The New Valve
by Laura Solomon
Faulty hearts run in my family. My father had to have a valve
replaced by a pig valve when he was in his early thirties and my uncle
died of a heart attack in his fifties. I work at a MDF plant in Nelson
and my own heart is enlarged. Two weeks ago, they discovered that the
valve wasn’t working properly and was only letting through 9% of the
blood flow. I was admitted to Nelson hospital and they told me they
were going to fly me to Wellington to do open heart surgery and replace
the valve. At first, they said they were going to use a pig’s valve
like they did with Dad but then they changed their minds and said I was
too young, forty-three, and that a pig’s valve would not last me for
life and that they would use a titanium one instead. I was a
non-smoker. The dud heart was just a card in the hand I had been dealt.
My girlfriend Kerry likes to make a fuss of me and she was hovering
around the hospital during the days before I was due to fly out to
Wellington. My parents look down their snobby noses at her because
she’s a solo mother and does not have much money, so there was a bit of
tension there. I tried to ease the atmosphere by cracking jokes, even
though I wasn’t in much of a laughing mood, lying flat on my back in
Nelson hospital, wondering when they were going to fly me to Wellington
and whether or not the operation was going to be a success, but I tried
to lighten things up a little. Kerry is a sensitive soul who likes to
be liked and she did not take kindly to my parents' snobbery.
“They’re judging me”, she told me. “And they haven’t even taken the
time to get to know the real me. They’re just judging me on my
exterior. It’s not fair. I’m a good, kind person. I’m not after your
money. I help take care of you. I care about what happens to you. I’m
caring all round.”
My parents did not seem to notice kind and caring. They noticed money
and status and what job a person was able to hold down. Kerry worked
for the DHB as a support worker helping a lady who’d had a brain tumour
removed, but that wasn’t good enough for my folks.
They flew me out to Wellington on a Sunday. It was windy and raining
and I was dreading what lay ahead. Donald Trump’s military had dropped
the ‘mother of all bombs’ on Isis tunnels in Afghanistan the night
before. He had ordered a tomahawk cruise missile strike on Syria a few
days previous to this and earlier in the year there had been a military
raid of an al-Qaida affiliate complex in Yemen. Trump was proving
himself to be quite the war monger and people were saying that he would
go down in history as the ‘war president’. I wasn’t sure how I felt
about being alive during the reign of such an aggressive and war hungry
president, even if New Zealand was located half a world away at the
bottom of the South Pacific. They said the bomb was the biggest
non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat. I watched footage of the testing
of such a bomb online and I thought of the people whose lives had been
destroyed. The US claimed that only members of Isis had been killed but
I thought that this was bullshit. The dropping of the bomb made me feel
small, powerless and insignificant, as if my life too could be snuffed
out in an instant. The Pink Floyd song ‘Mother’ kept playing in the
back of my mind. The bombing made me extra nervous before my big
operation. After all, they were going to saw through my chest and
breast bone and operate on my heart, the muscle that kept me ticking,
kept the blood pumping through my body. It would only take one slip of
the surgeon’s blade and it would be all over for me too, lights out,
game over. Died on the operating table, they would write on my death
certificate. Or died in theatre.
I was disturbed by Donald Trump and his actions. What did it mean that
America had voted him in? Or had it been not so much a vote for Donald as a vote against
Hilary and therefore a sign that America was still deeply sexist. I
didn’t have the answers but that didn’t stop the questions from forming
in my mind.
An orderly from the hospital met my flight and took a taxi with me from
the airport to the hospital. They settled me into Ward 6 South. To one
side of me lay Wayne, who was having a triple bypass and to the other
side lay Karen, a smoker, who was having a tumour removed from her
lung. All fun and games in Ward 6 South. Somebody had sent Karen a
bunch of flowers – pink lilies, the colour of a healthy set of lungs
and somebody else had tied a Get Well Soon balloon to the end of
Wayne’s bed. All this false cheer and heartiness just made my own
situation seem worse – my own bed and area was unadorned. Still, I had
only just arrived. There was still time.
My thoughts turned to my girlfriend Kerry and I wondered if she would
send me anything – a card, some chocolates or some blooms. Kerry was
taking a paper in Advanced Fiction through Massey University and one of
the stories they’d had to read was Stephen King’s ‘Autopsy Room 4’. I’d
read the story too and it had scared the beejesuz out of me. It’s about
a man who’s been paralysed by a snake. He is pronounced dead but gains
consciousness but can’t speak or move right before they are about to
perform an autopsy on him. Not the kind of story you’d want to think of
right before a big operation.
I had brought my laptop with me. I asked an orderly if I could have a
password for the wifi so I could keep up with world news and distract
myself from thinking about ‘Autopsy Room 4’. She obliged and said ‘you
take it easy now, don’t over exert yourself. You’ve got the big
operation coming up tomorrow.’ I smiled and nodded, then logged on.
