THEY OPENED HIS HEART IN CLEVELAND
Until a few months ago, neither Rob nor I knew our son, Ken (living in Virginia), had a heart murmur. Once we found out, events seemed to spiral forward at ever-increasing speed. As Ken tells it, he happened to mention the problem to a wealthy Norfolk friend, Linda Kaufman, and she called the Cleveland Clinic (the nation’s premier center for heart issues) and, he said, “They called me back within five minutes.”
It turns out Mrs. Kaufman’s husband had had a heart transplant there, and either before or after, they donated so much money to the hospital, that the “Heart Failure Clinic” is now named for them. Thanks to her connections, Ken soon found himself speaking to Dr. Eric Roselli, the leading heart surgeon at the clinic.
Wanting to be there, Rob and I and Ken’s youngest daughter, Juliette, decided to become his Cleveland support team. Meanwhile, Ken’s Melanie had fractured her wrist a week earlier and back home she needed her own surgery.
Events started with good news—two days before Ken’s operation, a camera threaded through a tiny opening in Ken’s wrist showed his coronary arteries to be clear . . . which augured well for his future, suggesting he’ll never need a stent or bypass.
The day before surgery, in a vast family lounge, the four of us briefly met Dr. Roselli himself. In his late forties, he was not only modest and charming, but so handsome I could imagine his nurses having difficulty focusing on their jobs. In that encounter Dr. Roselli told us he’d prefer keeping Ken’s own heart valve if possible, while admitting with a smile that Ken would have to appear in the clinic at five a.m. “while I’m still in bed,” he said. The procedure itself would begin at seven.
The next day, three of us met Dr. Roselli again, this time in a private room. It was near one P.M., meaning the surgery had taken over five hours. “It went well,” he said. “We replaced six inches of his enlarged aorta with Dacron. The biggest job was repairing the valve, because it was frayed around the edges and thin in places and required lots of small sutures. But we got it done.” He smiled. “It will now seat nicely over the aorta.” In passing, he noted that a fellow surgeon had never seen such strong fascia as existed over Ken’s chest; they could hardly cut through it. We assumed that came from all those years of Ken’s swimming the butterfly.
Since Kenny had earlier given him my book, “Higher Than Eagles,” Dr. Roselli admitted to having tried hang gliding briefly in Kitty hawk, rising a few feet off the ground. Odd as it seemed in that setting, we next discussed my terrifying flight as a tandem passenger with Bobby, which seemed to fascinate him. We also discussed his three children, ages 15, 13, and 10, with the ten-year-old boy asking occasionally, “Did you save any lives today, Daddy?” By the end, we learned he was committed to two more surgeries that day, about which he said ruefully, “One will be more complicated than your son’s.”
“Will you have lunch?” I asked, and he said, “I’ll have some power bars. But I do get a good dinner.” We three left in wonder, knowing his day was only a third finished.
Rob aptly described the magnificent facility manned by marvelously capable nurses –and so much technical equipment nobody could have counted all the machinery in just one room in I.C.U. Our first view of Ken was reminiscent of the whole. Besides a surgical cap and oxygen tubes in his nose, tubes and wires protruded from his neck, several from his chest, and at least one each in both arms. We could see a bit of the bandage—which started just below his chin. His thumb rested on a button that delivered doses of fentanyl. “You can press it whenever you want,” the nurses assured him.
Ken tried to speak to us, but while his lips moved, the words were inaudible. Working around the gadgetry that squeezed his legs, I stood for awhile rubbing his feet, right through the nubby surgical socks—a process to be repeated over subsequent days. That night we didn’t stay long.
Each day, from then on, one or more tubes were extracted, until at last he was able to ask for a cup of Starbucks coffee—and actually drink it. (Probably a mistake. Not much sleep that night). Throughout, Kenny was a benign patient, brave and uncomplaining. He just lay quietly, listening to music that flowed from a small device he’d brought with him. Meanwhile, Juliette was the legs of the group, running frequent errands.
