My mom stayed that first night in the loud and overflowing ER with flimsy curtain dividers, taking meds to try to release the excess liquid in her lungs, because in order to check her heart they needed her to lay flat on her back. The next morning there was very little change, and so we were told they were working on a room for her and they’d need to extract the liquid from her lungs. It was a Friday, and if the cardiology unit didn’t see her that day, they couldn’t see her until Monday. Kim told me that mom had to lean over her bed while they stuck a huge needle in her back repeatedly before they whisked her off to the cardio wing.
I showed up after work and they were just wheeling her to her new room in the ICU after the angiogram. She was in great spirits and bragged that she was awake for the whole thing. She was in awe of the entire panel of doctors with varying specialties that surrounded her. They each introduced themselves to her and she felt encircled by love. There was a giant monitor where she could watch along with them the intricacies of her heart, which of course fascinated her beyond words. Four stents were inserted into the worst of the arteries and some were simply cleaned up from cholesterol buildup. Later, Karissa would recall mom’s awe at the procedure. She’d teared up and whispered “They saved my life.”
Unchecked diabetes had lead to Coronary Artery Disease. She hadn’t been to a doctor in twenty years, she was “healthy as a horse,” and in all seriousness, she seldom got visibly sick. Mom believed in natural remedies and listening to your body’s rhythms. I think she spent more time listening to everyone else’s rhythms! We had no clues that mom was sick! (Please go get checked, everyone, no matter your personal or religious beliefs or fear of doctors, we are lucky to live in a time where these things can be found early, and severe stages can be avoided!) She was the toughest person we knew. One side of her heart was only working at about 40% capacity, so they put in a balloon pump to beat every other beat for her over the weekend and give it a break, see if it would start rejuvenating. The other side was at a reduced percentage too, but it could work by itself. She had to lay completely still because the tube connecting the pump to the machine went in through her groin and it couldn’t be jostled.
We spent the weekend converging on her with as many of us that could sneak into the room at one time. In the ICU there was a two visitor limit at her bedside, but we lined the waiting rooms like grandma’s famous enchiladas. Aunts and uncles, grandma of the famous enchiladas, friends, a great-aunt, cousins, cousins, cousins rotating in and out of her room. Of course us kids, our kids, our spouses, and even a former spouse. We were celebrating and commiserating on the couches and outside near the vehicles. Phew! It was so close. Glad she came in! What a scare.
Dad and us four kids asked for permission to go in together and give her a family blessing. We knew she’d pull through, we were just worried there might be changes and long-term effects, but we still couldn’t imagine that she was going to die. I don’t think any of us truly did. Mom was part super hero. She did anything for all of us. And even did plenty of things for people who were not “us.” She gave and gave from that beautiful heart. We were in a hospital with a leading cardiology team. It was one of the best in the country. People came from far away to have their heart work done in our little Bellingham. She’d be fine. I was so grateful that she’d gone in when she did.
That weekend was full of family and love. I played Hall and Oates for my mom, and she rocked out to all the songs with her little head bob and foot tapping. All of them, even the ones I wanted to skip.
“But I don’t know that one.” Me, cantankerous.
“I do.” Her, eyes closed and wise.
She was getting uncomfortable, not being able to move, and at some point they had to strap her legs down because she HAD to move. Pain meds were increased and we settled into the much welcomed distraction of distracting her. We talked about all the things. Read to each other.
Karissa, the baby of the family, had just given birth to her first kid not even a month before, and she spent most of her time out in the car, feeding and consoling. We had a constant rotation of loving family that would sit with the baby while Karissa snuck away to visit with us for short periods. She was miserable, she just wanted to be with mom, with us. She was going through enough those first few weeks with the new baby and hormones and lack of sleep, and all she wanted was to be home and have MOM be there for HER. She was a ball of sadness. This was terrible timing. But more than anything, Karissa just wanted mom to be okay and come home. Which we all knew would happen soon.
Family friends brought meals and our pulsating mass of loving visitors were asked to keep it down a time or two.
Mom knew each nurse – their families, their stories, their dreams – all by the time they had to change her medicine bags. She loved people and talked to anyone, everyone. All four of her kids admire this innate empathy and reaching toward humanity. We, we do not socialize so naturally.
