Heart Matters Excerpt: Healing Robot

The following is an excerpt from my book, Heart Matters.  This story is particularly close to me, as it involves my son, Nicholas:It’s hard to explain to your children why Mommy is frantically searching for her socks in the middle of a calm crisp Sunday afternoon.  Why she is running to her car with her sneakers in her hand.  Why she is speeding off with the flashers on.

When I returned home later that day, having saved a life, I was greeted by a note on my front door from a neighbor who was “commenting” on the speed of my departure from the house.  To say the note was nasty would be an understatement.  I sat down at the kitchen table, noting the blood that had soaked through my canvas sneakers and onto my white ankle socks and mentally wrote an apology note to my neighbor explaining  that I “just had to get to Blockbuster and pick up the latest release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off before the store closed.

My socks, my sneakers, and my rate of speed are immaterial to me as long as no one gets hurt.  The “no one” that I am most worried about hurting, however, is my children.  It is hard for them to understand the demands of our jobs, especially when we are called away suddenly.  And so my husband and I, out of pure love for our children, have a special way of handling the head-on collision between our work lives and our home lives.  We incorporate the kids, on some small level into our working world rather than isolate them from it.  There are some parents who keep their work lives entirely separate from their home lives.  When they are at work–they work.  When they are home–there is no mention of work.  And the two shall never meet.  For us, this is impossible, and we have found that making the children feel like they are a part of what we do each day gives them the sense of belonging to part of a greater good.  They get a sense of responsibility and a sense of control over the situation.  They take ownership of what is happening rather than being victims of it.

For an example, when my husband gets called in to do a liver transplant in the middle of the night, it invariably wakes up our five-year-old, Nicholas.  (I could do an open heart surgery case in the middle of Gabriel’s room and he wouldn’t so much as roll over in his sleep.)  My husband, Nick, will take the time to explain to Nicholas what he is doing.

“Where are going, Daddy?”

“Well, Tiger, there is sick patient who needs a liver transplant tonight.  Right away.  I have to get on a helicopter and go and get the liver.”  I believe Nicholas thinks that donor livers come from stores and we have to fly to the store to get them because we haven’t yet told him that they come from dead people–a bit too much for a five-year-old.

“What color is the helicopter?”  Nicholas always wants to know details about what’s going on and I think this helps him to picture it better in his mind.

“Blue and silver.”

“Will you wear a seat belt?”
“Of course.”

“Do they have snacks?”


“Tell me about the patient, Daddy.”  Nick will talk about the patient in terms of what he does, where he lives, and what his family is like so Nicholas can get a sense of the person and not the disease.

“What’s the patient’s name?”  Nicholas always asks this,


“Let’s say a prayer for Jonas, Daddy.”

Nick and Nicholas will say a prayer for the patient so he has a “good operation” and “feels better.”  So now, Nicholas knows where Daddy is going and why.  He also feels like a part of the process because he believes, in a most sincere way, that his prayers will help this patient as much as Daddy’s surgical skills.  Nick will also follow up with Nicholas to let him know how the patient is doing each day and Nicholas is delighted about being included in Daddy’s daily reports.

On weekends, especially on days like Mother’s Day, when I seem to always be on call and have to make rounds (how I wish they’d invent a new holiday called Working Mother’s Day specifically for moms who work so we could have the day off),  I often bring the boys to the hospital with me .  This delights the nurses, who then ply them with apple juice, graham crackers, and Jell-O until they “spin” from the sugar high that they never get at home.

“Don’t go to work today Mommy, please don’t go.”  The words pierce my chest like a well-tossed javelin.

“Do you want to go with me?”  I say to my sons.

“Sure.”  Both of their little faces light up.

We hold hands as we glide from room to room checking in on patients who are in various stages of recovery from heart surgery.  I was examining the surgical incision of one particular patient when Gabriel asked, “What’s that?” pointing to the man’s chest.  “It’s his incision, honey.” I replied.

“it’s a crack-a-cision?” Gabriel asked.

I thought about it for a moment.  Well, of course, to a three-year-old, an incision would look like a crack in the body.  It was his interpretation of what he was seeing and I just wen with it.

“Yes, it’s his crack-a-cision.”

“How come he has a crack-a-cision?”

“So he can feel better.”

You could see the gears turning in his head.  He was trying to figure out how a pretty nasty-looking “crack” like that could actually make a person feel better.  It looks more like a very painful, yet well-placed, lethal injury.  And, yes, I admit that it is a bit strange that we, as heart surgeons, can violate the human body in such a grotesque way and actually improve a patient’s outcome.  We heal by penetrating the chest and manipulating the core of our human physiology.  How crazy is that?

When we get to intensive care, Gabriel, a little shy, just wants to “see the bones,” and so I plop him down in front the X-ray viewing machine to look at the morning’s chest X-rays to his heart’s content.  Nicholas, more adventurous, wants to “see the patients with the zipper” (referring to my sternotomy incisions).  It amazes me how this little boy will walk right up to a patient lying in an ICU bed, with nine different tubes and hoses going into and out of his body, on a ventilator, completely unconscious, and touch his hand and whisper (so he “doesn’t wake him”),  “Hope you feel better.”  He’ll then smile at me proudly as if he has just cured the patient of cancer.  He feels good.  He feels proud.  He feels like he has played a part in the patient’s healing.  He is not filled with fear.  He is filled with hope, as in “Hope you feel better” –his own words.  His own contribution.

I suppose that is how it came to pass that he started drawing “healing robots” for my patients.  Nicholas loves art.  Colored pens and paper are his constant companions and he is always sketching something.  One morning he asked me, “Mommy, who is your sickest patient?”

