broken

Broken

In Issue 74 by Joanne Jagoda

My husband’s triple bypass surgery had gone well, and his recovery was uneventful, but ten days later, during the night he woke me up and told me he was having trouble breathing. After a sleepless night, I drove him to the emergency room, at 5 A.M. His newly patched heart checked out, but the doctors admitted him, suspecting a rare reaction to a common drug he’d been given after surgery to regulate his heartbeat.

His hospital stay was unbelievably stretching to four weeks—a blur of tests, daily X-rays, different meds—but he wasn’t improving. His lungs were bad, like ground glass, they said, after every X-ray. I kept hearing those words—ground glass, ground glass, ground glass. They also used three letters, GGO: ground glass opacity, describing the hazy gray areas that can show up in CT scans or X-rays of the lungs. I thought ironically about the magnificent blue-green glass mosaics we admired in Mikonos shops on our cruise stop in 2016. His ground glass was scary, and the doctors were at a loss.

I was in his room day after day, staring out at the Oakland skyline, cars zipping by on the freeway to San Francisco. I saw couples on the street going about their business. I envied the ordinariness of the things we could not do that we used to take for granted. The Warrior’s playoffs were on TV; somehow life went on, but not for us. Our life was halted as though a barrier had been erected across a road and we could not get by. Even a shopping trip to Whole Foods was an event for me. I dissolved into tears trying to decide on dinner for one. A stranger saw my hospital name tag and talked to me as we waited in line for the take-out foods. She knew what I was going through, and we even commiserated over cafeteria food, spending hours at the hospital, laughing over the paper towels that would never come out of the dispenser without a waving dance. She hugged me when we both got our food. I never forgot her kindness.

When I got to the hospital one July morning in the fourth week, I saw him for the first time in a Darth Vader-like breathing mask. I joked uneasily, not knowing what had changed overnight but sensed he was worse. I insisted the nurse give him breakfast; he loves his breakfast. She tried a few spoons of cereal, but his oxygen dipped. Apologetically, quickly, she put the mask back on. His blue eyes were dim, troubled, puzzled. I stood by his bed, mumbling words of comfort, stroking his arm.

The nurses kept checking him, but even with the special mask his breathing was labored. The young pulmonologist entered, tall, buff, like he belonged on a college football field. He gave us news we did not want to hear. “He might need to go to intensive care and be intubated. We don’t want his heart to work so hard.”  Intubation is the process of inserting a breathing tube through the mouth into an airway.

The doctor said he would keep checking on him, but it did not take long for him to return. He pulled me aside. “He is not doing well. I’m having the respiratory department bring portable oxygen, and they will take him to intensive care where I will intubate him.”

I went back in the room and explained this slowly and quietly to my husband. I felt like we were surrendering, raising a white flag and putting our faith in this young doctor. Within moments, a team gathered to transfer him upstairs. I collected the books and magazines we had accumulated and whatever was in the closet in the room. My arms were overflowing as I headed down to the garage to my car, and a hospital worker, seeing me struggle, grabbed everything from my overloaded arms and walked with me to my car. I put it all in my trunk, thanked him profusely, and after he left, I broke down in the parking lot. What was happening to my sweet husband? I called my kids to tell them the latest news but told them not to come; I’d let them know how he was doing.  My sister was on her way to be with me.

We sat alone in a quiet waiting room outside the intensive care ward. I dangled between hope and despair praying he would improve. They prepped him and did the procedure. Afterword, the doctor said it went well and I could go in to see my husband. He was sedated, hooked up with tubes, wires, his vitals displayed on numerous screens and monitors, looking like furious lines, squiggles and numbers like some erratic stock market report making its own silent testimony. The nurses were busy, constantly checking on him, charting on laptops, making small adjustments. He was kept sedated.

I hovered like a broken bird.  I was in the way. They sent me home. I had “dinner,” a glass of red wine and some dark chocolate. After checking with the hospital again, they said he was stable, and I fell exhausted into a fitful sleep. I dreamt the Angel of Death, wearing a black felt fedora, entered his room humming “Fly Me to the Moon” and pulled his name out of his pocket on a yellow Post-it.  My husband wasn’t cooperating and shouted, Fuck Off! He told him in a firm voice, “I’m not leaving my wife or kids.” The angel skulked away. I never forgot that dream. I knew one day I would tell it to my husband.

When I arrived at the hospital early the next morning, I sat in the waiting room praying for good news about my husband. Soon, the young doctor entered smiling and said words I longed to hear: “He is breathing much better and I’ll extubate him this afternoon. Most likely he can leave intensive care by tomorrow morning.” I hugged the doctor. Suddenly I could breathe again, too.  However, our trials were not yet over. Though he was definitely breathing better, he still was not out of the woods. After five weeks in Summit hospital in Oakland, I insisted on getting him transferred to UC San Francisco for a second opinion. A cousin of my son-in-law—an ER doctor—pulled strings to send my husband to UCSF, where beds are difficult to reserve.

