IT WAS WHITISH-YELLOW, a floppy, wrinkled square centimeter of matter, not unlike a scrap of scrambled egg you might forget on the side of your plate while polishing off a platter of breakfast at your favorite diner. This neglect would be fortuitous for you, as it would only end up helping produce this stuff, clinging insidiously to the lining of one of your vital arteries. It was a sample of the plaque my mother's doctor removed from her carotid artery, in the course of a successful operation to straighten and clear it of what turned out to be an eighty percent blockage. She is still recovering from the anesthesia at the hospital, and she may remain on painkillers and oxygen for the bulk of the evening, but she should be in a room by late tonight so we can visit her tomorrow.
We made an early start of it, at least for my retiree parents, who usually don't even start futzing with coffee as early as we left today. Via back roads, to avoid even the thin Good Friday traffic along the frequently jammed Route 4, we arrived at the hospital early. My mother was still in a good mood, not apparently afraid, so I had high hopes for the time we would spend together before her admission.
Checking in proved to be no problem, and we were routed to a temporary hospital room where, we were told, we would be visited by a nurse to get some medical information. My mom was also left with a pair of robes, one attaching in back, the other snapping up front. When she emerged from the bathroom after shrugging out of her street clothes, the bulky, drooping layers and odd pattern of the robes made her look one gaudy medallion short of being a white, early-Nineties Al Sharpton.
One slight detour from the usual admission came with the nebulizer. Because she has smoked for her entire life, the anesthesiologist wanted to open her lungs up to allow the oxygen he would administer during the operation to get into her system better. To that end, a second nurse came in with a plastic tube, one end of which ended in a reed-like mouthpiece. The nurse emptied a medication into a reservoir beneath the tube, into which she plugged an air hose that led to the oxygen port on the wall. My mom was able to breathe in the atomized drug, but when she breathed out through this peace-pipe-looking apparatus, smoke streamed out in a display more suited to a Hendrix concert than a pre-op holding area. This provided my dad and I some much needed laughs, and Mom happily blew smoke around the room while the 5-minute supply of juice lasted.
Shortly thereafter, an orderly appeared outside with a stretcher. It was time. Only one of us could accompany her to pre-op, so I elected my dad. I kissed my mom and told her I would see her later. She was relaxed, seemingly ready. I could do nothing more than to watch them both round the corner into the surgery section.
My dad eventually returned, finding me in the waiting area, which would be our home for the next 2 hours. The rest of the area was taken up by a large family. From what their doctor said (yes, this was potentially a HIPAA privacy violation on his part, but so is this post about my mom!), a female relative weighing 400+ pounds put herself on a crash diet, suffered some form of health crisis as a result, and ended up in the emergency room. If it involved any sort of a collapse, the family may have suspected a heart attack. Not too far from the mark, as starvation diets cause the body to deplete not adipose tissue but protein and mineral sources, these being muscles in general and — in the case of potassium — heart tissue. The ticker of a person weighing a fifth of a ton is under enough stress without taxing it further by depleting one's blood of vital nutrients.
At about 1:30, I went downstairs to grab a sandwich in the fantastic commissary of the hospital, but my dad couldn't be convinced to do likewise just yet. He usually eats at 12:30 to 1:00, so he must've been more anxious than hungry. By the 2-hour mark, though, I could feel my heartbeat elevating a bit. I was under the impression that the procedure would take on the order of 2 hours, and I was losing my ability to just trust everything to the surgeons and time and getting antsy for an update.
As if at my command, an update arrived, in the form of my mother's surgeon. He confirmed that everything had gone well, which was a tremendous relief to hear, and he had a couple of visual aids to share with us.
The first — which I would scan and post if I had the means — was a pair of color-enhanced ultrasound photos of the flow through my mother's afflicted carotid arteries. In the "before" shot, he indicated a tiny colored dot in the center of a circle. The circle was the normal capacity of my mom's right common internal carotid; the dot was its current flow, a difference, as I mentioned, of 80% of capacity. The "after" shot showed both the internal carotid and the adjacent external one, both fully flowing and clear. He laughed and agreed with my suggestion that my mother put them on the fridge.
The second item he had was the plaque I cited at the start. Both this, and the comparative ultrasound shots, were, I realized, his effort to show us why he had fought to convince my mom to reconsider her decision to cancel the surgery. This one, however, was all the more arresting. I had noticed the white bundle in his hand when he entered, along with the photos and a large pair of tweezers, but they hadn't really registered. He opened the wad of surgical gauze, to show us the limp whitish gunk, which he described as being only part of what he had removed. My previous misgivings about his urgency, and my worry over his possibly being only in it to notch a new case on his belt, disappeared.
My dad visited briefly with my mother after the doctor finished speaking with us. She was still coming out of the anesthesia, and being awake only exposed her to the pain from the incision. The nurse administered a painkiller while Dad was there, but he didn't stay long due to a 5-minute limit on visitors in the recovery room. We decided it would only agitate her further if I, a second visitor, attempted to keep her from the sleep she needed. Keep in mind, that in addition to the hangover from the knockout gas, and being on oxygen, and having a stitched-up slit on her neck, she was probably jonesing hard for nicotine. Seeing as the doctor was pleased with how she was coming along, I couldn't bring myself to upset her further.
Finally succumbing to hunger, my dad led the way to the cafeteria. We discussed the possibility of somehow getting my mother to quit smoking. This has failed in the past, but we hoped the head start she will have this weekend, and the evidence of how much more complex the compromised lung capacity has made the surgery and recovery, might help her decide. It's never too late to begin repairing the damage, and in light of the New Jersey ban on smoking in most enclosed commercial and transit areas, which takes effect at midnight tonight, she would be joining a trend. One thing at a time, though — let's get her home and out of the hospital first.
My dad and I left soon after that. He called about 30 minutes ago to tell me she had been moved to an intermediate recovery room, not as restrictive on visits but still a common area where her progress can be monitored. She is still fairly hung over, but the nurse was happy with her status, so it's only a matter of when they'll get her into a semiprivate room tonight. We intend to visit as early as we can tomorrow, so we can at least get the poor girl her glasses, which we were loath to leave behind for fear of their getting lost in the chaos of admission and movement and whatnot.
Right now, I am tired, and sporting a kicking headache, possibly brought on by the second group of guests in the waiting area earlier, a trio of North Jersey yentas who yelled at one another due to deafness in heavily accented, cigarette-ruined voices about their ailments, the decline of today's youth, and how mediocre their children were. In the spirit of the recent Passover holiday, if these jabbering old bats had been in Pharaoh's Egypt, their first-born would have washed the lamb's blood off of the lintels. Oy already!
I will probably turn in early tonight, in anticipation of the start we want to get to the hospital. We are assuming Mom will have been assigned a room by that point. Either way, I am hoping the worst of this is over, that the hospital will retain her as long as it takes for her to feel strong and confident enough to leave, and that she will be home with us soon.