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Wellington, New Zealand
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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

some updates are a bit more serious than others

there have been occasions where i haven't updated my blog for over 4 months, but i usually come back with a photo-heavy catch up showcasing my various proud mama moments and fun times i've had with my friends.

that WILL happen later, but for now i'm going to start with the

...and i can say that without reservation; because when your husband comes within a hair's breadth of dying and needs 10 and a half hours of surgery to save his life, and you still don't know whether he'll be ok, that literally IS the worst day of your life.

there have been several occasions in the past 4 months where i've attempted to journal this story, and i know that when i eventually got around to doing it, that it would be different than if i'd started it earlier, and that's ok.

writing it now means that i can tell the story knowing that it has a happy ending.

thank goodness.

when i posted this picture on Facebook on May 30, i wrote:

my husband ladies and gentlemen: version 2.0

it was a VERY long way from this photo - taken only 5 weeks earlier


on april 23rd of this year whilst at rest on the sofa after dinner, my husband of 29 ½ years calmly laid down his iPad, lent forward and clutched his chest.

he didn't sit right back up.

it's a strange feeling, that even when you KNOW something like this has NEVER happened to you, in that moment you know it's real, it's different and you need to take action.  it's also when time stands still, or moves very slowly.  maybe it's the universe's way of telling you that things will never be the same and that you need to be present.

it was less than 2-3 minutes before i realised that we needed to call an ambulance.  he hadn't sat back up and gone 'phew, that was weird!' his breathing was laboured and he was in pain.

from our st john ambulance days, i/we knew it wasn't a heart attack (which was comforting), but NOT knowing what it was left us with the opposite feeling.

the ambulance arrived within 10-12 minutes.
the longest 10-12 minutes of my life.

wellington FREE ambulance [thus named] is the only free ambulance service in the country - and man they are AWESOME.

it was decided that we'd go to hospital to investigate further
in the absence of any obvious tell-tale signs of anything else, he was treated for severe heartburn and/or angina.

he walked halfway down the drive to the ambulance:
'tell the kids not to worry.  i'm fine'.

fast forward to the next morning (after a long night of monitoring and pain relief in the emergency room, then overnight in the short stay unit).  when the doctors did their rounds they scratched their heads and said "well, we still don't know what's wrong with you", so he had a CT scan.

BINGO.  finally a diagnosis

...and this is the text i got from my husband:

"CT Scan. tear in aorta. surgery.
will call soon".

(he's a no-fuss kinda guy)

he DID call - 10 minutes later, and i made plans to collect our 2 eldest girls and drive to the hospital to see him before his surgery.  my friend was going to bring the younger 2 over later in the day.

now, up until this point in my life, i'd not ever uttered the word 'aorta', let alone really KNEW what one was.  STILL, knowing my husband was going to have surgery THAT DAY was a lot to take in.  i drove myself to my friend's house for 'tea and sympathy' so i could gather my thoughts before collecting the girls and driving to the hospital.

NOW - this particular friend is a medical professional and she well knew how serious it was, but thankfully just made me tea, fed me ANZAC biscuits and wrapped me in a blanket until i stopped shaking.  weeks later i asked her if she'd known how serious it was.  her reply was "yes, but i prayed that it wasn't".

so we arrive at the hospital (to the emergency room where hubby had been returned) expecting to say 'hey, have a nice surgery', but we're met at the giant double doors by a doctor (wearing one of those serious, yet non-committal faces) who ushers us wordlessly into a darkened room.  in this room there's a random person making the SLOWEST CUP OF TEA EVER.  she doesn't know that these strangers are about to have bad news delivered to them by a nameless doctor and we all sit there in pained anticipatory silence.

when i look back at this moment i can see the 'comedy' in it.  we'd been lead into an unfamiliar room by an unfamiliar doctor and the poor unsuspecting sod who was casually making their tea had no idea she was part of a life-changing moment in the lives of these 3 strangers.

poor doctor 'S'.  my memory of her is so tainted because she knew EXACTLY what had happened to my husband but couldn't or wouldn't say, so she used LOTS of words and said ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.  she kept waffling on about how it's "very hard to save people like my husband when they're 'out in the community'". WHAAAAAAT???!!!

what she REALLY meant was: "if your husband had been at home instead of already in hospital, he'd be dead by now".

three weeks ago doctor 'S' celebrated her birthday at my katelin's bar/place of work.  she recognised katelin and said hello.  it's easy to forget these doctors have private lives and 'other' personalities!!!

at this point i still don't quite realise what's going on, although i DO appreciate the seriousness of the situation.  i DO know that i was a MOTHER first and foremost throughout this time, rather than a wife.  for me, it was just automatic.  you never know how you're going to act or respond in a crisis.  you can only hope that you'll cope and do the right thing.  managing your own emotions and reactions, as well as that of FOUR others, was probably my biggest challenge.

so the verbose doctor 'S' tells us that hubby has already been in surgery for 1 ½ hours!!! - and that it might be another hour (i think) and did we want to wait in the ICU waiting room.  i don't know!!!  by now i have one child that is a wreck, one holding it together and me - speechless - for probably the first and last time in my life!

we soon discover that the ICU waiting room is the most horrible, horrible waiting area possible.  poor seating configuration, sterile, seats along the edges and full of strangers who are also going through their own personal hell, but whom i want NOTHING to do with.  thankfully there's a massive space with tables and sofas right outside the ICU waiting room.  we moved the furniture, made ourselves comfortable, and waited.

and waited

and waited.

hours later a lovely nurse [that i deeply regret yelling at] comes out and tells us the surgery will be another 5 hours. (it was more like 8).

