John Godwin’s heart transplant experiences — Part X: “The Wife”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In a 10-part series for eParisExtra readers, Paris City Manager John Godwin, who received a new heart on July 2, shares a series of short stories/character sketches about his transplant experiences – “doctors, nurses, drugs, my wife, a trainee priest, the night I got the new heart.” He returned to work on Aug. 19 for the first time since a near-fatal heart episode on June 14. Godwin, who has written three historical novels (Hope, 2004; Talisman, 2005; and Of Blood & Faith, 2010), wrote the 10 stories in July and August “while home bored with a laptop.”)

 

Part X: The Wife

My wife is perhaps the kindest and nicest person I have ever met. The same could and likely would be said by anyone who has ever met her. Unfortunately, that means people sometimes take advantage of her. And at other times, she comes across as soft and over-emotional. Like one of our daughters, she has the reputation for crying at the drop of a hat. On a bad day, when she is feeling especially insecure or vulnerable, she over-thinks, over-worries, and over-analyzes, borrowing troubles that exist not in reality but only in her tender feelings. Her own children have accused her of being weak, of letting people push her around and using her. But one finds out the true character of any other person not in the normal times. It is when things go wrong – horribly, frighteningly, unplanned, unfathomably bad – that you find out what a person is truly made of. An accurate measure of any person’s strength comes only in the dark times. At work, at home, in war, in an athletic contest. In a hospital.

Paris City Manager John Godwin

Paris City Manager John Godwin

In addition to being almost indescribably giving and kind, my wife is hard working to a fault. She has an incredible talent, too. What the Bible calls a gift. She has spent the last 11 years working with special needs kids. She is magical in the way she gets through to them, reaching deep inside them when no one else can come close to even penetrating the surface. She spent two special years with all autistic kids, most of them violent. Many a day she came home bruised, spat on, cut up, her clothes torn, an earring yanked out, bite marks on her arm or hand. But she loved every child and they knew it and loved her back, and in those two years she changed their lives. Changed them forever!  One spoke for the first time, and others completed schoolwork the experts said they could never do. Ever. An incredible gift, and one she shares freely and happily. We tease her proudly and call her the “child whisperer” because of her uncanny ability to reach any child, no matter how far gone he or she seems to be. It’s ironic that those emotions she carries so close to the surface, the ones people mistake for signs of weakness, are what makes her so effective. For it is those very emotions that make the connections to her special kids.

On June 14, her husband suffers a catastrophic heart attack. He is stabilized just in time at one hospital, then transferred to another for life-saving surgery. The almost 10-hour surgery goes badly and even the surgeon later admits it is a miracle the patient survives. Even at that, he survives only with the aid of machines, and the prognosis is not good. So how does the wife respond?  Hand-wringing, crying, paralyzing despair?  Hardly!  Concern, worry, fear?  Of course. But most importantly, she acts. Through a series of painful-to-make phone calls and text messages, she gathers her children around her, and then the rest of her family and friends. She contacts his friends and family and coworkers, too. She interacts regularly with the surgeons and medical personnel. She makes decisions. She takes care of the insurance and the bills and all the business aspects of a major hospitalization. She even allows herself to prepare a tentative list of pallbearers – just in case. She prays, and asks for the prayers of others. She is involved, in charge, and under control. It does not come easy, especially in the first few days when she is deathly afraid, but she becomes the personification of strength under fire.

For four days she watches her unconscious husband – tubes, hoses, wires jammed into every available space – as he wastes away and the surgeons debate what to do next. Her surroundings and the people within them fade into the shadows. Some of them feel ignored. But she has one concern only, one crisis, and her entire heart, soul, and mind are laser-focused on the man in the bed kept alive by machines. She is involved, in charge, and under control.

They have been married for more than 28 years. He likes to tell people 22 happy ones and six really bad ones. He is not joking. There were a pair of three-year skids that threatened their marriage. The children are old enough to remember the latter triad, during which they heard far too many harsh, intentionally hurtful words. The husband hopes what they take from those three ugly years is that their parents did not give up on each other. That no matter how bad it got, they fought through it and the result was a better marriage than ever. Now the wife wonders if they will celebrate 29 years.

The patient wakes up and things look a little brighter. They suffer through a week of delirium and confusion, but the husband gets gradually stronger, the change from one day to the next almost imperceptible, but real nonetheless. She continues to stay in charge, through the long days and nights. She finally leaves the hospital after days and days, and makes time to take the two grandchildren on a water park outing, and the entire family takes in a fireworks show back in their hometown. She spends a day in Paris, taking care of business there too, for life goes on outside the hospital. But the focus is still on the husband, and she is otherwise beside his bed, no matter what. The hospital staff knows her well, as do the families of many other critical patients. She is kind and soft-spoken with them, and they are in awe of her strength, her control, the deepness of her character.

