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This Isn’t Worth It

While sitting on the exam room table in my cardiologist’s office, I began thinking about the many years we’ve had these semiannual appointments. I’ve had not one but two emergency open-heart surgeries.

In a few months, it will be exactly nineteen years since my first surgery, I thought. That means I’ll be starting my twentieth bonus year of life!

Then I thought, Don’t go there! Don’t get ahead of yourself. Live and enjoy each additional day.

Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder about all that I’ve been through. I still have difficulty making sense of it all. In particular, I struggle with my feelings of gratitude: How could I possibly express enough appreciation for having my life saved—twice?

My first surgery, at age fifty-four, was one surprise after the other—the rush to the ER, the imaging tests, the speed with which they undressed me and inserted an intravenous line. I remember being told, “A helicopter will take you to U Penn.” I remember landing on the hospital rooftop, being transferred to a gurney and rolled into the OR, and waking up in a recovery room hours later.

The second surgery, almost fifteen years later, held few surprises: It seemed almost routine and predictable. At some level, I knew I was in trouble; yet I was able to lie back and put myself into the hands of the medical professionals.

The surprise this time came during my post-surgery experience. I woke up a day-and-a-half after the procedure. Opening my eyes and struggling to focus without my glasses, I almost immediately realized that I had no control over my body. I simply couldn’t move.

I had no idea what to think, or how long I would lie motionless. The only body part I could move was my eyes. Through what seemed like floor-to-ceiling glass doors or windows, I saw people walking back and forth on the other side. I yearned for one of them to notice that I was awake and come to my bedside, but unfortunately no one did. I watched them teasingly walk by, unable to bring them closer.

It’s hard to describe how deeply disconcerting it was to be awake but immobile, not knowing when I would be noticed. The feeling gave rise to an uncomfortable thought:

This is not worth it.

Eventually, to my great relief, my wife appeared—having briefly stepped away from the vigil she’d been keeping at my bedside.

“He opened his eyes!” she excitedly told the nurses at the ICU station. Soon after, my surgeon arrived.

“I have to pee,” I told him through parched lips, wondering how I could possibly be transported to a bathroom.

“So pee,” he said.

This was startling: I had no idea that I was catheterized—only that I felt an urgent need to relieve myself.

Soon my wife was joined by my two daughters, and the three of them took turns providing me with ice chips. The relief to my lips and throat was incredible, and I savored each chip, grateful that I had only to nod my head to receive more.

My first recovery, fifteen years earlier, had been smooth, gradual and uneventful. It left me feeling grateful but also vulnerable: I knew that the porcine bio-root sewed into my aorta had a limited lifespan.

Post-surgery, I had lived my life in a fatalistic spirit: When my time is up, it’s up. (Of course, I was also acutely aware of any chest discomfort.)

Having lived with that mindset for fifteen years, I felt distressed to find myself thinking, This is not worth it. I’d seen myself as someone who valued life more than that.

In retrospect, I believe that this thought reflected just how unpleasant and disorienting I found it to be alone, immobile and disconnected from others and myself. Such a lonely, despairing existence did not feel worth it.

Hearing me describe this disturbing thought, a trusted colleague asked astutely, “What got you out of it?”

I can’t be sure, but I believe that it was the presence of my wife and two daughters. Human contact alone seemed to break the spell. My wife and daughters took turns staying with me for the rest of my time in the hospital, and the thought never recurred.

In the ensuing weeks and months, as I recovered my strength and gradually resumed my former activities, the memory of that fleeting thought remained with me—a challenge to value all that life is.

I’ve also reflected on other aspects of my surgeries that, in retrospect, seem striking.

I marvel at the joking mindset that came over me as I headed into my first surgery. I asked the helicopter pilot if I could have a souvenir Medevac patch like the one on his uniform. And when the anesthesiologist asked, “Are you comfortable?” as I was transferred to a gurney, I answered: “I make a good living.” I feel amazed at how dissociation, a psychological defense, arose unbidden to protect me from the uncertainty of the moment.

I continue to live on bonus time. It’s like the time added at the end of a soccer game—except that, unlike the soccer players, I don’t know how much is left. I struggle to accept restrictions (such as no snow shoveling) that make me feel older than I like. And I try to make the most of the time I’ve been given. Each new survival milestone is reason to celebrate, especially with and for my family and close friends, who have been so supportive.

