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November 05, 2010

Screw policy: Let us into his ICU room?

Ten feet from the pale green plastic reclineable armchair in which I write, my father is asleep.

Machines are helping his lungs breathe and his heart pump.

Familiar liquids seep through strange tubes, while the regular suck and blow of the respirator does the work his excavated body cannot.

It's been 18 hours since his heart attack, 8 hours since I landed in McAllen, Texas, to be with him.

He had two blocked arteries, which called for two surgeries. One open-heart: triple bypass.

I got to see to him before the second surgery. "It took a heart attack," he teased limply when he saw me. I held his air-conditioned hand, rubbed his back, and we talked about what he'd dream when he goes under. Greece. He went to Greece on vacation, last year, and calls the cliffside temple at Sounion the most sacred and beautiful place on the planet.

"The same wind that beats those rocks blew on the Greeks as they built this temple. You go there and time stops," he told me.

I answered with stories from recent travels and bribed him with the promise of grandchildren.

"Be strong, Tata."


Four hours later, the heart surgeon came out, looked me right in the eyes and nodded.

"No complications."

"We'll have him awake in the morning."

"I was actually surprised at how good his heart looked."

"All that smoking."

"Make sure he does his physical therapy and he should be able to leave in 5 days."

My eyes fell on the surgeon's hands. They moved subtly, efficiently, as he punctuated his message with minute gestures. But there was also something loose and soft about those movements, and it occurred to me that his control over his instruments is more precise and more nuanced than anything you or I could imagine. I wanted to kiss his hands.

The only problem, all things considered, is that the nurse in the ICU didn't want to let us into the room, saying that on the first night visitors are not allowed. My stepmother and I were there, and my sister is arriving in a few hours.

"You can stay for a minute. The first night is critical, so we want to be able to monitor him with no one in the room."

"I know the first night is critical, and he is extremely important to me, so that's why I want to be here."

"I know he's very important to you, and I'm sorry. We'll take good care of him. We'll wake him up tomorrow morning, so you can come back around 8."

That is when I told her his cardiologist and his heart surgeon gave the OK for an overnight stay, and we will stay out of the way, in that corner over there. If two or three people are too many, we'll take turns because we don't want to make their job hard. We simply want to be there, just in case.

I didn't say this, but here's what else I meant: I will stay in the room, because you don't fly 8 hours and watch your father get wheeled away on a gurney for his second heart surgery in 24 hours so you can then lie awake in a bed 2 miles from his hospital room and trust others to take very good care of him, hoping no one is under the weather that night, talking on a cell phone while changing an IV drip, coughing into a glove, getting distracted while adding a decimal point, pumping him with heavy sedatives if he starts walking up before 'schedule' or giving anything less than their live-giving best.

"That's our policy. Let me get the charge nurse so she can explain."

She left.

I picked up my cell phone and called his cardiologist, who had given me his cell number.

"Dr. S____? It's Roxana. I'm sorry to bother you, but you said I could call if I had any questions. The nurse is saying we can't stay in the room. You told me we could stay overnight, and I want to be there, especially because it's his first night after surgery, but she's saying that's against the hospital's policy. Can you please talk to her?"

I was flustered. He thought I was someone else. He asked me to repeat myself, which I did, more calmly. Then he asked me to put the charge nurse on the phone. She talked for a minute in hushed tones, then told me it was fine. We can stay.

So here I am. Ten feet from my sleeping, sedated daddy. Now I'm not sure what else to do but wait, hope, write.

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