On the morning of December 4, 2006, Jan from Immaculate Heart of Mary church had come to visit me in the hospital. I struggled to focus on her words, stories about the latest happenings at church. Am I tired or am I sad?, I found myself drifting. Oh, and I hope I'm not too disgusting looking. But Jan only smiled and stood next to me and prayed for me, prayed that God would grant us the heart we needed.
By now, I had been on the biVAD for almost 4 weeks. I was receiving regular blood transfusions (the perfect drug!) to help relieve the water retention and to keep my anemia at bay. Eating was pure misery - most of my nutrients came from the delicious feeding tube "sludge" diet. Yum! I needed almost constant oxygen. Most humbling was my inability to care for my basic needs. I was a mess.
Not just a mess physically but emotionally too. Over the course of the days before, I'd been getting more and more depressed. I was wearing down. The darkness was right there, hanging out on the edges. I felt broken, separated from everything I'd once known and held tightly. My grip had been loosened and I was slack.
The day before, Lisa left, headed to Palm Springs for 9 long days for a seminar called, coincidentally called "Date with Destiny." I didn't really want her to leave. She'd been planning the trip for months. Back in my previous life, so long before when I'd first gone into the hospital, back when we were sure I would've gotten the transplant by now, she'd described it to me with shining eyes. I knew she had to go. I told her that perhaps this week would be both our dates with destiny.
After Jan left on that Monday morning, I fell asleep. As much as the the constant thump-thump-thump of the biVADs was tiring, it was also oddly comforting. I had a dream that I was in my bed with little puppies and kittens snuggling with my VADs. All of us comforted by the heartbeat. When I woke up, alone in my room, I knew the time had come to decide what to do with the sadness; somewhere along the line, I had lost my sense of Sarah. Half the time, I felt more like a machine than a girl and the other half the time, I just wanted to cry.
It was time to get it together so I got into my chair and started a crossword. Simple, nothing exciting but just deliberately choosing to do something felt good. It felt great, and by the time my friend Marianne showed up to visit, I was beginning to feel a little of my old self creeping back and the darkness receded a little.
Around 8:00 pm, the door opened and four nurses came in. They stood there silently - each shifting a bit and blinking a lot - and grinning from ear to ear. I was a little confused. I assumed it was shift-change and they would start swarming around my IV speaking their nurse-talk. Instead, they just stood there. One of them started crying and through a huge smile, another said "we may have found one!"
I went as still inside as the biVAD would let me. Oh. My. God. Then I said something seriously creative like, "Are you kidding?" . They nodded and someone cautioned me about getting too excited. Not get too excited? Ha! I felt tears coming and said, "someone get over here and hug me!" I was immediately surrounded.
I called Mom and Dad, not really sure to hope or not. Pretty soon, my feeding tube was shut off. Goodbye dear sludge; ye shall not be missed. Throwing caution to the wind, I called Lisa and my bosses who were in the Hong Kong airport on their hour layover before heading to Tokyo. They put me on speakerphone and I tried not to cry. In the middle of all this, the nurses took about a gallon of blood and started me on the immunosuppressents. Mom and Dad arrived. Had time really stopped or was it just me?
I moved to the bed. Surgery was scheduled to start at 12:30 am on December 5th. Time was moving very fast. I wanted to remember this night forever so I asked Dad to get his video camera (which was handily in the car). I was visited by the OR nursing staff, most of whom I already knew from my VAD surgery. I signed the form. I consented to have my heart replaced. Then it was time.
Everyone, nurses and doctors alike, stopped and stood by the bed. Mom said a prayer for the hands of the doctor, in gratitude for their amazing service and for healing. The world felt soft around the edges. As per our arrangement, once the bed started moving, Mom read Psalm 121 - "I lift my eyes up to the hills - where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord." Mom kept stride by the bed as we moved down the hall. All the way to elevator, the sounds of the VAD, the respectful silence of the nurses and voice of my mother are what I remember. The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.
My entry into the OR was at the same time as Dr. Awesome, my surgeon. I asked him if his hands were feeling steady. Ha. I am so lame. The atmosphere was relaxed in the OR - shouldn't you people be a little more urgent? I remember thinking. I asked if I could walk to the OR table if I wanted. They said that would be fine. I was too wigged out to actually do it, but I liked knowing that I could if I wanted.
The oxygen mask came down over my face - just like in the movies - and I felt myself growing drowsy. My final thoughts before succumbing to the anesthesia were...Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
And then I was out.
And now it is two years later. Two years of mountains (both figurative and literal), monitoring, and pushing forward with a determination and drive I didn't know existed in me. Was it worth it? Hell yes, every beat of that VAD, every blood draw, every ounce of pain was so freakin' worth it. This LIFE - while it is busy as hell - is the life that I CHOSE by saying YES to every lifesaving measure possible, YES to giving up all control and YES to replacing my failing heart with that of a total stranger.
Every day I wake up with a prayer of gratitude on my lips. I am grateful to the people who invented every fancy machine and drug that has kept me alive. I am grateful for the surgeons, the doctors, the nurses, and the CNAs for their single-minded vision of saving my life. I am grateful for my friends, my family, my coworkers and my love for giving me a reason to live. I am grateful to God for being a part of this plan. And for the heart of the the amazing donor who has now fused with my soul to become this new creation.