Fight for your life

because you still want to give so much

The next five days were spent in the cardiac surgery ICU (CSICU). I would arrive at 9am, go home for lunch and to let the dog out, come back and spend the afternoon with him, at about 5:30pm go home to eat dinner and to let the dog out, and then spend the evening with Jeff until I got kicked out at 9pm. Rinse and repeat. Jeff slept most of the time because he was still under the heavy influence of the anesthesia, but when he woke up, I wanted him to know that I was with him. We also had work to do. He had to blow slowly into a spirometer to open up his lungs and to strengthen them. He was supposed to do 10 iterations every hour – I was happy to be the spirometer police! Otherwise, I wanted to keep him company, keep his lips moist, and just watch him sleep in wonderment at how he was still here with me.

On the second night, his oxygen level fell, and he had to be put on a breathing machine (not a ventilator). They kept his oxygen level at 14 for a while. Jeff complained about falling into a deep sleep, only to wake up feeling like he had stopped breathing and had to catch up. That’s a scary feeling – almost like you might drown. He asked me to keep an eye on it, and to make sure that the staff took this seriously. So I watched him closely while he slept, making sure that he didn’t stop breathing, and when the pause between breaths seemed a bit too long, I was ready to leap out of my chair.

Slowly, he got better, slowly, he was in less pain. The staff in the CSICU at Hillcrest Hospital were amazing, and we are so grateful to them for the care they provided. Sometimes I would arrive in the morning, and I would see a huge improvement. One morning, he was sitting in a chair! After lunch one day, he had the NG tube removed! (that is another saga because it had to be put back in… ugh). Another time, he no longer needed oxygen! These were not little victories – they were big ones. We were able to graduate from CSICU without post-surgery complications. He was still being infused with a lot of medication, but boy was it great to be put into a regular hospital room. I would still keep the 9am to 9pm schedule, but now there was desk where I could set up my work. And there was a couch where I could take a cat nap. And there was a door so Jeff could sleep with less interruption.

As I sat there and watched his body expand and contract with each breath, I was moved by his will to survive, to advocate for himself. As is usual with me, I extended this observation as a metaphor in my own life. Jeff’s joy, his zest for life, the way he greets each day and conquers it, all these things I watched for nearly 12 years of our marriage made sense to me. He fought for himself. I wondered, why don’t I fight for myself? The outside world sees an accomplished woman, perhaps a person with numerous talents, successful on life’s stage. I have the right schooling, many letters after my name, etc. etc. But despite my confidence in the things I know, my will to succeed, and to achieve tasks at the highest level possible… sometimes, I just let things happen to me. And I’m not talking about the right way, as in the Biblical sense of “Thy will be done.” Or the wisdom of “this is out of my control.” I mean the psychological resignation to everything being so hard. Instead of seeking control where I can, saying no when I need to, and actively finding joy in the tasks ahead, I was living a life where everything felt difficult. And in general, even when things were so good, I couldn’t enjoy it to the fullest because wondered when the next shoe was going to fall.

Deep underneath this weird coexistence of high achievement on the outside and internal resignation was a lot of turbulence during my childhood and adolescence. Knowing this, I got frustrated often because I am now in my forties, and I felt that I should be over it. But it was really in watching Jeff fight for his life and stand up for himself that I understood how I was to live the rest of my life. I needed to fight for my life, for the gift of joy and peace. It’s one thing to fight and to lose. It’s another not to fight at all.

During the first day of Jeff waking up from anesthesia, we caught up on what happened after we parted ways in the ER. What astounded me and still moves me every time I think about it is what Jeff prayed just before going under for surgery. He prayed that if it is God’s will that he would survive this surgery so that he could see my face again and to spend many years more with me. I was speechless when he told me – I don’t know if I would have had my wits about me to utter such a beautiful prayer. I also realized that underneath this goofy and joyful layer of this person who never lost touch with the child inside, was also this person who loved me so much, in ways that I could not even comprehend before this incident. He wanted to live not only for himself, but also for us. He fought not only for his own life, but for our life together. As I learned about his last prayer, I grew up even more – we must fight, not only for a meaningful life, but also because we still have so much to give back.