A new heart becomes available. A celebration for one family. An unspeakable tragedy for another. One hopes the wife/mother in the latter family is as strong as the wife in the former. Surgery is efficient and subsequent improvement rapid and dramatic. After 27 days and nights, the patient makes it home, his old useless heart donated by his wife for study, a new one beating excitedly in his chest. The wife becomes nurse and servant now. Cooking special foods and serving them on a tray; cutting his meat because his hands are still too weak; distributing over 30 medicines a day to her one patient; checking blood pressure, blood sugar, and temperature twice a day; helping with showers and getting dressed; cutting toenails; driving him to the hospital four times per week for outpatient care; even mixing one medicine by hand every morning and night. I cannot possibly do this alone. I wonder if I would even have survived without my wife.

But one finds out about the true character of any other person not in the normal times. It is when things go wrong – horribly, frighteningly, unplanned, unfathomably bad, that you find out what a person is truly made of. An accurate measure of any person’s strength comes only in the dark times. At work, in an athletic contest, at war. In a hospital. A Paris firefighter stepping up at a dangerous structural fire or a police officer willingly putting himself in harm’s way, UT quarterback Vince Young single-handedly rallying his Longhorns to win the Rose Bowl, George Patton racing on a tank to save trapped Americans at the Battle of the Bulge. And my wife at UT-Southwestern Medical Center. Courage – and the deepest kind of character – under fire. It’s the difference between good and great

A young intern chaplain says it best in a letter he writes. He tells her she epitomizes the phrase, “do you promise to love your husband in good times and bad, in sickness and in health…”   She is, he goes on, a wonderful witness to him and the world. He promises to share the strength and devotion, the hope, he has received from the time he shared with her at the hospital as he works with other patients and their families in his future. Thus she will continue to help others, even strangers she will never meet, through her example of strength and courage. Strong?  Like steel. Or diamonds. My wife. My hero!  Greatness, indeed.

For other “Transplant Experience” stories in the 10-part series, go to:

http://www.eparisextra.com/category/special-series/

John Godwin’s heart transplant experiences — Part IX: “The Letter”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In a 10-part series for eParisExtra readers, Paris City Manager John Godwin, who received a new heart on July 2, shares a series of short stories/character sketches about his transplant experiences – “doctors, nurses, drugs, my wife, a trainee priest, the night I got the new heart.” He returned to work on Aug. 19 for the first time since a near-fatal heart episode on June 14. Godwin, who has written three historical novels (Hope, 2004; Talisman, 2005; and Of Blood & Faith, 2010), wrote the 10 stories in July and August “while home bored with a laptop.”)

 

Part IX: The Letter

Home is a magical talisman for me. Much more than a word or a place. But a part of me. It’s where I draw comfort and support and strength. It’s familiar and comfortable. It’s where I am loved unconditionally, a place of rejuvenation of body and spirit. And after 27 days in a hospital, most of it in intensive care, it’s the place I want to be more than any other in the whole world.

Paris City Manager John Godwin

Paris City Manager John Godwin

I am home now. At last. I try to drink it in, like slaking a great thirst. The familiar front yard when I first arrive, the front porch swing off to one side, the pair of Labrador retrievers waiting at the door, wildly ecstatic to see me as only a Lab can be. I sit in my own big chair now, my own kitchen table not far away. I am watching my own big screen television, and my wife has served me a home-cooked supper. Later I will sleep in my own bed, and tomorrow use my own shower, the warm water washing the hospital off of me and sending it far, far away. I luxuriate in the feeling of being here, my family gathered with me. My eyes are half closed. I’m not really watching that big television, and couldn’t care less what’s on. It’s just being here that gives me strength and comforts me. It’s just being here that confirms I am still alive. And it’s here that I know I will heal and get better and finally back to normal.

Then my daughter shatters my quiet revelry. She asks if I want to hear her letter. At first I have no idea what she is talking about, but when your teenage daughter wants to talk, you stop and listen, for I find those times far too few and far between, and in a few more weeks she’s off to college and we become empty nesters after 26 years of children. The letter is for the family of my heart donor. The person who died, probably suddenly, possibly violently, and to whom I owe an eternal debt. Contact between donors and recipients and their families are generally discouraged, but donors are invited to write anonymous letters to the donor family if they wish. The donor family may accept and read the letter, or return it unopened. My daughter has written her letter, and it’s incredible.

With passion and emotion she shares something of who I am – as a husband, father, and grandfather. She expresses her deep sorrow for the grieving family, and admiration for their courage and selflessness. She knows that without their actions, her father might never have enjoyed home again, while showing how deeply she understands that just the opposite is true for the donor family. Their loved one will never enjoy home again.

My wife starts it. I hear her breathing grow labored as my daughter reads, her words pouring out deep emotion. She sniffles, and so do I. Tears stream down her face and I realize my eyes too are full. By the time our 18-year old finishes the letter, we both cry uncontrollably. I cannot know if the donor family will accept the letter, or ever read it, but for my wife and me, it provokes a great emotional catharsis. Guilt, confusion, happiness, unfairness, sorrow. Much more. Emotions not until now really thought of, or at least not consciously addressed. I think of the movie Saving Private Ryan and wonder if I am worth it, if I deserve this incredible gift of life received at such high cost from complete strangers. In the movie, Tom Hanks’ character willingly sacrifices his life so Private Ryan can go home to his family. The man who saved my life was not given that choice. He is gone forever, and I am here because of his tragedy. I am happy to be alive, and so is my family. But at what a horrible price for someone else.

