Dead Man Walking – A Surgical Nightmare


We knew there was a risk.

Really, we did.

But, we had to go through with the surgery. There was no other choice. You stick your hands out like an old fashioned weighing scale; keep enduring this excruciating, unstoppable pain that makes you only see blinding light in your eyes while you grovel to your knees, or have an 80-90% success rate of ridding yourself of the degenerative discs in your neck so you can feel a sense of relief, no more headaches, and oh, no more constant, unforgiving pain.

My husband, Dave, chose the latter.

Frankly, I don’t blame him. Watching him having to deal with the pain with the sustenance of numerous pain killers, was agony. We had done everything we could up to this point, but now we needed to explore surgery.

Ah, surgery.

That wonderful word that should be etched on the walls of our home. Plaques should be engraved in Waterford crystal, and a shrine should be built in Surgery’s honor since there have been so many of them.

Since the steroid shots didn’t work–as most doctors has surmised–we visited a spinal surgeon on Friday, January, 9th. In looking at the MRI’s of Dave’s neck, he saw the four squished, degenerative, languishing looking discs that were pinching nerves throughout his spine causing him to have tingling and numbness in his left arm in addition to generous stabs in the back–in between the shoulder blades–like a woman having contractions just before giving birth.

I would have thought the stabs in the back would have been from some hateful family members, but I was woefully wrong.

The doctor exclaimed, “I can do the surgery on Monday. We won’t get insurance approval by then, but once they see the MRI’s, I don’t see an issue why they wouldn’t approve.”

Friday afternoon was spent giving blood samples, chest x-rays, nasal swabs–blah, blah, blah–so Dave could be admitted for surgery on Monday.

He barely made it through the weekend–even with Norco–and surgery was scheduled for 9:30 on Monday, January 12th.

I didn’t like the surgeon. His bedside manner sucked. He talked in a matter-of-fact tone; like this was a typical surgery. When I asked him what the risks were, he said, “You can die from crossing the street or getting in a car accident.”

Really? This is how you try to alleviate the slight sense of panic in your patients?

Please tell me more. Relieve me of my sense of anxiety so I can put a taser to your neck.

Dave could have nerve damage. He could lose his ability to speak. There was a possibility of paralysis as well as damage to the esophagus, as well as the problem of swallowing. I could go on, but you can read it here.

The surgery is called a Cervical Disectomy. Here is a video of a surgeon replacing one disc (Dave had to have four replaced). It may be graphic for some people to watch (Caution):

It’s a three hour procedure. The average patient spends one or two days in the hospital to ensure no sign of infection, no issues swallowing food, can walk and, well, basically have a pulse.

The surgery went as planned, and I met Dave in the ICU in Elmhurst Hospital. They keep patients who have cervical disectomy’s in ICU to ensure that they don’t have any difficulties breathing after the surgery. The most common side affect people have is the ability to swallow because not only is the esophagus moved in order to get to the spine, but a breathing tube is used during the procedure.

As was expected, Dave was doing a lot of throat clearing. This could only be akin to having phlegm in your throat and you’re trying to clear it by, well, doing several a-hem’s, and appearing to cough up a lung, but you’re not.

He ate some clear liquids like beef broth and jello around 4 p.m. and I left for the day to take care of our herd (four dogs who desperately needed to take a pee since 7:00 a.m. that morning).

Around 7:30 that evening, I received a call from the hospital. Dave was having trouble breathing and they asked that I go there right away.

When I arrived, I walked down the hall and saw two people chatting at the far end. I went through the doors about fifty yards from where they were and made a bee-line for my husband’s room. When I got to his room the curtain was drawn. There were several people in there–I saw their feet shuffling around like marionettes.

The two people who were in the hallway stopped me from entering his room.

“You can’t go in there right now.”

“Why not?”

“They are trying to get a breathing tube down your husband’s throat. They are having difficulties. The doctor would like you to wait in the lounge until he can explain to you what’s going on.”

The man speaking to me was a Chaplain. This was apparent from his embroidered “Chaplain” name on his supposed doctor’s coat. This was obvious and also ominous in my own humble opinion, especially when you don’t know what the fuck is going on with your husband.

We went into the lounge and I said to him, “You have to know something or else you wouldn’t have been trying to cut me off from entering my husband’s room. What do you know up to this point?”

He said, “All I can say is that he was in respiratory distress.”

“Are you saying he wasn’t breathing?”

“Yes.”

“For how long???!!!”

“That I don’t know. Please just wait until the doctor arrives so he can tell you exactly what’s going on.”

