A Pivotal Moment

I’ve noticed a human tendency, especially among athletes or people whose identity is found in their physical fitness, to equate health with achievement. Having just spent a couple of days sleeping on my cold bathroom floor, I’m certain that health is a gift.

I’ve thought lately about pivotal points in my life. Every person has them, the moments that separate your life into before and after, and certainly having preemies must rank somewhere near the top of mine. But, as I sort through memories that play like horror movie reels, what one moment stands alone?

J’s delivery was so rushed. Once the doctors and nurses realized that my labor could not be stopped, they prepped me for not just an emergency C-section but for emergency surgery with full anesthesia. As I lay tipped back in the hospital bed, practically standing on my head with my feet toward the ceiling, controlled chaos was all around me, a rotating door of people handing me waivers, advising me of my rights, asking me to choose a NICU downtown, explaining the procedure, taking my blood pressure, informing me on all the ways they would try to save J’s life. It was too much way too fast. My mind was whirling around in on itself, stuck trying to process: I am having this tiny baby now. As they rushed me to the operating room, I was completely disoriented. Someone forgot to tell the interior decorator that if the ceiling is white and the bedsheets are white and the hospital gowns are mostly white, all the patient can see as she’s wheeled to her fate is white, as if she’s already dead and on her way to Heaven. As they popped open the operating room doors and the bright light hit my eyes, I yelled back to my husband a goodbye, a pathetic, last-second, nearly-forgotten goodbye, and I had a pivotal moment. I was lying on an operating room table. All I saw was white and steel. All I could feel was cold. Would I live? Would J live? Would both of us meet on the other side?

Three things strike me about that moment. The first is that you don’t know how many moments you get in life like that, moments when you are certain that your life is either about to be spared or ended. Most of us don’t have many. And when you are spared, nothing in life ever looks the same again. I would say that moment marks the loss of the girl in me and the birth of the woman.

The second thing that strikes me is that I wasn’t alone. An army of people buzzed around me, prepping me for surgery. My doctor was there readying herself to perform one of the more dramatic deliveries of her career, since it’s not everyday you deliver a surprise 26-weeker in the middle of the night to someone you’ve never met. But, I felt more alone than I’ve ever felt. The anesthesiologist and the nurse anesthetist did more than perform their clinical duty; they stepped in for my loved ones. They stroked my cheeks with their fingertips and calmed me with gentle words. I’m glad I didn’t know that some of the best and most challenging work anesthesiologists do is emergency surgery on pregnant women. They made me feel like their only job was to soothe me, to give me some peace. They were incredibly compassionate in a dark place for me. As I waited to fall asleep, all I could see were their eyes. Their smiling eyes I’ll never forget. Their eyes, as I went to sleep. We should all be so compassionate, in whatever it is that we do in life. So much in this world doesn’t matter. It is people who matter, and each one of us deserves love, respect, and compassion.

The last thing that strikes me about that moment is that should I be on an operating table like that again in my life, I want to know that I did the important things and I did them well. Maybe I’m not famous. Maybe my life’s achievements don’t win any awards. But, awards aren’t the measure of a life well lived. Recognition is icing, but it’s not the cake.

Which brings me back to my original point:

Health is a gift. Our choice is what we do with it.

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