As a lay in ICU day after day waiting, many of the doctors and nurses predicted I would get a new heart over the Fourth of July weekend.  It’s one of their busy seasons, they explained. Lots of alcohol and irresponsible celebrations netted premature deaths of otherwise healthy people. They were not happy about it. It was not like they saw it as a grand opportunity. They are not mechanical automatons. It is just a sad fact of their business. I understand they are very busy around New Year’s Eve too. So there I was, waiting for someone to die. It was possible I might survive for a time without a new heart, but probably not too long. My surgeon described my survival from an initial surgery as a miracle. Now, at home with my new heart, I confront the horrible conflict of emotion that I had been avoiding. My daughter’s incredibly powerful words purge those emotions from deep inside me and I can barely speak.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, some 3,000 Americans are on the wait list for a new heart on any given day. As of June 26 of this year, that number is up slightly, to 3,545. Yet only about 2,000 hearts become available each year. That deadly deficit becomes huge when one considers that all organ wait lists combined totaled 129,039.  Transplants for some of these patients are risky and many might not survive even with a donor. But an horrific number will die for the very simple reason that a heart or lung or kidney is simply unavailable. So while a young man only a few rooms down the hall from me dies waiting for a heart that never comes, thousands of hearts are being lost to no good purpose. Shortly after I receive my new heart, another lady is turned away completely, her rejection a death sentence.

All of those needing new organs are not middle-aged men either. Some 197 children aged five and under got new hearts last year. In my home town of Marshall, a 10 year-old boy named Anthony has been waiting for a new heart for almost two years. No one knows how long he can survive like he is, but without a new heart, his prognosis is horrible to consider. A child, afraid and sick. Yet he does not have to be. The sad arithmetic of life is that hearts that could save him will be there. The question is whether a donor family will do what mine did and rescue one life even at the price of another. A lifelong friend of mine has a daughter who received a new heart at the age of 15. We visit and he tells me she struggles with guilt. She knows in her case another child had to die to save her. My doctors tell me not to feel guilty. Your donor did not die because of you. Rather I live because of him.

Later, as an outpatient, I run into other survivors. One got his new heart just a week or two before me. Another has had his new heart for six years. Two others have survived 13 and 17 years, respectively. That’s five lives saved counting me. For the latter three men, that’s a total of 36 years of life, and still counting, that were gifted to them. If the donor families had decided differently, those men likely would all be lost, their cumulative 36 years never lived. On the opposite end, I meet the wife of a visibly sick, suffering, and distraught man. He is only two years older than me!  In the great rating scale of who gets what first, I was listed as 1A. This poor man is a 2B. His wife does not speak the words aloud, but the elephant in the room is that we all know he will never get his transplant. He will be lucky to survive the year. Sadly, the operation he needs could and probably would save his life, despite the additional risk factors he has. But he will die because there are simply not enough hearts being donated to rescue him.

Yet becoming a donor is surprisingly easy. In Texas, a person can simply check a box when getting a driver’s license.

One night at the hospital, before I get my new heart, I mention to my family that several years ago I began listing myself as a donor. My heart will not do anyone any good, and at the time, there is still concern about my kidneys and liver too, but maybe I have something of value to someone. My wife notes she is also listed as a donor and I am surprised to learn my youngest daughter is as well. None of us knew about each other’s decisions. I later find out my two older daughters and my one son-in-law are all registered donors too. That makes me proud, and secretly I hope somehow maybe my family can get “points” towards a new heart for me.

More recently, one of my letter-writing daughter’s best friends dies suddenly after a horrible, painful bout with cancer. I feel the guilt again. Why is he gone and I am still here?  Kyle is a fine young man and he deserves and needs a father as much as my daughter does. So why the opposite outcomes?  Of course in the overall scheme of the universe, I cannot know why. Probably there is no why. But specifically it’s because he had an horrific nasty, virulent disease that man has not yet learned to cure. His outcome was certain, whereas mine could have gone either way. Ultimately I lived in part because of the wonders of modern medicine and the incredible skills of a rare group of surgeons. But I live, too, because a family made a choice to reach out in their dark hour and saved me with a donated heart. I pray some family, some horrible distraught, grieving, shattered family will make the same gut-wrenching decision and save little Anthony from Marshall in the same selfless way. I would never wish the loss of a child on any family, but the only tragedy I can think of worse than a family losing a child is two families losing two children.

Next – Part X: The Wife

For other “Transplant Experience” stories in the 10-part series, go to:

http://www.eparisextra.com/category/special-series/

 

John Godwin’s heart transplant experiences — Part VIII: ‘Delirious’

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In a 10-part series for eParisExtra readers, Paris City Manager John Godwin, who received a new heart on July 2, shares a series of short stories/character sketches about his transplant experiences – “doctors, nurses, drugs, my wife, a trainee priest, the night I got the new heart.” He returned to work on Aug. 19 for the first time since a near-fatal heart episode on June 14. Godwin, who has written three historical novels (Hope, 2004; Talisman, 2005; and Of Blood & Faith, 2010), wrote the 10 stories in July and August “while home bored with a laptop.”)

 

Part VIII: Delirious

I first meet Holly while serving as President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant. I am told we had a very lively discussion. I later visit with her during the early 1900s when I am a wealthy archaeologist working somewhere near the Nile River. I am wheelchair bound, stuck in a seat on a miniature train, and having trouble using a bed pan. We visit for hours at a Middle Eastern bazaar, which later turns into a modern-day doctor’s office. There we discuss leadership, local government, politics, and history. She is an excellent doctor it turns out, though later I find out she’s a nurse, and I was never U.S. Grant. In fact, of course, I eventually realize none of this is real. My addled brain, in a drug and coma-induced stupor, has created it all.

Paris City Manager John Godwin

Paris City Manager John Godwin

My hallucinations do not end there. I believe the IV tree has a hidden camera in it. I see bugs and rats, and even flocks of birds in my ICU room. I am held hostage and tortured in an underground concrete bunker. I find myself in El Paso eating Mexican food at a favorite restaurant, and argue with my nurse when she tries to tell me I am still in a Dallas hospital. Later I go on a spy mission with my son-in-law the army captain, ending up in my hometown of Marshall, where I eat lunch and have a line surgically installed in my shoulder. My nurse did not believe that story either, but it is probably just as well. Spies are not supposed to let on that they are spies.

One sleepless night, a family of freeloaders refuses to leave the hospital and keeps everyone awake and on edge. Some sort of argument about a coffee maker and snacks the family has been providing to the hospital staff while their son – who does not have an actual body, but has converted himself into a bunch of CDs and photos – awaits a transplant. The staff will not call the police to have them removed, for fear of bad press, so the family sticks around for days. They eventually have their kids take turns pretending to be sick, and secure a lawyer from England to help them get free room and board at the hospital.

Shockingly I see what I presume to be a suicide attempt across the hallway in another ICU room. A woman ends up with a rope around her neck and though her sick husband is with her, she is too fat for him to help her. Fortunately, nurses and technicians get there in time. I am told she will be all right. They say it is an accident, but I doubt she really just tripped and fell into the pull string on the window blinds and accidentally hanged herself.

I am given a heart-shaped pillow after my first surgery. Patients are taught to clutch them tightly when they cough or move about. I do something to mine and get a replacement. The new one is compliments of a group of city managers from the Ukraine that has also donated a large quantity of medicine in my name. That reminds me of a childhood story about a mining town in Iceland, in which large numbers of children are stricken with a rare heart disease. A Scots engineer creates a machine that keeps the kids alive, but they can never leave their hometown. At some point, I actually become a little boy with a heart condition living in Iceland. My Icelandic mother looks suspiciously like my nurse, and the next-door neighbors look just like the technicians who help her take care of me. It turns out Iceland is a very nice place.

A nurse takes me to a large upstairs room to wash my hair, but there is an odd LSU fan in the room next door, staring through the plate glass window at me. I think it must be someone I know trying to play a trick on me. But I become so annoyed the nurse investigates and says there is no one there. Yet I am looking right at him!  I think there is something wrong with this nurse. That becomes even more apparent when she tells me I have not even left my room, yet I know good and well I have been all over the hospital and even out of the city at least twice. In fact, she tries to tell me I have not left this room or my bed for over two weeks. The worst thing is when I finally become clear-headed enough to realize she is right. Everything, it seems, that I experience is unreal, mere figments of my out-of-control imagination. I have been living in an ethereal world, going from one crazed fantasy to another. In between I fight severe paranoia and am constantly afraid of the night. And through all this mad world, a final hallucination – a happy, friendly, bald-headed doctor in a tiny wheelchair races about, supervising the staff and checking on the patients, all the while almost running everyone down in his wheelchair. Rather like the mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

I have never been tempted to use drugs, and after my experience with delirium I can say unequivocably that Nancy Reagan was right when she advised young Americans to Just Say No to Drugs. In my case, I am in a semi-coma for almost five days after being under general anesthesia for 10 hours, I am taking large doses of various powerful medicines, I am given pain killers and sleeping pills, and I am suffering from severe malnutrition. It all combines to give the subconscious part of my sleep-deprived brain permission to do and think whatever it wants, and my eager brain goes on a very bad, extended “trip.”

It does not end with flights of fancy, bad memory, hallucinations, and paranoia, though. There are physical ramifications too. I try to pull out a breathing tube and do yank out a feeding tube. I convince myself that Cream of Wheat is actually coming back up into my mouth from my stomach. I bash the back of my head so hard on something that it brings blood and weeks later all the hair around the still superating wound falls out. One morning the nurse is surprised to find one of my three ID bracelets is missing. They later find it on the floor. Apparently unhappy with it, I had chewed through the heavy plastic band with my teeth. It must have taken most of the night.

Following the crazy period comes the transition period. My brain slowly comes out of its dark haze and begins to try to think clearly. At first it just spins, like a car with its rear tires stuck in the mud, spinning idly in place, trying to gain traction. Eventually I am clear-headed enough to know I am not clear-headed. And that starts a whole new sort of fear. Each time a doctor comes to see me, he or she asks a series of questions. What is your name, your birthday, the current month and year, who is president, and a few more. I get almost all of them wrong. It’s frustrating and frightening. What if my brain is stuck like this?  I soon realize it’s a concern for my doctors, who have just placed me on the list for a heart transplant. I need to be physically well enough to receive a new heart, but I also need to be sane. They will not waste a heart on a crazy person. In my mind, that means if I don’t get back to normal, I might never get a new heart, and if don’t get a new heart, I will probably die. I cannot just make my brain be normal, so I decide to practice what so many unfortunate people under the influence of drugs do. I decide to deceive everyone!