Monday came and so did the big doctors to see how the heart was doing. We didn’t hear any good or bad news. Things hadn’t changed, improved or worsened, and I guess I naively assumed that was a good sign.
Tuesday morning I went to work again, and Kim, my big sister, and dad were at her bedside when things finally did take a turn. I got a text at about ten in the morning that made my heart fall through the floor and I started shaking. I called and called until someone finally answered and explained these foreign words I was reading, words I couldn’t understand. She had vfibbed (ventricular fibrillation, when the heart beats with rapid, erratic electrical impulses) and they had taken her away. Later, when I’d somehow driven myself to the hospital behind a lake in my vision, I’d hear how mom started what looked like a seizure. The nurse that day was Ethan, and he took two huge strides across the room and dropped his fist on her chest. Pow! Hit buttons. Alarms sounded and twenty or more people pounced on mom. Kim and dad ran over to the side of the room near the window and clung to each other as they watched Ethan hit her chest again. Someone went to the head of the bed and began intubating her (inserting a tube down her throat to assist in breathing), while someone settled in at her side and began CPR. Kim remembers hearing “CLEAR!” and everyone pulled back while someone put the paddles to mom’s chest and shocked her. At some point a chaplin appeared and helped escort dad and Kim to the waiting room across the hall.
Her heart had stopped. Ethan had started it again. The pack of personnel unhooked and rehooked and somehow finagled her and the bed and the machinery and headed to the cardiology wing. We were told a couple of days later that her heart stopped again in the hallway, and the head nurse in the ICU, an angel of a human being, Cedar, jumped on the bed and straddled my mom and did CPR for 45 minutes until her heart started again. When I found out, I wanted to ask my mom what she’d seen during her 45 dead minutes, but by then she was not able to speak to us, they had her in a medically induced semi-coma as to not move the machines that were breathing and pumping for her.
Kim was in a state of shock when I arrived at the hospital, around 10:30 am. Dad was crying. Things were explained to me again; her heart stopped – kind Ethan that lived on an island in a fifth wheel with his wife and kids while they built their dream home and that took a ferry and road his bike to get to the hospital – he got her heart going again, and they wheeled her away to where all the wonderful doctors were going to see what was happening and fix her. It might be several hours. We should eat, or take a break. But we couldn’t leave that waiting room for quite a while, the one right across the hall from her room, because we didn’t want to miss her return or any update.
I could not believe the horror they just lived through.
A family friend, Jonathan, showed up sometime during this mess, and sat telling us how this was his job at the ICU at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital.
“You do this all day?!” Us, incredulous.
“Ya, just the beds are smaller.” Him, being him.
We were honored by his calm and soothing presence. He helped explain what was happening, the lingo, the most likely next steps. It was wonderful to have him there for this inexplicable moment. He was the balm to our traumatized hearts.
We finally went downstairs and said our goodbyes to Jonathan. He’d just had his first kid too, and offered for us to stay at his place or just crash for naps, since he was closer to the hospital than any of us were. What a godsend that boy.
The three of us went to the cafeteria and picked at food. Made vague phone calls since we didn’t understand what was going on, and stared at each other with utter bafflement etched on our faces. People milled around us, and we wondered how life could still be going on. Then we wondered what traumas brought them to the same deserted waiting land.
Dad went out to his car to take a quick nap. Kim and I meandered about the entry of the hospital, and friends or family may or may not have shown up at this point. The revolving door of loved ones begins to get blurry about Tuesday, when the sum of our thoughts got blurry. I remember my dad’s cousin and his wife from Oregon driving up to see mom, just for the night, but I think that had to have been the night before, on Monday, since mom was awake enough to have asked for her makeup bag before they went in.
We were back up in the waiting room when we heard them wheeling mom back a few hours later. It took them an exorbitant amount of time to get her hooked back up, before we could see her. One of the lead cardiologists, an adorable little lady named Dr. Smith, and the cardio care team leader – honestly I can’t remember her name but I can see her face, as I did over and over the next few days – came in to talk to us first. It was a long and intense conversation about my mom’s rare blood type, limiting her options for a donor/transplant, and since she wasn’t conscious enough to make these decisions for herself now, we needed to really think about what she’d want for her future. We weren’t there yet, but we needed to start thinking about this. Artificial heart, wires coming out of her stomach, changing batteries every 6-8 hours in a little backpack she’d have to carry, no more hot tubs. We didn’t give a fuck about hot tubs, what did any of this even mean? Dr. Smith wasn’t as adorable anymore.
