Somewhere between hope & despair lies the hospital waiting room

Qarnita Loxton recalls the agony of waiting for her husband to come out of the operating room after undergoing heart surgery

10 December 2017 - 00:00 By Qarnita Loxton

You know, the heart unit at the hospital is such a place. It's only been a few days, feels like a lifetime. And it's not even me with the hospital ID on my arm. 
What happened? Everyone asks. Luck, I say, and there is truth in the spin. It's not like a heart attack got us here. It was just a month or two of heartburn wedged in between normal life.
But then came Wednesday, the day the world started to tilt. The day our clever GP did a stress ECG, and figured out that the heartburn was linked to his heart.
Thursday was the cardiologist's turn to pronounce; he needs an angiogram, maybe a stent.
Scared already, we checked him into the heart unit, the morning after a night of wild lightning and thunder as unexpected in the Cape drought as a heart problem in a strong, fit man.
I waited. And when the theatre doors swung open too soon I knew. No stent, he would need a bypass operation instead. The nurse put the tissue into my hand before the doctor spoke to me. I didn't use the tissue, not then.
It's going to be OK. It's what I told them, what I tell him, I tell them all. Every day I write the words in black Sharpie on my wrist, on the spot where I can feel my own pulse.Nothing has changed, his heart is still his heart, but now that we know everything is different. He stays at the hospital and we wait.
Monday's surgery is postponed.
Finally, Tuesday. Shaved and prepped, veins marked and body drugged, it is again his turn on the side of the theatre doors where I cannot go, where only the surgeons and their sisters are with him.
I wait. This time I have sisters, a daughter, a WhatsApp line choked full of messages to wait with me. My neck is a nervous tic checking the theatre doors. I'm too afraid to go for tea. I don't want the rock star heart surgeon or the anaesthetist, the guy who should be called God, to come out before they are supposed to. That is my nightmare.
Somewhere on the other side of those doors, his heart is being stopped, his lungs don't breathe, his blood is pumped by a machine. His heart is in someone else's hands. So is mine. Our children's, his mother's, siblings. But I am the one that the surgeon and the anaesthetist will look for if they come out of those theatre doors too soon.
It's going to be OK. I remind myself, watch my pulse.I wait. Strangers cry together with relief, or without, as their rock stars bring good news or bad news or no news. Nearly all women in the waiting area. All men in the theatres, the wards, the ICU. We crane to see if the guy on the trolley wheeling past belongs to us. We trade stories. We know What Happened, but we don't know each other's names. We thumb our phones, read the same pages of new books, interrupted by each swing of the theatre doors.
Six hours after I said goodbye a nurse tells me that it he is OK, that he will be out soon. It is then that I cry. His heart is again where it should be.I don't cry when I see him wheeled past me into the ICU. Silent, ventilated, tubes and pipes creeping out of his body, the constant beeps of the machines, the stunned shock of those with me who see him.
In another time I would have cried. But he reminds me too much of my mother, less than a year ago; it is exactly how she looked for a month before she died. The memory is sharp, it makes me too heartsore to cry, knowing where things can go.
Instead I help my child who can cry. I know how she feels. And I know that just because you want things to be OK, doesn't mean they will be. It is luck. And it changes faster than you can rub the Sharpie marker off my wrist.
I scurry when the nurse says Mrs-So-and-So you can come inside. I stand next to him in the ICU and I wait. There is nowhere to touch him.
I wait.
His eyes blink open. Out of focus. Cloudy with meds and gummy with whatever it is they put on his lids.
"You're here, dearie. You did good, the op is over, we are on the other side," I say, close to his face. I've found a spot to touch on his forehead. I will my strength into him. He sees me! Nods. His mouth twists at the pipe down his throat. We have far to go.
The heart unit at the hospital. It's such a place. No one really wants to be here, but everyone knows there is a worse place to be.

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