I do not really know the answers to the questions the doctors ask me each day because they require me to draw from past memory, which I cannot readily access. But I do have the ability to memorize the questions and answers now, so when they ask me again, I get them all right. They think that means I am getting better. Many years ago I passed a school bus driver eye test the same way, having memorized the entire chart in advance. I just hope they do not change the order of the questions. If they do, my answers will not match up and they will be on to me.

One day I argue with my nurse Melanie. She is a graduate of the nursing school at Paris Junior College, a very fine nurse, and one of our favorites. She annoys me today, however, when she tells me I am at a hospital instead of in a mall, when I can plainly see the mall all around me. That disagreement devolves into a debate about whether or not I am also in an envelope. When she and my wife become so worried they call the doctors in to see me, I quickly tell them of course I know I am in a hospital. A mall?  They must have misunderstood me.  Of course I am not in a mall. I’m not crazy!  Secretly, I hope maybe they think Melanie is though, thereby taking the heat off me. And when people ask if I still see spiders and rats and birds in the room, even though they are still everywhere, I know I am supposed to say my hallucinations are all gone, so I lie and tell them no, no more vermin.

When alone with my oldest daughter late one night, I tell her that although my wife and the nurses are worried about me and well-meaning, they have to help hide my insanity from the doctors. If they think I am not mentally fit, the doctors will disqualify me from getting a new heart. To be blunt, I tell her, you have to tell your mom to back off, or it could cost me my life.

I later think about the phrase recreational drug. What an oxymoron!  Recreation implies relaxation, fun, pleasant activity, maybe sport. There is nothing recreational about what happened to me. Talking to my oldest brother one night, when I am finally almost completely normal (at least I think so), I tell him about the horrible dreams and hallucinations I suffered through on my very bad three-week trip. He laughs and says it is hard to believe people pay money to do drugs. I laugh too. They’re crazy, I add. Still later, when the hospital bills start rolling in, I realize no drug addict has probably ever spent as much in a lifetime as I did in 27 days on drugs.

I do get some good news, however. Several days after I get home from the hospital, my daughters and I are visiting when one of them mentions Holly the nurse. I ask if she was real. Absolutely, they answer. She took extra good care of you and was one of our favorites. The two of you talked almost all day, they tell me.  I am so glad to hear it. I was never U.S. Grant (and wonder why my brain picked one of the worst of all presidents instead of my favorite, Grover Cleveland), but at least Holly is real. Then I wonder aloud if maybe that really nice doctor in the tiny wheelchair might have been real too?  Yep, him too they say. But you never went to El Paso or Iceland, you were never a spy, and you really did gnaw your armband off. I don’t say it out loud, but secretly I blame those rats that no one else could see. They had really sharp teeth.

Next – Part IX: The Letter

For other “Transplant Experience” stories in the 10-part series, go to:

http://www.eparisextra.com/category/special-series/

 

John Godwin’s heart transplant experiences — Part VII: ‘The Priest’

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In a 10-part series for eParisExtra readers, Paris City Manager John Godwin, who received a new heart on July 2, shares a series of short stories/character sketches about his transplant experiences – “doctors, nurses, drugs, my wife, a trainee priest, the night I got the new heart.” He returned to work on Aug. 19 for the first time since a near-fatal heart episode on June 14. Godwin, who has written three historical novels (Hope, 2004; Talisman, 2005; and Of Blood & Faith, 2010), wrote the 10 stories in July and August “while home bored with a laptop.”)

 

Part VII: The Priest

Because it is a part of the University of Texas system, this is a teaching hospital and the doctors wander the halls in pods of threes and fours, each one led by an experienced doctor, constantly teaching their young charges. These young interns generally look on impassively, expressionless as they listen and try to soak up every bit of knowledge and experience from their teachers. But one of the interns is different. He always stops in and speaks with me on a personal level, expressing a keen interest in my progress, and even asking after my family if they are not present. He knows my wife and daughters from my first week here, during which I am mostly unconscious. I wonder why he behaves so differently from the others. It turns out he is not what I think. He is indeed an intern, and his “pod” is made up of still more eager interns. But not medical interns. Each of these young people is a future chaplain.

Paris City Manager John Godwin

Paris City Manager John Godwin

He is young and handsome, soft spoken and a man of few words. But there is something special about him. There is something about his sincerity and obvious concern that impresses me and makes me like him very much, and almost immediately. He shares with us his career plan – he refers to it as a calling – to become a Catholic priest, and the steps he must complete, including this internship, to get him there. I do not recall how, but we discuss his spiritual journey and how he was led to this decision to enter the priesthood. A fine young athlete, he became a high school football coach and teacher in his native Houston. But he began to think God wanted him to do something else. Something more!  I imagine him at a high school surrounded by teenagers, the girls all crazy over his dark hair and charming smile. I quiz him pretty hard I realize later, and am not sure why. But I see very quickly that he is very much for real and that his faith in God and his Catholic church are very earnest and run quite deep. My family and I have been part of the Cumberland Presbyterian church since at least the 1830s (theologically somewhere between Baptists and “regular” Presbyterians), so there’s a lot about the Catholic church I do not understand. But if men like this one are their future, I think they still have much to offer the world. I believe he is indeed being “called.”

