Going back to my hospitalization…
I always had many people around me, especially in the evenings. On this particular day, I had two of my friends visiting me. My family had decided to go out for the night after I pushed them into doing so. “Please go. Have fun. FOR me,” I told them.
Where did they decide to go? A nearby casino. My family really is amazing.
My friends were sitting next to me— I was particularly close with them and was very excited to have them there that evening. We chatted for a while. I told them the story about how I accidentally snapped at the CT surgeon earlier in the day, because I mistook him for Matt. We talked about the overly zealous guy from dietary services, who was so keen on always getting my order right. I told them that I had argued with the Cardiology fellow and Anesthesiologist about keeping me NPO for a procedure—“It’s not like I ask my dying patients what time they’ve eaten before I emergently intubate them!” Right? (I mean, I’m right.)
After a while, they let me unleash my anger.
Every day, I would have to explain to people that I didn’t care if the food wasn’t the best. I didn’t care if the sun wasn’t shining into my room that day. I didn’t even care about my gown being too big on me. Thank you for reminding me how shitty my situation was (even shittier than I thought) by bringing up all of those shitty little things that I wasn’t even worried about in the first place.
I barely had an appetite, so when I did, I was happy to eat. And you know what else? My hospital wasn’t a restaurant. My hospital was a world-renowned academic institution with some of the most brilliant doctors and nurses that I had ever met. I actually didn’t want my hospital to be a restaurant.
Honestly, though, I was lucky to even be alive to have the option of eating. Even syrup-less pancakes with apple juice were delicious when you were constantly being reminded that you might die that day.
Sure, the sun wasn’t shining into my room and my view wasn’t the best, but when was a hospital room supposed to be a hotel room? Plus, I preferred this sub-par hospital room over a shelf in the morgue. I assure you.
And ah, my favorite complaint: my gown didn’t fit me. What did people want me to do about that? Every time my visitors were dramatically worrying about my gown size, I remembered that old Brian Regan bit. Brian's optometrist once confronted him about his lazy eye, and followed it with, “It’s no big deal. It doesn’t affect your vision or anything. I just thought you’d like to be self conscious for the rest of your life.” Ha.
So others complained for me most of the time, while I just laid there and wondered when they were going to stop being so pretentious and ignorant. When were they going to start worrying about the things that they really needed to worry about? Sometimes, I wondered how they would feel if they were in my place. There is no way that they’d be complaining about the cafeteria food if they were on their deathbed.
I don’t know.
People are strange.
I had always hated perpetual complainers, but throughout this hospitalization, I came to the conclusion that I never wanted a toxic complainer in my life ever again. I remember reading something like, “You have to die once to really learn how to live.” Take that piece of truth to your heart. Swallow it whole. Remember that constantly complaining isn’t going to change anything. Life is so incredible and has the potential to be lived so well. Some definitely need to realize this more than others.
Anyways, back to my story.
It was a good visit with my friends. After the visit, I was basically alone in my hospital room— a rare occasion for me in the evenings. I was feeling very tired that day. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do before going to bed, so I was just staring at the walls. I looked over at my monitor. I glanced at the medications I was on. For once, I decided to turn the TV off (if you know me, you know that I cannot live without background noise— the noisier the better).
And I just sat there.
I then remember my nurse coming in with a phone and telling me that I had a call. He handed me a phone and left the room.
The only thing I remember from the phone call was:
“Blah blah blah blah MATCH blah blah blah HEART blah blah ACCEPT?”
“Yes. I have to go call my mom now.”
And that was the best I could do. I have to go call my mommy now. No “thank you,” no “OH MY GOSHHH!” There were no balloons. There was no party. There was no clown, no party favors, no crowd. My residents and nurses weren’t throwing confetti into my room, either.
I was just comfortably alone. During the happiest moment of my life. I felt pure bliss.
And then, I felt nauseated.
And then, I vomited.
(Just like I always did, since I was a child, when I was nervous about something. Physical manifestations of how I was feeling psychologically, I think.)
I called my nurse and asked for some Zofran and mouthwash.