Four days after surgery, Ken’s heart went into A-Fib, which frightened all of us, and especially Ken—but not the concerned nurses, apparently, nor Chris, who said by phone, “That’s just a bump in the road.” Later, having been in A-Fib for ten hours, Ken’s heart resumed a normal rhythm. By then we two were headed home.
Two days later Ken was discharged from the hospital to spend two more days in our hotel. From home I spoke to Juliette, who admitted that his first day out they’d gone to an art museum. Rob and I were amazed he’d been able to do it—even, as she explained, walking slowly from room to room. Eventually the two boarded a plane for Norfolk, using a wheelchair between planes. He arrived home exhausted. But now, a day later, he’s newly refreshed.
As is predictable for Rob and me, we had a couple of personal adventures. Most embarrassing was when the two of us were hurrying across the hotel lobby to catch a departing elevator . . . a bit late, as the doors were already closing. To stop the process, Rob popped his cane into the narrowing opening, expecting the impediment to make them re-open, as usually happens.
Too late. Instead of changing their mind, the closing doors grabbed Rob’s cane, and he was left holding one end of a cane, while the business end was clamped tight in the outer elevator doors. So there he stood—with no upward ride and gripping the handle of a useless cane. A man came to help extract his cane from the powerful doors—to no avail. And then came another bruiser of a fellow. Together, the two exerted all their strength, and pried open the doors just enough to release Rob’s weapon.
Soon afterwards, the elevator came back down with a new load of passengers. Unfortunately, the outer doors were now jimmied and wouldn’t open. Knowing the passengers were stuck, the manager hurried over and assured them through a crack that help was on the way. While we watched, horrified, various men spoke reassuring words to the trapped individuals . . . while outside, a mechanic appeared with tools and worked overhead, trying to get the doors to open. Eventually, after much physical effort and lots of soothing talk, the outer doors finally, slowly, retracted.
With that, four people shot out of the elevator as though ejected from a cannon. I suppose they thought the whole process might reverse and capture them once more.
Surprisingly, that elevator remained out of commission until several days after we’d left.
The other unusual event was not our fault. The very large clinic area is served by numerous free—also frequent—shuttles. But not, we learned, on weekends. On Sunday, after a long wait, we were told that the day’s only shuttle had been in an accident and was out of commission. “How will we get to the hospital?” Rob asked.
The hotel’s concierge shrugged. Then he brightened. “I’ll put you in a police car,” he said, which only I heard. With that, he summoned a Cleveland Clinic Police sedan, and the driver hopped out. While a surprised Rob climbed into the front, I had to lower my head and enter the back—with its barred windows and protective shield between me and the driver. Until now I’d never seen such a vehicle from the inside. When we exit, I wondered, Will we be taken for criminals? Still, it felt like an adventure. With our arrival at the hospital, I couldn’t leave my seat--not until the policeman came around to let me out. On our return trip, it was Cop Car once more, and this time Rob rode in back.
Our trip to Cleveland was A to Z strange. Our second and third nights we viewed the debates, only later noting there was never a question about guns. Toward the end of our week came the horror of the El Paso killings--and the next morning we awoke in disbelief to another massacre in Dayton. Now home, today I read in further disbelief a statement from Trump—“There is no political appetite for a ban on assault rifles.” (The polls indicate the contrary.)
Meanwhile, in spare moments I’d been reading the final chapters of Michelle Obama’s wonderful book, by coincidence finished as we arrived home. Her descriptions of the arduous, non-stop duties faced by Barack—who read from a staff-prepared booklet every night until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.--made me think, All you candidates for president should read this book. Most of you would quit.
A side note—I’ve never met so many friendly people as I encountered in Cleveland.
With that, I echo Rob’s observation that the private sector, with private funds, has produced two of the world’s finest facilities—the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic.