It was September 2007 and I was walking down one of those lonely Las Vegas streets which, though busy with traffic, lack a human presence on the sidewalks. When you are off the strip, nobody doing anything legal walks around in Las Vegas.
But I had to walk because I had no car. I couldn’t afford to rent one in addition to the hotel I was staying in — and I wasn’t staying for a night or two. I was staying for, it seemed, an indeterminate amount of time, staying at a long-term hotel, a block or two away from Desert Springs Hospital.
It was a few weeks before that I had heard Marie knock on the shower door and call me out for a phone call, and a few minutes later when I was taking to my father for what I was told would almost certainly be the last time. He had been on vacation in Las Vegas, collapsed in his hotel room, and been rushed to the hospital, only to find a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. As anyone with knowledge of this condition will tell you, it is almost always fatal. Surgery is the treatment, but it is largely considered going through the motions.
As he was going into surgery, my wife and I were headed to Las Vegas, and my sister was meeting us there. When I got off the phone, I expected to hear a voicemail that he was gone but, when I powered up my phone, no voicemail came. We made it to the hospital and found he was hanging in there, but couldn’t even be “closed” because he was so distended after surgery.
In the weeks that followed, we thought more than once that we were going to lose him. My sister had to go home to take care of her two very small children and my wife had to go back to work, so I stayed out there to keep an eye on him. Another thing anyone in healthcare will tell you is that a family member who cannot speak up for themselves needs someone by their side to ensure proper treatment. Sad, perhaps, but true. In fact, I’ve seen that when you get a disgruntled nurse, it’s hard to get proper treatment even with a family member present.
The lowest point came the first time they tried to get him off the ventilator — watching him gasp for breath made me feel like I was watching a fish out of water. It was painful to see and, I’m sure, doubly so to experience. I left the hospital that night and, zombie-like, made my way to the diner where I usually picked up dinner before going back to the hotel. It was a surreal experience, and one I will never forget. I was there, but I was not there. Everything seemed a little bit removed, distant. I was at the end of my tether.
In the middle of the night, in that dark hotel room in Las Vegas, I got a call from the hospital that they had to put him back on the ventilator. In my mind, we had lost and I was devastated, and it was now going to be a long road to nowhere. It was going to be dealing with someone who might achieve some kind of stability but with no quality of life, someone who would have to medically transported — on a ventilator and in a plane — from Las Vegas to New Jersey to live out the remainder of his time in a long-term care facility. (By the way, the transport was not covered by insurance, so my sister and I were also dealing with the stress of coming up with $20K)
But on the day they were going to trach him, when I walked into his room, I was astonished at what I saw — he looked better. Something had happened overnight.
“I want to try again,” I said adamantly to the nurse. “I want them to take him off the breathing machine and give him another chance before they do the tracheotomy.”
I was not asking, I was telling, and I was not leaving that room until they did it. I was not going to take the chance that, while I went for a sandwich, someone who didn’t get the memo slipped in and did the procedure.
When the pulmonologist came, I was ready for a fight.
“I want him to get another shot,” I said.
“Yeah, sure, he looks good,” the doctor said calmly.
“Oh, ok,” I muttered.
And over the next day, he got his shot. At first, his breathing was as rapid as the first time, but I continued to talk to him, to calm him down, and slow his breathing. And so, after about an hour, he had the pace and, three weeks after the surgery, we had started to turn the corner from almost certain death, to life-long rehabilitation, to recovery. From that day until now, my father has been active, vital and has not missed a beat.
I got to thinking about my zombie diner-walk this morning, when I sat down to write this column, as I’ve been dealing with some challenging issues in my personal life — namely, the illness of a family member. I’m older now and mentally stronger, with a better philosophical foundation to not only accept, but muster the fortitude to conquer, the challenges life occasionally hurls at us with reckless abandon.
I touched on a few of the keys to doing this in last week’s column, such as defeating those challenges in detail, and this week, I offer another. It is simply having the will to overcome, to look at whatever comes your way as a gauntlet thrown down by whatever entity fits your philosophical or religious beliefs. You must develop an, “Ahh, so that’s the best you’ve got!” approach to these things, an indomitable will to achieve the prize, whatever it is, at all costs, to do whatever it takes to cross the finish line.
Perhaps the feeling I am trying to relate was best communicated by Winston Churchill, who said on Oct. 29, 1941 (and those who know history will realize this was when Great Britain was still fighting alone, before the United States was pulled into the war by the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 of that year.)
“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”