They want you to get up and walk right away after the surgery. In the recuperation floor, the nurses’ station stood at the center of the ward, surrounded by patients’ rooms. The exercise routine (at least three times a day) consisted of walking for a spell around the nurses’ station. At first, you went out with a walker—“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, … how art thou cut down to the ground…!” (Isaiah 14:12)—trailing IVs and monitors on wheels, with at least one nurse and perhaps an attending visitor. One circle around the ward was all you could manage at first without collapsing in exhaustion. Gradually the distance increased at the urging of the medical personnel.
These outings eventually became my favorite part of the day. As time went by the IVs and monitors disappeared, and you noticed the rooms of other patients, for whom you instinctively developed a sense of camaraderie, even though we were all too ill for socialization.
Two rooms captured my special attention. One was the room of an elderly female patient who was surrounded by Mennonite women companions. They sat or stood around their friend (or relative) like guardian angels posted at the Gates of Eden—a Praetorian Guard that would not allow evil to enter the room. They came early in the morning with their eyes fixed on their purpose and armed with formidable armor and weapons: long skirts, prayer caps and their lunch in plastic containers. Sometimes they prayed, or sewed, but always visited together and with each other. They took turns and their vigilance was fierce and constant. I liked them, and admired their strength, discipline and solidarity. In the midst of the Slough of the Sick, the Mennonite Room was joyful and full of hope.
Another room was sad and lonely. A young, heavyset woman, always alone, occupied it. Whenever I passed her room, she was facing out the window, which meant her back was always facing the door, her hospital gown gone awry down her bare back. Her room was deadly silent. I wished I’d had the courage—or the strength—to greet or talk to her. I never did.
I stayed in the hospital longer than usual after the surgery. I had developed atrial fibrillation and the doctors confined me so they could monitor the irregularity. After one full week (and a grand total of 11 days), they discharged me as suddenly as they had admitted me. Having fought so hard to escape the hospital at first, I did not want to leave. I enjoyed the company of the doctors and nurses, was concerned about my atrial fibrillation, and feared for the future. I knew something new had become part of my soul, and did not understand it.
I found comfort in the wisdom of the attendant who pushed my wheelchair to the front entrance of the hospital, while Margarita rescued our car from the parking lot. Seeing me nervous and distraught, she spoke: “You don’t heal anywhere as well as you heal at home.”
There is something silent and sinister, inexpressible and beyond words, about the experience of open-heart surgery. I attributed the dread that I felt for weeks after the surgery to my increasing conviction that I had been assigned a task for the future—“You’ll have a new heart!” the medical assistant had prophesied—that I had not yet discovered. Then I noticed that friends and colleagues who knew about my heart troubles approached me as if I had come back from the dead—a messenger from that “undiscovered country” that Shakespeare’s Hamlet alludes to. They treated me—still do so today—as if I were the Risen Lazarus.
Then I remembered a probable alternative cause for my post-op anxiety. The Apostle John writes in his Gospel that after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests plotted how “they might put Lazarus … to death.” The priests had observed that because of the Risen Lazarus, “many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus” (KJV, John 12: 9-11).
In Martin Scorsese’s film of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ, Lazarus is killed days after his resurrection. It made all the sense in the world to me.