My dear readers, I thought I could make this shorter. I tried. I really did. But I had to write the story of my husband’s passing fully. I thank you for your indulgence and for all of your prayers.
If you’ve ever had a loved one in the ER then you know about waiting. If you’ve ever had a loved one in surgery, then you know about waiting.
Waiting for a diagnosis. Waiting for the vascular surgeon. Waiting for a positive outcome. Waiting for a smile on the doctor’s face. Waiting for life to resume.
Once we received the diagnosis of “aortic dissection” we I waited for the vascular surgeon. Marlon was so full of morphine he was dozing more than he was awake, thank God. Dr. Velastegui walked in, accompanied by the ER doc, Dr. Griffin. A short man, he met me eye-to-eye and spoke softly. Not because Marlon was sleeping, it’s just his way of speaking. Calming. Comforting. Trusting. I immediately felt safe, entrusting my husband of 21 years into his care.
He explained the surgery in lay terms, unaware of my medical terminology background. The tear in his aorta ran from his upper gut all the way down to his right leg. breathe. breathe. focus on his words. focus on what he’s actually telling you, not what he’s leaving out.
He planned on entering thru the femoral artery on the left side, not the right where the dissection was. He’d make the necessary repairs to the aorta and any other vessels involved. oh good. it’s not an “open” procedure so his recovery time will be easier. There is a problem, however, with his left arm. Compromised circulation.
“He’s not left-handed, is he?”
Ugh. Yes. Yes, he is left-handed.
“I’ll have to see how much damage there is. I’ll probably wait to graft that area later.”
Another surgery? The gravity of the situation had not hit me at that time. Marlon’s sick. He has a vascular tear. You’re a vascular surgeon. Fix him!
When Dr. V left to prep for surgery, Dr. Griffin mentioned if he himself had to have surgery, he’d want Dr. Velastegui to be that surgeon. That’s all I needed to hear. Exhale.
And more waiting. More focused deep breathing. More phone calls.
To my son. Yes, you need to come. Yes, it’s serious. To my sister-in-law. The same. Can you call your brother for me? To my mother. The entire story, as it was to that point.
Sister-in-law calls again. She’s decided to make the trip from Vallejo to Carmichael, a little over an hour’s drive. This time I tell her, yes, I do think you need to come. She wants to talk to her brother first.
Honey? It’s Angie on the phone. Can you talk to her? I hand him the phone and he listens, smiles, listens some more and says, “I’ll see you after this.” Whether or not he knew the gravity of his condition, he was still trying to comfort his sister.
A male surgical nurse comes to transport him up to the 2nd floor. Marlon stirs, looks for me, and I place my hand on his arm. That huge, chocolate arm that has provided so much strength and tenderness for his 55 years. We ride up the elevator, me, Marlon, the nurse and my mother-in-law.
(Oh, I didn’t mention she rode w/me at 3 a.m.? That’s another story for another day. But for once, the drama wasn’t about her.)
We stop in the middle of the hallway, all of us. More waiting. It wasn’t long before a soft-spoken anesthesiologist walks up to the left side of the gurney and introduces herself to Marlon.
“Do you know what you’re going to surgery for?”
His head rolls to his right side, he opens his eyes to look at me, then rolls his head back to the center and points to his tummy. “This”. She looked at me and slightly nodded then directed her attention to a plastic box, a box that controls the dosage of his I.V. meds.
“This can’t be right. Call down to the ER and find out how much Esmerol he’s on.”
275, came out of my mouth. Her eyes widened in shock. They couldn’t get his blood pressure under 180. She quickly resumed her calm-doctor-everything-is-fine expression and patted Marlon’s other arm. Too late. I already saw that look in her eyes. Somewhere, deep inside my head, a warning bell went off.
I wait in the Surgery waiting room for my son and his girlfriend to sit with my MIL. Then I went to grab some coffee. It was 8:35 a.m. I wasn’t sleepy or the least bit groggy. I just needed to . . . move. To do . . . . something.
Something besides waiting.
I walk. I pace. I pray. I visualize. What am I going to tell our grandson? How am I gonna keep him from jumping on Poppy, his favorite pastime? How long will he be in ICU? Will he be able to make our nephew’s wedding? Surely that’s not possible – surgery on Saturday, ICU for 2-3 days, and then a wedding on the next Saturday? I walk some more.
I check in on the family which has multipled by 3’s and then 4’s and then our close friends show up. How did you all know? Our son had called the list of Dad’s close friends – and it’s quite a list, lemme tell you. I repeat the story over and over and over again. But it’s okay. It takes my mind off of the waiting.
At 11 a.m. my pacing is restricted to the area in front of the surgery double doors. Finally, around 11:45, Dr. V comes out and tells me he’s not done. He has to take Marlon for a CT scan to see what other damage there is. He’s already put two stents in his leg, his right kidney has shut down, and he needs to see what else he has to do.
Until writing this just now I didn’t realize how much it would’ve taken to move him from Surgery, down the elevator and into CT, hooked up to who knows what. Simply amazing.
I asked Dr. V how much longer he anticipated the surgery lasting. Four to five hours. I’ll come and talk to you.
Four to five . . . that makes 8 HOURS!!! But he’d said 3 hours when we were in the ER, hadn’t he? Did I imagine that? No. No, I didn’t. That faint warning bell got a little louder in my head.
And then I did what any wife would do with her husband in life-saving, vascular surgery – I went home to walk the dog. And get my phone charger.
Five and a half hours later, Dr. V and Dr. Jacobson, his assistant surgeon, came out. He made it. He was alive. Through a hazy tunnel I heard them say something about the next 24 hours would be rough and he was in critical condition. I didn’t care. He was alive. They don’t know my husband. They don’t know that Marlon loves nothing more fighting a ‘lost cause’.
I wound my way through the hospital corridor maze to the other side of the 2nd floor. Why is it that hospitals are always so dang confusing? And I used to work at Mercy San Juan! I found the SCICU waiting room and hit the intercom button. I want to see my husband.
“Just come in, Dear. You don’t have to get permission each time.”
Thankfully, after working in two hospitals, I was prepared for what ICU looks like. Sort of. Delivering paperwork is one thing. Seeing your husband hooked up to a gazillion IV lines is quite another. After carefully mapping out where I could even touch him, I rubbed his left arm. It was cold, so I knew Dr. V hadn’t had time to perform the graft. I moved up to his cheek, his forehead.
Why is he so edematous?
(If you toss around a few medical terms, the staff treats you almost as if you’re one of their own, I’ve found.)
“It’s normal. We’re pouring a lot of fluid into him.”
That was an understatement. Blood, IV, glucose, pain meds, on and on and on. At one point I counted 9 different IV’s. “ICU” = Intensive Care Unit.
Honey? You made it through the surgery, but you have to fight now, ok?
No response. Can he hear me? “Yes, but he’s sedated for the pain.”
I raise my voice, like that’ll make a difference. Marlon? You have to fight this. I’m right here and I’ll help you, but you have to fight, ok? You have to get well for Santino.
His pupils were fixed but tiny tears trickled out of each eye. I wiped them tenderly and then wiped my own. He heard me. But does he know? Does he realize how sick he is? Do I want him to know how sick he is?
Oh, dear Lord, this can’t be happening. But it is.
I started to break down and then stopped. The family! breathe. breathe. I went thru one set of double doors, and turned back around to find a nurse. What about visitors? Who can see him? How many? There were so many machines, so many nurses tending to him. There are a ton of people out there waiting to see him. What do I tell them?
“It’s up to you.”
Gee. Thanks. I want him to rest and recuperate. I want him comfortable. I want him strong. I just . . . want him.
“Let us be the ‘bad’ guys. Tell the family two persons at a time, every two hours.”
I inform the family and extended family (our friends that we call “brothers from another mother”) and I head outside. Walking. Breathing. Calling my mother.
