Though we’d just met when hospital orderlies called us each from waiting room to pre-op, she and I agreed: We didn’t want to go. Trained by a culture that prioritizes control over surrender, I asked my orderly, “What if I don’t go?” My new friend concurred: “We’re going on strike.”
Yet off we went to surrender our markers of control: wallets, rings, watches, glasses, clothes. Control was reduced to fumbling with a hospital gown to preserve dignity — barely.
Control had worked during the 40 years cardiologists reported, “Maybe someday you’ll need your aortic valve replaced, but probably not until your 60s, and maybe never.” Now an echocardiogram had shifted “maybe” to consulting a surgeon.
Still I pursued control. I doubled exercise, enhanced nutrition, lost more weight. Maybe I could still strengthen my heart enough to skip surgery. I felt ever better; a painful challenge if forced into surgery would be relinquishing pre- surgery well-being.
Then another echocardiogram. The valve was leaking badly, its shrinking surface area raising pressures that would eventually destroy my heart. Mortality odds were soaring; maintaining control by resisting surgery would do me in. Any vestige of control now meant choosing surrender.
I grieved this into the final hours. Still, due less to strength of character than to bleak alternatives and a hospital system that sucked me into its inexorable protocols, surrender I did.
I most strongly felt surrender as not just forced but ultimately embraced after tearful goodbyes to spouse, daughters, siblings gave way to the anesthesiologist pushing my stretcher with wheels as balky as some shopping carts down halls. I apologized for her having to explain “he has a lot of goodbyes” when an operating room phone call asked why we were late. Gently she told me, “It was moving to see the love.” It’s time to yield to care like this, I thought.
Such kindness was underscored as we reached the operating room, where an an efficient team inserted IVs, lines, whatnots and a syringe slowly pushing in to take consciousness. All team members used my name and gave their names. They honored me as a person with feelings and fears.
I realize, with sorrow, that millions who deserve it don’t get such care. Yet what a gift when offered to one on the cusp of being chilled 10 degrees below normal, chest sawed open, heart stopped, blood and breath circulated by machine, the symbolic and in many ways literal seat of being held in a surgeon’s hands as aorta is clamped off, diseased valve removed, new valve sewed in. Would a clot break loose? Would warmth ever return? Would heart restart?
Then puzzling light and shadows. I remembered the man born blind reporting, after Jesus healed him, seeing men like trees walking. Through ICU windows I was glimpsing midday sun on hospital buildings.
Though pain and recovery lay ahead, I had awakened to many gifts: discovering the feared breathing tube had already been removed, my incision had been minimally invasive, I was — alive!
My mind seemed still mine. The stuffed narwhal my granddaughter had given me, matching her own so we could together be comforted, was tucked in beside me. Love filled the room, first as compassionate staff cared for me, then as loved ones arrived.
I feel grief for a culture that shapes me and us to learn more about control than surrender. I feel gratitude at having been invited to learn surrender offers not only curses but also blessings.
Michael A. King is publisher of Cascadia Publishing House and blogs at Kingsview & Co., cascadiapublishinghouse.com/KingsviewCo.