I should have started CPR. But when I heard my husband gasp, when I saw his chest heave, I didn’t know what to do. Panic rose in my throat like bile.
“Perry!” No response. I shook his shoulder. “Perry!”
Was he breathing? I reached across him to pick up the phone next to the bed and dialed 911. I got the hotel operator.
“Help me, my husband isn’t breathing!”
The line disconnected. I jabbed at the buttons, frantic. Another phone rang but it was in the sitting area, twenty feet away. I scrambled off the bed and grabbed the phone. It was the 911 operator.
“Do you know CPR?”
“Yes, I think so,” I said, “I don’t know. I took it ten years ago. I don’t remember. What do I do, what do I do?” I heard my voice rising.
“Stay calm,” she said. “Remove any pillows from behind his head.”
I dropped the phone and ran back to the bed, pulled the pillows from behind Perry’s head and tossed them to the floor. His eyes were still closed and he was not moving. I ran back to the phone.
“Is he breathing?” she asked. “Can you move him to the floor so he can lay flat?”
There was a knock at the door. A man from the front desk appeared, an apparition in white with shoulder length blonde, wispy hair, so pale his eyebrows looked transparent.
“What can I do to help?” he asked in soft voice.
The 911 lady had mentioned CPR, but I couldn’t form the words to say it to the blonde man. “Help me move him to the floor,” I said as we both started toward the bed.
He reached under Perry’s shoulders while I lifted his legs as we transferred him to the floor. I ran back to the phone.
“The paramedics are on their way,” the operator said. “I am going to stay on the line with you until they arrive.”
I listened to her voice while I looked at Perry, who was lying on the floor with his eyes closed. The man from the hotel stood by watching, too. Was Perry turning blue? You hear people use the phrase ‘paralyzed with fear,’ but before that moment, I hadn’t understood what it meant. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t act. I stood, listening to the voice of the 911 operator, knowing that there was probably something else I should have been doing, but unable to move.
Then I heard sirens and in minutes, paramedics swarmed the room, two of them, then four, then six, carrying oxygen tanks and what looked like giant toolboxes.
“You may want to step outside, ma’am,” said one of the paramedics, taking the phone from my hand.
But I still couldn’t move. My feet were rooted to the floor and my eyes were locked on Perry’s body.
It was supposed to have been a quick overnight trip to Portland, Oregon that weekend of June 6, 2003. Fly up on Friday for the family bar mitzvah on Saturday, then fly back to Los Angeles — twenty-four hours carved out of a hectic home and work life. Perry, a bankruptcy attorney, was nearing the peak of his career at age forty-seven. He was due to leave on a business trip the following week. I worked as an administrator for the Los Angeles Unified School District and had just returned from a conference on data analysis the day before.
Perry and I juggled home and work responsibilities, although our two sons were nearing the age where they didn’t need much attention from us. Zack, our older son at eighteen, had just graduated from high school and was starting college in the fall. Paul was fifteen and finishing his freshman year in high school.
The bar mitzvah was for the son of Perry’s cousin, Laurie, and her husband Gary, both rabbis. I had asked Perry if it was worth it, this quick trip on an already busy weekend. We were scheduled to attend a reunion at Zack’s elementary school on Sunday in Los Angeles.
“Family is important,” Perry said. “We should make the effort. Plus my Aunt Isa and cousin Marc are coming all the way from Florida.”
Things got complicated after we booked our flights. Zack and Paul’s roller hockey team won a qualifying game for the championship, which would be played on the Friday night we were supposed to leave. Perry rescheduled flights so that the two of us would fly to Portland first, then the boys would come after their hockey game that night. The timetable was carefully orchestrated: one of the hockey moms would take them to the airport after the game to catch a flight to San Francisco, then they’d switch planes to Portland.
That Friday afternoon, when Perry and I flew to Portland together, we savored the hours we had together without the boys. Even though we had been married over twenty years, moments alone together were rare. We checked into the hotel, then explored the downtown neighborhood. In the evening, we had dinner with his cousin Marc. All through dinner, we had been tethered to the boys via cell phone. First, the jubilant call, “We won! We’re the champions!” Then calls from the airport, “We made it to the gate,” “We landed in San Francisco and are boarding for Portland now.”
After dinner, Perry and I strolled to Powell’s bookstore and by 11:00 p.m. we were in our hotel room waiting for midnight when we would leave to pick up the boys from the airport. Perry dozed on the bed at the Benson Hotel, while I read a book – Sixpence House, by Paul Collins, which I had just bought at Powell’s. I checked my watch. One more hour to go. Then I heard Perry gasp, saw his chest heave with a sharp intake of breath.
The paramedics began CPR but Perry was still, silent, not breathing. After a dozen compressions, they seemed to have given up. One of them unpacked the defibrillator. Were they moving in slow motion? Or was it that they could not move as fast as my heart was beating? It seemed like hours passed before paddles were placed on Perry’s chest to administer shocks. Once. Twice.
“A heartbeat!” said one of the paramedics. “We need to intubate!”
I couldn’t watch but I couldn’t move.
“He’s aspirating!” I heard one of the paramedics say as Perry coughed.
A flurry of activity surrounded him, blocking his body from my view. He was loaded onto a gurney and moved out to the hallway.
“You can ride in the front with me,” said one of the paramedics, guiding me toward the door. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she was slim, like a model. I looked at the floor littered with wrappings from bandages, syringes and other medical detritus. There was a bright orange stain on the carpet where Perry had aspirated. Was it the cioppino he had for dinner? I stopped. What did I need to take with me? My shoes. All I brought to Portland were sandals and dress shoes. My journal. My cell phone charger. His wallet. My toes will get cold. I need socks. I only have my thin sweater. I need to reach the boys. I grabbed Perry’s dress socks and stuffed them in my tote bag. When I reached the open doorway, a woman from the hotel stopped me.
“Is there anything I can do?” she asked. I stared at her for a few seconds, bewildered. What needed to be done other than get him to the hospital?
“I need to reach my sons,” I blurted. “They are landing at midnight and they are expecting us to pick them up.”
I jotted down their cell phone number and rushed out the door to the service elevator where the paramedics were waiting.
“We’re going to Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital,” the ambulance driver said, as I slid into the front seat. “They have the best cardiac care in the state of Oregon.”
As we raced off, sirens blaring, I heard voices from the back calling to Perry.
“Oh, maybe he is conscious,” said the ambulance driver. “It’s a good sign that they are calling his name.”
Instead of heading toward the lights of downtown, we climbed up a forested hill, into blackness. The heavy ambulance swerved and swayed around hairpin turns until we reached the emergency entrance of the hospital. I jumped out of the front seat but before I could turn around to see where the gurney was going, a woman ushered me to a private room. I have no recollection of what she looked like or what she said but I must have given her the basic facts, his name, date of birth, insurance coverage. I didn’t remember telling her that he had complained of indigestion after dinner and that we’d stopped and bought him Rolaids after we went to Powell’s or that he was being treated by our family doctor for heartburn and she gave him a prescription for acid reflux or that he was on Lipitor but had lost a lot of weight in the last two years and his cholesterol was down to normal. All of those facts were noted on his intake form so it must have come from me. I only remembered that she gave me a consent form to sign, and then left the room.
A few minutes later, another woman came into the room.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked. “I’m the hospital social worker.”
They were being so nice to me — a private room, personal service. I didn’t know how to answer. Was he alive? Was he going to be able to walk out of this hospital?
I shook my head and she left. There were four or five hard-backed plastic chairs in the room along with a coffee table with magazines and bright fluorescent lights. I sat in one of the chairs and swung my legs, not knowing what to do with my hands. I reached for my cell phone and called Zack, hitting the “Call” button over and over even though I knew they were still in the air, they could not have landed yet. It went to voicemail immediately.
I fished out my journal and jotted, “If there is a God, he would help me now.”
I prayed: “Please God, don’t let him slip away. He’s too young to take leave of this world.”
Over and over, I told myself, “He will survive, he must survive.”
Was it only a few hours ago when I looked in the mirror at the Benson Hotel and thought, “What a wonderful life we have?” We had worked so hard to get to this place in life — successful in our careers, our kids in private schools and fortunate to have the financial means to take a quick weekend jaunt to Portland. It didn’t seem that long ago that we were VISTA volunteers living off subsistence wages and pooling our food stamp allotment. Earlier that day at the airport, Perry had upgraded our seats to first class using his frequent flier miles.
“Why are you wasting your miles on this trip?” I asked. “Save them for a longer trip, when we take our next family vacation.”
But he smiled, then planted a kiss on my lips. “What better time than now? Let’s indulge, it’s just you and me.”
We sipped cocktails in the Red Carpet lounge then lunched on raw vegetable salads during the flight. It had seemed so excessive, all this luxury for such a short flight. When we were approaching the landing in Portland, I reached for his hand like I always did, because flying made me nervous. When the wheels hit the tarmac with a bump and screech, I tightened my grasp. Perry flexed his muscles, his show of strength as my protector.