Somewhere along the way we talk about celibacy and he admits that when he started his journey, he did not agree with the church’s teachings on the matter at all. Besides, he says with a grin, he really likes girls. I wonder if he has a girlfriend he will have to sacrifice for his faith. He explains to me why he changed his mind and how he now understands the Biblical basis of priests being married to the church instead of to a mate. He is so genuine I cannot help but respect and even admire his decision and his thoughts.

I believe I see God’s hand on this young man, and though I secretly wish he were serving my church instead of another, I know he serves God and is faithful to God’s call in the way he knows best. Each time he leaves, I feel like God has been present with us in some small way, almost like a hint of cologne that lingers after someone leaves a room. He’s not overtly preachy or religious. He never quotes the Bible or even prays with me. But there’s something special nonetheless. The word pontifex was used in Roman times to describe a certain government council, and from that old Latin phrase we get the modern word pontiff. Its ancient root refers to a bridge builder. The idea is that a priest is a sort of bridge between God and man, as I understand it. We Presbyterians believe we can be our own priests, but I understand what they mean and I feel like maybe this young intern’s purpose with us is as a bridge to God. Or maybe an ambassador. I don’t know the Latin word for that. I tell him I am going to make him my priest, though, and I hope that’s okay. Ever taciturn, he smiles, nods good-naturedly, and says that will be just fine.

There are plenty of others besides the priest involved in my hospital stay and spiritual care. My own pastor and his wife come by to check on me. He brings me greetings from the congregation, and wants to read me a Bible verse he thinks is especially appropriate. I lie uncomfortably in my bed as he reads Ezekiel 36:26. “I will give you a new heart and fill you with a new spirit; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  I chuckle. Sure enough my old heart was not much better than a stone, and I am very grateful for the new one of healthy flesh. I hope to make good use of it and take care of it, and of myself. It’s a rare thing to be given a second chance, almost a second life. I feel very blessed.

I think what impresses me most is the way in which so many people spring to action in their prayer lives on my behalf. And a majority of those people do not even know me. For Christians in the South, the two most important things they can do when someone is sick or in grief is feed them and pray for them. I do not need a casserole or a meat & cheese tray, or even a banana pudding, so prayer becomes their way to help. My family and friends pray, of course. Some of my coworkers and past coworkers, my neighbors, and others who know me pray for me. That’s sort of expected and almost obligatory. But it does not end there.

For these people tell other people, who tell still more people, and before I know it I am on prayer lists in I do not know how many churches and Sunday school classes in at least half a dozen cities across Texas. On the night I get my new heart, my old fifth grade teacher, who goes to church with the mother of a friend of mine from high school prays for me and mails me a card – in the middle of the night. A Methodist church in Rowlett collects blood for me, as does a Cumberland Presbyterian one in Marshall. I get calls and emails, on a site set up for that purpose, from people I do not even know, but who heard about me from someone else and wanted to let me know they are praying for me. I get cards with hand-written Bible verses added in, including one from an engineer I have known for many years and another from a local police officer I scarcely know at all – yet they send the same verse, Isaiah 41.10. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”  I even have teenagers from my daughter’s high school praying for me and sending me Bible verses. And complete strangers, like a lady who sends me four cards, each with a hand-written note, or the lady who contacts me and tells me about her young son, who is also waiting for a new heart.

The pastor of First Methodist in Paris, a man I have met only a few times, drives all the way to Dallas to check on me. I do not see him, but my family does, and his expression of concern is very meaningful. I even get a card from his church telling me that they have a group that meets every Wednesday at 10:00 and they pray for me. I know they have a long list of other folks they also pray for. But it still means a lot to get a card that specifically tells me a group of dedicated Christians, most of whom are strangers to me, are taking time every week to go to God and ask him directly for my healing. That’s a wonderful, humbling feeling. I like the Bible verse on the church’s website, Colossians 4:2. “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” They certainly practice what they preach at FUMC Paris.

Those prayers hit my wife and me in a powerful way on the night of July 1. It is an odd feeling that defies description, but somehow I could feel those hundreds of prayers sent on my behalf as if they were a palpable presence in that very room. It is the night we are told there might be a heart available for us. I immediately doubt it. It is too soon, I reason. I have not yet paid my dues. I cannot be that lucky. Only on the waiting list for a bit over a week. But my wife reminds me that literally hundreds of people are praying for me. Hundreds!  You do not need luck, she reminds me. You need a blessing. And then they are there. In that instant, the room is full of those hundreds of prayers and I know my new heart is on its way and that everything will be okay. I simply know it!  Twelve hours later I am out of a wildly successful heart transplant surgery and my new heart, one of flesh instead of stone, is pumping life-giving blood and oxygen throughout my body.

