Susan’s mom died last week. It came out of nowhere. Jeanne was well, grocery shopping at Giant with Susan’s father. Her energy dragged. She sat on a wooden bench by the pharmacy while Al finished gathering the groceries. It’s been a rough year for her. Bouts of confusion led doctors to suspect seizure activity. She picked up a staph infection, God only knows where. She received an emergency hip replacement. Lots of medical intervention in 2022. None of it related to her death.
Twenty-one years ago, she received a mechanical heart valve. Hardly cutting edge in the early 2000s, but still serious surgery. They performed the operation with a four-inch incision rather than arthroscopically. She lived the rest of her life with a bad ass scar on her sternum.
After paying for his groceries, Al took Jeanne home, unconcerned, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. But once settled onto a couch, she faded fast. She felt like she was suffocating. Al called 911. Jeanne died a few hours later. That heart valve malfunctioned. It stuck wide open.
I walked into my house during the middle of it; Some errands kept me away through dinner. I found Susan sitting up in bed, still deep in the throes of her Covid infection. “Hey, my mom’s in the emergency room.” That wasn’t alarming, she’s been in and out of the hospital all year with her various ailments. But still, Susan sounded stressed. Five minutes later, a text came from Susan’s dad. They’re performing CPR, things look bad. I drove the mile to the hospital. I left in such a hurry, I forgot my phone.
They parked Al outside the operating room right next to a scheduling desk. Hospital personnel hung around getting instructions, exchanging good natured banter, ignoring Al. Every five minutes or so, someone would turn to us and ask if we needed anything, if we wanted a more private place to sit. We stayed put.
A doctor came out of the operating room. “We’ve done three rounds of CPR with epinephrine. We can get her heart beating but with the valve stuck open, it just stops again.” We asked questions. “No, we can’t replace the valve here, we would have to transport her.” More questions. “No, we can’t transport her unless she’s stable.”
“No, there’s really nothing we can do for her.” He went back into the operating room and continued CPR.
“Can you guys come in here?” Same doctor. “I want you to see what we’re doing.” Eight people crowded around the table. Jeanne appeared to have a piece of cloth over her face. A woman wailed away on her, pumping her chest with a violence that looked more likely to kill her than save her life. An artificial respirator made a wocka wock sound like a large plastic pane flopping back and forth.
“Al, you don’t want to be in here, do you? Let’s wait in the hall.” It was past time to quit. The doctor already said so. I wondered why they were torturing Jeanne, torturing Al. Susan waited outside in the cold. I texted her on Al’s phone. I learned that when you’re rushing and using someone else’s phone, it’s impossible to write a message. It’s like that recurring dream I have where I try to place an emergency call on a rotary dial phone. My finger keeps slipping out of the hole midway around the dial.
Time suspended. I comforted Susan on the sidewalk in the dark. People walked past us lost in their own emergencies. I spent five or ten minutes out there, long enough to begin shivering uncontrollably, still, I got back to Al before the medical team gave up.
Susan came into the hospital to comfort her father. The two of them spent time together in the room with Jeanne. I went home to tell my kids.