The significance of my brush with death didn’t sink in at first, probably because being alive keeps you pretty busy.
Doctors and nurses were at my bed night and day asking questions, running tests, huddling to figure out what had happened to me at Keck Hospital of USC on the morning of Aug. 23, when I had one foot in the grave for somewhere between 15 and 30 seconds.
Full cardiac arrest.
My heart cut out in post-op after knee-replacement surgery. A nurse immediately began chest compressions, and I was back, unaware that I had flat-lined.
Doctors concluded a few days later that a preexisting irregular heart rhythm had become more frequent, with another scary episode 10 hours after surgery. It was a conduction issue, and I needed an electrical system backup. So I eventually went home a little later than planned, with the artificial knee and a bonus piece of hardware — a pacemaker.
Many thanks to the docs, who were great. But I want to say something about the nurses, too.
Nurses quietly go about their work in a noble profession, uncelebrated soldiers toiling through the days and nights in service to the sick, the injured and the dying.
“It never fails to be inspiring,” said Andrew Fabella, a registered nurse at Keck. He’s the one who knew exactly what to do when my heart stopped, because he’d done it so often in a career that began in 1999.
Fabella came to see me several times in the hospital, tracking me down in the intensive care unit and then in cardiology to see how I was doing. We’d talk about our jobs and our kids, and he said caring for the sick is a point of pride among Filipinos.
“It makes you feel good at the end of the day to know you brought somebody back,” said Fabella, whose wife is also a nurse.
When I got transferred to ICU, I was getting a little grouchy for someone whose life had just been saved. A long knee recovery lay ahead, I was worried about the verdict on my heart, and I was experiencing the unique joy of trying to return to normal body function after the removal of a Foley catheter, about which I’ll say no more.
“It’ll be a little easier each time,” said RN Liz Guillen, who was a constant comfort in telling me what to expect or translating doctor-speak.
Guillen knew her calling in high school, when she worked for a nurse practitioner. She now has one full-time nursing job, a part-time nursing job, and she’ll also be a full-time student at Cal State L.A. next month, when she begins a two-year master’s course to become an acute care nurse practitioner.
That was another thing about my experience — the window into a multicultural L.A. world in which there’s so much striving and self-improvement among solid citizens who are too busy to worry about a lousy economy.
“I love my work,” said Guillen, who appreciates the challenges each patient presents and the constant learning experience. “I enjoy it every single day.”
In cardiology, RNs Anna Kim, Joshua Manikowski, Eugenia Chong and Carmen Cossio were all pros, but I spent the most time with RN Israel Gonzales. When I asked the 30-year-old if he had been a nurse very long, he said no, he’d gone to UC Riverside on a partial cross-country scholarship and left with an MBA. He and his dad started a Web company they still run.
Then what was he doing in a hospital, with “RN” on his name tag?
“I wanted to take care of my family,” said Gonzales, who grew up in the midst of gang activity in Chino but followed his parents’ advice to focus on education and spirituality. As a kid, he said, his parents took him to rallies for social justice and to Native American spiritual ceremonies.
Gonzales helped care for his dying grandmother several years ago, and when an aunt fought breast cancer, he learned that some of his relatives carry a gene mutation that has been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. He decided he wanted to be available to other relatives as they age, helping care for them as well as advise them on exercise and diet. He was also motivated by a report projecting a critical shortage of Latino nurses.
So with an MBA in his pocket and a small business up and running, he went to nursing school, got tapped for a highly competitive residency program at Keck in 2011, and earlier this year was named rookie nurse of the year at the hospital.
“You can teach anyone the skills, but if they don’t have the compassion, it’s just a mechanical process,” said RN John Alexiou, the mentor who nominated Gonzales for the award and advised him that “if you treat every patient as if they’re family, you’ll never do the wrong thing.”
Gonzales said he might one day try to put his nursing and business skills together to start or manage a healthcare company. But for now, he’s happy to be a nurse and he prefers the day shift, when he can better get to know patients and help them get patched up and sent home.
“I like to help,” he said, and he did just that for me.
You walk into a hospital a little nervous or scared, and perhaps feeling alone. Strangers take you in and offer good counsel and comfort, often under difficult circumstances.
To Gonzales, Guillen and Fabella — and to all the others — one word: