Author’s note: The following passage is from Chapter 8, “Sharks & ‘Cudas,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. This is the 67th excerpt in the blog series.
The next week was uneventful. My critical care doctor advised that I was ready for the tracheotomy. He believed that the procedure would hasten my recovery and help my lungs to get stronger. At first, Sandra was reluctant because the operation would leave a permanent scar on my throat and could cause even more damage to my vocal chords. After consulting with her inner circle of support, she decided to proceed with the tracheotomy.
The doctor was scheduled to be off for the weekend, so he recommended that I spend the two days resting and getting stronger for the procedure. The pulmonologist on weekend duty would monitor my progress in preparation for the next big step. It had been a long road. The life-support tube had been inserted in my throat for more than four weeks, much longer than was the norm.
I had managed to get through virtually unscathed from all of the potential complications caused by being intubated and connected to the tubes that performed bodily functions for me. In addition to the variety of IV lines that monitored my heart and delivered medication to my listless body, I was connected to a urinary catheter, rectal tube, breathing tube, and feeding tube (inserted through my nose).
All of these intrusions are breeding grounds for viruses and infections which create unmanageable situations that usually result in patients fatally succumbing to the infections rather than the illness that brought them to the ICU. I battled fever for most of July, yet whatever caused the phenomenon never materialized into a serious life-threatening infection.
The enormous amount of oxygen loss during the first days of the month didn’t cause any brain damage, nor did it impact other organs. Despite the fact that my lungs were literally non-functional, my badly damaged heart hadn’t suffered additional deterioration. My heart was weakly hanging on, but plugging along. On doctors’ orders, respiratory therapists had been gradually decreasing the amount of oxygen artificially delivered to my lungs
I hadn’t eaten solid food in over six weeks, so I was a skeletal 153 lbs, losing more than one-quarter of the body weight that filled my frame the day the heart attack hit. My friend Rogelio later remarked that I looked like a “sack of bones on a bed.” While doctors struggled to find answers to the fevers and ARDS onset, they were equally puzzled by the relatively good condition of the rest of my mind and body. I was actually making progress.
The pulmonologist managing my case over the weekend believed that my gains were so significant that he recommended to Sandra that the breathing tube be removed to allow me the opportunity to breathe on my own. Once again, Sandra found herself in a untenable decision-making position.
She was only reluctantly in agreement that the tracheotomy procedure was the best course of action. The argument to give me a chance to breathe on my own by removing the tube was attractive, especially given Sandra’s concerns that cutting into my throat had its own set of complications. She gathered her inner circle to deliberate over the correct answer. As a group they came to the same conclusion: What would Eddie Do?
When the pulmonologist on duty returned on his rounds, Sandra told him to proceed with removing the tube. I was semi-conscious and looking stronger every day. She knew that I’m a fighter and if given the choice myself, I would elect to try it on my own without the tracheotomy. The doctor scheduled the tube removal procedure later that afternoon.
It had been a week since doctors began weaning off the heavy sedative medication, so I have a somewhat hazy recollection of these events. In fact, doctors were growing concerned because it was taking so long for the effects of the medicine to wear off. During that time, Sandra and visitors constantly talked to me trying to get me to respond. Other than a weak smile when I felt Sandra hold my hand or a blink of the eyes when I heard Marisa and Erica’s voices, I showed no sign of waking up.
One night during the last weeks of July, right around the time of Sandra’s decision to take the tube out, Miguel was visiting and suddenly shouted, “Wake up, Comps!” According to Sandra and the girls, my eyes shot wide open and I scanned the room looking confused before slowly closing my eyes and returning to a peaceful sleep. Everyone present was excited and the waiting room was abuzz when the news got out. Years later, we all still laugh about Miguel’s uncharacteristic outburst that night.
Despite being in this semi-conscious state, I remembered bits and pieces of the extubation episode. The doctor on duty was a tall Asian man with thick black hair wearing wire-rimmed 1980s-style glasses. He had a confident smile and spoke with certainty as he began the procedure that would remove the tube that had occupied my throat for a month.
He began by sending a gust of 100% oxygen into my lungs before extubation. After removing the tape which secures the tube around the mouth, the doctor inserted a new catheter into the windpipe to deflate the cuff that held the tube in place. I vaguely remembered the doctor asking me to take a breath and cough. When I was able to generate a weak breath and cough, he rapidly removed the tube.
Although the final removal took a mere few seconds to complete, it felt like the tube traveled slowly through my windpipe scraping each and every nerve ending along the way. With the exuberance of a cheerleader, the doctor triumphantly held the tube in his hands. Within a couple of minutes, there was an enormous sense of relief. I was finally free of that awful gagging sensation. Sandra was ecstatic.
Writing in her journal at 2:30 PM that day, she exclaimed, “It’s out!!”
Next week: Excitement and hope in the waiting room quickly turns to concern and despair.