Mom was resting and sedated. We were told to keep any stimulation to a minimum and let her have rest. We were in a daze, and puttered around in little clouds that evening.
On Wednesday I gave up on work and went into the ICU about 6:00 am to sit with mom and give dad a break. He went out to sleep in his little car again, and I sat with mom, who would barely head nod and was in a sort of cemented slow motion. I was reading to her from the book she had been reading before she went into the hospital, The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer, and she attempted to say something to me. She was holding her hand up like she wanted a pen to write with. I asked the nurse if we could get a pen and paper for her, and blessedly, as I would learn later, the nurse said we better wait and see what the doctors thought in a bit, she needed to rest. I felt a sting from these previously kind nurses, denying my mom even the smallest of wishes, but Kim was the one to tell me later that it was possible mom could have wanted to write DNR. I blinked. WTF was “DNR?”
Do Not Resuscitate. I sobbed. And sobbed.
While I was reading to my mom, the big doctors came in and assessed her various machines and the plethora of numbers surrounding her. I kept reading, low, hopefully soothing. The doctors said a few things to me I’ll never remember, and they left. The nurses were making a habit of puttering around the room more often than before, and luckily this particular red-haired nurse was awkwardly lingering, because my mom began to vfib again. I saw the buttons pushed I’d only heard of before, heard the alarms I’d been told of, and then half the staff of the hospital was suddenly around us. “CLEAR!” I still hadn’t moved, but as they shocked my mom, it shocked the crap out of me. Another nurse lovingly grabbed my shoulders and said it would be best if I waited outside the room, so the hospital personnel could do their job. I was walked to the waiting room across the hall and the chaplin introduced himself. I wrapped my arms around my torso and cried like when I was a child, sitting on a bench near the door so I could stare at my mom’s door where everything was going on. Again, they wheeled her out and down the hall. I had been trying to understand the words the chaplin was saying when I pulled my phone out and called Kim. “It happened again I don’t know what to do I’m so scared I’m all by myself and I need someone anyone to be with me I can’t do this oh my god what is happening this can’t be happening…” I wailed. And Kim, who had been there with mom until the wee hours and was trying to sleep at home, sat still on the phone with me, while the chaplin sat still next to me, and the three of us breathed together for a long time until a nurse came by to say soothing things and eventually my dad showed up and we entangled our limbs around our weak and shaking human flesh until words could be found.
This time mom was in a medically induced semi-coma and non-responsive, when they brought her back. They said they were giving her medicine to keep her sedated and sleeping so she wouldn’t hurt. She could hear us, but we would stimulate her and since she was so tough, she’d fight to come to the surface, and they didn’t want her to do so. She needed rest to heal. The balloon pump was replaced by a bigger, scarier, whirlier machine that the nurses (she was now assigned two fulltime nurses for just her) had to receive additional training on from a man that flew in from Minnesota or Minneapolis or San Diego, I don’t recall. Doctors came and gave our family speeches that sounded similar, but even more intense, about artificial hearts and transplants. Time to take it seriously. What would mom want? We had to act quickly.
That Wednesday evening the waiting room across the hall was packed as we let mom sleep. We took up all the seats and the floor and took turns telling stories about her; my dad confessing to blowing into her ear during their first dance 43 years before, the corniest thing he’d ever done, and that somehow, magically, it seemed to have worked for him. My mom’s little sister spoke of what a badass big sister she’d been. So driven and fearless. I read a tribute that I’d written her on my blog for Mother’s Day the year before, of what an amazing mom she had always been to me and what an even more amazing grandma she’d been to my girls. I later took phrases from this tribute and used them in my speech at the funeral. Cousins told stories of how she’d stood up for them, or stood up to them, and it had made all the difference. It felt like we were saying goodbye, yet none of us believed this marvelous human being, the gravity for most of us, the pillar of truth that wouldn’t let us crumble, could possibly pass away. She was love, pure and simple, to those that shared her life, and there was a mass of reciprocated love praying for her, just a room away.