The moment is etched vividly into my mind. I was standing on the main altar; it was New Year’s Day, and I was serving the endless stream of people moving though the blessing line when I received a text from my wife alerting me that Malati was having chest pains and we had to do something right away. My heart sank. Malati had been born with a congenital condition called a pulmonary stenosis or restriction in her aortic valve. For twenty years this had never amounted to anything serious, but that apparent calm was about to end. The next day I called our primary care physician and got Malati in for a checkup. Our doctor was horrified with what he heard and immediately ordered an EKG. The results were not good so Malati was referred to a cardiologist, who did a echo cardiogram the next day. Her stenosis immediately showed up and she was then referred to Loma Linda Medical Center for a series of tests that led to the conclusion that she should have an aortic valvuloplasty. This is a procedure where a long plastic set of tubes with a ballon on one end is inserted through an artery in the leg, passed through the body and into the heart so that the ballon can be used to force open the pulmonary valve. It is a relatively non evasive procedure and fairly routine, except, when they did it to Malati her heart objected and stopped! Nothing seems to be routine for Malati. I waited in my car during this procedure and I will never forget receiving the call from the doctors asking to meet me outside the hospital. They informed me the procedure was a failure and that Malati’s heart had actually stopped during the procedure and she had to be revived by an electric shock. She would need immediate open heart surgery. We had come for a relatively routine procedure and now we were looking at a whole new scenario. Suddenly the game had gotten much more serious. The feelings of dread and fear that set in were overwhelming. Malati went for surgery the next morning and what follows is what I wrote the day of that surgery.
A Child on the Brink
February 19, 2011
Malati is well, in the sense she is alive, and once she recovers she can live a normal life. Before the operation she was a ticking time bomb of death, to put it bluntly. The doctors called her problem a suicide valve. They cannot believe she was even alive to this point. Malati is one lucky young lady! Coming out of recovery she looks like she has been hit by a freight train, but she will be fine. She will need 6-8 weeks of recovery, which includes no school, no work, no driving. We expect her to stay in the hospital for about 5 days. From here my greatest fear is infection. I have asked Sukulina to remove all animals from the house and to clean everything as much as possible.
As for Sukulina and I, we have been to hell and back. The whole thing has been a terribly humbling experience. There is merit in humility, but I’d never wish this on anyone. Thursday was the day of Malati’s valvuloplasty and we were told that it would be relatively routine and safe. Once that failed it became a day of watching all control slip away, a disconcerting experience to say the least. To stand in front of the hospital and be told by the doctors that the procedure was too dangerous and that her heart had even stopped and had to be shocked back into existence was an experience I will never forget. It ranks along with my, where was I when Kennedy was shot or what was I doing when the world trade towers came down. It was a life-defining moment.
In the end everything worked out and we are pleased beyond measure. The words that came across the pager by the OR team, “The repair work is complete. Malati continues to do well,” has become immortalized in my brain. Out of sheer relief, I cried. The cardiac surgery team is what I call the “swoop team.” It is some ethereal team of divinely empowered beings, who swoop down on their patients like a band of eagles, perform some incomprehensible magical feat, then fly back into the heavens only to circle around and swoop down once again on some other on-the-brink patient.
On an emotional level the whole experience leaves me seeing the need for sky gods once again. In times of helplessness and hopelessness no impersonal force can satisfy the cries of a child for it’s mother.