Maybe what I feel that night is just my imagination. Maybe it is the drugs. Maybe it is wishful thinking. Maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I do not think so. I believe those prayers, good thoughts, and best wishes are somehow in the room with us. Whether they came from Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, or even atheists, I feel them right there. It is an odd feeling that words cannot adequately convey, but it is a real one. Very lucky, very fortunate?  Absolutely. But that’s not all. I am blessed. And I will be forever grateful to every person who prayed for me, sent me a card or text or email, or just extended best wishes and positive thoughts in their own ways. They did make a difference. They did help save my very life.

Next: Part VIII: Delirious

For other “Transplant Experience” stories in the 10-part series, go to:

http://www.eparisextra.com/category/special-series/

 

 

John Godwin’s heart transplant experiences — Part VI: ‘The Human Touch’

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In a 10-part series for eParisExtra readers, Paris City Manager John Godwin, who received a new heart on July 2, shares a series of short stories/character sketches about his transplant experiences – “doctors, nurses, drugs, my wife, a trainee priest, the night I got the new heart.” He returned to work on Aug. 19 for the first time since a near-fatal heart episode on June 14. Godwin, who has written three historical novels (Hope, 2004; Talisman, 2005; and Of Blood & Faith, 2010), wrote the 10 stories in July and August “while home bored with a laptop.”)

 

Part VI: The Human Touch

The night begins with the most basic of human needs denied, and ends with the most important of human need satisfied. It’s supper time. I need to call the cafeteria and order another bland meal. I’m not really all that hungry, but the doctors say I need to eat and put on weight in order to heal properly. They even tell me I am suffering from malnutrition. That sounds like a Third World ailment, not something a man suffers from in an American hospital. I will later realize how right they are, losing well over 20 pounds, including much of the large muscle groups in my legs and torso, which in turn makes movement difficult and exhausting. Besides not eating much when they bring me food, some days I did not even request a meal. Just too disinterested to bother.

Paris City Manager John Godwin

Paris City Manager John Godwin

But tonight my wife dutifully calls the cafeteria for me – only to be rebuffed. We do not have him on our list to get a meal tonight, the voice tells her. I sigh at the irony. I do not really care if I eat or not, but have been told very matter-of-factly to eat no matter what.  I am content to let it go, but my wife and nurse disagree. You need to eat, they instruct me. Sort of like having my grandmother stop by to fatten me up. I am in a new room, and this is the third meal in a row the nurse has had to call the cafeteria to tell them I really am in that room and I really am still a patient in the hospital. After a short conversation he hangs up the phone without placing my order.

It’s not like before, the nurse tells us. There is no problem in the cafeteria. The hold on your meal is from the surgeon. I am confused. The same surgeon who told me to eat, eat, eat, because I am starving to death, my body slowly consuming itself to get through each day?  That surgeon?  I cannot even begin to make sense of this. The nurse hesitates. He has something to say, but doesn’t say it. I shrug, still disinterested in the food, but my wife wonders aloud why. Well, the nurse says falteringly, it may mean nothing, but you know one reason why surgeons do not want their patients to eat. We are confused by that. The only reason I have ever been told by a doctor to skip a meal is because I am about to undergo some test for which I need an empty stomach or because I have a surgery coming up …  It may be nothing, the nurse repeats, so don’t get your hopes up. But it could be good news.

That last sentence hangs in the air. There is only one surgery I am waiting for and only one piece of good news that might be coming our way. A heart?  No way, I say. I have been on the list only a week. It is too soon. Way too soon. I put the thought out of my head, but the nurse gets another call, and then tells us that the doctors will be coming to see us soon. Not saying anything for sure, he emphasizes, but it could be good news. Sometime later a group of four doctors shows up in my room. We might have good news for you, the surgeon equivocates. There is a heart and it looks good so far. A lot of things can go wrong and this is still a long ways from happening, but we want you to know that one has become available. And even if we go forward to the next step, there are no guarantees. We have had patients prepped and taken into surgery, only to wake up with an “empty” chest, he explains. This is a very fluid thing, and we need to know a lot more.

I know that once a heart is removed from blood flow, it has a usable life of about four hours, so I know time is important, and decisions quick. I also know – and hate the very thought of it – that sometimes they will keep a heart pumping inside a brain-dead patient until it can be harvested, thereby extending its useful life. The doc squad leaves us alone, just my wife and me, to ponder what they had to say. I tell her it is too early, too soon, dismissing the visit as a “maybe” and nothing more. My wife calls our daughters, emphasizing that we do not know anything yet, but that they should be ready, just in case. The evening goes by, the two of us chasing random topics of conversation, trying to watch the television to kill time and keep our minds off the possibility of impending surgery.

There is an odd assortment of wires wrapped around my waist, held in place by some sort of homemade (or I should more accurately say, nurse-made) strips of elastic, and a large controller that looks like a doorknob hanging against my right hip. This is connected to the external pump across the room, one of two keeping me alive. The device generates a staggering amount of heat. It’s hard even to touch it by hand, so having it on my hip day after day causes me to stay hot and sweaty, my mouth constantly dry. This evening is the worst ever. My hair is matted with sweat and I beg for ice water. Only ice, I am told. I ask my wife to get ice water anyway, not to drink but to wipe my face. She suspects a trick, but dutifully complies, returning with a small cup of ice water and a washcloth. She dabs at my face, but I can barely feel it. Surely my face is glowing red. A big cup and a real towel, I tell her. I need to bathe my head in cold water and reduce my temperature. She again complies, again hesitantly, but before long she is in the spirit of things, wiping my entire face and head with the icy water.