NYC fall 2019, TCO tour.
Things quickly turn silly. Hard to take a normal photo…

The world’s most valuable clot

to plug a giant hole

Dr. Rizzo is a man of few words. After the surgery, he just said, “the surgery was successful.” I’m like… how? what happened? I need details! I asked him, “what held the rupture together?” He said that the hole was the size of a baseball, but the torn fringes were inflamed and swollen, which helped to reduce the size of the hole. But it was really the giant blood clot that formed and stuck between the front side of his spine and the aneurysm that kept the plumbing intact. Jeff had been on borrowed time because it would not have held for much longer. “Actually, here, I’ll show you the photos.”

Later I would tell Jeff that seeing his empty abdominal cavity and the front side of his spine brings new meaning to our marital intimacy. The photos were incredible. His aorta was completely shredded, tattered. Then Dr. Rizzo showed us the new synthetic aorta that would be a part of Jeff’s vascular system for the rest of his life. It was a gigantic, Y-shaped single piece that graced the back of Jeff’s abdominal cavity from top to bottom, and into his hips. Incredible. “Oh,” Dr. Rizzo casually added, “he didn’t need any blood.” Jeff went through one of the most invasive vascular surgeries around and didn’t need a single drop of blood. Miracles continued to pile up.

As we caught up, I saw a bed rolling by. It was Jeff. After they set him up in his room, Dr. Rizzo got up and said that I could follow him into the CS ICU. There was staff transferring all his bags of fluids and tubes to the ICU equipment. Jeff was still under anesthesia, intubated, hooked up to so many things. I was afraid to touch him because I didn’t want to mess anything up. I sheepishly touched his left hand and found it to be so swollen. I looked at his face and realized that his entire body was swollen. Dr. Rizzo read my expression and told me that they had to pump him full of fluids for the surgery and that the swelling would go down in time. The night attending at the ICU was a very nice female doctor who said that he would sleep all night, and they would watch him. She encouraged me to go home… the ICU closes to visitors at 9pm anyway. I knew he was in good hands, so my friend drove me home.

I slept soundly but woke up early, around 5 am. I thought immediately, “what if he doesn’t wake up?” The nurse had given me the ICU’s phone number, and I called. They told me that he did well during the night and that I should come around 9am when they hope to have completed the extubation. It felt like forever from 5am to 8:30am – I just couldn’t wait anymore and drove to the hospital. When I arrived, they were still extubating him. I kept a little distance because I didn’t want to get in the way of the staff. There was a lot going on!

The same attending from the night before walked over by my side and told me that he was already breathing on his own, and that he looks really good. As I conversed with the doctor, Jeff must have heard my voice. Jeff’s nurse turned around and said, “he wants you to come over.” He can hear me! As I walked closer to the ICU bed, I saw his right arm, gesturing me to come to him. He is awake and alert!! When I got to his bed, I saw that the tube was still down his throat, and he was in a lot of discomfort. He held my hand and tried to spell something. I was so nervous that I would not quickly understand him and that might frustrate him more. “G”… “A”… “G,” he wrote the letters in the palm of my hand. “Gag?” He nodded affirmatively. “You have a tube down your throat. it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. But they are taking it out.” It didn’t matter what I said. He still looked so miserable.

It is so hard to watch your loved one suffer. I had never watched an extubation process – it looked completely miserable. It seemed like forever, but the tube was finally out, and he was trying to talk to me. He can talk! he can form sentences! All the things that we take for granted in our daily lives, I was so relieved and grateful for them.

Those first few hours of him being awake, me being by his side watching him breathe with wonder are some of the most precious memories I will carry with me for the rest of my life. We had passed the most harrowing part of the journey, but we were not clear of all dangers. I knew that we needed to continue to pray to avoid post-surgery complications. The hard part may be just beginning. I was so grateful that I was ready for anything.

On the other side of the OR

The waiting game…

Once Jeff was taken to the OR, our stories diverged. Here is my side of the story.

I have never lost anyone very close. I have been very fortunate that way. Sure, all four of my grandparents have passed away, but I was not very close to them, with me being here in the United States since 9 years of age, and them being half way around the world. We did not make the trip to Korea very often, so we lived isolated in the U.S. as Korean immigrants, and also isolated from family that was already so small to begin with. So no, I have never been really close to anyone who have passed.

So when Jeff went into emergency surgery, it was the first time I had come so close to such danger. I did not know what to do with myself. “Just wait from home. You live so close. They will let you know when the surgery is done,” the ER nurse told me. And it’s true – there wasn’t much of a waiting area at the hospital. And remember, I was bawling loudly, which was not a pretty sight. So I managed to get myself home, wailing into the phone intermittently while talking to my best friend and to Jeff’s sister. Sitting on the couch at home, I continued to cry, and I felt strange. Is this really me? Is this really happening right now? If I keep crying, does that mean that Jeff isn’t going to survive? Get it together!

What scared me was that the aneurysm had already ruptured and we didn’t know what was containing it. Whatever was holding the plumbing together could give out at any moment and then he would bleed out in a matter of seconds. Could everything be held together until the Cleveland Clinic surgeons could get to the aorta? My mind was reeling, but I knew that there was nothing I could do. I had never felt so helpless while desperately wanting a specific outcome. The situation felt like a coin toss, but that was not what how I viewed life. I knew that God was in our midst, and that He wanted me to turn to Him.

I started to pray but could not find the words. I repeated, “dear God, help us, help us” about a thousand times. I knew that I needed the help of people who could pray for us. I needed warriors. So I started to go down the list of contacts on my phone and texting everyone whom I knew would kneel and pray for Jeff. Copy and paste. Copy and paste. over and over again. Positive responses started to flood my phone. I kept myself busy expanding the prayer circle, and I knew that my fellow Christians would lift a prayer so loud that all the angels would hear them. This is an emergency! Please pray for us now!

Jeff and I parted ways in the ER just before 3pm. At around 5pm, I saw Hillcrest Hospital calling me. I panicked. “This surgery is supposed to take 4-6 hours. Why are they calling me 2 hours in?” I stared at the phone and plopped down on the floor because my legs were shaking. Jeff had not survived it, I thought. He bled out… whatever was holding it failed in the end. Shaking all over, I answered the phone. “hello?”

“Is this Anna?” yes… “This is nurse___ from Hillcrest Hospital, and I am calling to give you an update on the surgery. They started the surgery about an hour ago, and it is going really well. Jeff is doing beautifully. You should plan on coming to the cardiac surgery ICU waiting room at around 8pm.”

What a relief. Thank you, God!! I was so happy and… there are no words! In a span of 20 seconds, I went from complete despair at the thought of losing Jeff to an exhilarating high. I knew that we were only 1 hour into the surgery and not completely out of the woods, but I was overflowing with optimism. And then I was super annoyed. Why would you scare me like that by calling me and leaving me in suspense? Haven’t you heard of texting?

After the call, I was bursting with energy I didn’t know what to do with. What am I going to do for three hours? I started to clean the house to keep myself busy. Wiping everything down, scrubbing the bathrooms, vacuuming, putting things away… It was probably my way of regaining some control in my life. Just after 7pm, the nurse texted me this time to let me know that the surgery was progressing very well!

I had asked my friend to take me back to the hospital because I needed company. She arrived around 7:40pm and we left the house to see Jeff. I was still so giddy and high from the rollercoaster ride that I think I scared my friend. It was so good to have her by my side, just talking about random things while waiting for the surgery to end. At about 8:30pm, Dr. Rizzo came to the CSICU (Cardiac Surgery ICU) waiting room to give us the update.


How big is a baseball?

It depends on the situation

I will never forget the moment when the ER doctor rushed back into our room. He just started talking. There was no easing into the topic. He said “there is a baseball sized aneurysm in your aorta.” He reached over Jeff’s abdomen and made a baseball sized air-ball with his hands. He then pressed Jeff’s abdomen with his fingers and said that he could not feel a pulse where he normally should. “I’ve already called the vascular surgeon, and he is on his way.”

Wait, what? I know an aneurysm is bad, but he’s sitting up and talking to us. Couldn’t you repair the aorta? I guess there is going to be… a surgery? Okay, calm down – Jeff is still sitting up and talking to us, and there is no better place to have an emergency than in a hospital. Okay, the surgeon is on his way, and we will get this fixed. My job until then? Keep his blood pressure down.

At this point, we knew that all the weekend obligations had to be canceled. “Jeff, you just relax and stay calm and think of happy things. I’ll make the calls.” I stepped out of the room to call the orchestra to tell the personnel manager that Jeff would not be able to play the rest of the weekend. I made calls to his students to let them know that weekend lessons would be canceled. Jeff was supposed to teach a masterclass about 3 hours away on Saturday, and I had to cancel that for him, too. Taking care of business… that’s my job.

