Try as she might, the nurse’s aide could not yank out the foley. A foley is essentially a hose attached to the patient’s penis that allows him to pee without getting out of bed. At first she worked with delicacy and precision, and then she worked with force. She was getting frustrated.
Medication had numbed me, so I didn’t feel anything. After a while she went to get the nurse. The nurse followed the same routine, first trying to ease out the tube and then trying to yank it, as if trying to start a lawn mower. She had no more success than the aide. The nurse called for the head nurse of the surgical recovery ward, to see if she could extricate the foley from my penis.
The head nurse also happened to be the mother of one of my daughter’s best friends. We had shared school events and birthday parties with her family. We had been to each other’s houses. We knew each other well, but not this well. Still, this was not a time for modesty. But by this time, I had no inhibitions and no fear. After all, my chest had been opened up a couple days before by a college friend of mine. We had taken a drunken trip to Fort Lauderdale many years ago. He had become a surgeon, stuck his hands into my chest, and grabbed my heart. Comparatively, this was nothing.
I let her work and lay still. I wasn’t going anywhere until my penis became untethered, and any quick movements would send a jolt of pain to my recovering sternum. She worked methodically and ultimately freed me, but not without a good deal of effort. She was very professional and we have never spoken about her “helping hand” since that day.
I had nobody but myself to blame this predicament. Sure, there is an element of genetic roulette. A long line of family members had dropped dead in their mid- fifties – apparently, our family produces a sludgy serum that tends to clog our arteries. But they lived, and died, during a time when the body was more of a mystery, and there were no wonder drugs to combat high cholesterol. When I was in my 30s, a doctor told me that I should consider taking cholesterol medicine. I was relatively young, active, and could not fathom why I needed old man medicine. So, I ignored the warning. I ate whatever I wanted and I drank poison, I mean soda pop, from bottles, cans, and fountains. I took none of the wonder drugs and ignored my doctor’s advice. Many years passed.
When I was in my mid 40s the bike club was on a spring ride up to Gurnee. We would go about 70 miles that day. We rode at a moderately fast pace. I rode along with my friends, and we had the usual wordplay and humor that accompanied our rides. After we stopped for lunch, I drank a few Cokes. I could not keep up on the ride home. I lagged behind.
This ride was the beginning of a period of months where my riding ability was erratic. On some days I rode like normal, and on others I could not keep up with the slow group. It was especially bad after we had stopped to eat. Over time there were less and less of the normal days. At one point I wrote a column in the club newsletter titled, “I Hate Biking”, venting my frustration over my newfound inability to keep up.
A few club members e-mailed my wife and told her that I should see a doctor, because something was wrong. I saw a doctor but he did not ask the right questions – also, I was still in denial and was not going to help him. I knew something was wrong but did not want to face it, so I answered the questions he asked precisely, and did not volunteer any additional information. My lawyer’s training helped me evade reality with my doctor and myself. He didn’t know I had to stop and rest while walking to the train, that I was living in slow motion. After all, he didn’t ask.
One cold winter night, I rode with a few friends to a bar for a bike trivia contest for charity. On the way home I could barely ride eight miles an hour. I told my friend to go home, and that he did not need to wait for me. I barely made it home, and on the way there could not generate enough energy to keep myself warm. I could not go fast enough to keep my internal heater going. Normally, this was not a problem. On this night I came home ice cold. My wife urged me to take a shower, but I just dropped into bed. The next morning I woke up swaddled in blankets, but was still freezing.
Another bike club friend suggested a new doctor. That doctor took a detailed history. We spoke for about 45 minutes. As I was about to leave, I mentioned I was unable to keep up with the 85-year-old senior partner at our firm when we walked to a meeting a few blocks away from our office. At this point, almost as an afterthought, she suggested that I get a stress test.
I took the test. I actually felt pretty good that day, like I had more energy than I had been having recently. Still, the doctor stopped the stress test. He told me that my blood pressure had dropped when my effort increased. He said it should be the other way.
“I think you should get an angiogram,” he said. I asked him about his level of concern. I don’t think he wanted to scare me, but he wanted to set an appointment right way.
During the angiogram, my anxiety increased when the doctor called my new cardiologist, the guy who stopped the stress test, and talked with him for about 15 minutes. I left alone in the room to speculate. At that point, I knew something bad was on the horizon. The doctor came back and told me that I had five blocked coronary arteries, and that the only reason why I was alive was because my cycling had created a network of peripheral arteries that allowed a little bit of blood to trickle to my heart. He told me that I had to have a quintuple bypass. This was not elective. There were no other options.
After years of denial and rationalization, I was face to face with my folly. A friend had once said, “If the car makes noise, turn up the radio.” I had pretty much done that. I didn’t want to hear or see bad things, and thought they would go away. They didn’t. I had one foot out the door, and had been walking towards the proverbial white light at a brisker pace than I had been able to reach in the real world. I was probably inches from that light the night I rode to the trivia contest.
I still have a hard time believing how close I had been to making my wife a widow – how I nearly checked out after a mere 47 years on the planet. I cried, and saw myself in perfect focus despite the tears flooding my eyes. I did not like what I saw. The irony was that I looked good. Looking into the physical mirror, I was lightest I had been since high school. I later learned that my precipitous weight drop was not due to spinning class, but out of control blood sugar. Diabetes and high cholesterol have an evil symbiotic relationship that feed each other, and had brought me to the angiogram, where I lay awash in tears and shame. The other mirror, the one that looks deeper than the skin, did not reveal as pretty of a picture.
I was not allowed to leave the hospital. They feared I would drop dead at any moment. I was scheduled for surgery the next Monday morning. I was introduced to the surgeon. Again, I had gone to college with Todd. I had not seen him since shortly after the spring break trip we had taken a quarter-century ago. It was a strange reunion.
I had to wait in the hospital over the weekend before surgery. I was not sure how fragile I was, was afraid to do much of anything. I spoke to friends and family in a daze of well wishes. I knew that early Monday morning my chest was getting cracked, and there was a chance I would not wake up. Normally I use humor to deal with bad situations, but I was afraid that my heart could not take the laughter. So I just let all the fear sit there until I got to the other side…of whatever.
I have to throw some props to the anesthesiologist. Minutes before I was knocked out, he told me that I would wake up with a chest tube and a breathing tube. Those tubes would have to stay there. I would be restrained so I didn’t try to pull them out. I recall becoming conscious, and surveying the scene to make sure there was no white light. I felt the tubes and could see and feel the restraints. Recalling the anesthesiologist’s words, I thought to myself, “Cool. I’m alive.” I breathed into the tube, relaxed, smiled and just lay there. I felt for the rhythm of my breath through the tube, and the beating of my heart in my chest. I felt surprisingly Zen in a place where it would have been easy to panic and feel claustrophobic.
The breathing tube was eventually removed, and I was allowed to get on my feet. I needed a lot of assistance. It hurt like hell to get out of bed or laugh. My chest, the place where my heart lived, the place where my breast bone had been cracked, was very tender. Once on my feet, I felt okay. I walked through the hospital from the recovery room, to the room where my daughter’s friend’s mom would wrestle with my foley.
My old college roommate came from Madison to visit me. I had not seen him in a couple of years. He waited outside during the wrestling match and came in after the extrication, but before the gown and sheets had been restored. I was on the road to recovery, but with my heart having been saved by an old friend and my genitals having been rescued by my daughter’s friend’s mom, I was still at a place where there was not going to be a lot of modesty. I was okay with that.
David Barish has been telling stories since the day his mother came home, looked around and asked, “What happened here?” Since then he has abandoned fiction and has been writing and telling personal narratives on stages around the City of Chicago.