One month ago this past Saturday, Mrs. T and I were sitting on the couch in our living room in upper Manhattan, watching Gone With the Wind on TCM, when she went into a full-scale respiratory crisis arising from pulmonary hypertension, the illness for which she is awaiting a double lung transplant. I called 911 at once, and an ambulance arrived a few minutes later and rushed her to the emergency room of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, her transplant center. Twenty-four hours after that, she was moved across the street to the hospital’s intensive-care unit. She’s been there ever since.
I’ve been posting fairly frequent updates about her condition on Twitter and Facebook, but it occurred to me over the weekend that it was time for me to write a more detailed report on how she’s doing now, and to make it more widely available by posting it in this space. Here it is.
* * *It would be an understatement to say that things were touch-and-go during Mrs. T’s first two weeks in the ICU. We nearly lost her the first night, and in order to save her life, she had to be put on an ECMO machine, a heart-lung support system. Several more days went by before the doctors were able to stabilize her vital signs and take her off the machine. By then, the transplant team feared that she had grown too frail to survive surgery, which led to serious discussions about removing her from the transplant list and putting her in “comfort care,” a not-very-subtle euphemism for hospice care.
That was when Mrs. T knew she had to start pushing back—hard.
The very next morning, she started making dramatic progress in her daily physical-therapy sessions. By the beginning of her third week in the ICU, it was clear to everyone that she was well on the way to building up enough stamina to stay on the transplant list, and she continues to grow measurably stronger with each passing day. Three weeks ago, she could only walk 15 feet on her bedside treadmill; on Saturday, she walked 460 feet. This is what marriage is all about: I have never been prouder of my gallant spouse, or loved her more.
We’re now concentrating on the equally daunting challenge of putting weight back on Mrs. T, who’s lost an alarming amount of it. This is easier said than done, for the meds that she takes have made her anorexic, on top of which she doesn’t much like hospital food (as who does?). Fortunately, she’s getting used to the limitations of the cuisine at New York-Presbyterian, which I augment with whatever she asks for. Above all, she understands that for now, she’s got to view eating as work, not pleasure.
In addition, her palliative-care doctors have persuaded her to be more sensible about taking full doses of her pain medication, which she had previously shunned out of fear of addiction but now realizes is essential so that she can continue to make progress in physical therapy. (It simply hadn’t occurred to her that physical pain is debilitating in and of itself!)
So far as we now know, Mrs. T will have to remain in the ICU until a pair of donor lungs finally becomes available and she is successfully transplanted and has recovered from the surgery. Until then, she will likely need high-flow supplemental oxygen around the clock, which is something she can’t get at home. She’s gradually growing accustomed to the prospect, though, and we’re a lot more optimistic today than we were a month ago, back when things were looking grimmer by the hour.At the same time, it’s also true that we’re playing an increasingly urgent waiting game. To be sure, Mrs. T is at the very top of the transplant priority list, but she needs a pair of lungs from a donor of short stature with A-positive or O-type blood, and such folk don’t come along every day, or even every month. The truth is that we haven’t gotten a single donor offer since last August, when we received two Big Calls in a row, each of which fell through a few hours later. Since then, our cellphones have yet to ring. As for me, I came pretty close to burning out last month, but once it became clear that Mrs. T’s condition had become reasonably stable, she insisted that I get out of town for a couple of days and let the ICU nurses worry about her. I went to one of our favorite retreats by the Delaware River, where the staff took loving care of me. (We’ve been going there for fifteen years, and they know all about Mrs. T’s condition.) In addition, my editors at The Wall Street Journal ordered me to take two weeks off—no shows, no deadlines, no nothing—and I still have a week of down time left. Thanks to all this, I’m finally starting, very gradually, to feel like myself again.
Meanwhile, I visit Mrs. T in the ICU every day, bringing whatever food sounds good to her—she had a yen for cinnamon graham crackers the other day—as well as anything else she asks for. It helps that New York-Presbyterian is only a mile from our apartment, a reminder that we were smart to move to this neighborhood ten years ago in preparation for her eventual transplant. The TV in her room is hooked up to TCM, so we watch the eight o’clock movie together most nights. In recent days Teachout Theater has presented Harry and Tonto, The Phenix City Story, Ride the High Country, and Written on the Wind. Except for the part where she’s in a hospital bed hooked up to six IV lines, it’s kind of like being at home, sort of.
And that’s where we stand as of today. Yes, it’s been rough—terrifyingly so—but things aren’t nearly as bad as they were, and I’m starting to think that we might get through this, thanks in no small part to your support. Mrs. T isn’t quite ready for outside visitors yet, but we’re hoping that will come soon. In the meantime, your kind words and good wishes continue to buoy us up as we wait, watch the clock, and hope.