When I came back into the room, the lead surgeon had arrived, along with two other surgeons. Dr. Rizzo said that he wanted another CT scan with contrast. This time, there was no waiting – he was wheeled out right away for the scan. In the ER room, Dr. Rizzo, another surgeon (I will call him “Will” because I cannot remember his real name), and I stared at the first CT scan. As he scrolled through the scans, I could see Jeff’s aorta expanding from one film to another. How big is a baseball? At that point, too big. It seemed the size of an ocean. Just too vast, too large, too vulnerable. Dr. Rizzo said that the aneurysm had been there for a while. I asked, “what is ‘a while?'” He said, “years.” I stared at it and said, “Jeff is a wind player,” thinking that they would know what I meant. Both of them turned to me and asked, “what’s that?” “Jeff plays oboe for The Cleveland Orchestra. He’s played the oboe since he was nine years old… he blows into a very small reed to make sound and there is a lot of pressure.” I’m not sure if that was significant to them – Dr. Rizzo proceeded to tell me that he saw something that looked like inflammation or an infection in the artery. He would find out once he was inside.

Jeff came back from the second CT and he was in great pain. They gave him more painkillers to calm him down. A few minutes later, the original ER doctor rushed into the room and said that the aneurysm has already ruptured! But is somehow contained… what?? This was when I really started to panic and reality hit me over the head. I knew what that meant – how is he still alive? How did Jeff not bleed out already? Suddenly there was a whirlwind of activity, people coming in and out, voices being raised at the nurse to get Jeff’s blood pressure down. The surgeons were in the room looking at Jeff who was clearly sitting up and talking with us. How could this be if a baseball sized aneurysm has ruptured? What is holding this man together? “Will” explained the procedure to me and Jeff, and while I listened attentively, I had tears streaming down my face. In the middle of his explanation, he stopped, looked at me, and said, “don’t worry, it’s okay. We are going to fix it.” I will never forget those words of assurance and the comfort they provided during those moments of chaos.

As the staff was preparing to take Jeff away, we waited together in that room. I was listening to everything that was going on, and I tried to comfort Jeff who was very serene (was it the painkillers or just his nature?). I had my mask on, so he could only see the top half of my face, and I tried to put a brave face on – I didn’t want Jeff to know that I was crying. I am not sure why… I didn’t want him to worry about me? I should be comforting him, not he me? Or maybe I wanted him to believe that everything was going to be alright, and my crying would not support that cause. I still haven’t figured it out.

Whatever the case, I waited until he was taken out of the room and on his way to the OR before I burst into tears and wept out loud. It was surreal. Because I never cry. I heard myself wail, and it was like an out-of-body experience, like watching someone else cry. The ER nurse who was left behind came over and gave me a hug and I wept into her shoulder. Then I cried as I walked out of the ER and to my car. I backed out of my parking spot and started driving, only to park again a few yards out because of the tears. Somehow I drove home, sat on the couch and cried. Who knew that I had an abundance of tears? I had assumed that they had dried up during all those years of being on “survival mode.” To survive my childhood/adolescence, even my adulthood. From somewhere unknown, tears just poured out as the reality of the situation burst open the dam I had built brick by brick, layer by layer for decades.

My back hurts

Must have pulled a muscle during golf

It was a Sunday evening when Jeff returned from a matinee concert and complained about a backache. He had just played the first round of golf since we put the winter months behind us, so it was not hard to believe that he had overdone it. That evening, we used the massage wand to help – Jeff said that it felt weird and so we did not use it again.

The pain continued throughout the week. The seat warmer in his car helped, so sometimes he would just sit in the car. I dug out a heating pad from the closet, hoping that his pain relief could become portable. Ibuprofen was the go-to anti-inflammatory. But one day after another, the backache ebbed and flowed without disappearing.

Friday morning, I got up and made coffee… I would be working from home that day, and I thought, hmmm, maybe I could work in the great room instead of my home office. I don’t know, I just felt the need for a change of scenery. I set up shop in the great room table, facing the kitchen and the door to the garage. Jeff got up shortly after – he was tasked with taking our dog to the vet for a procedure.

In hindsight, it feels almost as if that morning was cleared out for what was to come. If I had decided to sit in my home office, I would not have seen Jeff’s agonized face when he walked in through the garage door after the vet’s appointment. I had also canceled all my meetings that morning because my amazing team was on top of all their tasks, and I wanted to give them back their time. So my morning was free to check on Jeff who was lying on the bed with excruciating pain that seem no longer to be related to back muscles. And ultimately, he threw up.

