It’s almost my birthday.
I was born prematurely. Very prematurely. My heart was not fully formed and I could not breath properly. I was purple and wrinkled, only slightly larger than a can of Coke. The doctors said that I probably had brain damage. My heart stopped and I had to be put on a ventilator. A priest came to baptize me and give me last rights. When it was time to insert an IV, the nurse couldn’t find a large, viable vein in which to place the needle, so it went into my scalp. I still have the scar.
My heart required surgery, but at that time there were no physicians in town qualified to perform it. I needed to see a specialist trained to operate on babies. There was a highly esteemed public university with a medical school and affiliated hospital a hundred miles away. I was sent there.
I went in an ambulance, with my mother and father following behind. It was a bad winter that year and there was still snow on the roads going over the mountains. My mother said that it took forever to get there, and they were driving at night. She’d just had a C-section, so I can only imagine the physical pain she was in, to say nothing of the psychological stress.
We arrived at the University hospital and the special pediatric surgeon and team went to work.
He had to go in through my back. I was too small and fragile to open up my chest.
This is what I picture: four or five adults in hospital scrubs, with face masks on, bent over a tiny, naked purple infant laying on its stomach, the legs and arms bent like frog’s legs, with an IV needle in its scalp, under the harsh, bright lights of the operating room.
I was an animal. Couldn’t talk. No identity. No personality. Not even viable. Less than a monkey, really.
The doctor cut open my back and reached down to my heart. How big was it…? The size of a grape..? A walnut…?
He fixed the valves, and sewed me back up.
I stayed in the hospital for a long time. I was on a ventilator, then an incubator. Eventually, though, I was strong enough to go home.
They told my mother that I might be retarded, but my intellect turned out just fine. I was very quiet, though, and it took me a long time to speak. I think it’s because I was in the incubator for so long, and didn’t get much human touch, but that is just my armchair speculation.
The medical bills cost over $100,000. My mother had just started a new job, and the health insurance didn’t kick in for another three weeks. Yes, she missed it by three weeks. If I’d been born on time, everything would have been fine…but she was uninsured when she went into labor.
She paid the medical bills every month for twenty years. I was in college by the time she paid it off.
When I was 26, I looked up the name of the surgeon who operated on my heart. I wanted to send him a thank-you card. I wanted to tell him that he saved my life, and now I am a healthy young woman. I wanted to send him a picture of the scar on my back from where he went inside.
I would have liked to send a thank-you card to all of them–the people in the ambulance who drove me over the mountains, the nurses in the OR…even the priest who baptized me, and you know how I feel about clergy. But I couldn’t find them.
I’m not a fan of mankind. In many ways, I have divorced myself from humanity–that’s the alcoholism. But when I consider the truly heroic effort that went into saving my life, I feel humbled.
That’s all. There’s nothing else.