“There’s a heart!” I told him. He was very excited too, and he told me that he’d come back in a few minutes with a plan.
I had promised my family and closest friends that I would call them the moment I knew that I had a match. But (please don’t hate me), in that moment, I just wanted to sit with myself. It was a quiet 10 minutes. I did some reflecting.
I thought about who my donor could be. Maybe a 20-year-old female involved in an MVC. Perhaps a 26-year-old male who was braindead after a sudden illness. Maybe my donor was that other 30-year-old female who deteriorated after losing a battle with some random genetic condition that she didn’t know she had.
Did my colleagues try to resuscitate this person? Could I have ever potentially resuscitated this person?
Moment of silence. I thanked my donor and their family.
I wrote in my journal, “Thanks for 30 years of service, Heart.” Super cheesy, I know, but I didn’t want to forget how I was feeling in that moment. Grateful that my poor heart had come such a long way with me. Thirty years of craziness.
I found myself smiling. I was going to live. The rest of this was going to be easy. They were going to crack my chest open, take my heart out, put a new one in, put a few vessels together. It wasn’t an extremely complicated surgery (from what I remembered during medical school). I would wake up afterwards. Probably with some pain. I would get discharged in a few days. I would go back to my normal life. Kind of.
I guess one of the hardest thoughts that I ever had (and continue to have) was this: things were never going to be normal normal.
But I would get as close to that as possible.
This was nothing that I couldn’t handle. I had gotten through Organic Chemistry at UCLA. I used to work full-time night shifts while attending an accelerated Master’s degree program in the mornings. I had moved from Los Angeles, CA (population: 10 million) to Cumberland Gap, TN (population: 500) all on my own, without knowing one person, and had beautifully made it through medical school there.
I had once battled a complicated case of appendicitis (not surprisingly, I had been very stubborn about going to the ER then, too) and I had been able to make it out alive. I had actually showed up to Anatomy Lab just three days post-op (I was kicked out by my professor, though … “You need to go home and rest!”)
This was just a minor little speed bump in my life.
My friends would repeatedly remind me that I hated anything that came too easy— we’d joke about how this would happen to me just because I loved challenges.
Everything was going to be okay.
In that moment, I also decided that after I woke up from the procedure, I was going to do *something* with my life. Something special to honor my donor for the rest of my life. It would be something to make that family proud. I didn’t know what, but I knew that I would.
With this inconvenient life event, I would grow. I would learn from it and I would use it, ultimately, to change the lives of a few other people (or perhaps the world, ha).
“Your character is built on how you handle moments of adversity,” I read somewhere.
I think I was handling it well.
After my contemplations, I called my mom and asked her to kindly step away from the slot machines and return to the hospital (that part of my story always makes me laugh). I then proceeded to call the rest of my family and closest friends. I sent a message to my residency Groupchat. I texted some of my attendings.
My nurse brought in some Zofran, some mouthwash, and chlorhexidine for my final ICU basin bath. OR Start Time was scheduled for 2am. Eventually, my family and friends came running into my room. The night float residents and interns barged in to give me hugs. Even the Pulm/Crit fellow (who had been consulted a week ago) came by before leaving the hospital. “I just wanted to say congrats. We were all rooting for you in the MICU. Thank you for being you.”
The Anesthesia resident came in with some paperwork and a hug. A few of my former nurses surprised me with “Congratulations!” and tears of joy. The CT Surgery fellow walked in, excitedly. “I’m so happy for you! Let’s do this!” he said.
“Yeah, okay! But who’s gonna be cracking my chest open in 6 hours?” I asked him.
“I probably will,” he said.
“That’s f&*%ing awesome. And don’t worry about the scars. I’m not one of ‘those’ patients.” I told him.
“You’re not like most patients, Alin.”
We all laughed.
“Oh yeah, speaking of, I’m apparently really difficult to sedate.” I told the Anesthesiologist.
“Yeah, that’s not surprising, but we’ll take care of that.” We all laughed some more.
I was so happy. I’m telling you— pure bliss.
I knew that everything was going to be okay. Life was going to be different, but everything was going to be okay.
To end this post, here are some memories from the day that I got The Call: