The Worst Week

October, 1994.

Lea was once again hospitalized at Fairview Medical Center. She had taken another turn for the worse. Abdominal Surgery Number Three had been in the summer of 1993. Ninety-five percent of her colon had been removed. Abdominal Surgery Number Four was on deck, and I was beginning to wonder what the endgame was going to be with this.

I mean, how much more of Lea’s gut were they thinking about removing? How much more could they remove?

It was early Monday morning, around mid-October. The phone rang at our house. It was my father-in-law, David Covington. He and his wife, Wanda, were living in San Benito, TX. They had retired down there years ago. Lea and I had visited them a year or two earlier during one of Lea’s periods of relative stability, all the way down at the bottom of Texas.

My father-in-law wasn’t an easy man to be around. He was a combat veteran of World War II and Korea. He had been wounded in each conflict, earning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for bravery in battle. He had a short fuse on his temper, and tended to yell a lots of the time. Dave had one bitch of a case of PTSD that he had never sought treatment for.

My mother-in-law was on the fast track to sainthood, in my opinion, for staying with her husband as long as she did.

“Hi Mark. It’s Dave. Say, I just wanted to let you know Wanda’s in the hospital. She’s actually in the same hospital that your wife is in.”

It took me a moment to process that. I was working a stretch of Nights at the MVAMC, and the ringing phone had awakened me.

“Why is she in the hospital. In Minneapolis.” I said. I don’t think it sounded like a question.

“Oh, well, she wanted to see her baby girl, and that’s Lea, you know. So, we drove up here over the weekend. And when we got here, Wanda had a small heart attack. So she’s in Fairview Hospital, on the fourth floor.” Dave may have even chuckled.

Dave was fairly nonchalant about it, but he was like that. When he told me the story about how he earned his Bronze Star, he made it sound as though he had been walking through the park. Except he and his men were being chased by an army of Nazis. Through a minefield. And the Nazis were desperately trying to kill them.

It was no big deal then, and this was likewise no big deal. The doctors wanted to run a couple tests, but Wanda was okay. She was resting comfortably. He thought she’d be well enough to travel back to Texas by the end of the week.

“Let me jump in the shower. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

I met Dave in Fairview’s main lobby. He had visited both his wife and his daughter; Lea knew her mother was in the hospital, two floors below her. Lea’s room was on the sixth floor. Dave hadn’t had any sleep. He wanted to go to his hotel, take a nap and get cleaned up.

“Go ahead. I got this.” I said.

Lea was excited and very chatty when I got to her room. She had already talked to her mom on the phone, and wanted to go see her mom, of course. She had gotten all dolled up; hair, make up, everything. The sixth floor nurses had dropped everything else to help her. Those nurses had  become part of our family  through the multiple admissions and surgeries Lea had had over the previous couple of years.

Lea looked great. I wheeled her and all of her IV pumps and bags of IV fluids down to the fourth floor and Wanda’s room. Wanda also looked great. The fourth floor nurses, who didn’t know Wanda at all, had also given Lea’s mom every possible assistance to help her get all dolled up. The sixth floor nurses had called the fourth floor nurses and had explained the unique situation to them.

Those sixth floor nurses, they were total rockstars.

Lea and Wanda hugged and kissed and talked and talked. It had been Wanda’s idea to drive to Minneapolis. She felt an intense need to see her baby girl before this upcoming surgery. Her gut told her she needed to be here.

This would be my life for the next few days: Work nights at my hospital. Catch twenty to thirty winks of sleep. Shower. Eat something. Go visit my wife and her parents at the other hospital. Repeat.

I informed my boss of this latest wrinkle in the seemingly neverending saga that was my wife’s healthcare nightmare. Marj was actually supportive, verbally, though not enthusiastically so. I was too tired to give much thought to my boss’ reaction. I was pretty sure my life couldn’t get much worse.

On Day Three of my new routine, Wanda’s heart specialist doctor wanted to talk to Dave about his wife’s prognosis. Dave wanted me to be there when he met with the doctor. It turned out Wanda’s condition was much worse than Dave described.

Wanda’s family suffered from heart disease. In short, my wife comes from a long line of people that died young from heart attacks. Wanda was in her sixties. She had serious coronary artery disease, and already had one coronary bypass surgery about a decade earlier. She saw a team of heart specialists on a regular basis in Houston. Dave wanted to stabilize his wife enough to take her back to Houston for treatment.

“Yeah, you could do that,” Wanda’s Minnesota doctor said. “But she probably won’t survive the trip.” The results of Wanda’s angiogram showed an eighty to ninety percent blockage in three of her major coronary arteries. “She needs another bypass, immediately.”

Fairview Medical Center might not be the Texas Heart Institute, but it wasn’t the worst place to go to be treated for heart disease either. The hospital had an eighty percent success rate with their coronary bypass surgeries. Dave asked me what I thought.

“This is a decision for you and Wanda to make. You could call her team in Houston, and see what they think, if you have any major objections. And this isn’t my specialty area…  I haven’t worked in Cardiac Care for… six years. But if this were me, and this was my best option to save my wife, I’d have the surgery here. This is a good hospital. They’ve kept your daughter alive three times already when she could’ve died.”

And they’d be getting a chance at Number Four very soon.

“I’ve got to talk to Wanda…” Dave said.

It was a no-brainer for Wanda. She consented to the surgery. It was scheduled for Friday.

When Friday came, I slept almost all day, which was unusual for me, even when I worked Nights. I called Lea around 5:00 PM. Wanda had been the last case of the day. She went to the OR around 3:00 PM. There hadn’t been any recent updates, but everything had been going smoothly. The fourth and sixth floor nurses had talked to the OR staff, and they would keep everyone in the loop.

Sleep deprived and feeling foggy, I ate some leftovers and went back to bed. I woke up around 11:00 PM and went to work.

At around midnight, I got a phone call.

“Hi Mark. This is Dave. Say, the surgery went well, but then something happened.”

I felt my heart stop beating.

“The doctors haven’t been able to get Wanda’s heart to start beating on its own again. They’ve had her on life support since the end of the surgery…”

“How long has that been?”

“Oh, I think since about six o’clock.”

“Okay,” I tried to get my brain working. “Now what? Do they have any idea what they’re going to do?”

“Well, yeah.” he stammered. “They want to take her off life support. They’ve done everything they can, but Wanda’s heart just isn’t strong enough…  I think I’ve lost my co-pilot.”

I hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. I told my co-workers. And I called my horrible boss, Marj, to let her know I was leaving work and that she needed to come in and take my place.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” she said. Marj walked on the unit about an hour later. She didn’t look pleased. I could care less what she thought or felt, but I briefly thanked her for coming in to relieve me, then drove like a bat out of hell to Fairview Medical Center.

I met Dave in the main lobby one more time. Wanda had been taken off of life support right after we had talked on the phone.

“Wanda’s gone…” he said. He was holding back his tears.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

We hugged each other for a long time. Dave was saying something, I can’t remember what he said anymore. I wasn’t really listening anyway. I was thinking about my wife.

“Does Lea know?”

“No. No. I was waiting for you. I can’t tell her her mother is dead.”

I have no clear recollection of most of what followed. I think Dave went to call Lea’s ex-husband, so he could tell their daughters about their grandmother. I went to the sixth floor. The nurses came running up to me when I got off the elevator. All of them were crying. I hugged them all, they tearfully expressed their condolences.

“What does Lea know? Did you tell her?” I asked the sobbing nurses.

“No. You have to tell her.” one of the nurses said, drying her tears with a Kleenex. Her name was Mary, and of all the incredible rockstar nurses that took care of us, Pretty Mary was our favorite. We called her Pretty Mary because there was more than one Nurse Mary on the sixth floor, and she was the prettiest.

God, give me strength, I thought. I was sure I’d rather die than be the messenger bearing this news. I talked to Lea’s nurses for a moment, telling them how I heard the news and what my horrible boss had done. They knew all about my toxic relationship with Marj.

“Okay…” I said more to myself than anyone else, and headed down the hallway to Lea’s room.

“Oh my God! What time is it? Why are you here? What happened?” Lea said in a rush, the moment she saw me in her room in the dead of night.

“I don’t know any other way to tell you this. Your mom’s heart wasn’t strong enough…” I didn’t have to say anything else.

“Oh, no!” Lea cried. And I held her for the longest time as she started grieving the loss of her mother. “I want to go see her!”

The nurses were ready. They flowed into the room, and hugged Lea. Through their tears they checked all of Lea’s IV bags, helped her change into a fresh gown and robe, transferred her into a wheelchair and brushed her hair.

Dave and I were waiting in the hallway when the nurses rolled Lea out of her room. She cried with her dad for a time. He told her how much Wanda had wanted to see her, and how much Wanda loved her. And then he told Lea how much he loved her. Lea later said that was the most surprising thing that happened that night.

Lea’s daughters arrived at the hospital swiftly. Dave led the way to where Wanda’s body lay in state. The OR staff had cleaned her up, and left her body in the OR suite. No one was able to speak, so I said something appropriate for the situation– what a wonderful gal Wanda was, how much we loved her and how much we were all going to miss her…

The staff told us to take as much time as we wanted. We stayed with Wanda for at least half an hour, maybe an hour. There’s only so much crying you can do at one time. I don’t think the girls wanted to leave their grandmother alone in that room. But the transport crew was waiting to take Wanda’s body to the funeral home, and the cleaning crew still waiting to scrub the OR suite down.

I don’t know how long I stayed at the hospital. I took Lea back to her room after her dad took her daughters home. We talked about her mom.

“I didn’t go see her before her surgery.” Lea said. We were laying in her hospital bed, her head was on my chest. “You usually come in, and I thought I’d wait until you came in. But you didn’t, and I didn’t want to inconvenience the nurses. They’re always so busy…  So I didn’t go see my mom, and now I’ll never be able to see her again.”

Sometimes it’s the things you don’t do that you end up regretting the most.

I know I eventually went home and slept. I may have actually had the weekend off because I don’t have any memory of going back to work until after Wanda’s funeral.

I called Marj on Monday morning, and view of the tragic circumstances, I requested the week off. Marj told me I’d have to talk to her boss, Mary Erdman. I called Mary and explained my situation to her. She already knew what was going on with my wife, but she didn’t know about my mother-in-law. In view of the circumstances, I thought requesting a week off was very reasonable.

“Do really you think you need the entire week off?” Marj’s boss asked me.

“No, I don’t think I need a week off. I need a month off, but I’ll settle for a week!” I replied, and slammed the telephone receiver down on the base without waiting to hear Mary’s response.

This, I thought, means war.

But first, I had to bury my mother-in-law.

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