Open Hearts

By Kim Alden Mallin

I am racing through my house, grabbing pants and shirts, underwear and socks…hoping they’ll match as I stuff them into an overnight bag. Trying to pick things that will be comfortable for hours spent in the ICU waiting room. No matter how hard I try not to, I keep imagining my dad, wearing one of those blue and white patient gowns, the EKG monitor beeping, oxygen tubing in his nose. Thinking about how vulnerable loved ones look, lying there in hospital beds.

Thinking of my dad as vulnerable scares me. It also reminds me of the first time I saw him as anything other than Dad, that all-knowing, supremely secure superman. The first time I thought of him as a regular person, with normal hopes, fears and dreams…

I was nineteen years old, working at the local Hallmark store, living at home while putting myself through college. One day my dad stopped by the store, a fairly uncommon occurrence. I’ll never forget how he looked when he walked in, dark shades covering his eyes, pants a little tight around the middle, a shamed look on his face as he slipped his glasses off. The bags under his haunted eyes made him look far older than his early forties. A desperate tone was in his voice as he asked, “Do you think I’m an alcoholic?”

I had never thought about it. Looking back, I guess I was just as much in denial as he was. I knew he and mom had arguments about his drinking, but I’d always thought that was just her. Before that day, I never knew that he had doubts or fears or questioned his life. I had been hidden away in my room, immersed in biochemistry, anatomy and calculus…trying hard to make straight A’s and fulfill my dream to become a doctor and escape this room, this life.

Eventually my dad did decide that he was an alcoholic. He and mom started going to 12-step programs, and they became different people; happy, content, free. Twenty-five years later, he is still sober, and they are happier than ever.

As for me, I did become that doctor. Also an alcoholic…but that’s another story. That day as I ran through my house, I wasn’t a doctor or an alcoholic…just a scared daughter with a father facing urgent heart surgery.

Six months earlier, I suggested that my dad get an ultrasound of his abdomen, to check for an aortic aneurysm. New studies had come out recommending such studies for men over 65 who smoked. So, he did. And it showed a 4.5 cm ballooning of his aorta. Not yet 5 cm, the magic size for surgery, his doctor planned to recheck it in 6 months. I just hoped it was really slow growing.

Well, I was wrong.

Two weeks ago, his new ultrasound showed it at 5.5 cm. A fast-growing aneurysm, meaning he needed surgery fairly soon. And this was a really big operation. I began to wish that I had never told him to get it checked, as if somehow not looking for it would have kept it from being there. Delusional I know, but I so dreaded him having to experience the pain and risk of such a big procedure. And I was afraid. Having too much medical knowledge is not always a good thing. I hadn’t done 4 1/2 years of a surgery residency for nothing. I imagined being in the OR, taking the scalpel and opening his abdomen, dissecting out his aorta and then running into some difficulty like having too much bleeding or…etc, etc, etc. All kinds of horrible things ran through my mind.

Finally I just had to make myself stop. I was making myself crazy.

As part of his pre-operative workup, a stress test was done. It was abnormal, so he had a catheterization and was found to have 100% blockage of his main coronary artery and 85% of his others. He was a walking time bomb…a heart attack or a ruptured aneurysm just waiting to happen.

All of this leads up to where the story started. Me, running around, trying to pack while fighting back tears and trying to stop those operating room tapes from playing in my head. With such severe heart disease, his doctors wouldn’t even let him leave the hospital and scheduled him for urgent open-heart surgery the following day, the day before Thanksgiving.

I had left the house and was about 45 minutes into the five-hour drive to Raleigh when I got a phone call that the surgery was delayed until the day after Thanksgiving as the OR was completely booked for the following day. Exhausted, I returned home, leaving my bags packed, planning instead to head out on Thanksgiving Day.

My family had Thanksgiving dinner in my dad’s hospital room. Mom made turkey sandwiches and brought them, along with pumpkin pie and whipped cream, to the hospital. My husband and I, my sister and her partner and mom and dad ate and shared and cried and loved. My dad was the only non-medical person in the room – the rest of us were all nurses or doctors with full knowledge of the risks and complications that the following hours, days and weeks could bring. When I hugged my dad goodnight he had tears in his eyes, and his voice shook. I thought my heart would break as we sat there, holding each other. My mom stayed the night with him, and when we kids walked back in at 6 in the morning, they were laying there, quietly talking, holding hands.

My dad’s surgery went well. He is still in the hospital but should be going home soon. He still has the next surgery to get through. I can’t even think about it yet. It’s too hard watching him hug that big red heart-shaped pillow to his chest, trying to blunt the pain as he coughs, knowing that his legs are swelling so much that he is wearing TED hose, his voice cracking as he tries to sound strong on the phone.

I love my dad. I hate seeing him, or anyone I love, in pain…whether emotional or physical. Watching him go through all of this has brought up all extremes of emotions for me. I am reminded of a favorite childhood story, The Velveteen Rabbit. And of how pain leads to growth and growth, along with love, helps make us real. And that real people have emotions and show vulnerabilities and in doing so, allow others to become real.

Thank you Dad, for showing me how to love and how to be real. Even though it hurts.

About this writer

  • Kim Alden Mallin Taking a break from her life as a family doc in Charleston S.C, Kim Alden Mallin is currently living in Antigua with her husband, teaching at the American University of Antigua School of Medicine. Her days off are spent scuba diving, writing and improving her road race times by running up the hills of Antigua.

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