Backstroke

6 mn read

Gerry Herman, 66, wrote this piece when he was in his mid-40s about his father who was 71. He explained that at that point ’71 seemed much older than it does now’.

He also said The title of “Backstroke” is kind of a play on words. ‘My dad had a stroke and ended up with a damaged, non-functioning left (arm and) hand. I found that to be strangely ironic because his father, my grandfather, “back” one generation, had his left hand blown off during the war. So I put “back” and “stroke” together and came up with “Backstroke”.’

He felt now was the time to go public with it.

I was never as close to my father as I was during the week that he lay in a coma following cardiac bypass surgery. I sat by his bed in the ICU, holding his hand, stroking his forehead, my tears plopping onto the bedsheets. He was unresponsive, ashen. It looked as if he would just sleep forever.

As the minutes, hours, and days passed, air was pumped into his lungs through a breathing tube that was strapped to his mouth and down his throat, eerily distorting his face. The anguish that I experienced during my father’s stay in intensive care spiralled into an ugly depression that left me depleted and feeling lost for several months afterward.

At 71 years of age, my father was neither robustly healthy nor was he ever really sick a day in his life. He and my mother, had been married for over 50 years, retired since 1992, travelled extensively around the US and Europe, participating in elder hostels, and visiting my sister and her family in South Wales from time to time. I assumed that my father would just plod along forever the way he’d done since I was a kid, going to work, travelling with my mom, planting his backyard garden, tinkering in the basement, and sitting in front of his computer.

And then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, he was going into the hospital for open-heart surgery. Apparently, he had been experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath; an angiogram was ordered by his physician, and within twenty-four hours an emergency bypass procedure was scheduled. His coronary vessels were ninety per cent occluded. The cardiologist labelled him a “time bomb”. He said that a heart attack was imminent and surgery was necessary in order to save his life.

When I received this news, my father was already in the hospital, awaiting surgery. My mother never told me that my father was unwell. For that matter, neither did my father tell me that he was having health problems. Maybe I should have been more cognisant of the clues that had been apparent in the past few weeks – dad did seem very sluggish at Thanksgiving; he also had had several doctor’s appointments recently and had undergone a stress test. I assumed this was all normal for a 71-year-old man. In any case, I had only 24 hours to prepare myself for the next nightmarish month.

I think I was in shock the next morning as my partners at work tried to assure me that this routine procedure would not only go smoothly, it would also add years to my father’s life. Somehow, I wasn’t soothed. My imagination hounded me with images of my father’s chest being cut open and his heart exposed. I felt helpless and unable to protect my father. My heart was aching. I drove to the hospital that afternoon to see him before the surgery, scheduled for 6:00 PM. I got there at around 3:30 and met my mother and brother in the waiting area.

Here we received our first bit of bad news: the operating room had become vacant earlier in the afternoon, and in the hospital’s interest of eliminating O.R. downtime had taken my father into surgery hours ahead of schedule. No one at the hospital had notified us of this decision. We never got a chance to see him before the operation, to touch his hand or kiss him, to wish him well. His heart surgery was well underway as we sat there, angry, disappointed and scared.

In retelling this experience, it is not my intention to malign the medical profession or hospital protocol. The list of malpractice attorneys that I half-heartedly compiled still sits on my desk collecting dust. I, too, am a doctor, although by choosing dentistry as my craft, I have chosen not to deal with life and death issues on a daily basis. However, I digress. My family and I were left in the dark for an entire weekend, without any idea of the complications that occurred on that Thursday afternoon in the operating room. Although we wondered why my father was not regaining consciousness.

The surgeon met us at my father’s bedside in intensive care before he left for the weekend, briefly telling us that everything went as planned and that he would be monitoring the recovery. As my father slept and slept, in neighbouring cubicles other patients were waking up to greet their families. Meanwhile, my mother, brother, sister-in-law and I grew increasingly concerned and anxious. Then, on Monday, the weekend now just a sleepless agonizing blur, a neurologist was called in for a consultation. A brain scan was ordered.  The specialist phoned us in ICU with the results. I remember my mother’s haggard face as she handed me the telephone receiver, unable to concentrate or comprehend what she was hearing.

According to the neurologist’s review of the operating room notes and the results of the EEG, during the surgery, my father experienced a precipitous drop in blood pressure followed by a period of several minutes in which his brain did not receive enough oxygen. Simply put, dad suffered a stroke during the bypass operation. He remained comatose for ten days. When he finally regained consciousness, his left arm was badly weakened and he was unable to move his left hand. It made me furious to hear the cardiologist later label the procedure “a success”.

My father’s father had been an 18-year-old tailor in Poland when his left hand was shattered by a faulty grenade (a “hand” grenade) in World War I. As a young child, I was both fascinated and frightened by my angry, violent grandfather who always hid his left hand in the pocket of his black suit pants. In my mind’s eye, I can see him at the dinner table, struggling silently and alone with his food. (He put ketchup on everything, from his grapefruit half to his chicken soup, and ate clumsily with his only hand.)

One day I was sitting alone with him, watching television. I think he sensed that this curious nine-year-old boy held a morbid fascination of his one-handedness. More likely he was trying to scare me. But he asked me if I wanted to see it. Of course I did! Slowly he brought his left hand out of its hiding place, the deep, dark pocket of his ever-present black suit pants. It was kind of disappointing, actually, and sad. Just a faded, leathery, beige-coloured covering at the end of his arm where his hand should have been, like an old leather baseball sticking out from his sleeve. He held it out there for a couple of moments then he wordlessly put it back into his pocket.

As I watch my father now, struggling with his disability, I am a child again, cowering before my raging grandfather, mystified and bewildered by the tricks that life plays on us. But my father is not my grandfather, not even remotely so.

My grandfather was a bitter, bad-tempered man who was violent to his wife and his sons, who routinely made my little sister and I cry with his angry outbursts, and who went kicking and screaming to his grave.

My father is a gentle, sweet man who lets my mother cut his food for him because he can’t, and who, since his stroke a year and a half ago, I haven’t heard him become dispirited or complain. Not even once.

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