“Come on, let’s go to the ER. That’s not back pain. Maybe it’s a kidney stone,” I said. Always so polite, Jeff asked, “are you sure? don’t you have to work?” And he asked this multiple times, like he does any time I offer to do anything for him. Almost too polite considering the amount of pain he was in! We quickly got ready and got in my car.

It was a rainy day, and Hillcrest Hospital was only 8 minutes away. I had made that drive so many times because last fall I had a lumpectomy done at Hillcrest. Multiple appointments, consultation, and the complication from the lumpectomy meant even more appointments at the hospital post surgery. I knew the back roads like the back of my hand. As I drove, I thought to myself, “fast enough to get there efficiently, but not too fast to delay with a ticket or an accident…” There was a hum of anxiety in the air because Jeff felt so nauseated. We stopped the car in the middle of the road with the hazard lights on because he got out of the car to vomit. Nothing came out, and when he got back into the car and I started driving again, he threw up in my car. Well, he threw up into the blanket that I keep in the car for our dog.

I drove him to the ER “drive thru,” and told him to go in. I parked the car in the garage and joined him in the waiting room. He was in a wheel chair, shaking and sweating bullets. He was in so much pain – I had never seen him in that kind of pain before, and it was so hard to watch. A few minutes later, a nurse came out to get him triaged. It was when she tried to take his blood pressure that things seemed off. The machine couldn’t get a good read. It was too low. Jeff also said that there was tingling in his hands. At that point, she did an EKG on him, which came out fine. But to me he looked grey, almost like a corpse with cold sweat all over his face. What’s crazy to me is that even at that point, when I knew something was really wrong, I didn’t panic… because it couldn’t be that bad, right? We were making jokes just this morning when we got up… it’s probably a kidney stone. The blood pressure machine is probably broken. And the tingling is most likely from the severe pain.

Denial is a very powerful thing. Or maybe it is recency bias?

Jeff was wheeled into a room where the ER doctor gave him drugs for the pain and ordered a CT. It took almost an hour before it was his turn for the CT, so during that time, we were in the room alone. Jeff called his work to say that he cannot play the concert that night and took care of other business for that Friday. We called his best friend and his father (it was his birthday!), who could hear him cackle and laugh in the ER, so they thought Jeff would be alright. It is amazing how the sound of laughter can signal relief. Jeff and I joked that if this is a kidney stone, all this pain could go away at once with a productive session in the bathroom. Hey! Maybe you can even go play the concert tonight if you can just pee it out! At one point, I remember walking around to find water for myself because I was afraid of getting dehydrated (yeah, I was worried about myself… d’oh!). Finally, the staff person arrived to take Jeff to get a scan, and everything changed when the doctor returned with the findings of that first CT.

Everything is new after 12 years

This is a love story. Not the kind you think, but one where I am constantly learning how to love.

It has been 12 years exactly today since we were married inside the beautiful Epworth-Euclid United Methodist Church in University Circle, Cleveland Ohio. I was marrying the love of my life, but I was a wreck. There was no one from my immediate family at the wedding, and I felt unsettled that something may go wrong. There was a moment when my friends left the bridal suite just before the wedding started, and I was alone in my wedding gown and veil. It was surreal to see myself in all white. I was embarking on a journey for the rest of my life without my family. It was heartbreaking, but I knew this was the right decision.

I wish I could say there have been ups and downs since then (perhaps so that my story would be relatable), but life with Jeff is so stable. It’s more like ups and… fun. If there was turbulence, it was inside my own world with the occasional peaks, but mostly valleys. I worked hard in my thirties to keep myself distracted and protected my marriage from the internal storms that raged from time to time. And over time, I learned to find life’s joyful faces because Jeff simply oozes peace and joy. God transformed me slowly through my spouse. Yes, I made the right decision on whom to marry 12 years ago, but a spouse isn’t something you choose and put a checkmark next to. It turns out that I was accepting a gift of tremendous value, of which I couldn’t possibly comprehend at that time.

Two months ago, I almost lost Jeff to a surprise health scare. By a string of miracles he survived it and is recovering beautifully, and it marks a new phase in our marriage. I was given the opportunity to experience love through the lens of my grief and the uncertainties that may lie ahead. But through the struggle there is always joy, this time deepened by Jeff’s determination to live and our gratitude for those miracles.

So today is the anniversary that almost wasn’t. And we will celebrate it with thanksgiving for second chances… for Jeff’s life and for a life together with the firm guidance of God’s hand.