By now, Donald Trump had redirected a ‘very powerful’ naval armada to
the Korean peninsula and was telling North Korea that they were
‘looking for trouble’ via Twitter. Sabre rattling. Displaying military
might. Some people said that by bombing Afghanistan Trump was sending a
message to Kim Jong-un in North Korea, although the president denied
this. Down here, down South, I was lying in wait for my Big Op, up
there, in the Northern Hemisphere, two megalomaniacs postured and
strutted on the world’s stage. There was no doubt that terrorism and
North Korea posed grave threats to the world, but was Trump’s solution
– more war, really a decent one? Still, what would my solution be? To
sit down with a few members of al-Qaida and a translator over a chai
latte and have a rational discussion about a peaceable solution to the
problem? Probably get my head blown off. My father always said that
Americans considered themselves to be the cops of the world – was Trump
now playing police commissioner? In my chest, the faulty valve flapped
to and fro, struggling to do its job.
I signed a consent form the following morning. A nurse came and took me
to a sterile hospital bathroom. She stripped me off and shaved my
stomach, chest and arms with a puny Bic razor.
I was taken back to my ward which had a window overlooking the hospital
carpark. I was gazing out the window, bored with my current sudoku,
when I saw a flash looking Lexus SUV LX pull up in the parking lot. The
door on the driver’s side opened and a tall dark haired man with a
confident stride stepped out. He strode towards the hospital’s main
doors – a man with a purpose. Ten minutes later he was standing beside
my bed, introducing himself to me as my surgeon.
“Hello I’m Graeme Young”, he said with a smile. “I understand we’re dealing with stenosis of the aortic valve.”
I nodded grimly.
“It’s not entirely my fault”, I said. “I’m not the world’s healthiest
eater but it’s also partly hereditary and partly due to stress. Job
stress mostly. I’m a non-smoker.”
A nurse entered the room.
“Is everything under control?” she asked.
“Sure”, replied Graeme smoothly. “Leave this one in my capable hands.”
The wink made me feel uneasy. Surely surgery was a serious business and not something to be winked about.
The surgeon left the room and I was left alone with the TV and my
sudoku. The TV was tuned into world news which was all about Trump and
his naval armada, including a nuclear-powered submarine which had been
sent to the Korean peninsula. I thought it was a bit ironic that he had
sent a nuclear-powered submarine considering that he was so vocal in
his disdain for North Korea and their nuclear weapons. Google also
informed me that the United States had 1500 nuclear arms whereas North
Korea was estimated to have only around 20. I felt short of breath and
my heart began to palpitate at the thought of all those nukes.
A nurse came and took me in a room next to theatre. She showed me the
consent form and asked me to confirm that it was my signature. The
anesthetist came and introduced himself to me as Karl Maine. I felt far
from psychologically ready, everything was happening so fast. They
wheeled me into theatre. The anesthetist put a needle in my arm and
that is the last thing I remember for a while.
So were you on your own last night, I heard a voice saying.
I thought at first that somebody was talking to me. I tried to talk but there was something stuck down my throat.
It must be the breathing tube, I thought to myself.
I wondered if the operation was over and if they had just mistakenly left the breathing tube in.
Oh look, this guy’s heart is really enlarged, check it out. It’s massive.
This time I recognized the voice of the surgeon. How could he be
looking at my heart? I was awake, conscious. Surely they couldn’t still
be operating on me. It was like a nightmare. I attempted to open my
eyes but it was as if my lids were stuck shut with Superglue.
Time for the valve please, I heard the surgeon say.
There was a tinkle of metal on metal, the titanium valve on its tray. I
couldn’t feel anything yet I could hear everything. I was paralyzed and
could not open my eyes to signal to anybody that I was awake. I felt
helpless – an insect trapped in amber. There was a mechanical humming
noise in the background – I assumed it was emanating from the heart
lung machine. Why had I regained partial consciousness? Did this mean
that the anesthetic had partially worn off or had I not been given the
correct dose? If I had come ‘round to this point, did this mean that I
was going to regain further feeling? I had researched a little about
heart surgery and I knew that they stopped the heart. Had I died during
the surgery? Was I now a ghost – was that why I could hear what was
going on? Had Kim Jong-un dropped a nuclear bomb on Australia during my
operation? Had North Korea been far further ahead in the nuclear game
that anybody had realized? The cold hand of panic gripped my bloodless
heart. The only other time I had ever felt so helpless was when I was
seven years old and my elder cousin gagged me and tied me up and left
me in the wardrobe on Christmas Day, then went down to have dinner with
Alright the valve’s in, time to stitch this guy up.
I imagined the needle and thread running through my heart, stitch by stitch, holding me together.
Wire up his sternum, was the next instruction that reached my woozy ears.
I tried to indicate with one hand that I was conscious but my brain
would not send signals to my muscles. If only I could twitch a foot!
Why had the anesthetic worn off? Were the people in charge of my
operation a bunch of nincompoops? Was it going to wear off any further?
Was I going to start to feel pain – the pain of a dead, still heart? A
female voice spoke.