In the hospital waiting room, I didn’t scream, although every cell in my body was telling me I should. Cold seeped through the linoleum floor. I put on Perry’s socks. My back ached from the stiff chair. I found an outlet and plugged my cell phone into the charger. When the doctor from the emergency room opened the door, it felt as if I had been there for an hour but it had only been twenty minutes.
“The paramedics saved your husband’s life,” he said. “He had a massive cardiac arrest but he’s stabilized. The cardiologist is seeing him now.”
Relief filled my body. Perry was alive. I called Zack’s phone again and again and got voicemail. On my 15th or 20th try, I reached him.
“What’s going on? I have about 30 missed calls,” he said.
“It’s your dad,” I said, panic creeping into my voice. “He’s had a massive heart attack. I don’t know what’s going on. You have to come to the hospital. Take a cab from the airport.”
My hand was shaking as I read the address of the hospital from the intake form but I couldn’t seem to stop it. Then the cardiologist appeared and led me through the corridor to Perry’s room. Outside the doorway, he stopped.
“Your husband suffered two insults to his body,” he said, in a clipped British accent. I focused on the gap between his two upper front teeth. “The first insult was a massive heart attack due to an irregular heart beat and a clogged artery. The second insult was to his brain. Because his heart stopped, he stopped breathing. Because no resuscitation was initiated, and I’m not blaming you for not performing CPR,” he added, touching my arm, “your husband had no oxygen flowing to his brain and may have suffered brain damage. Between the time he stopped breathing and the arrival of the paramedics, he was without oxygen for five to seven minutes. Anything longer than four minutes has severe consequences for brain damage.”
My mind tried to process this information. Heart attack? Five to seven minutes? Brain damage? But he’s only forty-seven. We just came to Portland for 24 hours. He has a business trip coming up. We have vacation plans. The doctor’s words – “Because no resuscitation was initiated, and I’m not blaming you for not performing CPR” – pinged somewhere deep inside me, but not in a place I would be able to hear for many years to come.
“Our immediate action is to perform an angioplasty to open up the artery with a stent,” he continued. “As with any procedure, I have to inform you of the risks.”
He looked into my eyes. I nodded but the words weren’t really sinking in. I was floating away, this wasn’t my life.
“The risks are severe bleeding, or stroke, in rare cases. But I’ve already performed six today.” He handed me a consent form on a clipboard. “The risk of not doing it at all is, of course, death.”
The boys arrived at that moment, ushered in by an emergency room nurse. Zack came through the door first, alarm and seriousness on his face. He inherited my Chinese features and my straight black hair, which was now flattened under the baseball cap emblazoned with “Champions 2003” stitched across a pair of hockey sticks. Paul trailed behind and greeted me with a smile that turned to a frown when he registered the shock on my face. At fifteen, he was nearly as tall as his six foot brother but his thin brown hair and fair skin resembled Perry’s. I hugged them one at a time, relieved that I was no longer alone.
Once I gave my consent, the nursing staff wheeled Perry into the operating room and suddenly the fear and panic that I had been holding in was unleashed. I dissolved into sobs and clung to the boys. We finally retreated to separate chairs, exhausted and spent, and waited.
After a long two hours, the cardiologist appeared. “He was given sedatives but he should wake after 24 hours,” the doctor said. “If he doesn’t wake within 48 hours, the consequences are dire. The survival rate is not high; there is only a 50% chance of survival. Of those that do survive, they suffer some form of permanent disability. Full recovery is rare.” He paused, letting us take in the news. “He is being taken back to intensive care and you will be able to see him shortly. Do you have a place to stay?” he asked. “You may be in town for awhile.”
It was five in the morning when I finally climbed into bed at the hotel but I couldn’t sleep. What if Perry died? What would I be without Perry? Even after twenty years of marriage, I still felt the same bone-tingling excitement when his eyes lit up and he smiled at me. We could be surrounded by noise and kids and family but he could always make me feel as if I was the only person in the room.
“I hope I die before you do because I cannot picture life without you,” I had said to him once.
He laughed and said, “Cyn, you know that’s not how it’s going to happen. Women outlive men. I’ll be long gone before you.”
My heart had tightened with fear at the thought. I could not imagine a life without him. But now there was another fear. What if he was brain damaged? What would he be like without a fully functioning brain? What would become of our marriage, our home, our family, our life? And somewhere at the edges of everything, still too deep to be a conscious thought, was the tiny ping, the little alarm: Was I to blame?