This is part 5 of a 9-part series describing my perspective as my son was diagnosed with and treated for an Atrial Septal Defect. Other installments: Preface, Discovery, Fear, Choices, Anticipation, The Knife's Edge, Just Breathe, Recovery, Home, Epilogue
The strange thing is that even at this point there was no visible indication that our son had anything wrong with him at all. He was just a normal looking 17-month-old toddler. If it weren't for all the tests leading up to this point, there would have been no way to tell what was really going on.
We got up the next morning and drove to the hospital. We started the check-in process, and the waiting began. From one perspective, the entire day can be summed up as a series of waiting rooms each with chairs that were uncomfortable in entirely different ways. My wife's cousin got there while we were in the room getting our son out of his clothes and into a gown. This was the first time she had met our son. I think that made it just that much harder for her having just met this cool little dude and knowing what was coming next.
Eventually they led us to the pre-op room, where our son got to play with some Fisher-Price little people toys (the tractor was his favorite) while we talked to the anaesthesiologist and the surgeon one last time. We were way beyond the point of having any questions to ask. We mainly just told them we were trusting them to do their job and fix his heart. There wasn't much else for us to do, really. We watched as one kid after another went through the doors to the operating rooms. Some went on gurneys, others in the arms of nurses. One little boy who had been through more surgeries already than somebody ten times his age should have was pretty at ease with the process -- the nurse asked him if he wanted to give his mom a kiss before she took him back for his operation. He thought about it for a second, and then "Well, not really." It was cute in that "kids say the darndest things" sort of way, but if you listened real close you could hear her heart breaking. The Children's Hospital Vibe was going to be with us for a while.
Meanwhile, our little guy had no problems at all filling up his diaper while he was waiting. He didn't know it yet, but he was about to get one of the most expensive diaper changes ever.
Finally, it was our son's turn to go through the doors. The nurse that came to get him was extremely nice, and he took right to her, giving her a kiss on the cheek before leaving us. We said our goodbyes, wished him good luck, and walked out into the hallway before the nurse had him out of the room. It's funny how in situations like that your brain just focuses on taking the next step. And the one after that. There was nothing else to do but wait. We had just handed our baby off to a complete stranger so they could do unthinkable things to him. And yet we did it because we had to. This is what being a parent means -- you take into your charge this helpless little thing, and turn it into a human being. That's your job. Sometimes that means you make decisions for that other person that you'd have a very hard time making for yourself. It doesn't matter how much you'd rather it be you than them going into that operating room. You can't go through it for them. No, you have to make the choice to put them through it. And that's not an easy call to make, even when the reality is pretty clear cut.
The simple fact is, we walked out of that room not knowing if we were ever going to see our son alive again. The odds were in our favor, sure -- there was a 99% chance everything would be fine. But that one percent left over is pretty big. If they do 5 surgeries a day, 5 days a week, then 1% means once a month there's a kid that has serious problems. When you're gambling with your kid's life, even 99% odds aren't good enough - but that's what you're given.
Eventually we made it to the waiting room, which seemed like it was miles away. Another room, another set of uncomfortable chairs. My wife's parents were there, as was her cousin. We chatted a little bit about who knows what, but our collective fear was never far from the surface. The whole room was filled with folks going through the same thing -- granted, it wasn't all heart surgeries, there were kids having their knees repaired, and all sorts of other things. But you could just feel it in the air that for each set of parents there, they were going through one of the scariest moments of their lives. It certainly qualifies as that for me.
After we had been there for an hour or so, one of the hospital workers came along to give us a tour of the cardiac intensive care unit where our son would be taken after his surgery. On the way there, we bumped into the nurse that had taken him into the operating room. She was just coming out of the room, and said he went right to sleep. They were just getting him onto the heart and lung bypass machine when she stepped out. She was very nice and positive, but we knew this was the riskiest part of the whole process.
Our tour continued -- we were introduced to yet another waiting room which was shared between the cardiac ICU (CICU) and the neonatal ICU (NICU). Through a couple more doors, and a doorbell on the wall got you into the CICU. There was a sink where you had to wash your hands before visiting your patient. We saw the bed where he was going to be placed. Then we went back to the waiting room.
We hadn't been back for long when the surgeon came in to give us an update. In this kind of situation, all you can do is hold your breath. It's pretty much involuntary at that point. We went into a small conference room and sat down.
"He's doing great."
Next: Just Breathe