Author’s note: The following passage is the final excerpt from Chapter 8, “Sharks & ‘Cudas,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. This is the 70th excerpt in the blog series.
I dedicate today’s excerpt to an old friend and coaching colleague who passed away last night after living a full life with heart disease. RIP Coach Bob Monges.
As the heavy sedatives wore off, my vivid dreams manufactured by ICU Psychosis focused more and more on that nasty tube. In addition to the eucalyptus branch, I dreamed of chewing on rubber hoses and McDonald’s straws, and trying to pull out steel pipes that stuck out of my mouth and lodged in my voice box. As I awoke from the surgery, I instantly felt relief.
The small tube inserted into my throat at the neck was held in place by a “trach-collar.” The collar stabilized the tube so that it could be connected to the respirator. Studies have demonstrated that the trach-collar is the most effective path to wean patients off of mechanized breathing. It also relieves pressure on the vocal chords and minimizes additional damage to the voice.
When Sandra reported to the waiting room that I sailed through the operation with no complications, there was a collective feeling of optimism and hope. For more than a month, the waiting room inhabitants had been in a constant state of alert. Every new procedure led to some obstacle that created additional fear and concern. As the hours ticked away, Sandra continued to share good news that the tracheotomy was working. That evening, the waiting room buzzed in an almost festive mood.
The doctor later told me that Sandra was an “incredible woman.” She was a savvy and well-informed advocate, he went on to say. Her questions were always on point. Once she made a decision to move forward with a recommendation, there was no turning back. In a positive way, Sandra was “intimidating,” he said. Her keen understanding of the issues related to my condition once again led to forward momentum.
During the next hours and days, I continued to show improvement. My oxygen numbers stabilized even as respiratory therapists decreased the amount of oxygen the respirator sent to my lungs. My mind continued to clear as the remnants of the strong sleeping medicine dissipated. I wasn’t yet fully aware of my paralysis predicament. It hadn’t dawned on me that I wasn’t eating, drinking, talking, or going to the bathroom. But, I was beginning to recognize a rhythm to the ICU and distinguish between day and night.
Early each morning, an X-ray technician would come into my room to provide doctors with the latest images of my lungs. I could hear the slow rolling of the heavy mobile X-ray machine lumbering closer to my door. That sound was the signal to the start of a new day. The technician, with the help of a nurse or other staff member, raised the bed to a 45 degree angle and held my listless body upright to slide the X-ray tray between my back and the bed. The tray, cold and hard against my skin, would stay in place so the technician could take the picture.
The unit would come alive later in the morning as a kaleidoscope of sounds would fill the air: the sticky sound of rubber-soled shoes quickly walking across the polished linoleum floor, the slow and steady ding-dong at the nurses’ call station, doctors, nurses, and technicians exchanging directives and coming in and out of my room to do tests or change the medication that flowed from the IV forest that surrounded me, the public address system paging doctors, the beeping and whirring of the machines that sustained my life, and the small wheels of the cleaning crew carts rubbing against the floor as they went from room to room.
When Sandra left the room, I became anxious. There were few sounds that soothed me to let me know that she was on her way. Amid the cacophony of activity, a loud buzz followed by a distinctive squeal alerted the ICU that the heavy wide doors leading into the unit were opening.
Seconds later, I could hear the zip-zip sound of the electronic hand sanitizer outside of my room dispensing its cleansing foam onto someone’s hands. In would walk Sandra, sometimes alone and sometimes with someone from the waiting room. I would feel at ease and my anxiety would go away.
I knew when evening and night arrived as the sounds of the day subsided and the movement of people in an out of my room decreased. When Sandra was visiting in the waiting room with friends or out at dinner with family, the only person I saw was the night nurse on duty right outside of my door.
Suddenly, the squealing ICU doors and the zip-zip sound of the sanitizing machine made me feel warm and safe as Sandra brought the girls in to say good night followed by the small parade of family and friends that usually included my brother Steve, Rudy, Will and Juanita, and others. The Peraltas would come in signaling the end of the night.
For the next several days, the routine stayed in place. The tracheotomy was working. Respiratory technicians, on doctor’s orders, regularly decreased the amount of oxygen flowing to my lungs, hastening the weaning process. The waiting room became livelier as my condition showed promise and improvement.
To everyone’s amusement, Pancho was the de facto concierge of the waiting room. With his boisterous personality, he answered phones, directed families to the right place, and soothed the fears of others whom also had loved ones in the ICU. The room would erupt with laughter when strangers went to him for directions for gaining access to the unit.
The stockpile of food and drink kept growing. A variety of water, juices, and soft drinks was available to whoever happened to walk in. The food was getting better. One night a parent from Sandra’s school brought in her homemade tacos that were the talk of the waiting room for weeks. Six years later, Miguel, Eddie, Pancho, and Mariano still rave about the Mexican treats. Sandra’s friend Rosa Garcia always made sure that coffee and pastries were ready for those who stayed late into the night.
Sandra steered the ship. The García girls banded together. Shelley and Rudy kept the room laughing. Mr. Peralta, Val, Eddie, Miguel, and the Medinas quietly provided moral support. Mrs. Peralta, Kim, and Rudy led prayers. My recovery was a true team effort. Hope and faith filled the waiting room as July turned to August.
Next Wednesday: Chapter 9 – “August 4th.”