Heart Surgery In America: Epiphany


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Editor’s Note:

This book is NOW over 3/4 written,

It is a rendering of the reality, sometimes sad and at times funny, emotional, and clinical vignettes of the many different aspects relating to open heart surgery- from the perspective of a perfusionist. This book is a commentary not only on the intricacies of heart surgery, but openly engages and describes the peaks and valleys of ethical or moral successes and failures.  It highlights moments where lives are saved by the strength of the character of the team- as well as surgical strategies undone by flaws imbued in the highly trained individuals living and breathing this volatile work environment.

Here is an Excerpt from the book 🙂

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As a junior in High School, I needed to find a way to make money, as it wasn’t going to be coming from an allowance or stipend from my mom or dad.  Being in a university town, that prospect wasn’t going to be all that easy, I had already promised myself I would never work in a fast-food restaurant again, and most of the options out there put me into direct competition with Purdue University students, who themselves needed some income for food, beer, and social events.

As a rule of thumb, (no pun intended here), I hitchhiked everywhere I went, or walked halfway there in most cases.  My mom wouldn’t let me use her car, and the option to buy one wasn’t near any table I was sitting at.  So I took whatever rides I could get, though it was humiliating if that ride happened to come from a parent of one of my friends, worse yet- the actual friend themselves, or the absolute worst of the worst… my dad.  That happened a couple of times, and yes, I felt a little bit like one of those misfit street urchins straight out of a Charles Dicken’s’ novel.  He would pull over; I would run to his car with that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, knowing that my actions had placed me on the wrong side of some sort of line reserved to separate the upper class from the have-nots and their ilk.  The act of hitchhiking raised a social red flag, and reducing yourself to that level reflected questionable navigation skills bordering on sinful misguidance regarding social decorum and etiquette.  It was a blue collar solution to a problem rarely encountered in a white collar world, and in that process I felt that I had diminished my parents a bit.  I should have just walked the entire way to wherever I was going, but I was too impatient for that, and yes, I was a risk taker.

Nevertheless, I got in the car and casually said “hi” as he asked me where he was taking me.  The softness in his eyes always evident, they had been that way since the divorce sometimes misty but his gaze was direct and unapologetic, his manner never revealing anything but the fact that he was salvaging his wayward son yet once again.  Of course I tried weakly to pass it off in the guise of playful exploration, an expression of exuberance and the vitality of youth, all neatly wrapped in an imaginary gust of a freshly minted Hemingway adventure.  I’m pretty sure that didn’t sell well.  It was my façade, Dad knew it.  Anyone could see the glaringly obvious; that I simply could not afford a vehicle of my own and was hiding my embarrassment.

Image was everything to me at that point in my young life, and maintaining it, with peers who were clearly well heeled and further up on the food chain than myself- was difficult at best, hence the effort to improve my financial lot, or at least the appearance of it.  The craziness of it all?  I actually saw myself as a financially disadvantaged young man, in an upper class cauldron, where the only reason I was swimming in these rare waters was due to the academic esteem my parents held as professors.  That being said, both my parents were being considerably less compensated for their PhD’s than their engineering counterparts.  So yeah, the houses were smaller, as were the yards, and the cars weren’t quite as cool, but the intellectual currents tended to flow a little higher in the stratosphere at our house.  There was German discipline and a certain level of Spartan strictness applied to my daily routine.  There was to be no TV (my mother refused to own one back then), listening to music at any time was fair game and encouraged, working hard all day in the yard or preparing the house for later festivities was the weekend routine, and ultimately, self-discovery and introspection were not lost on me.

So I staked a path across the bridge over the Wabash River, to the “other side of the tracks” and looked at what was out there to be had.  Coincidently, at the same time, I was taking an extracurricular course to become an emergency medical technician (EMT) at a local vocational college which ultimately planted the seeds that funded this entire journey as well as these pages.  Those walks and hitchhiked rides across the bridge, well, it wasn’t water I was really crossing.  That short trip of a mile and a half or so, was basically lifting the shades to a cultural window that was there for the last 17 years, and cleaning the grime away made the picture on the other side not look as cloudy and dirty as was previously advertised.  It wasn’t a new home-away-from-home, but it made me realize I wasn’t alone.  A lot of these neighborhoods weren’t real pretty, and there were other kids out there without cars.

It’s about a four mile walk to the hospital I was heading to, and I was going to work a 3-11 shift three times this week.  My High school classes ended at 2 pm, so I kind of had to hustle a bit to get there on time (hence the thumb thing).  There are many coincidences in life that may or may not be what they seem in past reflection, and certainly tend to go unrecognized in the moment.  Oddly enough, the most compelling was to reveal itself some 45 years or so later, as I would be returning to this same institution (in a newer building- but the same entity), dealing with what ironically amounts to be the same thing, management of shed blood.  As a janitor, it meant (within the next few hours) I was going to be paged on the overhead loudspeaker system, to come clean up a mess in the emergency room (ER), and years later, as an American Board Certified Clinical Perfusionist (CCP), my future profession would be to ensure the integrity of the same blood- and prevent it from hitting the floor to begin with (ostensibly at least).  So blood preservation, patient care, and this particular hospital, would have an oddly mixed commonality in my life, and although it wasn’t clear to me at this moment, I was soon to have a youthful encounter that in terms of clarity, was to be a souls’ primal hint and recognition of its’ true destiny.

Being a janitor for a hospital at the age of 17 isn’t all that glamorous.  Holding a mop is a scarlet letter for your station in life, but it doesn’t exactly color you red, it paints you invisible to all except your own kind, or those that have their own agendas as to why they choose to acknowledge you.  Typically, it’s because you are young, vibrant, strong, and offer banal and carnal promise to those whose’ eyes you turn.  There was a lot of that in hospitals back then, and even now while somewhat more constrained and harnessed, that frenetic undercurrent of primal tension is very much alive, and becomes the source of discordance, unbinding team unity for the most part whenever it rears its’ overeager and energetic head.  In other words, prime rib is prime rib regardless of where you work.

As I gathered my, broom, mop bucket, sprays, scents, and whatnot, I started pushing my janitors’ cart down the hall, in retrospect, had it not been for my lack of gristle and patchy beard, I’m sure I resembled a modern day homeless person, talking to, shoving, and guarding the clutter of all my worldly possessions in a rusty supermarket shopping cart.  My immediate mission was to go from nursing station to nursing station, on all four hospital floors, pick up their trash, and shove it down an old garbage/linen chute, and later go to the sub-basement and burn it all in a furnace room that looked like the gateway to hell.  It probably did have “Dante” written all over it, worse yet, the stuff going into that inferno was putrid, organic, and most likely misplaced parts, pieces, and excised pernicious humors of God knows what, from God knows whom?

It was a dispassionate process for me.  I tried not to overthink it, a protective mechanism no doubt to avoid getting involved, emotionally or intellectually.  Either would have been counterproductive, potentially precluding me from being able to function in any sort of clinical capacity, and more importantly, wouldn’t have changed a thing.  Aside from recalling it for the purpose of this story, it was just part of the job, one that exists today albeit with a shinier job description and title, along with newer and more stringent rules and regulations.

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