Never Tell Me the Odds.

My father's angioplasty and possible stent placement did not go as well as it could have. I did my best to downplay the severity of it around my folks, treating it as casually as the two fillings I had put in on Saturday. These days, opening up a blocked artery really is as routine as dental work. But it's hard to get past the fact that they're going in to his heart and poking around, especially now that he's 80. Something that failed three times 18 years ago probably wasn't going to work now, but despite the odds we had to try, knowing the only other alternative left would be bypass surgery.

I dropped my folks off at the hospital bright and early on Monday morning before going to work, asking my mom to call the second she had an update. I was busy enough with a slew of meetings that I didn't dwell on my fears, but when four hours had gone by and I still hadn't heard anything, I left a message on my mom's cell phone, which wasn't likely to be on in the hospital, not that she ever leaves it on. She didn't call me for another half hour, at which point I had to juggle a sandwich and fish my cell phone out of my right jeans pocket with my left hand, since my right was covered in mayonnaise.

“They couldn't do it.” she said, when I asked how things went. The blockage was too severe, and in a forked part of the artery close to his heart. To my surprise, they were recommending a triple bypass. Without surgery, my mom said the doctors only gave him five months. 18 years ago, one doctor gave him about 3-5 years without the operation, but he beat those odds. Now that he's older, the estimate is much shorter, and possibly more accurate.

My mom explained that they were ordering more x-rays and scans to fully assess the situation, and that the surgeon was young and confident, saying there was only a 1% chance of failure. I remained calm and matter-of-fact about everything, even though I was realizing what those 5 months would count down to, or what that 1% would mean to my father. Some parts of my brain started accessing a rough draft of a eulogy it had composed when my dad took ill with a bad shoulder infection a little over a year ago. Some women from my office arrived at the dock where I had been having my lunch, so I no longer had the luxury of a private conversation with my mother. She said they'd be there a few more hours for tests, and also because they had to keep weight on his leg where they'd made the incision for the angiogram and attempted angioplasty. So I went back to work, went to another meeting, and tried to do work, occasionally finding myself researching surgical procedures on the internet.

After work, she called to tell me they were still doing some paperwork and I'd probably have time to go to the gym. As soon as I finished parallel parking my car in front of the gym, my phone buzzed. Frantic to get it, I ended up dropping my car keys into my gym bag. My parents were ready to come home. It took a few minutes to find those keys, but soon I was on my way. My father, impatient and likely agitated, was already outside the hospital, his normal ten paces ahead of my mom as he looked for me. He was quiet most of the ride home while I discussed the situation with my mom, at one point muttering “How long do I want to live? What do I have left to do?” I reminded him that there were people who might want a little more than five months with him, and that other people had been through successful operations, such as one of his older sisters.

So, as it stands now, he's slowly coming around to the idea. We're looking tentatively at a March 22nd operation. They'll use a minimally invasive procedure, which means he won't have a large incision and they won't crack open his rib cage like they did with my aunt. As horrifying as it is to contemplate operating on an 80-year-old man, I take some hope from the fact that medicine has come a long way in the last 18 years, and this procedure is a lot more routine now. What once took six hours can be done in three, and if all goes well he should be home in less than a week. If all goes well, this could get him another 7 years, which is certainly better than 5 months, especially if they're 7 years without pain, without that tightness in his chest that he used to only get when he walked fast or exerted himself. Now if he eats dinner too fast, or goes down to the basement and walks back upstairs, it hits him just as hard.

There's definitely a risk, and it's definitely a gamble. He also has blockage in his carotid artery, which they want to work on at the same time. My mom is a little nervous about two surgeries at once, but our research shows this to be a fairly common practice as well. On Tuesday, I had to give one of the supervisors at my office a ride to work since she lives in my town and didn't want to leave her car in the parking lot while she went on a business trip. In making small talk, I of course discussed the thing I'd been hit with the day before, and she told me her mother had a bypass when she was in her 80s, and lived well into her 90s. There is hope.

It's tough. I can see my dad's fear. He was pacing and standing around all through 24 on Monday night. He and my mom have both had a lot of questions, and I've done my best to find answers online, almost all of which correspond to what the doctors have told them. Back in college I was hit with the reality that my father wouldn't be here forever, and was blessed with an extra 18 years. Maybe it's selfish to want 7 or more, but that's human nature. I can't think about the odds, or how my luck might affect him. I can't focus on composing eulogies. I find myself using car analogies to help the retired mechanic understand the situation. The doctor told him that, in a way, he's fortunate, because he has something they can actually fix. It doesn't have to be a terminal illness. There are risks, but it is treatable.

I'm doing my best to keep life moving normally, to focus on what's ahead. We talk about afterwards, after he recovers, and his plans beyond that. We talk about him being able to play his instrument and march in parades again, which the doctor said he'd be able to do with the problem fixed. He's still talking about taking a trip to Florida with my mom to catch the Yankees Spring training, something they did about five years ago for about three days, because my dad never liked to be away from home for long. So there's this weird balance of staying positive and making plans, while underneath trying to emotionally prepare for that which we can never be prepared. I pray my dad's luck is better than his son's. No matter what happens, we've all got a long road ahead of us....


Blogger Lyndon said...

Keeping my fingers and toes crossed that everything works out for you and your family buddy!!

What do doctors know about time frame anyway. They told my neighbor that his mom had 3 months to live. She went on to have 5 very active years :)

3/11/2010 2:14 AM  
Blogger Lorna said...

I'll be thinking of you and your family, and hoping everything goes as it should.

3/11/2010 7:40 PM  
Anonymous Krispy said...

Best wishes, keep your chin up. Heart surgery becomes more and more exact every year. Twenty years ago, I went to the hospital with my uncle and aunt for my uncle's angioplasty. During the procedure they tore one of the major artories coming out of the heart and had to rush him into emergency open heart surgery. They ended up bypassing five blood vessels. We were sure he'd not make it through the procedure, but he came out of it like a champ. The doctors were amazing. And that was an emergency procedure twenty years ago. The point I'm trying to make is, a planned procedure with today's technology is probably a good thing. I know it's a worry, but try to focus on the 99%.

3/11/2010 9:15 PM  

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