The Story (part I): How my dad died

Sometimes I wonder
What could have happened?
Maybe if we had gotten to the hospital faster,
Would you still have died? …
-I Wonder, poem #89

As previously mentioned, my dad – being morbidly obese – struggled with his weight. Buzzwords included “exercise,” “dieting,” “Weight Watchers,” “Atkins,” and on and on and on.

Ultimately, following his doctor’s advice, he elected to undergo gastric bypass surgery on Nov. 25, 2002. Though there are inherent risks with any surgery, those for this particular procedure were downplayed. At the time, we were told that only .05 percent of patients experienced complications from the surgery (a statistic that has not held up over the years). One in 200? Not terrible odds. He wasn’t particularly worried.

DadTwo days later – though my father protested, feeling something wasn’t quite right – he was discharged from the hospital. The following morning, my 2-year-old brother, 8-year-old sister and my 11-year-old self bounded down the stairs, ready to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Almost immediately, a frantic version of my mother ushered us back upstairs, instructing me to keep Joelle and Dane occupied until further notice; we were not to be downstairs with her and my dad.

As the day progressed, I would periodically sneak to the top of the stairs in an attempt to discover what was unfolding below. I heard my dad moaning in pain, a noise unlike anything I had ever heard before (barring a movie or two). And, I heard my mom on the phone with his doctor, insisting that something was wrong and begging for him to meet us at the hospital.

Around 1 p.m., I met my mom in the upstairs hallway to find her packing a bag for Dane, Joelle and me. She guided us to the car where my dad was waiting in the passenger seat. She began the two-minute drive to a neighbor’s house. Each of the four turns along the way caused my dad what had to have been excruciating pain, as the last words I ever heard him say – aside from a strained and nearly inaudible “love you” – were “Easy, Lisa. Easy.”

The next two days consisted of various adults telling us that the doctors had figured out what was wrong with my dad; that he’d be home soon; and that my mom was too busy to call, but everything was fine. But on Saturday, as my siblings and I sat on the couch of yet another family friend, the phone rang. In the middle of our Christmas movie, the phone was passed to me. On the other end of the line was my mother, crying. She managed to get out, “Daddy’s in surgery now. He’s probably going to die. But even if he makes it through, there’s still a really good chance that he’ll die. Donna’s going to bring you and Joelle to the hospital now.”

Cue the tears, and cue the shock.

Less than one hour later, we boarded the hospital elevator. As I watched Donna press the button for the Intensive Care Unit, I pointed to the nearby sign indicating that children under age 13 were not permitted on the floor.

“I know,” she said. “Y’all are fine.”

Walking into the waiting room, we were immediately greeted with forced smiles from nearly all of my extended family.

What? Uncles and aunts from across the nation whom I had not seen for at least a year all knew before us?

A few hours later, my dad’s doctor stood in the doorway delivering the good news that my dad was out of surgery and that it had gone as well as it could have. Our collective sigh of relief was interrupted by his wary warning: “We’re not out of the dark yet.”

Later that evening, we all begrudgingly left the hospital. I can vividly remember lying in the bed next to my sister hoping, wishing and praying harder than ever before in my life.

Please just let him live.

Still, something in me was naively confident that all would be fine.

At 6:52 a.m. the next morning, Donna shook my sister and I awake. The urgency in her voice was palpable, and strawberry Pop-Tarts were tossed to us as we climbed in the backseat of her van. We would later find out that we entered the hospital the very minute my dad died. His stomach had not been sealed correctly during his initial surgery and the discovery of this and the subsequent leakeage came too late, ultimately causing his body to go into septic shock. His kidneys failed, he experienced numerous heart attacks, and at 7:42 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2002, he died.

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