In a Heartbeat Jean Chiang September 6, 2014 Saturday
"Miss Chiang, you can die without the surgery, you can die with the surgery and if you do survive, which is 10%, you can be paralyzed, lose your memory or your speech." These words were spoken by Dr. Tomas Salerno, Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida, on the way to the operating room at approximately 10:30 am. It was, also, Good Friday, a full moon and my 58th birthday.
Dr. Salerno handed me a consent form to sign to agree to emergency open heart surgery to repair the Type A Aortic Dissection and Type B Aortic Dissection that I had suffered less than 48 hours earlier in Kingston, Jamaica. I had been in Kingston since January as an Artist in Residence on a Fulbright Teach/ Research Award at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. My aorta had torn from chest to pelvis and I had a heart attack and a stroke within a minute on April 4, Wednesday at 12:15 pm.
I was standing alone in my room, at the foot of the double bed. A glittering, sparkly, 10" club-like form appeared, hovering in front of me and suddenly, came towards me, punching me in the chest. I was completely surprised, thinking, was that a heart attack ? I began to perspire and within seconds, a glittering, sparkly, hamburger-hockey puck form appeared and punched me in the right chest, knocking me to the floor, my left side heavy and sinking. Within minutes, my friend, Carol Campbell, who I had been staying with, found me crumpled and incoherent on the floor, reaching for the floor fan with my right hand. I remember her saying, "What are you doing on the floor ?" Soon after, at a nearby hospital, as I lay on the gurney, a doctor informed me and my friends from school that the enzymes in the blood test indicated that I had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. The doctor said, "Miss Chiang, please move your right hand and foot." I did. He said, "Please, move your left hand and foot." I could not and remember feeling fear and dread. I was paralyzed on my left side.
After hearing Dr. Salerno's pronouncement, I answered, "I have a lot of students, I have a lot of work to do, I have a lot of artwork to do, I need to wake up, I'm going to wake up and today is my birthday." I took the pen and signed.
The anesthesiologist, Dr. Keith Rodriguez, held my hand as he placed the oxygen mask over my face and said, "OK, everyone, it's her birthday, let's sing Happy Birthday." I remember thinking that my birthday wish was to wake up! That was my last memory as I faded into unconsciousness. My birthday wish came true and I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit around 11 pm. Less than 12 hours earlier, I had arrived by medevac in a small airplane from Kingston, Jamaica with a male doctor at my head, a male nurse at my feet, a male pilot and me holding my purse, wearing a hospital gown, a pink shawl, covered by a blue hospital sheet and my white cotton thermal blanket from home, attached to a network of tubes and IV bags.
I was released from the hospital one week later and went to recover at Transplant House on the grounds of Jackson Memorial Hospital with my older sister Fay. On April 18, Wednesday evening around 8 pm, I took 9 pills before going to sleep. At 11 pm, Fay noticed that my breathing was very labored and took my blood pressure. It was alarmingly low, 85/30 and she went to speak to Antoinette at the front desk. Antoinette took my blood pressure and it was 75/25. She called 911 and an ambulance took me to the emergency room where I was admitted immediately and stabilized. I had fluid in both lungs. Tubes or "pigtails" were inserted through my back into my lungs, the right on Thursday and the left on Friday, to remove fluid, 450cc and 300cc, respectively. I was released on April 23, Monday. I had narrowly missed death a second time.
My life changed forever in a heartbeat and I have survived to tell the story. I feel that I was truly blessed to be reborn on Good Friday and my birthday and am forever grateful that I was not paralyzed and did not lose my memory or my speech. Only in mid September, 2013, did I feel that I was finally waking up. I am still tired and need to rest but I am stronger every day and understand that recovery is a process, not only physical but psychological, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. It is a recovery and discovery of a new person. through it all, I have tried to be a patient patient. In mid December, 2013, I was inspired to begin a project about this experience in writing and artwork.
I am approaching this as I usually do, by research, by narrative storytelling and visual 2D and 3D artwork. This is not only a personal history and memory but, also, to raise awareness of the life threatening conditions, Type A Aortic dissection and Type B Aortic Dissection. I had never heard of these conditions and never in a million years did I think that I would ever have emergency open heart surgery but I have an 8 1/2" scar in the center and a 4 1/2" scar on my right chest to remind me every day. I think of them as my badges of courage and survival. They are indelible.
I will continue on this journey called life. At times, it has been difficult to remember and relive this experience but this emotionally challenging work is a part of my healing process. I move forward in faith, step by step...art is from the heart.