“Richard,”  I replied.  “He has water on his lungs and is very, very sick.”

Nicholas made a drawing of a robot and explained to me that this was a “healing robot” and “if you put it in Richard’s room, it will make him get better.”  And so I did.   I taped it to the blank wall in Richard’s room that he stared at every day, all day, and guess what?  He got better.

Sometimes I feel like a healing robot–a two dimensional piece of paper  taped to a wall, not doing anything medically or surgically for patients but somehow, indirectly, helping them to get better.  To heal them just by being there in their room.

“Who is your sickest patient today, Mommy?”

“Oh, Nicholas, today I have a very sick patient.  Her name is Kimberly and she is a mommy.  She has a son just like you, except older.  He sleeps in his mommy’s room at the hospital every night because he loves her so much.”

Kimberly was an amazing woman who cared deeply about everyone around her and thought little of her own well-being.   Riddled with metastatic cancer, she would greet me each morning by asking me how I was feeling.  I had a lousy cold.  She had metastatic cancer.  Fluid had accumulated around her heart, known as a pericardial effusion, which had been surgically drained.  Every day I would check the drainage tube that had been left in place to see how much it had drained overnight.  The tube needed to be removed in order for her to go home–to go home to die.  This damn tube held her hostage at the hospital because it kept draining liters of fluid.

Two days before she died, I went to see her and she did not look good at all.  She was ashen, slumped in her chair and her dark, dank hair hung limp around her face.  Her breathing was labored and shallow.

“How do you feel today?” she asked me as always, except that her words were more feeble and breathless.

“I feel like we should move to intensive care today, that’s how I feel,” I replied, which made her chuckle.

“That’s a heck of an answer.  Is your cold really that bad that you need to be in intensive care?”

I just smiled at her wryness.  She used to be a comedian and I suppose that humor was the last vestige of her life that she had left.  She had carried the torch for two clocks of its cross-country journey in the 1984 Olympics and this was last leg of her race.

The day she moved to the ICU was the day she officially became my sickest patient on rounds.  It was also the day that Nicholas drew her a healing robot.  Actually, it wasn’t a healing robot per se; it was a healing rainbow.  Nicholas drew a beautiful picture of the sun and a rainbow.  When I asked Nicholas why he drew Kimberly a rainbow instead of a robot, he replied, “Because Kimberly needs to go over the rainbow to get better.”  Now, mind you, Nicholas knew nothing of this woman’s grave illness and the fact that she was about to die.  I found that rainbow deeply prophetic.

The following morning, rainbow in one hand, Scotch tape in the other, I went to Kimberly’s room in the intensive care unit.  Her son was asleep on a cot next to her bed.  He was wearing headphones and was breathing the soft, comfortable, evenly paced breath of someone fast asleep.  Kimberly was in a rumpled hospital bed with the side rails pulled up.  Her face was partially obscured by an oxygen mask.  Unlike her son’s breathing, her breath was agonal and came in spurts.  Ling, slow breaths followed by pregnant pauses.  Although it was a beautiful Southern California morning, none of the day’s sunlight seemed to pas through the window of Kimberly’s room, although I can’t quite explain why.  In one corner of the room lay her and her son’s personal items stuffed into four plastic hospital bags.  They had simply been stacked in the corner and hadn’t been put away, as if the move from her other room on the regular ward was a hurried one.  Perhaps it was.

Kimberly opened one eye and, with a weary look, took notice of my taping up the picture.  I told her that my son had drawn her a healing rainbow.  She didn’t hear me or at least didn’t acknowledge she had.  It didn’t matter.  I taped it high enough on the wall across from her bed so it would be at eye level if she opened her eyes.  She never did.  As I turned to leave the room, having done nothing medically or surgically to help Kimberly, her son awoke.  Half asleep, he poured himself into a chair nest to the side of his mom’s bed.  His movements were slow and well rehearsed as if this is what he did upon waking every morning.  He looked at his mom awash in sickness and tried to get closer to her by leaning over the bed rail and placing his arm around her head to cradle her in its crook.   He didn’t notice me standing there, the two-dimensional healing robot, doing nothing–until I spoke.

“Do you want to get in bed with your mom?” I asked.

“Is that possible?” he said, a bit bewildered.

“Everything is possible.”

I called the nurse in, an exceptionally kind nurse indeed, and together she and I gently moved Kimberly to the far side of the hospital bed to make room next to her for her only son.  He was a strapping young man in his twenties, yet gently, so very gently, he climbed into bed next to her.

I raised the side rail on his side of the bed, pulled the covers over the two of them, and turned out the lights.   He cuddled her with both arms wrapped around her body and her head rested against his chest just the way I cuddle my sons when they sneak into my bed in the wee hours of the night.

Within three minutes of settling in next to her son, Kimberly took her last breath and died in his arms.  It was as if she had waited for him to get into bed nest to her before she left the earth.  Although I was just a healing robot and did nothing to help this woman medically, at least I gave her that–a beautiful release from her illness, a beautiful exit from this world.  When it’s my time to go, that’s how I want to die.  In the arms of my son.

“How did Kimberly like my picture?”  Nicholas asked when I got home that evening.

“She liked it very much,” I replied.  “And you know what she did?  She went over your rainbow and is feeling much better now.”

And so I say to you, working parents, involve your children in your work.  Do it in a safe and nurturing way that makes them comfortable in your working world.  And maybe, just maybe, they won’t feel so far away from you when you’re at work being a healing