November 29, 2005
I woke up to a nurse yelling to the other nurse, “Who’s her cardiologist?” She then got right in my face and asked with an unmistakable alarm in her voice, “WHO’S YOUR CARDIOLOGIST?” I said, “Do I need one?” I was not very happy with the abrupt wake up call. The other nurse yelled back, “Get Dr. Somebody on the phone.” For the next few minutes, I evaluated the situation. It was obviously nightime, and I had a cool mist of oxygen mask covering my mouth and nose. It felt like a large boa constrictor had bound my chest, through and through to my back. So this is what it feels like to have a heart attack. My father had died at 42 from a massive heart attack. I was 45 at the time and in excellent health, but figured that was the diagnosis.
I had gone in for what was termed elective surgery at nine that morning to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction. (more about why here.) And now, I glanced up to see the clock for the first time since early morning: 7:40. What was supposed to take four to five hours had taken nine and a half, so that couldn’t be good. My doctor had told me I’d be good as new “in a couple of weeks” so I went ahead and scheduled it the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, being assured that I would be fully recovered by the time the kids got home from college for the Christmas holidays. We had scheduled a skiing trip to Colorado the day after Christmas, and I hadn’t bought a single gift, knowing I had a couple of weeks to get ready after I got home. The past surgeries I had were a piece of cake, and I assumed this one would be, too. Back to the story, I soon found out I was having an opposite reaction to the morphine they had given me for pain, and my heart was beating extremely fast due to the pain level and no heart attack, thank you, Lord.
Twice in my life, I have had opposite reactions to medication, usually when I am nervous about something. As a child, I was given a Valium to sleep the night before they were going to take my tonsils out, and much to my poor mother’s dismay, she had to deal with a six-year old bouncing through the roof from a hospital bed. I didn’t get sleepy but wired up like the Energizer bunny on steroids. I still remember my mom saying “Please, Annette, let’s try to get some sleep.”
This time, though, it was excruciating pain that kept me awake. I had taken morphine before and was most happy with the way it took care of the pain, but not this time. For five days, I was immobilized from the surgery and did not sleep due to pain like I had never known. My dear husband never left my side, mostly because I begged him not to, but he was a walking zombie by the third day. The surgery had left four large incision sites—two on my chest and two large incisions on my back for the skin grafts which contributed to that pain that I felt through my upper body. I remember praying if God wanted me, now would be a good time to take me, and I would be just fine with it. It scared me senseless to have these thoughts, where I didn’t care. I just wanted off the boat. I’m such a wuss, but one of the many lessons that this experience taught me was insightful compassion for those in pain. To this day, people who live in chronic pain are my heroes for their courage and faith.
For the next few weeks, I would sparingly allow friends to see me, and made Mike promise to tell everyone not to come to the hospital. It just took too much energy to smile and pretend, and to honestly, even talk with an audible voice above a whisper.
At some point, I had a “come to Jesus” meeting. I know everyone loves a surgery story, (sorry) but my goal in telling you the details is for you to know the lengths to which God had to take me to mold me, in being able to receive grace. Not Grace in the gift of His Son, but grace, in His gifts of love by using others’ hands and feet. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. Not the surgery, as difficult as that was, but opening my heart to receive others’ love in the form of helping me. Was this a pride issue? In its purest form, yes, but it was more. I felt undeserving and most unworthy to be a recipient. I had no trouble knowing God was God and He made it His job to look after me and offer me so much Grace. But everybody else had something to do besides look after me, I thought. I hated being so needy. I hated bothering others, although they were insisting on wanting to help. It occurred to me that it was a tangible way they could show their love to me, and I was rejecting it. God sat me down and told me that I must let them in, and receive the gift. It was a sweet moment of surrender when I finally allowed that love to come pouring into my heart through their generosity. I have to say, even today, I still struggle, especially with all that I’ve been given, to allow others to help me.
And I have decided, most assuredly, sometimes it takes more grace to receive than it does to give.