Inside again, one more visit. One more plea. One more declaration of love. One more time, wiping his tears and then mine. I’m not going to keep vigil and stay all night. I’ve been up since 3 a.m. and it’s now 8 p.m. Food? Not a chance. Just water, half a protein bar, some notes to my online besties, and then I head home.
Our black bull mastiff, L’il Mo, wags his tail when I open the door. He sits on his haunches for his hug and then heads straight for his doggy biscuit. I welcome the necessity to take him for a walk before climbing into bed. Sleep is not a problem with the meds I take for my back and I’m completely and utterly exhausted. No, wait . . . I’m not gonna take my Elavil in case the hospital calls in the middle of the night. But, thankfully, they didn’t.
I called ICU at 7 a.m. and was told the doctors wanted to talk to me. Immediately. How soon could I get there? The warning bells were now clanging so loudly in my head I thought I was gonna lose my mind. Or maybe it was my pulse, my heart. It didn’t matter. I knew it wasn’t good.
As I drove into the parking lot I saw my brother-in-law. He had stood vigil all night. He told me Marlon had done fine until 3 a.m. and then took a turn for the worse.
What is it with this man and 3 a.m.?!?
We meet Dr. V and Jacobson in the SCICU waiting room. The fact that they were both there was a ominous portent. They repeated what Terry had already told me. He held his own until 3 and then went downhill.
“You need to call your family in to say good bye. His liver has failed.”
No. No! There has to be something else you can try. There has to be! You don’t know my husband. He’s a fighter. He never gives up. Surely there’s something? Anything!
“Well . . .”
More waiting. Mere seconds tick by, but for me it is a lifetime. Our lifetime.
“. . . there is something else, but I don’t hold out much hope. He might not even make it to surgery, and if he does, he might not survive the procedure. And if, by some miracle, he survives surgery, we’d leave him ‘open’ so we can go in at any time and fix what needs to be fixed. But I don’t think it’ll help.”
I look from Dr. V to Dr. Jacobson to Terry. Terry slightly nods his head.
We’ll take it. You just don’t know my husband. He’s the champion of underdogs.
Um, what are his chances?
“Less than 5%, I’m afraid.”
That’s good enough for us, right, Terry? He nods again.
I head through both sets of double doors and straight to Marlon’s bed. Marlon? Listen to me, you have some more work to do. But you can do this. I know you. You can fight this! A different anesthesiologist enters the room, surveying all of the tubes, machines, IV’s.
He’s giving instructions to the nurses, asking questions, then more instructions. He stops for a moment to talk to me and repeats what Dr. V said. “I don’t know if he’ll even make it to the O.R. But we’ll do our best.” That’s all I want. Thank you.
I head downstairs to the cafeteria and then outside for more walking, pacing, phone calls, prayers, breathing.
I make my way down the hall to the surgery waiting room and hear loud laughter. More of the family is here. More friends. Some from yesterday along with some others. Instead of enjoying Mother’s Day brunch with their immediate families, they came to be with me. They came to be with Marlon.
We moved from the open, exposed waiting area into a room with a door and a television. Talking, laughing. It’s okay though. It takes my mind off of the waiting.
Dang. I forgot to ask Dr. V how long he thought this would take. I can’t stay in the Trauma waiting room with the door shut. I might miss him. I have to watch this other set of double doors now.
At one point, the doors whoosh open and out comes ‘my’ little OR nurse. He stops mid stride when he sees me and I ask him if he knows how it’s going. It’s Sunday a.m. and there are only 2 surgeries happening and I know how staffers talk. I used to be one of ‘em.
“Everyone seems calm. Everything seems to be under control.”
How are his bowels, I ask, since Dr. Jacobson had told me if his bowels were not functioning they’d just close him up and let him go.
This caught the nurse a little unawares. He stammered as he gathered himself. “I didn’t see his bowels so I can’t really say.” Again, I knew. The slight hesitation. The carefully phrased sentence. Medical talk for I’m not supposed to tell you that he won’t make it.
