Not An Option November 3, 2015, Tuesday
Death was not an option. I had plans but as John Lennon said in his song, “Beautiful Boy”, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
I was in Kingston, Jamaica teaching on a Fulbright award at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and researching the emigration of Chinese women to Jamaica and the Caribbean. I had arrived on January 11 and was non-stop busy as soon as the school term began. I had a work space in the Ceramics Department, doing my work and interacting with students from many of the departments ie sculpture, painting, fashion, dance, music, theatre, going to their studios to look at their work as well as attending classes and critiques. I was in two faculty shows and a show, conference and workshops with international artists with Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator from Miami, Florida. I had given two presentations of my work to the school and to the public. In May, I had plans to go to New York, then to Havana, Cuba for the Bienale, then back to New York then back to Kingston for the final art show of the term. I was excited and challenged by it all. I had exhibited in the second Havana Bienale in November, 1986 and have two sculptures in the National Museum of Fine Arts. I was looking forward to May in great anticipation.
This heart event, Type A and Type B Aortic Dissections, a tear from chest to pelvis, resulting in a heart attack, a stroke and temporary paralysis on April 4, 2012, Wednesday, was absolutely unplanned.
Less than 48 hours later, after being in two hospitals in Kingston, I was airlifted to Miami, Florida and arrived at Jackson Memorial Hospital at 12:30am, on April 6, Friday. It was Good Friday, a full moon and my 58th birthday.
I had series of tests throughout the night. I was sedated and would wake up, fall asleep, wake up and was always told to remain calm. I remember thinking, what else can I do? I’ll just meditate. As I was being wheeled into surgery about 10:30am, the Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Dr. Tomas Salerno held a consent form in his hand. He said, “Miss Chiang, you can die without the surgery, you can die with the surgery and if you do survive, which is 10%, you can lose your memory, your speech or you can be paralyzed”. Without hesitation, I said, “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 58th birthday.” I signed the consent form on April 6, 2012, Friday. The anesthesiologist, Dr. Keith Rodriguez was holding my hand, placed the mask over my nose and said to everyone in the operating room, “OK, everyone, it’s her birthday, let’s sing Happy Birthday!” I remember thinking that my birthday wish was to wake up.
Eleven hours later, I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit and saw my two sisters had flown in from New York. They had arrived only forty five minutes before I did to the emergency room the night before. Immediately, I thought of Andy Warhol who had died from an infection in the hospital after surgery. I asked in a loud voice, “Are you wearing a mask, a hospital gown? I don’t want to catch an infection. Andy Warhol died in the hospital from an infection.” I later found out that my younger sister was quite surprised by my outburst but my older sister attributed my behavior to the medications that I had been administered.
Soon after, I was asking the ICU nurses their birthdays because of my interest in astrology since the age of sixteen. Everyone who knows me, knows that I, invariably, ask that question. One male nurse was named Angel, his birthday February 6, kind, compassionate and caring. I had just met my friend Chungknight, birthday February 6, for dinner on April 3, Tuesday, the night before the heart event. I had plans to meet Chungknight to celebrate my birthday and the full moon on April 6 in the Blue Mountains in Kingston.
The next day, my good friend Asser Saint Val, birthday February 6, who lives in Miami came to visit me in the ICU with another friend, Marie Vickles and her 6 year old daughter Athene. What a coincidence with the birthday, February 6, Chungknight, Angel and Asser. As it has been said, coincidence is God’s way of telling us to pay attention.
After watching me ask my usual, “When is your birthday?” my sisters were relieved that that part of me was still intact.
Recently, a friend named Patricia asked me why I thought that I had survived this catastrophic medical event. Not only did I survive but I, also, had no residual effects which was a miracle given the circumstances of the tear from chest to pelvis, a heart attack, a stroke and temporary paralysis. I had often thought of that and am always grateful that I did survive. I arrived at the conclusion that my attitude had a lot to do with my outcome. I had too much to do and so much more to accomplish in life. I had people to meet, places to go and things to do. Death was not an option.
This series of work is a continuation of the series, “In a Heartbeat” which I began in June, 2012, only two months after my open heart surgery. In September, 2014, I had a solo show in the Thomas Hunter Project Room in the Ceramics Department at Hunter College. In July, 2015, I was in a three person show at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex in Miami, Florida.
It is not easy to do this work, to remember, to relive the heart attack, the stroke, the paralysis, the panic, the fear, the open heart surgery, the pain, the tentativeness of recovery, the questioning, the anxiety, to try to be a patient patient. In May, 2013, I found out that the aortic dissection is a genetic predisposition in my father’s family but had never been aware of it. That helped a little to explain the question, why did this happen to me? For a year and a half after the surgery, my mind seemed hazy and foggy. I only found out in April, 2015, that I probably had a condition called “pump head” which results from being on a bypass machine during open heart surgery. Pump head is essentially bubbles on the brain. In May 2015, I found out that I still have a tear from chest to pelvis as only 2” of my aorta was repaired in 2012. I need to monitor my blood pressure for the rest of my life.
As I remember more of the details and continue to ask questions, I am able to understand what happened to me. Doing the artwork is helping me to process the entire experience and I am still in recovery. I have always found art to be healing and revealing. I will be able to continue to move forward in faith, step by step with positive energy, attitude and optimism.
My sincere thanks and gratitude to family and friends, near, far and wide, for their support, too many to list but they know who they are. Special thanks to Heidi Russell for her invitation to show in the International Women Artists‘ Salon, Casey Abeson for her installation assistance and The Producers Club for the venue.
Many thanks to Dr. Tomas Salerno and staff at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Miami, FL, Dr. Deepika Misra at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel, NY and Dr. Sandhya Balaram at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s, NY. After viewing my artwork at Hunter College in September, 2014, Dr. Balaram, Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery assisted Ms. Sarah Trignano, Coordinator of Women’s Heart NY in establishing a heart health support group in December which meets every other Monday at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel at 10 Union Square.
My continuing gratitude to Ms. Sydney Fischer, the staff of the Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Rehabilitation Facility, Dr. Y-Uyen Le Nguyen at Charles B. Wang Community Health Center and Dr. Vicken Pavoukian at Lenox Hill Hospital who have all helped and continue to help in my recovery.
I am, also, doing this work to raise awareness about the life threatening conditions of Type A and Type B Aortic Dissections which I had never heard of until my event in 2012. The survival rate is very low and I am extremely fortunate and blessed that I have survived to tell the story and am grateful that I can still do the work.
I just knew that death was not an option.