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Living With the Wounds of Mortality

December 13, 1985|NANCY EILEEN HEYES

Tubes came out of more places than I thought tubes could come out of. Wires lay across his chest, connecting colored plugs. He was ashen, except where he was yellow from the iodine they washed him with, and hairless on his body. His eyes flickered open, unseeing, and the hand that squeezed mine was cold.

My father was beginning to come out of the anesthesia after open- heart surgery.

He nodded. He knew that I was there, along with a close friend of his, and that he'd come out of it all right.

"He's doing very well," the nurse assured me.

He looked like death.

My invincible father. The man who used to wake me up for school singing " . . . that's my Nancy, with the laughin' face." Who made me a star in our local community theater. Who taught me to drive in the empty parking lot at Santa Anita race track.

My father was not mortal, not vulnerable. Nothing could get him down. Nothing.

It started with a phone call on a Wednesday afternoon.

"Hi. How are you?" I asked him.

"I'm not too well. I'm in the hospital."

"What happened?"

"I had a heart attack."

No. He didn't smoke, he didn't live with a lot of stress, he wasn't obese--a little heavy, yes--there was no heart disease in his family. My father could not have a heart attack.

I drove up to the Burbank hospital the next morning from my home in Seal Beach and swallowed hard as I walked into the critical care unit.

"The doctor says I definitely had a heart attack. He says I have an enlarged heart, whatever that means. But I don't feel bad."

He didn't look bad, either. He looked fine. Except maybe for the tubes and wires, just a few of them: an i.v. and the connections for a heart monitor that told its story in glowing green patterns above the bed.

"I kind of slacked off taking my blood-pressure medicine. The doctor says that might be what caused the heart attack."

Chest Began to Hurt

It happened at work, he told me, after he came back from lunch. His chest began to hurt, and he broke out in a cold sweat.

"But I didn't want to tell anyone I thought I was having a heart attack. Because I didn't want to see the looks on their faces."

I didn't choke up until I was clear out of the hospital and heading for my car.

A few days later came the angiogram. My mother had one of those five years ago after her heart attack. She had a second heart attack during the test, and it nearly killed her. My father was scared.

"I still can't believe I'm lying here," he said, over and over, in his first week there. "I can't believe this happened to me."

Test Was Easy

The angio, it turned out, was easy. It showed four near-blocks in coronary blood vessels. One cardiologist recommended surgery. Another told him to try the Pritikin diet regimen.

My father liked the second idea. So the doctor told him he might as well leave on Friday. I drove to the hospital expecting to take him home that day.

"A lot's changed since I talked to you yesterday," he said. My heart sank. "I'm going to have the surgery on Monday. They told me if I walk around like this, I'll be playing with fire. I could have another heart attack any time."

While I sat with him, the cardiologist walked in, looking more like the Pillsbury doughboy than a brilliant surgeon. He explained to me what was wrong with my father's heart and what they would do to fix it. It sounded so simple. Not until two days later, when he patiently explained in more detail what was involved in repairing a heart, did I begin to understand.

The team of about eight people would cut my father's chest open and connect him to machines that would pump his blood out of his body, fortify it with oxygen and send it back. They would shut off his heart, fix it, put it back and start it up again. And it would work better than it did before.

Awesome. I knew hearts were routinely operated on. But I'd never really imagined what that meant in nuts-and-bolts terms.

Saturday night I dreamed I was at his funeral. Sunday night I dreamed my way through a half dozen kinds of serious danger, when I slept. Mostly I lay awake, because it was more restful than the dreams.

I wasn't there when they wheeled him, heavily drugged, into surgery.

"He was still joking," his friend told me. "He said, 'I don't want to go to Peoria.' " She laughed to stop the tears that were welling. "He said: 'Tell Dr. Schaerf I've changed my mind.' "

We had no idea what the Peoria comment meant.

We went back to his house for a swim after the first post-surgery visit.

By late afternoon, the worst tube--the one through his mouth to his lungs--had been removed. Through bruised lips, he could talk a little.

"You don't look like Clint Eastwood," his friend said.

"Paul Newman," my father said. "Paul Newman. My blue eyes."

Not As Helpless

We told him how terrific he looked, how well the nurses said he was doing.

Terrific meant: not as completely helpless as a few hours earlier. Pale, weak, dependent on machines for the rhythms of life--but talking, and attached to one less tube. And that was a big improvement.

I saw him one more time that night, 10 hours out of surgery. Another tube or two were gone, and we were able to chat for a half hour.

The daddy I knew was reappearing. Joking about how the nurses let him get away with being fresh because they thought he was helpless ("and I'm playing that to the hilt"). Saying how much he'd enjoyed "Miami Vice."

He tired, and I wiped away the moisture that condensed on his face from the breathing mask.

"You be good, and don't harass the nurses too much," I told him.

That was July. My father is back at work now, and the wounds are healing. His, from the heart attack and the scalpels, and mine, from the blow of smashing unexpectedly into the rock-hard realization that daddy's only human.

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