105: In the Hands of the Chief of Surgery

105: In the Hands of the Chief of Surgery

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

In the Hands of the Chief of Surgery

Adversity introduces a man to himself.

~Author Unknown

Why did I feel so lousy? I never considered myself the epitome of strength and health, but, in 2002, at age thirty-five, the five-mile bike ride I took the night before shouldn’t have whipped me nearly as much as it did. I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. Like many males faced with health issues, I denied I had a problem. I went to my job as a video producer and whimpered throughout my day.

When I returned home, and lay down, my chest pain felt even worse. Something was seriously wrong. I drove to one of those quick care centers, and after a series of tests, the doctors and nurses there felt I needed a one-way, do-not-pass-go, direct trip to the emergency room.

One week and a myriad of tests later, the lead cardiologist at the hospital determined I had a rare artery disease called Takayasus Arteritis. Named after a Japanese doctor who first described the condition in 1908, the disease is an inflammation, narrowing and scarring of the aorta and the other great vessels attached to the aorta. Left untreated, it could be fatal, and even with treatment, most victims of the disease succumb to some sort of disability, facing limitations to normal, everyday activities.

The doctors said I was medically “interesting.” I didn’t want to be “interesting.” I wanted to be boring, and have few or no health issues. But for the next two years, I had four heart catheter interventions, three involving angioplasty and stenting to hold my at-risk coronary arteries open, so that I didn’t have a heart attack.

In April 2004, while I was at work, I found what looked like a speck in my eye, a little dot that I couldn’t wash or wipe away. Throughout the day, the dot became larger, and by the end of the day, I realized I had a serious vision problem. Ophthalmologists told me I had an ischemic optic neuropathy. I called it an eye stroke. The bottom line is that my disease had restricted the blood flow to my head, and the vessel serving my left optic nerve shut down, causing irreparable damage. I was legally blind in my left eye. Something radical had to be done.

Not long after that, I was scheduled for vessel replacement surgery at the University of Michigan hospital, with Dr. Deeb, one of Michigan’s finest cardiac surgeons. He had performed surgery on some of Michigan’s most respected citizens. The goal was to remove my aorta, both my subclavian arteries, and one of my carotid (neck) arteries and replace them with artificial arteries. The procedure would be long and very dangerous. There was a serious risk that I would stroke or die on the table. If I didn’t have the surgery, my prognosis was even grimmer.

This set of circumstances would emotionally cripple most people. Few could stand tall above the dire reality of my situation. So, being made of flesh and blood, I began my own descent into despair. Thankfully, three surprises kept me from sinking into utter darkness.

First, I came across an unusual postcard that I eventually carried with me everywhere I went. The postcard was of a painting by Nathan Greene entitled “Chief of the Medical Staff.” The painting shows Christ standing in a high-tech operating room, guiding the hand of the surgeon cutting into the body of a patient. I studied and meditated on that painting for weeks leading up to my own surgery. And when I became afraid of what might happen to me, I pulled it out and looked at it again. I realized that whether I lived or died on that operating table, I was in good hands: the hands of the Chief of the Medical Staff.

Secondly, I strengthened my friendship with a man who lived through an even grimmer medical diagnosis. Sean’s job, weight, and family relationships had already taken an extreme nosedive when he learned that he had a grapefruit-sized tumor growing in his brain. But Sean had undergone extensive surgery and months of rehab, and emerged from the other side a more grateful human and a better husband, father, and worker. He was a living medical success story, and he, during my darkest hours, gave me the time, support, guidance and hope that I so desperately needed.

About a week before my surgery, I went out to eat with a group of my closest friends. We ate at one of our city’s oldest privately-owned restaurants—the kind with stuffed animal heads all over, tin ceilings, and an enormous bar carved from a single tree. Laughter and good times lasted late into the evening, and then we went back to the home of one of the diners to pray.

One by one, my friends prayed a blessing over me, the doctor, the nurses, the hospital, and my family. I told my friends afterwards that I felt like Moses who had his hands raised in battle. As long as his hands were raised, the Israelites were winning the battle. When Moses tired, his friends came to him and held up his arms, so that he and the Israelites would continue in victory. The prayers of my friends were like hands holding me up. I couldn’t descend. I could only go up. My friends wouldn’t let me fall. The battle belonged to God.

The night before surgery, I slept peacefully. Strangely, I didn’t care what happened to me on the operating table. If the surgery was a success, than I would be grateful. If it was not, then I was going to a better place. Eight hours later, the surgery was a success. Old arteries were taken out. Replacement arteries were put in place. I hadn’t stroked. And in time, I’d have a complete recovery. My left eye is still blind, and I still cannot be as active as I’d like to be. However, my life is very close to normal. Plus, I have an enthusiasm for life that’s greater than ever. I savor all of life’s moments, knowing that life is fragile and precious. Chronic disease is something I wish all people could avoid, but I know that it is not necessarily a complete liability. Every challenge carries with it a lesson of hope and triumph.

~Matthew P. Kinne

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