But I already knew. It was going to take more than a miracle. More than two skilled surgeons and their team. More than Marlon’s strength.
More than prayers and hope.
At just over 3 hours Dr. V and Jacobson both came out together to talk to me. The raucous laughter and storytelling silenced. He made it but . . . they took his colon, his incision was left open for further repair, the next 24 hours were critical.
All the family heard was “he made it” and there were whoops and hollers and Terry asked Dr. V if he could hug him and then he did. There were tears of joy and praises to God.
But I pulled Dr. Jacobson aside and asked about Marlon’s liver. Did it ‘pink up’ at all? “A little. I’m so very sorry. It really doesn’t look good.”
How could it? Just 4 hours earlier they were telling me to call the family in for final good byes but at my insistence the incredible physicians went back in, spent 3 more hours of doing who knows what, all the while knowing it was a lost cause. Marlon would’ve admired them. He loved people who never gave up.
After another hour of, you guessed it, waiting, I went to see him in SCICU. I don’t know how it was possible but there were even more tubes. I could only touch his forehead and his cheeks. That was enough for me. There were no tears now. At least, not from him. They kept him heavily sedated. And, for that, I was grateful.
I still talked to him. I believe at some level he heard me. I told him it was okay. If he had to leave me, it was okay. If he could fight, I’d be with him every step of the way. But if it was too much, it was okay.
It wasn’t okay, of course. Far, far from it. But the clanging warning bells had stopped and I knew he wasn’t coming back. I couldn’t wrap my head around it then (and still can’t today, 2 weeks later) but I knew it was time to let him go.
I hung around the hospital for much of the day, just to be with family and friends, many of whom had driven an hour or better. Marlon would do the same – he’d both drive however long to see a loved one, as well as stay with his loved one’s family. And they were still hopeful, which was good. It gave me a little hope too, even though in my heart I knew it was only a matter of time.
At some point in the evening I went home and went to bed, only to be awakened at midnight.
But it wasn’t time. Marlon hung on for five more hours. He took that ‘less than 5%’ and gave it all he had.
The double doors opened for the last time and the nurse wanted me in his room. “I’m sorry. It’s time to say good bye.” They’d taken him off the ventilator and were manually bagging him.
I hate to ask you this, but I need to let his family come in to say good bye. They’ve been waiting five hours.
“That’s fine. We’ll put him back on the ventilator.” And then I got his mother, two of our three sons, and others. I stayed just for a minute. I couldn’t bear to watch my sons say their final good byes to their father. It was just too much.
When they finally left him, I went back in by myself. The nurse told me I didn’t need to be there, that they had to call the ER doc on duty to come up to make the pronouncement. No, that’s fine. I’m with him until the end.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the doc said as he checked pulses. I nodded, keeping my composure. The ICU nurse showed the EKG tapes to Dr., saying “he flatlined at 5:14 a.m.”
By 6 o’clock I was home. In our bed. I was in a state of denial, disbelief. Nothing seemed real. Certainly not the past 48 hours. I tried to sleep but I couldn’t. I remember thinking what day is it? Monday, May 14. Well, at least he didn’t die on Mother’s Day.
And then it hit me.
He died at 5:14 a.m. on 5/14/12. 5:14 on 5/14.
I ran into the living room where our youngest was still up, he too, unable to sleep.
Honey! You know how your dad was so into signs and symbols?
I told him how the nurse had said Dad “flatlined at 5:14” and how he died at 5:14 on 5/14.
Maurice smiled, hugged me, and said, “That’s Dad. He’s telling us he’s okay.”
Call me crazy, superstitious, or whatever, but Marlon & I believe that everything happens for a reason. There was a reason why I was there at the end. A reason why the nurse said 5:14. A reason why I heard her.
And also, a reason why he had to die.
I don’t understand it and every minute of every day it’s a battle. I believe one day I’ll laugh again. Paint again. Feel whole again.
Right now, I’m still waiting.