Hang on a minute, I saw an eyelid twitch. He’s not under properly. Karl do your bloody job. We need you to concentrate.
O shit, sorry about that, came the muttered reply. I’ll just increase the dose.
So I was dealing with a bunch of amateurs! Damned New
Zealand medical system. Hadn’t these people had a decent education?
Hadn’t they been trained? The operation was almost over and now they
were worrying about putting me back under.
The next thing I knew I was waking up in a stark bare hospital ward. I
was pretty doped up on morphine when the surgeon came around to see me
with a nurse in tow. Despite the morphine, I still managed to spit my
story out. I was angry. Why hadn’t the anesthetist done his job
“And how is our patient doing today?”
“Not good. Why did I come to during the surgery? I can remember large
chunks of it. I can remember your voice issuing instructions and then a
female voice said that I wasn’t under properly and that she had seen an
eyelid twitch. What sort of mickey mouse outfit are you running here?”
The surgeon laughed as the nurse fidgeted.
“Oh, sometimes our patients have these hallucinations when they’re under. It’s an effect of the anesthetic.”
“Bullshit. I know what I heard.”
My throat was sore from where the breathing tube had been stuffed down
but I was determined to have my say. The surgeon patted my hand.
“Don’t fret. You’ve been through a traumatic experience, it’s normal to
be a bit confused. Your girlfriend rang and she says she’s made
everything nice for you at home.”
His beeper went off.
“Oh, I’m a wanted man. Gotta dash.”
He headed off down the corridor with the nurse following in his wake.
I stayed in the ward for another week. Kerry called every night. I was
glad to hear her voice; it was good to hear something that reminded me
of Nelson. I had been told that I could not return to work for four
months following the surgery so I would be spending a lot of time at my
home, reading and walking on the beach trying to recover from my big
One of the nurses instructed me to get up and walk around as much as I
could. I traipsed the corridors, back and forth, a lonely ghost, and
then ventured out into the stairwell.
On the day they discharged me I went to the men’s room to relieve my
bladder. I heard a familiar voice coming from the direction of the
“God that was a great party the other night. Got so wasted I could
barely stand the next day. Still came into work though. Didn’t want to
risk losing my job. Did an open heart surgery that morning.”
I quickly flushed the toilet and came out into the main room, just in
time to see the anesthetist zipping up his fly. I didn’t say anything
but at least I’d had my suspicions confirmed.
I flew back to Nelson the following day. Kerry had made the house into
a home, triangle pillows on the bed and everything. Against my parents’
wishes Kerry moved into the house with me to provide maximum care – she
still kept her job. I was on Warfarin and pain killers. The Warfarin
made me bruise easily. I was so traumatized by what had happened that
for the first two months after the surgery all I did was lie in bed all
day clutching a stuffed bear named Fuzzy that Kerry had bought for me.
My mother was very concerned and sent me to the doctor for a dose of
anti-depressants. What I felt was not depression but fear and anxiety.
How could so-called ‘trusted medical professionals’ get it so wrong?
Why had the anesthetist been allowed to go in to work – did nobody
notice the state he was in before the operation? Why had such an
irresponsible person been employed? Eventually Kerry managed to coax me
out for walks at the beach followed by a cup of hot chocolate. These
walks – and the chocolate reward became a daily routine for us, and
something I looked forward to each day. We would do a loop – along the
front beach and then around the back beach where people walk their dogs
– to the café.
Although it might sound childish, I also played a lot of games in order
to keep my brain working. Catan, Agricola, Discworld, Cluedo and First
Around the World. Work had said that they would hold my position open
for me for four months, to give me time to recover. You can’t sue a
medical professional in New Zealand but Kerry said I should write to
the Health and Disability Commissioner and make an official complaint.
I wrote in stating that I had gained consciousness during the surgery
and then later, after the operation, overheard the anesthetist boasting
about how drunk or stoned he had been the night before. My letter was
acknowledged with a perfunctory slip and then eight weeks later I
received a note stating that the anesthetist no longer worked at the
hospital and that no charges would be pressed.
Fat lot of good that did, I thought to myself. So much for justice.
I cursed my bad genes for my faulty heart. Towards the end of the four
months I found myself looking forward to going back to work, back to
some sense of normalcy, back to structure and routine. Aren’t these all
that keep a man from floundering in the abyss? Kerryn had a few books
lying around the house and I recognized one as being the short story
collection that contained Autopsy Room 4, but I dared not open it up and read the story for a second time.
I suffered recurring nightmares, the worst of which was that I was back
in hospital being operated upon by Donald Trump. No amount of walking
at the beach could take my nightmares away. As for Donald Trump, he had
calmed down a bit and was even talking about conciliatory talks with
Kim Jong Un. However, all the bombs they possessed between them played
upon my mind. The nukes were like a time bomb, ticking away like the
titanium valve that was implanted in my heart.
© 2017 Laura Solomon
Bio: Laura Solomon
E-mail: Laura Solomon
E-mail: Laura Solomon
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