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Life after surgery is sweet indeed

By Walter Jowers

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Some years back, wife Brenda, who's a nurse, took care of heart-bypass patients fresh out of the operating room. She told me what to expect: I'd wake up with a tube down my throat, and I wouldn't be able to talk or breathe on my own. The tube would carry air in and out of my lungs. Stay calm, don't fight the machine, she said. She assured me that when I was good and awake, somebody would come and take out the tube.

When the nurses came to take me to surgery, I stuck up both hands. Brenda squeezed the left, Episcopal minister Bob Cowperthwaite squeezed the right. I choked back a tear or two, then laid still for a two-nurse dry shave, neck to ankles. The next memory I have is of Brenda's voice, then internist John Gibson's voice. As best I can recall, each of them came over and squeezed my left hand.

Things go hazy after that, until I started choking, "fighting the tube," as Brenda called it. The tube is about the size of a drinking straw, and it wasn't giving me anywhere near the air I wanted. I tried to raise my hand to wave to somebody, but both of my hands were in cloth restraints. So I tapped on the right bed rail and pointed to the tube. Nobody came. Then I started tapping the left bed rail. Suddenly, I felt like I was drowning, so I started kicking the footboard and rattling both sides of the bed as hard as I could.

I heard a woman's voice to my right. "What is he doing?" I thought, I'm choking to death. Get over here. Just about then, there were plenty of people around my bed. Somebody stuck a second tube into my mouth and sucked out some foam I'd just coughed up. Another one said, "He's awake. I'm pulling his tube."

I felt the thing come out, and I drew the best breath of my life. I believe I said, "Thank you." After that, things went a little hazy again.

Dr. John Lea did five bypasses on my gummed-up coronary arteries. I know, five sounds like a lot. But Lea tells me that he's done as many as nine. The best news, Lea said, was that when he had my heart in his very hands, he looked for damage and found none. From all he could tell, I had not had a heart attack, not even a little one. I trust his hands-on view was a little better than the X-ray view three days earlier, which led my docs to believe that I'd had a minor heart attack, near the base of my heart.

I had dodged the family curse. Average age of death on both sides of my family, over the previous two generations: 50. It would've been worse, but for the aberration of my full-time-drunk, chain-smoking grandfather George Jowers, whose carefree lifestyle carried him into his 70s.

One thing I can tell you about getting bypass surgery: Just as soon as you're able to talk, every man you know 35 or older will want to know exactly what the warning signs--the chest pains--felt like. For those of you I haven't talked to in person, mine went like this: a narrow band of mild discomfort in the front, above the nipples, armpit to armpit. A couple of times, it made me feel a little sick and weak, and once it made my jaw and left elbow hurt. If I put all my chest pains together--and they were spread out over a week--they hurt less than five minutes of a badly ingrown toenail.

Every woman I know wanted to know why I waited a week to go to the doctor. Actually, they wanted me to tell them why men in general ignore grave warning signs and seem to prefer death to doctoring. Over the last two weeks, I've devoted about two-thirds of my waking hours to this puzzle. I think I've got it: It's the testosterone. If you don't believe me, find a really open-minded endocrinologist who'll put you on the testosterone patch.

Testosterone doesn't just make men's reproductive plumbing work, it controls the way we think. It makes us think we've got a shot at Liv Tyler. It makes us think we can attract women by transplanting ass hair onto our bald heads. Testosterone doesn't completely erase our free will and judgment, but on our worst days, it can make a man with chest pain think, Too much chili. Again. And it can keep him thinking that way for at least a week.

I probably should be depressed. I've got to spend the rest of my life on a strict diet-and-exercise program. Sylvan Park Restaurant pie--even the sweet potato--is completely out of the question. Still, somehow, I'm euphoric. Here's why: I've been hearing the whistle of this incoming bomb, day and night, since my daddy died in 1971. Two weeks ago, the bomb hit. I saw the flash and felt the heat, and by God, when the dust cleared, all I had were flesh wounds. I'm just going to consider it my own little personal miracle.

The docs tell me that if I behave myself, I'll see grandchildren, maybe even grown grandchildren. So I will behave. Life at the Jowers house is a simple life, but it's a good and happy life, a fair bit better than I deserve. I plan to enjoy every minute of it. That's the only thing that makes sense to me right now. Hell, even scratching chigger bites is way, way better than being dead.

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