5 HOURS???
what could they POSSIBLY be doing that'll take 5 HOURS?

thankfully, not too much later Tom the anaesthetist phones from INSIDE the theatre (modern technology eh?)  he tells me they're replacing my husband's MAIN AORTIC VALVE.

then i remember that my dad had a valve REPAIR in 2010 and that the surgery took hours.
ok i said - as you were, take all the time you need.  i can see why it's taking so long!

timings are a bit of blur, but we waited all afternoon and all evening
tom the anaesthetist finished his shift, came out to see us and drew us a rudimentary picture.  i'm not sure how much information i took in.
hours later, an ICU nurse came out and said that they were expecting my husband soon
"at least they're talking about him in the present tense mum" my eldest said.
i HATE that she even had to think that.

in the months since this has happened, i've said to Clive that i'll never wish it hadn't happened, because so much good has come from it, but i DO wish that our children never had to go through what they went through.

some time before midnight, the surgeon finally appears.  he asks if we can 'skooch' over [on the sofa] because he's been on his feet a while. haha.  he sketches a 2nd picture (again, i'm not sure how much i'm taking in).

he then proceeds to tell me all the things he [probably] needed to tell me, but not in the matter-of-fact manner i wanted to hear them, and CERTAINLY not uncensored and in front of my children:

that while the surgery was a success, that didn't necessarily mean that he was going to be ok, and that if certain things happened immediately post-surgery, then he definitely wouldn't be ok
(now I'M being cryptic), but some things are private you know?

...and then he left

if i was in the middle of the worst DAY of my life, that was the worst MOMENT.
thankfully it was short-lived, and i needed to attempt to comfort my children.
TWO hands, FOUR kids.  that's some bad math.

an image of a future very different to the one i'm living today briefly entered my mind but then i snapped back to the present.  when can we see him and how many of my girls actually WANT to see him. practical things.

the ICU staff were amazing.  it usually takes around an hour and half to 'settle' a patient after surgery, but it was approaching midnight and they wanted us to be able to see him so we could go home and get some sleep (HA!) i went in first with my friend and took a photo to show the girls so they could decide if they wanted to see him.

shock horror, i'm a practical creature! 
i knew i also had to photograph it for Clive, because he was one day into three days he'd never get back.


so this is basically what happened:

an undiagnosed congenital defect (bicuspid valve instead of TRIcuspid) and undiagnosed [and therefore untreated] high blood pressure basically made him a ticking time bomb
sometime between 11.20am (when he called me) and 12.20pm (when the surgeon became 'aware' of him), that 'small tear' started to completely dissect and he became 'very sick' in the words of the cryptic doctor 'S'
less than 30 minutes later he was in theatre
rare as they are, dissections are usually DESCENDING, and Clive's tore right up into the aortic arch and threatened the carotid artery.  this is ultimately why the surgery took so long.
he now has 26.5cm of dacron where he aorta once was, and a st jude's mechanical valve.
he ticks.  quite loudly.


during the following week my parents came up and kept the house running
my zumba girls had taken over feeding us and meals (and other assorted treats) arrived daily.
people we hadn't heard from in YEARS contacted me
friends came and sat with us at the hospital and keep us company during the long hours and days waiting outside ICU

and so we got through it


after less than 72 hours in ICU and 5 days on the ward, he made an [almost] textbook recovery and was home 8 days after the surgery.  8 DAYS.


so here's what i know (and have learned, and am grateful for):

- first world medicine
- the medical profession (specifically nurses).  let's be honest, they run the place!
- friends
- friends with medical knowledge
- family
- Facebook (as a means of communicating to the masses)
- a husband who was young and fit at the time of his surgery


...and here's what they don't tell you
(probably because public health doesn't have endless resources available)

an incident like this is a 'traumatic stress' (even if it DOESN'T come out of the blue)
1 in 4 will suffer some form of depression
recognise the signs and GET HELP

one of the symptoms of a dissection is RADIATING pain to the back from the abdomen or chest.  Clive didn't have this which made diagnosis tricky.


as it turns out, i started writing this on august 24,  4 months to the day of the surgery.
in 2 weeks' time, we leave for a month in europe to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary
 (the main event being a 12-day greek island cruise).

i think we've earned it.


cat said...

Oh Sue! My prayers and heart was with you at the time - thanks to Instagram.

What a traumatic experience - so very glad he is fine

mandyb said...

so glad that Clive is well enough for your trip....wahooooooooo

and so glad we could help with our meal and goodies too!!!
and YAH for ALL those who came close to help when needed xxxx

Margot/NZ said...

Amazing post Sue. Therapeutic to write, I hope. So happy you have the trip and cruise to celebrate - not only 30 years, but coming through all the recent trauma too. Well done.


Brian Curwick said...

I read your blog post with keen interest as I too have experienced similar injury and surgery as your husband. I had an dissecting ascending aortic aneurysm on 5 Sept 2005.

My incident was subsequent to a traffic collision while riding a bicycle. One of the unusual aspects of my situation was the dissection & aneurysm did not occur for another month & a half after the collision. I too like you husband was in very good physical shape; the night prior to the occurrence I had rode a regular 12 mile workout on a popular local mtn course and was showering prior to a weekly 65 mile ride on the Pacific Coast Hwy here in SoCalif.

During my earlier career as a firefighter my last call that I responded to involved a young lady who did not survive a torn aorta when her brand new Ford Mustang hit a street lamp pole. You husband and I were blessed as this injury in so uncommon that most ER doctors miss as in the case of the actor John Ritter in 2003. My hospital stay was complicated by a systemic infection of the organism VRE, which I had colonized at my place of employment (a different hospital than where I was operated on).

I hope your cruse was an enjoyable celebration of both your 30th anniversary and the success of your husband's surgery.