That’s what we are doing when the nurse tells us that another doctor is on his way to see us. This one, he says, is bringing us paperwork to sign. A few minutes later a beaming doctor shows up, clutching a sheaf of papers. We think we have you a heart and need you to sign the paperwork for us to proceed. I sign the papers with a shaky hand, hoping my signature will be good enough. One of my procedures has damaged the nerves in my right hand and holding a pen is almost impossible. The doc is satisfied, though, and although he cautions again that something can still go awry at the last minute, everything so far looks like a go. It is a very good, very strong heart, and is an excellent match. We should be back to take you to surgery about midnight. In the movies or on television, music would have played and we would have yelped for joy, broken into tears, hugged and kissed gratefully, and gone to a commercial. In this case, I simply nod, and ask my wife to let me have the ice water and wet towel. Her reaction is much more dramatic. The emotions held in check for so long finally come flooding out, especially as she calls first our daughters, and then others, to tell them the news. She is so distraught when she makes those calls, two family members think she is about to tell them I have died!

The clock moves slowly, but our girls get there before they take me away to surgery, and I am really glad for that. But now that they are here, I am ready to get this over with. It’s later than they estimated when they come for me, but I expected as much. It seems nothing is ever on time. I tell them goodbye, try to reassure them all will be fine, and I will see them in the morning. And I really believe that. The operating room is not far away and before I know it I am strapped to a narrow board, my arms tied down, various wires and gadgets attached to me. Three women in long gowns and shower caps work busily. One is the anesthesiologist and I assume the other two are some sort of technicians who assist her. I am ready to go and clearly they are too. I am minutes away from being placed under. A phone rings and one of the techs answers. There is a problem.

The doctor says not to give him anesthesia yet, she reports. Says there has been a delay and he does not want him under so long. I take that to mean the heart’s trip to Dallas is delayed for some reason and all is still well. Just another wait. Unfortunately, my wife, down the hall in the waiting room, is simply told that there is a delay, and she takes that to mean maybe the heart was not as good as expected. Maybe this surgery will not happen at all, she frets, her frazzled nerves tearing her apart.

For me it’s more of an immediate problem. For the last 20 years I have suffered from periodic severe back pain caused by stenosis and a bulging disk. Most days the pain is very mild and I do not even notice it. Certain activities can make it excruciating however. Like lifting heavy things, pushing a lawnmower too far, sitting in a car too long, or lying in a hospital bed for two weeks followed by being strapped to a board in an operating room!  In no time, my back is screaming in pain, and I beg the doctor to untie me and give me relief. I explain I am not normally a whiner, but my back injury is very real.

She cannot move me, she explains. This will happen quickly when it happens and we may not have time to do this all over again. Every minute counts. I lie still and quiet, trying to think about other things, trying to push the pain away, arcing and stretching in a vain effort to gain some advantage over it. The technicians see to a few more chores and then there is nothing for any of us to do but wait. The doctor does not leave me there alone, though. Instead she pulls up a seat beside me and we talk. It makes the time go by faster and takes my mind partially off my back. She seems genuinely interested in who I am and what I do. She asks about my family and my work. I sense that chit chat does not come easily to her, which makes me appreciate the effort all the more. The delay continues and the phone still does not ring. I agonize with my back while not far away my wife agonizes with her doubts.

Then the most amazing thing happens. This well-educated, highly skilled, probably bored and maybe sleepy doctor, reaches out and touches me. Just two fingers on my lower back. She rubs tentatively and I feel almost instant relief from the worst of the pain. More importantly, it is a human touch in a sterile room in a sterile place, and it somehow touches me deep inside too. Human kindness. Compassion. Reaching out to someone in need. Someone she does not even know, but who she knows she can help. She rubs my back for well over an hour. Instead of lying alone, hurting and worried – for I would not have blamed her for going in another room and taking a nap or eating a sandwich – I am comforted by this magnificent doctor. Word finally comes; the heart is onsite. She instantly changes from compassionate neighbor to skilled doctor. Within minutes I am out, the surgery begins at 3:16 a.m., and before dawn it’s over and my new heart is pumping blood through my beat-up body.

It all happens so fast, I never even get to thank her for taking such good care of me. Not just during the operation, but as we strangers shared two hours in a sterile room, one sitting on an uncomfortable stool and the other strapped to a torturous board. I do not even know her name, but I will never forget what she did for me that long night. There’s nothing like the human touch when we are hurting and alone and sick, and she offered me that without being asked. I hope when given the opportunity to do the same for someone else, I will respond the same way. Not because it’s easy or because it comes naturally to me. But because there is nothing so powerful as reaching out and touching someone in need. It can make all the difference in the world.

Next — Part VII: The Priest

For other “Transplant Experience” stories in the 10-part series, go to:

http://www.eparisextra.com/category/special-series/