Though various teams at USCF saw my husband and gave him more tests at this hectic first-class hospital, they concluded that he should get better eventually and could be released to go home. They discovered that he had an underlying lung condition that we were not aware of, and for people with this condition, the drug could trigger a bad reaction. In his case it did, and it had to work its way out of his system.

When we got the word that he would be released, I was thrilled to get him home. It all happened very fast. They told me what equipment he would need, and I ordered a hospital bed to reside in our living room as he would not be able to go up to our second-floor bedroom.

I was waiting for him with open arms when he got dropped off by a transport ambulance. He still needed to be on oxygen, so I arranged for the delivery of oxygen by a medical supply company. I also had to be trained to give him insulin, as he had been on steroids for his lungs and a side effect of those drugs made him diabetic. Thankfully, we were told that it would be a temporary condition after he was weaned off the steroids.

So, there I was, needing a crash course in how to set up his oxygen and how to administer his insulin and measure his blood sugar. He was so grateful to be home in the comfort of our house in the Oakland hills, where he could go out in our peaceful yard surrounded by beautiful trees and leave the sterile hospital atmosphere behind. I was ecstatic beyond measure, because for a while we did not know if he could come home, or if he would have had to be in a convalescent hospital. I had already visited several convalescent homes, and I cried after every visit knowing he would not have wanted to be there for a minute.

Our oldest daughter had flown in from Jerusalem to help. She had been terrific talking to the doctors and making sure I ate and rested. That first day when my husband came home, I had set up his bed in the living room with special sheets that I had purchased. I had bought his favorite food and snacks. He had lost more than twenty pounds, and I was determined to fatten him up. Also, the insulin made him very hungry, and he needed to eat several times a day. When the company delivered the oxygen, I ordered many extra tanks of different sizes and special long tubing so he could walk around the house—everything he needed. I had enough oxygen in my house to keep the whole city of Oakland breathing. As it was all overwhelming, I asked the delivery person to return the next morning to go over everything with me again as I just could not feel comfortable yet with the equipment. I also had a visiting nurse come the next day to go over the insulin pen and what I needed to do.

The first night I slept near him on an aerobed in the living room. He managed well. I was pretty much a wreck but beyond happy to have him home. Suddenly that first morning, I noticed my own heart was racing with pounding palpitations. I felt a little lightheaded and sat down on our sofa putting my head between knees. I had taken my husband’s pulse oximeter, which we used to measure both his oxygen and pulse, and found my pulse was over 200. My daughter noticed I was white. My pulse slowed after a few minutes, but I knew something wasn’t right. I later called my doctor who said I should have come in right away or headed to the hospital. I made an appointment with him to see me in the afternoon leaving my daughter with my husband.

My doctor insisted I go to a cardiologist, and I got an appointment with one of the doctors in my husband’s office. The doctor wanted me to wear a monitor, which I got several days later. During that week when I wore it, my heart was normal with no unusual rhythms. However, on the weekend of the second week when my husband still could not drive, my heart went crazy again. This time we called 911 and the fire department, fortunately close by, soon arrived with an ambulance. The ambulance driver asked me if I was under stress. I chuckled and thought that was the understatement of the year. I couldn’t help but think that my heart was broken after all I had been through with my husband, not knowing if he would recover or ever walk again. I felt the stress and turmoil of the prior six weeks, and then having to figure out the oxygen and the insulin pushed me over the edge.

By the time I was in the ambulance, my heartbeat returned to normal, and when I got to the hospital, it continued in  normal rhythm. Unless the doctors can see the arrythmia, they can’t diagnose what is going on.  However, the third time this event happened, my husband was driving by then and took me quickly to the hospital himself. This time they captured the irregular beat and told me I had SVT, supra ventricular tachycardia, which fortunately is not a serious heart issue, at least compared to others. It can be controlled by medication, or in some cases ablation is recommended to break up electrical signals that cause the irregular heartbeats. I have been lucky, and so far, medication has done the trick. That summer, those weeks of him in the hospital when he was in such a precarious condition, were very difficult. Another couple might have broken, but all we went through made us stronger. We are still filled with gratitude we made it through those difficult times.

About the Author

Joanne Jagoda

Joanne Jagoda is a longtime resident of the Oakland hills. After retiring in 2009, one inspiring workshop, Lakeshore Writers, launched Joanne on an unexpected writing trajectory. Her short stories, poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared on-line and in numerous print anthologies including, The Write Launch, Burningword Literary Journal, Third Harvest, Snapdragon, A Journal of Art and Healing, Quillkeepers Press, The Awakenings Review, The Deronda Review, Dreamers Magazine, Passager, Better After 50, and Still You, Poems of Illness and Healing. Joanne received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has won a number of contests including first place in the 2022 Gemini Open contest. She continues taking Bay Area writing workshops enjoys Zumba on-zoom, and spoiling her seven grandchildren who call her Savta. Joanne’s first book of poetry My Runaway Hourglass, conceived while she was home sheltering-in-place, was published in summer of 2020 (Poetica Publications).

Read more work by Joanne Jagoda .