My husband is not breathing…

I’ll let you imagine what was going through my mind at that precise moment. Honestly, all I can recall is that I needed to see him.

I needed to talk to him.

I needed to tell him I love him.

I asked the Chaplain to say prayers with me while we waited. About ten minutes later the doctor with the bad bedside manner walked in along with four of his posse.

“Nancy, Dave’s throat swelled up after surgery, and the incision–the area that we did the surgical procedure on–started bleeding.”

I asked him if they were able to get a breathing tube down his throat.

“Unfortunately, due to the swelling, we were unable to. At that point, we lost him.”

Shaking nervously, I said, “He died?”

“He did for a little over a minute. We did an emergency tracheotomy, but I inserted my two fingers into the incision and pulled out a bunch of coagulated blood.”

I said, “There was a tube put into place to extract the blood from the incision! Why didn’t it work?”

The doctor explained that the tube is small. When blood clots form, they clot the tube and the tube is rendered useless.

The doctor continued. “We pulled the tracheotomy out and put your husband on a ventilator since I was able to clear his airway after I took out the clotted blood. A machine is breathing for him right now. I need to go back into surgery–a fifteen minute procedure–to clean up the blood and close off where any bleeding is occurring.”

My next question was obvious. “What about brain damage? Do you know if there was a consequence to a lack of oxygen for the time he died?”

The doctor indicated it would be minimal, if at all, but I wanted proof. He finished with, “In all my years of doing this type of surgery, this is the second time this has ever happened.”

Lucky us. I should have bought a lottery ticket today.

The doctor indicated that Dave was sedated because he was fighting the tube. Frankly, I can’t blame him. Would you want something shoved down your throat when you didn’t want it?

(that’s what she said)…

Sorry, we need a little humor here….

I walked into the ICU unit and there were probably 8-10 people in his room. When I saw him–actually the whole situation–I will never forget it as long as I live.

The floors, bed, pillow. Even the walls. Dave was covered in a sprayed blanket of red blood. His wrists were restrained. His tongue was partially sticking out. Two tubes were going down his throat and he was thrashing his legs.

I walked up to him and calm took over.

I bent over to speak to him in his right ear. “It’s me, honey. Listen to me…you need to be calm. Please don’t bite down or fight the tube; it’s helping you to breathe. I’m right here.”

I’m right here. I love you.

You’ll be okay. I promise.

I kept stroking his forehead and kissing the right side of his temple. I just wanted him to know I was there to make sure he was safe. I was going to protect him and save him to the best of my ability–whatever control I had over the people that were in his room–and in trying to remain calm for his sake because I knew he was more concerned for me than for himself–I did and said what I had to do to make things as comfortable, and right, for him as possible.

He managed to calm down, and we were just waiting on the anesthesiologist to arrive. At that point it felt like a whole day had passed, when it was probably only minutes and then my claws began to stick out.

“Where is this guy coming from, fucking Florida?!”

I went on… “I also want to know what my guarantee is that after this second surgery my husband doesn’t lose his ability to breathe again, and don’t give me that shit about car accidents or crossing the fucking street.”

“I’ll get the doctor for you right now,” the nurse said as she hurried out of the room.

Note: The nurses and physicians at Elmhurst Hospital are phenomenal. They took great care of my husband and tended to his every need. I couldn’t recommend a better place to die and come back to life. I meant that as a joke, folks. But, in all honesty, the hospital is awesome.

When the doctor with the bad bedside manner arrived, I asked him my question. He looked exasperated; putting his hands on his hips and giving me a cock-eyed look.

“I can see from your posture that I’m irritating you, doctor. However, we’re talking about my husband’s life here, so if you can give me just a smidge of concern, it would be appreciated.”

He went over to Dave and asked him to wiggle his feet and his hands. All were good. I asked Dave, “Do you want to stay alive to be around me?”

The look on his face was like, “Mweeh.”

I told the doctor, “He’s fine. No brain damage.”

Laughter in the room ensued, which was badly needed. At that point, I knew Dave was going to be okay; mentally speaking.

The doctor indicated that if Dave’s throat decided to swell up again, it would be stopped by the ventilator tube. The ventilator was going to keep Dave breathing–at least for two days.

This would provide enough time for the surgeon, and the ear, nose and throat specialist a chance to see how things were healing.

I called Dave’s sister, Christy, and asked her to come to the hospital. I swear she must have broken the sound barrier because she was there in about thirty minutes.

I think she lives in Wisconsin, for Christ sake.

She didn’t see the carnage that I did, but I explained it to her as we were waiting in the lounge area.

