“If you ask me if he has a chance, yes, he has a chance.” Those words, and their inflection, are seared in my brain. They were spoken by a cardiac surgeon after a nine-hour operation to save my 47-year-old husband from an aortic dissection [a tear in the inner layer of the body's largest blood vessel]. That's all he was given: a chance. Just one. Two hours before, a physician's assistant was sent out to “prepare” me. He explained that my husband was bleeding massively and that they were doing everything they could.
In the days that followed, my family and I would learn that my husband had had several strokes and developed pneumonia and sepsis during surgery. He had no apparent movement on his left side and would most likely have severe vision loss. On one of his reports, his neurologist had written “prognosis for meaningful recovery is poor.”
After 18 days in a cardiothoracic surgery intensive care unit and a few weeks at an in-patient rehabilitation hospital, my husband came home on Christmas Eve 2015. He then went through three months of outpatient therapy. Today, my husband can talk and walk using a cane. He does have vision loss and is unable to work or drive, but compared to his prognosis, his recovery is truly a miracle, something I would often point out to him.
It's only recently that I've started to see this “miracle” from his point of view. He was unconscious when the doctors were saying things like, “If he lives, he may not be neurologically intact.” He has no memory of the dissection. All he remembers is that he was perfectly fine at work one day and the next he couldn't feed himself or sit up without help.
Having heard the dire comments from the doctors, I was elated when my husband stood on his own or was able to see the left side of his dinner plate. He, on the other hand, was underwhelmed and frustrated. At first, I was confused and upset by his negative reactions.
Now, almost a year later, I've learned to resist saying, “Look on the bright side,” when his moments of sadness take over. Instead, I acknowledge his emotions and allow room for them. He has every right to be angry and frustrated about how our lives have changed. I realize it's possible to be thankful you're alive and still grieve for your former life.
His illness has affected me deeply, but I am not living in his body. I don't struggle to see while walking. I am not thrown off balance by my altered vision. Those are his personal battles.
Neither of us asked for these new and distinct perspectives. Given the choice, we would have gladly given up these lessons, but life doesn't give you a choice. It just happens. The key is to be open to what those new challenges may teach you about yourself and those you love the most.
Michele Ocejo is editor-in-chief of a trade publication in New York City. She and her husband live in northern New Jersey with their bulldog and two cats.