June 13, 1985: I remember distinctly when I first became aware of sights and sounds in the Intensive Care Post-Op Recovery Unit. I awoke to being scrubbed by an attendant. This strange person putting her hands on me momentarily startled me. I lifted my head ever so slightly—it felt very heavy—to scan my surroundings and try to figure out what was happening around me, and the first thing I noticed was that the room seemed to be awash in a brilliant hue of yellow. The walls were yellow, and I guess as a result of being sleep for so long my eyes were hypersensitive to the light in the room, so that combination of wall color, hypersensitivity, and grogginess cast a yellow tinge over everything...
Have I died and wound up in yellow heaven? No, I didn’t really think that I had died. Admittedly though, I initially was disoriented and unsure of where I was and what was going on. I gradually started to recollect what had gone on the past couple of days leading up to surgery... I vaguely recalled the events of early Tuesday morning right before I went to sleep prior to surgery. I slowly started to get my bearings back and began to realize what was going on. Surgery was over. I had survived; not that there was ever any doubt on my part. Then I smiled to myself. Not because I survived—yea, that was important—but I started smiling because I recalled that the Los Angeles Lakers had just won the NBA championship!
For the first time since being admitted I felt uncomfortable and constrained by my surroundings. I was not in any physical discomfort. Presumably due to medication dripping into my body I was largely pain-free; in fact I had not really felt much pain since I had been admitted to Long Island Jewish Hospital with the exception of the "ice pick" behind my knee for the angiogram. Lying there in the Recovery Unit, I felt kind of like I was in captivity; locked down. Other than right after that aforementioned angiogram, when I was confined to a wheelchair for a day, I was always able to get out of bed and walk around, even if it was just to the lounge, another floor of the hospital for an examination, to the mothership, or sadly, to Ricky’s room. Now I was not only bedridden, but all the medical apparatus I was connected to bound me. At least when I was in a separate room watching television, I was able to sit up in bed. I could barely lift my head.
I also was bored out of my mind. I couldn’t read, listen to my music, or even change the channel on the television. Everyone in the room looked like they were on death’s doorstep, and I suspect that I looked worse than all of them. I lacked rapport with any of the nurses in the room; they were all were all new faces to me, and carried themselves with a sense of urgency, distance, and seriousness different than the nurses who would come into my room to check my vitals before the surgery. I was told it would be awhile before I got to see any more visitors. Dorey had been an exception; other than next-of-kin, visitors are not allowed in the Intensive Care Post-Op Recovery Unit. Hmm, next-of-kin. When I was informed of that the first thought that came to my mind was that it sounds to me like occasionally a patient doesn’t make it out of this room. I couldn’t wait to get out of yellow heaven.
While laying there staring up at the ceiling, occasionally glancing at the television, along came the usual teacher leading his students. This time I could not totally ignore them—I was a captive audience. With no book to read I stared up at the television and half listened as the lead doctor started reading from my chart:
29-year old Black male; two days post-op....Long-term outlook for efficacy of function of 6th and 7th nerve unknown at this point but of course complete and total...
I snapped to attention and lifted my head as much as I could off the bed—it probably was not much more than a couple inches. “No, no...” I frantically mumbled, straining to speak as my mouth felt swollen. My language was slurred but loud and emphatic, clearly startling the students. I have no idea what my face looked like as I was challenging the doctor’s assertion. However, I do know that the look on the face of the doctor, as well as the looks on the faces of the students was priceless. The doctor seemed at once confused and terrified at my outburst, and quickly ushered the students away. I could hear them murmuring among themselves as they headed toward the exit of the Post-Op Recovery Unit. I can imagine the doctor said “let’s get the hell out of here.”
I opened my eyes. The view was different. The ceiling was lower, the lighting in the room was dimmed but there was bright light outside the room; and the room had white walls, not yellow. I realized I no longer was in the Post-Op Recovery Unit and had been moved to a regular room. I was elated. I knew that I would now be able to see my family. Given that the lights in the room were off I assumed it was past visiting hours but I anxiously anticipated being reunited with my family the next day. I wondered what time it was—I had no idea if it was ten o’clock in the evening or four o’clock in the morning.
What the...! All of a sudden I started moving. The bed or gurney that I was on moved from the dimness of the room into the bright light of the corridor. I could hardly lift my head up but I could see the walls and surrounding scenery shifting rapidly as the gurney traveled down the corridor. No one was saying anything to me, and I was left to wonder where we were headed. We came to an abrupt stop, then moved again. I could see that we had entered an elevator. I was panicked, disoriented and still groggy from having just awoken and presumably heavily medicated. I wanted to speak; to ask where we were going but could not bring myself to form the words to do so. I don't know if I was too terrified to speak, too drugged, or otherwise physically unable to, but I laid there quietly with my mind racing.
The elevator came to a stop and we exited into a corridor that was less brightly lit and appeared more austere, ominous even, which caused my uncertainty to increase even more. After a short trek down that hallway we slowed to a halt. I was moved by a couple of orderlies from the bed I had been on to another, and then I caught a glimpse of the large apparatus in the room...
By the time of the trip back, I was fully awake and lucid, more or less, and my heart was no longer racing. Wow, I thought, when it was happening I at first had no idea what was going on, and that had me in a very uncertain, anxious state. In hindsight, I was able to jokingly think about Robin Cook’s Coma, where surgery patient’s organs were being harvested. Perhaps the orderlies were taking me someplace to perform nefarious deeds I facetiously mused. Or, I laughed to myself; I had died and was being wheeled to the morgue.
June 14, 1985: I had a wonderful reunion with my family members throughout the day on Friday. My mom, and Bunyan both came by. The relief on the faces of my parents, at seeing me conscious was palpable. The look in their eyes signaled how genuinely worried they were about losing their oldest son. A couple of my brothers came by. Both my mom, and Mom Helen shed tears. Dorey brought Kina to see me. Little Kina stared at the giant head wrap, finally asking, “Do you hurt, daddy?”
I shared with my family my scary incident from the night before and joked how I felt like I was in a horror movie and was being wheeled to the morgue or some secret chamber where they performed medical experiments. Other than my brother Jerry, who had a warped sense of humor like me no one found my story funny.
It was a moving day of reuniting with my loved ones. The day took on even more poignancy when I learned that after the much longer than expected duration of my surgery, Dr. Beck entered the waiting room and spoke to the collected members of my family. Apparently his explanation about me being “out” was misconstrued and my family members reacted as if I had passed away during surgery. I hear that it was not a comfortable scene.
Dr. Paul Thornton is currently a university administrator. In the past he has been a professor, small business owner, and corporate executive.