DuPont started producing polyester as a textile in the 50s and used the name Dacron to market a durable fabric perfect for bathing suits, sports uniforms, and lab coats. When I think about the fabric, I imagine pastel leisure suits paired with splashy button-down shirts sporting collars wide and dagger-like. Our meeting with the thoracic surgeon made me rethink a lot of things.
He held an over-sized plastic model of the human heart and pointed to the aorta, the main pipeline for oxygen-rich blood, and explained how an aneurism had ballooned this artery. He continued with an explanation of dissection, the rupturing of the inner lining of the artery that tears with each beat of the heart. This was his way of emphasizing the urgency of the situation.
"Because the aneurysm extends to the sinotubular junction," he pointed to where the aorta joins the heart, "we can't clamp off the blood flow."
I looked at my wife and she was steady as a gambler who had pushed all her chips to the center of the table. She'd heard this explanation before, when she was first diagnosed with an aneurysm; this visit was for me. "You should bring your husband in next time," he had told her.
"We'll have to perform what's called circulatory arrest. We cool the body down to 17° C, which takes two to three hours. At that point, everything stops and we have about forty-five minutes to perform the surgery. I'll replace her aorta with a fabric sheath made from Dacron. He holds up the hem of his lab coat. "Material much like this."
"When you say everything stops—"
"Right. It's like kids playing on a frozen pond who have fallen through the ice. When they're pulled out they're unresponsive, but an hour later they resuscitated and everything's fine."
"It's the standard of care in these cases," he said.
"You've done this before?"
He nods. "Twice."
I'm certain I saw a wink, but it happened so quickly I doubt myself. I turned to my wife and she arched her eyebrows at me.
"You two talk about it and we'll go from there."
We drove from Peoria to our home in a small western Illinois town. During the ride we both faced forward, seemingly watching the road. The gravity of the situation pushed down on me and I couldn't even begin to think what my wife was feeling. We arrived to an empty house; our daughters were still at school and it was the perfect chance to talk. Instead, we sat down to our respective computers and Googled medical terms and procedures.
We had been Illinois less than two months when my oldest daughter came down with pneumonia. Just as she was beginning to recover, my wife began showing symptoms. It was late Friday when she decided she needed to see a doctor. She hung up the phone, coughed, and rubbed her forehead.
"They can't fit me in today," she said.
"What about tomorrow?"
She shook her head. "Monday the earliest," she said and coughed again. "They did say I could go the Redi-Med place in the grocery store."
"Do you want me to drive you?"
She sat down on the sofa, a bit out of breath. Our town is so rural that many people are on a waiting list to see a doctor, so the Redi-Med accommodates folks who need to see a physician but have relatively minor issues. It was clear to me she was suffering from pneumonia and that the sooner she began antibiotics the better things would be.
She shook her head. "I'll wait until Monday."
I wanted to argue, to pick her up and place her in the car, to wait in the grocery store as a Physician Assistant took her vitals and swabbed for a culture, and eventually prescribed medicine that would ease her suffering. Instead, I said, "Okay. Well, lay down and get some rest. I'll fix you some soup."
She nodded and I pulled a blanket over her as she got comfortable on the couch. I felt her head and her fever was high. I brought her some water and aspirin and thought about insisting that she go to the Redi-Med, but she took my hand and said she just needed some rest.
I drove her to the doctor's office that Monday and he confirmed my suspicion that she did indeed have pneumonia. He prescribed medicine and on the way home I stopped at Wal-Mart to have it filled while my wife waited in the car. While waiting in line, I thought about how miserable she'd been over the weekend and how pigheaded she'd been about not wanting to go to Redi-Med. I could only allow myself to visit this place when she wasn't around—she knows me well enough to feel such a shift in my mood. When I returned to the car with the white paper bag of medicine and a bottle of water she was just getting off the phone.
"Here you go." I handed her two pills and opened the bottled water for her.
"That was the doctor's office," she said. "They found something on the x-ray."
What they'd found was an aneurysm on the ascending aorta. She was right to wait for the doctor's visit. Redi-Med would not have ordered an x-ray.
After searching for answers on the internet, and after all the thoracic surgeon had said finally settled in, we began to talk about what to do. She felt confident in her surgeon and was ready to follow his proposed course of action.
I couldn't argue.
Now all we had to do was tell our daughters.
At 3:30, we walked out into the cold and windy afternoon to wait. The yellow school bus' brakes squealed a bit as it came to a stop. The red lights at the front and back of the bus flashed and the safety cross-bar extended out from the front bumper. The door slid open and our daughters tromped down the stairs and dashed across the street. They ran toward us, poly-blend jackets unzipped and arms swept back like a small squadron of Spitfires, their smiles as broad as the sun.
About the author:
Penn Stewart lives and writes in Macomb, Illinois and is currently teaching writing at Western Illinois University. His nonfiction work has appeared in Fresh Yarn, Hippocampus Magazine, The Meadowland Review, and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. You can learn more about Penn here.