Amid the celebration, I try to remember that not every cardiac patient fares as well as I have. And, as I said before, despite my sincere gratitude for my bonus years, being grateful somehow never seems sufficient.

When I left the hospital, I carried with me a red heart-shaped pillow with get-well wishes written on it. I keep it in my car as a reminder never to go through a day without feeling grateful. Every day is a gift.

Jeff Sternlieb, a psychologist, has taught at the college, medical-school and residency level. Before retiring in 2018, he taught behavioral sciences in the family-medicine residency at Lehigh Valley Health Network. A past president of the American Balint Society, he has published articles on self-care, ethics and the doctor-patient relationship. “I began writing at a time in my life when it felt like everything was falling apart. Writing saved me! For some fortuitous reason, I started to write down what I was thinking and feeling, and the more I wrote, the calmer I felt. Within a week, I bought my first journal. That was in 1987; I’m now on journal number twelve, I think. Writing helps me to work through experiences that I do not completely understand until I write about them.”


11 thoughts on “This Isn’t Worth It”

  1. Dear Jeff. Thank you for being here with us, in your bonus time, and for sharing with us your much-touching story. There is always a question when exposing your vulnerability. It seems that writing on paper something that was previously only within our mind makes it clearer, and makes us calmer. When we are comfortable with ourselves, with our past and with our flaws and fallacies, with our life-threatening experiences and our fears, I have no doubt that telling about them, not only makes them more meaningful but also strengthen our acceptance of the uncertainty and boost our own joy and gratitude in every breath.

  2. The importance of someone caring being present post-op (or during any hospital stay) can’t be overstressed. I couldn’t wait to be released from the hospital last week as my roommate kept me up all night with his moaning and painful coughs around his chest tubes. The only time he was calmed was when a nursing student came to get his vital signs every 4 hours and chat with him for a few minutes. He was clearly lonely and frightened, escalating his experience of pain. While the no visitors during COVID policy made it more difficult, family can not always be present, especially at regional hospitals. There is a desperate need for aids and others who can visit and reassure people that someone is listening or can slip you an ice chip or hand you a urinal.

  3. Jeff- I am grateful to you for having this story show up in my inbox today. I know pieces of it, but really needed to read it all today. Thanks for sharing your vulnerable self with us and giving permission for us to be vulnerable too. Best to you and your family.

  4. Very moving, very thought provoking. Very much another gift from a teacher whose “bonus years” are being used generously.

  5. That title sure got me in! Thanks for sharing your story. So glad you recovered from your paralysed state. Your discomfort about not shovelling snow is a small reflection of that profound disturbing bigger thought. Capacity for independence is admirable unless it becomes bitterness in the need to accept help. I think your attitude of gratitude for a life worth living is also the reason for your bonus years.
    God bless you and your family

  6. Jeff, Such a heart felt story expressing the magic of family support in recovery after cardiac surgery. Best wishes to you and your loving family.

  7. Thanks for sharing this profound and amusing meditation. I particularly liked your joke with the anesthesiologist, both for its own sake and the observation that you were protecting yourself from the uncertainty of the moment. I made a similar joke when being put into an ambulance after being hit by a car and have often wondered why I did it. Uncertainty, defense — of course. I finally get it. You seem to be making good use of your bonus: keep writing, laughing, and breathing!

  8. Jeff: Dick, Pamela and Mimi said it so well. I echo their comments —
    our own gratitude for your expression of gratitude. Your self-awareness and your way with words are a gift. Thank you.

  9. This is such a powerful story. The gratitude you express is moving , and your insights into the multifaceted ways that we can heal is profound. Thank you!

  10. Jeffrey, thank you for sharing your touching and courageous story. Not only have you inspired us with your candor about medical procedures and how you felt physically and psychologically, but your strength found in writing made me smile. Yes. I just retired from 45 years of nursing, endured cardiac catheterizations and electrophysiology, studies of my heart where it was assumed I was not awake. Not so.

    Grateful to be alive and laugh with my grandkids? You bet! Grateful for 50 journals that reside beneath my bed? Indeed!

    Congratulations on your bonus time. Thank you. Enjoy every breath.

  11. Your poignant story of your recovery holds special meaning now, in this time when many patients cannot have their loved ones at their side in the hospital. May you continue to enjoy more years of “bonus life!”

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