- Real Estate
- Paris Flash
(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.
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: