that whistle didn't let me all the way back. Maybe I was on alert, in some unconscious region of my brain.
Maybe I have never really felt at peace since his last surgery in October. Maybe part of my sleeping self is always partly awake, listening, because once your husband's heart has been cut open and been pieced back together, maybe you never stop worrying.
We went to bed, and then I hushed his whistling nose, and then he woke me again. I didn’t know what time it was, hours later it seemed, and again it was his breathing, but this time it wasn’t a benign nose whistle. This time it was a death rattle of a breath, a screeching, gasping breath with his face screwed up tight with the agony of trying to get air into his lungs (agonal respiration I later learned, the body’s very last attempt to save itself)
and I was shaking him as hard as I could, I was screaming are you OK? And I knew he wasn’t,
so I was grabbing my phone and calling 911 while I raced around our bed to his side
and then hours
or seconds later the 911 operator was walking me through giving him CPR, I was plugging his nose and taking a breath and then lowering to breath into his mouth and I thought
I can’t do this
and I thought
I’ve kissed his mouth one million times, I can do this
and then I was breathing into his mouth and feeling my own breath only fill up his cheeks
and then I was pumping as hard as I could on his chest
and I am pretty sure I was hysterically laughing and screaming all at once, this can’t be happening
but another part of my brain was calmly reminding me of the times I’ve watched someone playing a doctor on TV give chest compressions and I knew I had to push as hard as I could even though his chest seems so fragile to me, a thinly wired cage, and I actually had Meredith Grey’s voice in my head, or maybe it was the 911 operator
who told me after some indeterminate time—perhaps three CPR rotations of breathe and compress, perhaps five—to run as fast I could to the front door, where I let in a police officer who raced back down the hall with me.
He and I got Kendell onto the floor, and he kept up the CPR while I felt his pulse at his wrist, felt my husband’s pulse, which was a sharp blare and then nothing, sharp blare, nothing, sharp---
And then the EMTs were there and I stood in the hall by my bedroom, completely numb but still making that hysterical sound around the words I can’t believe this is happening now, because now has felt like it has always been coming, ever since that first heart surgery, because who can trust that life can keep going, right there in my hallway I didn’t, right there I thought it had ended and I couldn’t bear being alone so I raced downstairs to wake up my sons who had slept through it all, and they stood in the hallway with me, holding my hand, one of them, and another’s hand on my shoulder and I stopped making that sound.
The EMTs had to shock him four times before they got his rhythm back and because I didn’t have my glasses on or my contacts in, I also couldn’t hear any of the sounds they made (or maybe my brain didn’t let me hear) because in my memory that time in the hall is entirely silent until one of the EMTs said OK, got it, let’s move him and then I could squeeze past into the bathroom for my glasses.
(When I could see I completely melted down into an ugly, ugly laugh because if Kendell could’ve seen our bedroom—the vacuum knocked over, the tv askew, medical paraphernalia tossed everywhere and five men in shoes on the carpet—he would’ve been so pissed and it seemed ridiculous that I would never be able to tell him that.)
The EMTs took Kendell to the hospital. The policeman waited for me for a couple of minutes, while I raced to put in my contacts and put on a bra. Ridiculous what you think about in moments like that, but was I was thinking of was the night before my dad died, when the hospice nurse came to give him a sponge bath and change his clothes, and he dressed my dad in my mom’s t-shirt but I made the nurse go back and put on one of his t-shirts, because I knew my dad was dying and I didn’t want him to die in a woman’s t-shirt.
I didn’t want to go to the ER and be told my husband was dead without a bra on.
They didn’t tell me he was dead.
They took him into the same ER room where his mom died. They did medical things while I stood in the hall outside, while I sat in a chair, while some of the EMTs talked to me. I paced, I sat, I knew I had to call someone, a nurse stopped and brought me some water and asked if she could call someone for me, so I picked up my phone. I didn’t want to call or tell anyone because saying it out loud would make it real, because what even was this “it” that I needed to say out loud? I still didn’t know what was wrong. But I called his sister and she didn’t answer—it was 6:15 by now—and then I called my sister who answered by saying “what’s wrong?” and I don’t even know what I told her, but she came.
There are so many stories I could tell about those hours. The waiting. The way I flashed between calm and hysterical. The first conversation with the ICU doctor, who used terms like “possible anoxic brain injury” and “medically induced coma” and “base reflexes not responding well.” Conversations about what “DNR” really means. The moment I went back home to find our will, where our advanced directives are, and I couldn’t find it and I thought I’ll just ask Kendell, he’ll know exactly where it is and then there was a little bit more of that ugly hysterical sound.
There are so many stories and ways I could tell it, but reliving it will take time for me. Writing all of it down.
In the end, this is what happened: for unknown reasons (low potassium, slow heart rate, scar tissue build-up, congenital deformation in the sinoatrial node) Kendell’s heart went into cardiac arrest. He went into ventricular fibrillation but his breathing woke me up. The immediate CPR, the fast response of the policeman and the EMTs (they were at our house two minutes after they left the fire station), and, quite possibly, simple, inexplicable luck saved him. He was in a coma for two days, most of that while undergoing a cooling protocol to hopefully preserve his brain function. The doctor kept telling me bad news, that this and this and this were bad signs, and is it strange I am grateful he never gave me any false hope? But when they turned down the drugs and started waking Kendell up, he immediately responded. He woke up and he couldn’t breathe around the tube so he gestured until I figured out that he wanted a pen and he wrote (after a few attempts) I can’t breathe and then there was a different kind of hysterical sound.
Here is the terrifying thing: every nurse, doctor, EMT, and medical person we spoke with told us that most people don’t survive. One EMT said that Kendell was the reason he became an EMT, because 99% of people don’t survive, but Kendell did. Not only did he survive—he is OK. His short-term memory is a little fuzzy, but hopefully that will clear up with time. So, once we left the hospital—he had to get an internal defibrillator—I started looking.
And the statistics are dismal.
The highest one I found was 20%--meaning, 20% of people with cardiac arrest and v-fib live. (Eighty percent die.)
Another study said 5%.
Another one found that 1.79% of people with cardiac arrest and v-fib survive without any noticeable anoxic brain injury.
All of those numbers—they are terrifying. They make me look back on the entire experience and feel unable to understand why my husband is still alive, why he’s at work today and tomorrow he’ll go with me to Kaleb’s soccer game and he’ll be around for Mother’s Day.
It makes absolutely no sense that he is alive and normal. (Or, as I keep teasing him, as normal as he’s ever been.) I don’t understand it. He doesn’t understand it. But the fact is—the miracle is: he lived. He’s OK.
What is left is just filtering: trying to understand what happened, trying to let it change us in positive ways. I’ve learned that when something medical happens to someone in a family it happens, to some degree, to everyone in the family. I didn’t have to go through what he did, but it was fairly traumatic for me, too. (Ask me if I’ve slept well in the month since it happened. If I haven’t woken up panicked every night to make sure he’s still breathing, to make sure that I’m also still breathing.) My husband almost died. My husband should have died.
I can’t stay the same after that.