I’m in a beautiful waiting room in the Walter Tower of Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. I’ve been here since 7:15 this morning. I arrived early to get my husband prepped for a heart procedure at ten. The plan was to send a catheter from his groin, or his wrist, or both, into his veins and up to his heart where one of his arteries was totally blocked. If all worked well the calcium would come loose and a stent or two might be placed in that artery to keep it open.
I waited with mostly older women whose husbands were undergoing different procedures with other doctors. Everyone tried to be upbeat and friendly as we strangers shared the common fears that go with such things. Each of us received a tentative probability of success. For my husband it was eighty five percent which sounds good, but the worrier in me looked at the fifteen percent chance of failure and I wondered if it would work at all, especially as the clock kept ticking from one hour to the next for close to four hours.
People had come to the center made famous by Dr. Michael DeBakey, a trailblazer whose pupil Denton Cooley eventually performed the first heart transplant. They sat in tiny group in the large and airy waiting area sharing stories of their loved ones’ heart problems and the journeys that brought them to the Houston Medical Center. I found myself listening raptly and feeling fortunate that I live only twenty minutes away from the hospital and that the whole procedure had only cost one hundred dollars because my husband has a Medicare Advantage Plan.
I wondered what people in small towns or without insurance do when they or a loved one has a serious heart defect. I found myself feeling good that my husband and I had been so careful during the height of the Covid pandemic. We took every vaccine that was available, religiously wore masks, and mostly stayed home. I worried about what would happen to my husband if he caught the virus. His oxygen level was never higher that ninety five even in the best conditions. His artery was blocked and he had already had a small stroke that luckily did not leave him handicapped. I had been like a police officer enforcing rules that I hope would keep him well until he was able to get that artery open.
I thought about all of that while I waited. One hour, two hours, three hours, almost four passed. Most of the people who had been there with me had already heard about their loved ones and had left. I watched new people coming in for the afternoon appointments as the time inched toward three. Finally a nurse asked me to accompany her to a private room where the doctor would let me know how my husband had fared. She was kind enough to smile and assure me that it would be good news.
I gathered my belongings, a laptop, a phone, some food and drink and followed the nurse like a little lost lamb. I was feeling shaky in spite of her insistence that all was well. I waited for the doctor to arrive and thought about the thousands and thousands of people in the Medical Center at that moment. Some were getting good news, some bad, some were dying. It was sobering to think about all of the humanity feeling so many different emotions in a single moment.
The doctor was confident and informative. He explained exactly what he had found and what he had done. He was happy to announce that the procedure was a success even though it had been more difficult than he had expected. He said that the blockage had been like concrete with no blood flowing through whatsoever. With patience and skill he and two other doctors were able to clear it completely and then install three stents. He said that blood immediately began flowing through the artery like a river that has been freed from a dam. I was elated and thanked the doctor profusely for his skill. I thought about all of the progress that has been made in healing hearts over the years. I realized that in another time my husband’s prognosis might have been very dire. It was a sobering thought.
After a little wait I went to see how my husband was doing. He looked happy and he was filled with goals for eating healthy, losing weight and sticking to an exercise program. I now realized why he had so often been out of breath, having to stop walking long before he should have. He was already doing better with an oxygen level of 98 and a really good blood pressure. It seems that he and many others may have new leases on life from this one day. How many thousands of times are such stories repeated by doctors dedicated to saving lives? I have a former student who will soon be leaving for Stanford to do a fellowship in pediatric cardiology. He has already completed a residency at Texas Children’s Hospital. We will attend his farewell party with even more respect for what he has chosen to do. It’s remarkable to think that he may one day help a little one with a heart defect heal. I know how those parents will feel. I felt a roomful of emotions with my husband’s experience. We really do live in extraordinary times.