“It is the most catastrophic thing your body can do to itself,” the surgeon said to my mother as he explained to her the surgery that my father was about to undergo.
|Dad and F two weeks before his aortic dissection.|
The Saturday had started off normal enough. Mom had spent the day with friends at some sort of prayer event and Dad had been getting ready for his composers forum and decided to go for a run up around the park half a mile from their house.
Mom in St. Louis, MO called me around 5:15 pm as I was attempting to get dinner started in St. Paul, MN. She had a question about my tomato sauce recipe, and I was making my mother-in-law’s beef stroganoff. We got off the phone and five minutes later my brother called me. It was strange to get a call from my brother P. He prefers to talk in person, and we had just been in St. Louis ten days before. I answered the phone, “Susanna, Mom just got a call from Dad’s friend Sam. He was running at W park and had some chest pain and is at Sam’s house who lives right by the park. The paramedics are coming. Is M with you?” I got off the phone and started praying. M came into the kitchen and I told him. We hugged and gathered the girls and said a prayer. I then got dinner ready, because the kids still had to be fed. My mom called to tell me that Dad had passed out right when she got there, but woke up for the paramedics. They took him by ambulance to the hospital. My brother called to say that he was driving my mom, and that my sister S was with them. I got dinner in the oven and was about to shower when P called and said that they were doing a CT scan focusing on the area around my dad’s heart. In the shower, alone with my thoughts, it hit me. I was not ready to say goodbye to my dad; I am not sure if anyone ever is ready to do it. I know that one day, one of us will die, but it was not meant to be this week. I longed to talk to him again, to see him play with love his grandchildren. I wanted my children to have him. I prayed that he would live.
I found out later that the ER doctor heard about Dad’s symptoms of the chest pain shooting from his heart to his head, his fainting, and then his intense pain in his right leg, and figured immediately that it was an aortic dissection. They had trouble getting an IV into Dad before his CT scan, because he was writhing in pain from his leg. When the scan was over (about an hour after my brother’s first call), I received another call. Dad was going to have emergency surgery. His aorta had dissected ascending from his heart all the way descending to his right leg. If they did not do the surgery, he would die. The surgeon explained in detail to my mom, my brother, and my sister what was going to happen in surgery. He described all of the risks and that there were certain things that could have happened in Dad’s aorta which would make the repairing surgery impossible.
P later told me that Mom recited her wedding vows to Dad as he was wheeled toward surgery.
At home in St. Paul, M and I tried to eat dinner. The kids felt our level of anxiety and struggled through dinner as well. We asked friends and family for prayers and went through the motions to get our kids to bed. My head was in a fog of anxiety and helplessness. I prayed with all my heart that everything would turn out okay. We finally got the kids to bed, and went through the motions of cleaning up after dinner. I was not sure what to do, if we should go to St. Louis or not even if Dad survived the surgery. We decided to wait to see what happened with the surgery.
Shortly before 11 pm, my brother told me that Dad’s bypass had been complete and that the next step was to repair the aorta. They had to cut away the damaged tissue and replace it with a mesh-like piece of plastic, which would then allow new aortal tissue to grow over it an create a new aorta vessel over the plastic graft. It is an incredible thing that they are able to do. To do the repair, they removed all of my dad’s blood and reduced his body temperature so that he was in a sort of stasis. The repair was achieved in 20 minutes and they raised his temperature and returned his blood to his body.
But at 11 pm that Saturday night, we did not know if there was enough healthy tissue for the graft to be sewn on to. At the hospital my Mom sat with my brother, my sister, and all six of my dad’s siblings and their spouses. That is a lot of people! M and I went to bed for a fitful night of sleep. I could not get my memories of running with my dad around W park out of my head. I was never a runner until college, and so the majority of my runs at that park were with my dad during visits to home.
I was woken up at 3:50 am by a hungry one year old, I stumbled to her room to resettled her. I checked my phone out of habit and saw that I had missed a call from my brother and had this text from him: “He’s out. Now in the ICU. Surgery went well. Now it’s time to recover. He’s not completely out of the woods, but things are looking up.” I told M, and then called to get more details. Then again I could not go back to sleep. It was Sunday morning, and Dad was supposed to be sedated until Monday afternoon. I was not sure if we should go to St. Louis or not. My sister MC was already there with her family; she had driven 3 hours the night before and was 37 weeks pregnant.
The night finally ended, and we got up to go to 7:30 am Mass. I then decided that I really wanted to be in St. Louis; my heart wanted to be there with my family and with Dad. M wanted to go also. Dad would want us to follow our hearts, so we decided to go. I prayed for him through all of Mass, and afterwards our pastor came by our seats and we told him the situation and he said that he would pray. We then drove home, and I called my mom to let her know that we were coming.
We started packing at 8:30 am and were all in the car, having eaten lunch, and leaving at 12:30 pm. The first two hours of the drive were dreadful, we could not think of anything but our anxiety for my dad. There was concern that he would had possibly lost too much oxygen to his organs before his surgery or that the cooling process and blood removal may not have left him fully himself. I tried not to call since I knew that dad was receiving the Anointing of the Sick.
Finally my mom called around 2:30 pm. Dad had woken up! He was not supposed to yet, but at 8:15 am, the nurses were moving him and he started to wake. They let him wake up. One of the nurses said that she had never seen anything like his recovery that first day after his surgery. M and I had lifted spirits after that phone call. Dad was recovering so well so quickly. We made it St. Louis in 9 hours. We only stopped twice, and had what my Grandpa T calls an “uneventful trip”.
My sisters had made our room ready for us, and we quickly got the kids to bed. I then went to see Dad. I arrived and he was glad to see me. He told me a little bit of what he remembered had happened, but he was tired and I did not want him to exert himself. He also told a few silly jokes, and I knew that he was doing better and better.
The rest of our visit was so beautiful. The six cousins spent hours playing together, and my siblings and I supported Mom as best we could and were just together. It was not an easy visit, but it was important. Everytime we saw Dad, he told me how glad he was that we had come, and when we left on Thursday morning, it was the hardest thing. I just wanted to be near my dad, and see him improve with my own eyes.
He is doing so much better now, and should be leaving the ICU today and moving to telemetry. There are so many blessings that will come out of all of this, and the main one is that my dad is still alive on Earth. I pray that we have many more years with him, to grow in holiness and love.