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My Brush with Death

We interrupt these regular scheduled blog posts to bring you a brief update.

On Friday, September 18, I was scheduled to have a hernia operation at a nearby surgical clinic. I keep a daily journal (Moleskine large-size, if you must know), and the last paragraph of my entry for the day before — after a lengthy discussion of the latest depressing COVID numbers and the current political situation — reads as follows: Today a great deal of discomfort. Operation tomorrow at 11:00 am. Ready to come home at 1:00 pm. Very efficient! (Hope this isn’t my very last entry! Ha-ha!)

My next entry, covering the following four days, was not written until Monday night. Here is what I wrote next:

My last words on Thursday aren’t so funny after all. Things didn’t go as planned. Not even close. I arrived early, sat in the waiting room for a while, noted the delay in moving into surgery prep, but didn’t think much more about it. (Was it significant? I’m sure I’ll never know.)

Finally enter the surgery and have the operation. Next thing I know I’m in post-op waking up. Or, rather, not waking up. To my mind I’m resting, enjoying a nap, slow to recover and come back to my normal sense. In truth, I’m passing out. My wife is told to go home and wait a while before coming to collect me. The hours pass (not that I can recall much of the period).

The next thing I know I’m fully dressed and in a wheelchair (how I — or someone else — managed that I’ve no idea), many hours behind schedule, ready to go out and meet my wife. But at that point, I pass out again, and paramedics are finally called. I recall their manner: they are kind and solicitous. They tell me their names and what is about to happen, but I’m semi-conscious by this point and recall little. I wish I could remember the names so I could thank them.

Fortunately the hospital is no more than a five-minute drive from the clinic. Even better, I’ve arrived in the late afternoon, at a quiet moment. It seems the usual Friday-night rush has yet to show. Immediately the ER trauma unit leaps into action. It’s just like on TV: all the specialists gather round, trying to figure out what the problem is. It seems chaotic, everyone talking at once, no one really in charge. But in reality it’s the epitome of efficiency — lots of back-and-forth, intense activity followed by moments of calm, so much happening simultaneously, but everyone focused on their area of expertise until the answer is found.

Specialists in ECG, ultrasound, blood pressure get to work (probably others as well). Various staff members try to get a needle into my arm for IV and blood work. It turns out to be exceedingly difficult (I have extensive bruising along both arms to reflect those valiant efforts). I recall telling someone that I’d never had problems providing blood samples at the local Life Labs outlet; in return I’m told that my blood pressure is so low and I’m so dehydrated it’s proving really hard to find a suitable point of entry.

Eventually their efforts succeed, and I can feel the rush of both IV fluid and blood restoring life to my vital organs. There was a point, just before this restoration, when I began to feel nauseated and realize the seriousness of my situation. For the first time it occurred to me I might not make it. I am convinced that if I’d been sent directly home from the clinic, my usual stoicism would have resulted in death.

The gentleman using the ultrasound finds the answer: a large quantity of blood (1–2 liters) sloshing around in my abdomen, in places where it shouldn’t be. Meanwhile, the ER doctor palpates the bandages covering my incisions. They immediately become engorged with blood (that was pretty disconcerting). But where exactly is the blood, and what is its source? I am sent for a CT scan, and then another, to clarify the picture.

Eventually an answer is discovered and a second operation is scheduled. I recall some back-and-forth about the timing for that operation, but the message was loud and clear – it had to be performed ASAP.

At that moment my son and daughter arrive and are miraculously admitted into the trauma unit. It helps, I assume, that my daughter is a nurse and can speak the lingo. It is an emotional moment as I’m wheeled away up to the OR. My daughter has the presence of mind to take a selfie with me (this is 2020, after all). I suppose they were thinking like I did, that it might be their very last opportunity. They tell me later how pale I was because of the loss of blood.

Throughout all this, I am shepherded by Brian, an ER nurse, who doesn’t leave my side, keeps talking to me to keep me conscious, takes me up and down the elevator for the CT scan and stays until that very last moment, now in the second operating room (about 10:30 pm according to my reckoning). I never got the chance to find out his last name or to thank him. He was a lifesaver and I will be in his debt forever.

The doctors tell me what they’re about to do (there seem to be three options as to the situation and what procedure they will follow). I thank the lead surgeon and we shake hands; he says, “It’s what we do.” (At least, I think those were his words; things were pretty hazy by that point.)

I wake up later in the ICU. I hear the next day that, after the operation, my family had been called right afterward to let them know the issue had been successfully resolved. The cause of the problem, it appears, was the laparoscope nicking a blood vessel on exit, resulting in a trickle of blood that accumulated over time, and not picked up because of the slow speed of flow. It turns out even this explanation is not so clear-cut or definitive. The doctor who performed the initial surgery tells me later that he’s not really sure how it occurred, but it had happened only once before in ten years, that my situation was one of those anomalies, one in a thousand.

My wife brings me some essentials the next morning, most important of which turns out to be my cellphone. I can now communicate with the outside world (my sister and brother, who live far away, most notably). And then, as I lie awake in the darkness on Saturday night/Sunday morning — my previous waking/sleeping regime having been so disrupted — I manage to connect to BBC Radio 3. The program is Michael Berkley’s Private Passions (, an interview with artist Heather Phillipson, In it, among many tunes, is highlighted Alicia de Larrocha playing the slow movement from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, one of my favorite pieces of music. Despite everything I’d been through, it is a magical moment, and I am transported to another time and place (at least in my mind).

So, after all is said and done, what are the take-aways from this close encounter with mortality?

First, take nothing for granted. Every male friend of a similar age who came to hear of my impending surgery had the same response: they’d already gone through it, it would be quick and easily done and I’d be back to normal and on my feet within days. Only my wife, to her credit, had the presence of mind to ask about passwords and the location of key documents, etc. In the end, the system worked as it should to keep me alive, but things could have ended far worse.

Second, the importance of teamwork. There’s nothing like an ER team in action, each person knowing their task and performing it with only the slightest direction, working on a common cause — to save a life in a moment of utmost time-sensitive stress. The Canadian health-care system may have its challenges (and, like systems around the world, dealing with pandemic and an uncertain future), but in this domain of emergency care it deserves great praise. And no one has to worry about the cost involved.

Third, I feel very fortunate and am left with nothing but gratitude for those involved. I have a loving wife who paid close attention to what was going on and didn’t hesitate to make all the essential calls. I have a daughter who knows how the medical care system operates, and that hospital in particular. I have a son who was able to step away from his professional life on short notice. Both lived close enough to our home and were able to make their way over to the island to provide love and support. Not everyone is so blessed. Finally, when things go sideways (or downwards, in this case), the system works.

There are other conclusions I could reach — about the pain management regime or the quality of hospital food, for instance — but those are best left to another day.