Don’t look. Open heart surgery is a helluva thing. Pun intended.

I thought I was in Hell

The Recovery Chronicles #1

I don’t believe in Hell, at least not a Judeo-Christian one created as a form of punishment to guilt the masses into doing what the ruling classes says. I have, however, grown up in the United States and, as a child, spent more than my fair share of time sitting in a pew in the back of a fundamentalist Christian church learning a deep and terrifying game of fear and promise.

This game played through my mind as, at 5:00am on August 28, 2020, I shuffled into the hospital for open heart surgery to repair my bicuspid aortic valve. I do not consider myself a bad person. In fact, even if Hell does exist the way some people believe, I do not consider myself a candidate for post-life residency there. However, there is something about the psychology of fear used against me when I was a child that I’ll probably never be fully free from.

But hey, when a heart surgeon looks you square in the eye and says, “You don’t have 10 years,” and the other doctors you see agree, you roll the dice.

Snake Eyes.

At 3:30am on Saturday August 29, 2020 I woke up strapped to a hospital bed with a breathing tube shoved down my throat; IV tubes stuck into my throat, hands, and arm; and drainage tubes stuck in my abdomen. Wires wriggled their way around my body, clinging onto my skin fiercely. And, as promised, a fresh red scar ran down the middle of my chest. Of course, it was covered with a mass of puffy bandages.

And I hurt… bad. Even the best painkillers in the world can only do so much when your sternum has been sawed into and cracked open, your heart has been cut, folded, and reformed into something theoretically better than it was before, and finally your sternum has been forced back together with something I think of as medical rebar.

For the next five hours I was in and out of consciousness.

This is when the true terror began.

Since my hands were strapped down I could not reach the call button. Since the breathing tube was resting snugly between my vocal cords, I could not talk. I had only one resort to get my nurse’s attention. I thrashed. Every time I did, she came running. Usually she had a suction tube she placed in my mouth to rid me of all of the sputum that repeatedly built up until it choked me. You read that right. I battled my own phlegm for my own life for five hours. The nurse was gentle and kind and her voice had a somewhat calming effect on me. Still, I was basically being strangled by snot.

Once the nurse cleared out my throat and comforted me, I’d fall into a fitful sleep and dream everything that had just happened. I’d look at the clock hanging on the wall across the room and ask myself, “Has the time changed?” In my dream, it hadn’t. I’d wake up, irrationally afraid that I was in Hell. Or was I asleep? The clock hadn’t moved. Or had it? It was dark in my room, save for the twinkling lights on all the mocking machines that beeped and growled around me.

The clock hadn’t moved… I didn’t think. Or had it?

My nurse returned. Or did she ever leave? We’d go through the whole nightmare again and again and again and again. Some of it was real. Some of it was imagined. Some of it was dreamed. There were also pin pricks to test my blood sugar, squeezing bands on my arm to test my blood pressure, thermometers shoved into my mouth alongside the breathing tube to test my temperature. There were probably a million other tests I can’t remember. When time stands still, everything blurs into one horrific mess of pain.

Had the clock moved? I wasn’t sure. Was I in Hell or a nightmare? Were they the same thing? I wasn’t sure…. What had I done to deserve this pain? The tests continued. The choking continued. The pain continued. Time is a construct made to help us understand space but for a few hours after I woke up from surgery, it was nothing more than an instrument of pain and fear. It was Hell.

Then there was light.

A window in my room I hadn’t noticed before suddenly woke up. Light shone through, August light, summer light, bringing the clock into focus. I noticed it was no longer stuck, hovering around 3:30am, but proudly displayed moving hands. It was 6:00am and counting.

When had that happened?

My nurse, a saint if there ever was one, returned and told me that at 6:30am an anesthesiologist would be there to remove the breathing tube. There were no words for the elation I felt upon hearing her say this. Even if there were, I wouldn’t have been able to utter them.

“Half an hour,” I thought. “I can do this.”

“You’re in Hell, dipshit. It isn’t going to happen,” a small wicked voice inside my head tittered.

I told that voice to shut the fuck up and watched, eyes fluttering, as the clock ticked away the seconds toward 6:30am.

The anesthesiologist arrived. He examined me. He determined I wasn’t ready to have the tube removed. Then he left. He was not the kindly young anesthesiologist who had helped me fall asleep before my surgery. This new one had the bedside manner of a demon. I was back in Hell.

I cried. I cried like I’ve never cried. It was a weak whimper and a flood of tears. I was pathetic. I was hopeless. The voice was right. I was in Hell.

My nurse apologized. I shook my head. I reached for her arm as best I could with my hands strapped down. I didn’t want an apology. I wanted to touch her skin, to feel another living being. Somewhere in my hazy, panicked mind I reasoned that I could communicate my fear through touch. Even if she was a demon, she seemed nice. I could not do this for another two hours. I simply could not.

“Does the tube give you anxiety?” she asked kindly, leaning in close to what I’m sure was a mask of terror teetering toward madness.

I shook my head. It didn’t give me anxiety. It made me angry. It made me afraid. I hated it. I wanted it out. Damn the consequences.

“If it gives you anxiety I can give you something for that, something that might help you sleep,” she said.

These, ladies and gentlemen, are the kindest words anyone has ever uttered to me.

For the next two hours I once more slept on and off but found myself less afraid that I was in Hell. The sun was shining through my window, my nurse was frequenting my bedside, and finally, finally, at 8:30am the tube came out.

It was a strange sensation, scratchy yet filled with phlegm. But I could talk. My hands were free.

I was no longer in Hell.

I was in recovery.

Close up. In case the first photo wasn’t rough enough.

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AE Stueve

AE Stueve

AE Stueve teaches and writes in Omaha, NE. Check out all of his available work at aestueve.com