THE sounds of the operating room are always with me. They can't seem to get out of my head.
“What's the bovie set at?”
“I need a four-oh Vicryl and Adson's with teeth.”
“We're at 15 minutes off pliege.”
“I'll take two laps and some bug juice.”
The words blend together amid the whir of machines, and there in the background, the constant beep, beep, beep of the EKG carries on.
Today was a busy day. Two back-to-back heart surgeries, the second just like the first. I sutured and tied and helped the surgeon blot the beating heart with a sponge. Healthy vessels were grafted to diseased ones, then each man was put back together and taken, stable, to the ICU. I write the post-op note and eyeball my patients one last time before leaving.
It is dark outside when I drive home. My mind is still abuzz with the excitement of the OR, but a different preoccupation is starting to overcome me: today is the first day my daughter has gone without seeing her Mommy. Every day for the last 14 months, I have been the one to rock her to sleep, singing her the same familiar songs and tucking her in in the same familiar way. I wonder, did Daddy sing the same songs tonight? Did Baby Dolly find her way into the crib? Did the jammies go on without a fight? But most of all I want to know,
Did you wait for me, Sunshine, like you always do, waiting with your little fists clutching the baby gate, only to realize that I won't come home tonight?
The house is quiet when I arrive. I rush upstairs, tiptoeing into her room. It is too dark to see, but I hear her soft breathing from inside the crib. Gingerly I lift her up. Her legs dangle past my elbow, and I marvel at how big she's become. I worry that I'll wake her, but she hardly flinches, and instead snuggles her head into my shoulder. Her pudgy hand slides up next to her angel-face, the same way it always has, ever since my husband and I first saw her ultrasound at 20 weeks. She is still just a tiny baby.
There comes a point toward the end of cardiac surgery when the heart must be taken off of the bypass pump. The final step is to remove the aortic cannula. As the tube is pulled from the chest, blood wells up and pools into the mediastinum, bathing the heart in streams of red. And even still, the beep, beep, beep of the EKG marches on. I think about this as I rock my child in the darkness. I feel as if my heart is torn open, too.
A few mornings later, I go to check on my bypass patient.
“Knock, knock,” I say. I am worried that I've woken him, but instead I find him up in the chair. “Well, look at you! Up in the chair and everything already! How are you feeling?”
He thinks for a minute.
“Well,” he half-smirks, “I guess I didn't really realize how much this was going to hurt.”
“Yeah….” I trail off. “I don't know that anyone can quite prepare you for this kind of pain.”
We look at each other. I don't know what else to tell him. I move on and listen to his heart and lungs, check his drains, incisions, and pulses, and so on. Then I pause.
“You know, maybe it doesn't feel this way to you yet, but I've been following you for a while, and I'm watching you get better every day. It's just so hard to see when you're in the thick of it, but things really are getting better, and you're a better person because of it. You've come so far already….
Anyway, if I don't see you tomorrow, keep on carrying on for me, okay?”
I shake his hand and step out of the room. As I walk down the hospital corridor, my footsteps start to fall in time with a familiar cadence:
Beep, beep, beep
the sound of my own heart