As we were talking, a man in a hospital gown, looking ironically just like my husband’s, entered the lounge with his wife. He had a neck brace on and was dragging along his I.V. unit. This is where I think improvements can be made to the hospital. Can they at least come up with more fashionable hospital gowns? I’m not looking for sequins here, but can they at least offer plaid as an option?

As I was talking to Christy, he came up to me and started asking me how my husband was doing.

I explained all that was going on, and he told me something I hadn’t known. He said, “I heard your husband yelling.”

I nervously asked, “What was he saying?”

“He said, “I CAN’T BREATHE! After that, shit hit the fan. People were running into his room real quick.”

“Thank you so much for telling me that,” I said. “I didn’t know what happened up to the moment I got here.”

The nice man–30 years young– had the same surgery my husband did, only he had two discs removed by the same surgeon.

The ENT doctor was very nice. He explained how he put a rubber tube into the incision area and weaved it underneath theKIMG0062 esophagus. This tube would be the extraction tool necessary for any blood to come out–reducing his chances of drowning–and have the ability to breathe along with the ventilator tube to keep the swelling down. (See picture at the right).

What I just explained happened in a span of less than twelve hours.

The second surgery went fine, and Dave was cleaned up. All evidence of a blood bath prior to me arriving were gone. He was now heavily sedated and the nurse explained he was in stable condition.

When you hear the word, stable condition, doesn’t that make you feel uncertain? To me, it’s like a word equivalent to teetering on a telephone wire.

Christy stayed the night. She’s an angel in disguise, I swear. She came to the hospital right after teaching a spin class. This girl runs marathons, ultra marathons, runs the stairs at Willis Tower, is faster than a speeding bullet. She’s Super Christy, or as our family fondly calls her, Bonehead.  I left around midnight to take care of my herd, returning around 5:30 in the morning to hear that Dave had a good couple of hours up until thirty minutes prior to my arrival.

They gave him more sedation. The ventilator was at 80 and doing most of his breathing for him so his body would have a chance to rest.

Even though he was heavily sedated, he knew I was there. As I was holding his hand, he was trying to say something. I unstrapped his wrist restraint from his right hand so I could better understand his finger puppets. After several minutes, I figured out he wanted to write something down. I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen.

He scribbled L-O-V.

I said, “I love you too, baby.” He made his familiar hand gesture of drawing a heart over his own. All the nurses sounded like a gospel choir.

“Awwwwwwwww!”

Inside myself I was extremely anxious. I knew that tube was killing him and I wanted it out only because he hated it. But, this is where patience had to prevail, and this virtue is not my strong suit.

During those two days, he would see me, the boys, and other family members. He would gesture with his hands, and we would try to conjure up what it was he was trying to say even though he couldn’t say it. If we guessed right, we got a thumbs up. When his tube was finally removed on Wednesday, the first words out of his mouth were, “What the hell happened?”

He didn’t remember anything after yelling, “I CAN’T BREATHE.”

He did remember me telling him to calm down when I initially got to the hospital. But, he didn’t remember scribbling the letter H over and over again on a piece of paper. He didn’t remember using his hands like marionettes to Nick, his son, the famous SNL skit, “Dick in a Box.”

He didn’t remember when he asked me what happened that night. He scribbled on a piece of paper, “Last night.” I explained it to him while he was sedated, but I had to explain it to him again – in vivid detail-when we actually came home on Friday.

The funny thing about shit like this is how patients react. My husband, my stoic Army Colonel like-a-rock husband doesn’t cry. But, he seemed to cry at the slightest thing the day after they removed the ventilator tube. The anesthesiologist explained that it’s a pretty common after-affect from a serious surgery or near death experience.

When I saw him pain-killer free and sitting up in a chair for the first time, he cried when he saw me. Two words came out of his mouth.

“I’m sorry.”

Tears just rolled down my face. We cried together.

A few months ago, this man saved my life and here he is–fresh off a ventilator–to tell me he’s sorry.

He was more concerned about me than he was about himself. But, I was able to return the favor and save his life–or so I was told by him.

Let’s just call it true love.

Selfless, undeniable true love.

As for the surgery itself, it was a success. Dave has tingling now and again in his left arm, but that is expected to go away in the months to come. The constant pain he was feeling is completely gone and so are the headaches.

It just took him to die to get to feeling better, and that’s my husband for you.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this:

1. Don’t take too much Motrin. Even though Dave hadn’t taken any for a week prior to surgery, it was still in his system because he took so much of it to try to rid himself of the headaches he was having. Motrin causes excessive bleeding, so use it in moderation or else you’ll drown in your own blood.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Life is short.

3. Live in the moment because you never know when your number’s up.