Even the half-alert among us know that ever-present feeling (if only looming in our subconscious) that the world can change in an instant.
But who could ever really be prepared when it does?
Friday March 16, I was laying out my stuff for the Dash Down Greenville 5k before heading to visit my mom in the hospital—a couple days earlier she had suffered a fainting episode at the gym (she works out every morning) and doctors were observing her. They felt she might have suffered a minor stroke, but she was doing well. They had moved her into a “step-down” room and were planning to release her the next day. So, at this point I was concerned mostly about my mom’s mental health—she was worried about the bills, more than anything—but, frankly (read: selfishly), I was more concerned about arranging my 20-mile run on Sunday and whether I could run a respectable 5k in the morning.
I was cheery when I walked into Doctors Hospital at White Rock Lake. I was heading for the 4th floor when I ran into my dad. His face was red and he looked worried. “They’ve moved her to ICU,” he said. Weird. Why? “She’s having trouble breathing and they think she might have pneumonia,” he said.
When we got to her room, she was wearing an oxygen mask and her wide eyes were filled with panic. Her breathing was laborious. The nurse told us to wait for the doctor to talk to us. My heart dropped. I could sense the nurse knew something but didn’t want to tell us.
When the doctor arrived, he confirmed. When looking for the feared pneumonia he discovered a “type a aortic dissection”. Without immediate surgery, there’s about a 10-20 percent chance of survival. The surgery, he told us, was of the highest magnitude and something that only a handful of doctors in the world can perform and only certain facilities can support. Tiny Doctors Hospital was not one of them.
The next several hours were excruciating. Her primary doctor got on the phone and stayed there for 3 ½ hours, trying to get in touch with one of the specialists. There are only two or three in Dallas (Dallas is a hub of heart specialists) but had no luck finding one — two were out of town for spring break. At around midnight, the Doctors Hospital cardiologist arrived to look at the chest x-ray film. He reiterated the gravity of the situation. They determined the dissection had occurred at the time of the fainting; neither of our doctors had ever seen a case of a patient living through two days in this condition.
That night, my brother, dad and I spoke to my mom with the understanding that it could likely be the last time. I wondered how I would tell my kids—I was very young when I had my son and for nearly 18 years, she’s been a second mom to him.
My brother barfed and I saw my dad cry for the first time in my whole life. The cardiologist intubated her—a process that in her condition carried great risk of fatality in itself—and she continued to breathe.
At six the next morning, just fours hours after leaving the hospital, I got a call from my dad. He was choking on tears, laboring to get his words out. This is it, I thought.
But she was still alive.
My dad had called the priest from St. Patrick’s to administer last rites. Jolted from sleep, I realize it is St. Patrick’s Day (her favorite holiday) and my mom is dying. I arrived back at the hospital as Father Joseph, having just administered the (only Catholic sacrament worse than Reconciliation) Anointing of the Sick, was leaving.
The next two days were hell. Every phone call, every lab coat sighting, was potential doom.
Tuesday, she was still alive and we were still waiting on a transfer. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t indulge in a drink or a sleeping pill—I years ago forfeited those luxuries.
I needed to run.
The rain was coming down hard that Tuesday morning. Even better. The cool, fat droplets mingled with sweat and tears and no passerby knew I was crying or that my mom was dying or that I had no clue how to handle my dad’s and my kids’ suffering, much less my own.
I was soaked to the bone two miles in. My phone buzzed. I never carry a phone on a run, but under the circumstances, I had shoved it under three layers of sports tops. It was still damp. As I stopped to answer it, a bus splashed water onto the sidewalk, re-drenching me. I tried to protect the phone. “Hello?” It was my dad. They are moving her to UT Southwestern to perform the surgery. “OK. Great. I will see you soon.” He asks if I am out in the rain. “Little run,” I say. I imagined him shaking his head.
I continue on in the rain. I talk to God, or the universe or whomever is listening. I accept that, whatever happens, the road ahead will be long, arduous, exhausting. I remember that the most difficult journeys yield the most profound awakenings. Two hours and some 13 miles later I poured into my front door.
No matter what the day brings, I know I am ready.
Epilogue: My mom is currently recovering at UT Southwestern and she has months of rehab ahead. It is nothing short of miraculous that she is alive. I’ve been keeping a log on this site called CaringBridge about the process. If you ever have a sick loved one, this is a great service as it prevents you from having to talk to people (not that I don’t love talking to my people).