In the Passenger Seat

I almost didn’t answer my phone. It was a Duluth number, one I didn’t recognize. My rule of thumb is to ignore unknown calls. My finger advanced toward the Decline button, then hesitated. I pressed Answer.

“This is the emergency room at Essentia. We have your husband here.”

What? Isn’t he here, at home?

“Don’t worry. He fell while trail running. He’s okay.”

Hastily I tossed his warm sweater and wind pants in a bag and flew out the door, assuming I was going to bring him home. But the nurse and I were both wrong. He wasn’t okay, and I didn’t bring him home for another 13 days. I soon became a passenger on a trip I didn’t want to take.

Rich looked at me sheepishly when I walked into the room in the ER. “I blacked out while running, and came to nauseous and groveling on the ground.” Immediately, my mind went back three weeks, when he returned home after crashing his bike on the North Shore.

“My helmet is toast,” he said slowly. “I think I have a concussion.”

Naturally I linked the two events. So did Rich, and the medical staff in that little room nodded. Tests were ordered and they kept him overnight to confirm the results.

“I’m not buying that concussion story.” This was the new hospitalist the next morning. “That wouldn’t cause you to black out.”

More tests, this time focused on the heart, confirming her suspicions. Rich had known for years that he had mitro valve prolapse, a non-threatening deformity that never impacted his health – until now. It had deteriorated to the extent that there was significant backflow between the ventricles and his heart was greatly enlarged as a result of compensating for the problem for a long time. His heart output was diminished to half what it should be and he had irregular heartbeats.

For a man who has pursued active sports almost daily and kept himself in good shape throughout his life, this was a blow. He went from a fit athlete to a hospital patient with a bad heart, right before my very eyes. But it got worse.

“The valve is in such bad shape, we are not sure it can be repaired. We will need to do open heart surgery in order to see its condition and change course to a replacement if need be.”

The very words Open Heart Surgery conjured terror in my own heart, and I wasn’t even the one facing it. I had plenty of bedside time to come to grips with the sudden change in Rich’s life – and therefore my life – while kept captive in the hospital over the weekend. Although they offered to let him go home to wait, it came with a stiff warning.

“If you have another incident like you did on the trail, your heart may not start again.”

It was enough to keep him under watchful eyes and a heart monitor in his hospital bed.

The days were long leading up to that big surgery. Rich didn’t feel all that bad, he just knew he was in bad shape. It was scary knowing just what they were about to do to him. The best times were when someone asked him about birding. Word spread quickly, all about his photography and “his owls.” Rich’s face would light up and his mood lifted when he recounted following the baby owlets throughout the spring and summer. It was like seeing the old Rich return for the moment.

The day of the big surgery came and I was allowed to come before visitor hours to be with him beforehand. Inevitably, it was delayed, leaving us hours to kill with that hanging over us, out of things to say to one another in the heavy waiting. Then suddenly, “It’s time.”

To this point we had discouraged our children from coming. Due to COVID, patients were allowed only one visitor a day, and that was me. We tried to tell them there was no need to come, but they knew better and Karen arrived in town before they wheeled Rich into surgery. We met up in the parking lot entryway, where she handed me a large steaming hot latte and a bag lunch. Despite a negative COVID test, she was masked and backed away to visit, console and support me from a social distance. Even when I retreated to the waiting room, just knowing she was there was a great comfort.

Karen bringing Molly latte

I received multiple updates throughout the surgery, learning that they had to replace the valve and best of all hearing it was going well. I passed them along to the kids, both to keep them informed and to occupy my time, to feel useful. The final report was in person from the surgeon, who delivered a glowing report – the surgery went without a hitch and Rich was doing really well. That news brought huge relief and joy, and I texted it out to the kids with a thankful heart. But in no way did it prepare me for what came next.

At 5:45pm I was informed that I could go see Rich in the ICU. I eagerly but nervously rode the elevator to the highly controlled floor where I had to be buzzed into his area then ushered into his room. There I found him encumbered with tubes, needles, IV lines, monitors, machines and collection bags. “Doing great” didn’t look great to me at all. It took all my fortitude to believe those words as I sidled up to his bed, hoping I wouldn’t bump something I shouldn’t. But the nurse’s quiet manner as she moved around checking, adjusting and explaining in a hushed voice reassured me. I spoke to Rich and slipped my hand into his, my squeeze answered by his in return. It spoke more than words.

We spent almost five days in the ICU, an eternity. I was amazed at how I could wile away the hours and days in a bedside chair. There was a constant parade of doctors, RNs, nurse practioners, aides, surgeons, chaplains who came to talk to us. I took on the role of notetaker, trying to capture every instruction, every warning, every bit of encouragement they had to offer, then try to understand it. Rich made it a point to get everyone’s name, and to thank them. He even thanked those who administered IVs, who poked him, who interrupted his rest yet again.

“I’m just glad to be here. Not to be undergoing all this, but to be here where you can take care of it all. Fix what’s wrong with me.”

Molly with Rich in ICU

On the home front, the kids had organized a rota, driving long distances to take turns being there for us. I would arrive home at the end of each long day to find a hot dinner waiting, and a willing ear when I poured out my day’s anguish. They made sure I got outside, running with me in the early mornings or taking dark headlamp walks at night.

Erik cooking dinner for us

Day by day Rich shed the tubes, his IVs and even got up to walk. But the monitors continued to beep and buzz, drawing scrutiny by everyone who came in the room. Soon we were hit by another unforeseen pronouncement.

“You’re going to need a pacemaker and defibrillator. Now.”

Although the new valve was doing its work, the heart was damaged enough to need help. The pacemaker would ensure a regular heartbeat, and the defibrillator would come into play should his heart stop again. The logic was there, but it carried an emotional toll.

“My heart can’t do its work on its own any more,” Rich lamented.

This time they assured us it was a routine procedure – not even called a surgery. The device was implanted in his left chest and connected to his heart with two wires. I caught up with him in the hall as they wheeled him to his new room, and already he was conversing easily.

From there, Rich made rapid progress and was out the door in just two more days. The moment we arrived home was emotionally charged and Rich shed tears as he climbed the 27 steps up to our front door – returning to a home he wondered if he would ever see again. Being able to hear his owls hooting outside, watch his beloved birds at the feeders and sleep in his own bed again next to me.

Rich arriving home from the hospital

His journey – our journey – is hardly over. Recovery is hard work, and the fatigue that comes with healing is unfamiliar to a normally healthy person. But we are all thankful that he’s here with us. Thankful that he fell where he could be helped to safety. Thankful that the medical team discovered the underlying problem. Thankful for each and every person who cared for him in the hospital. Thankful for the support of friends and family. And thankful for modern medicine and technology.

“I’m not as scared as I was before,” Rich says. “I know I still have heart problems, but now I have my own personal paramedic team in my chest.”

I can already see that I’m going to have one heck of a time holding him back from skiing before long. Watch out, Rich. I’m moving from the passenger side into the driver’s seat.