We all start every working day with the knowledge that we will be balancing the requirements of the job and attention we devote to it (calls, meetings, presentations, etc.) with what is happening in our personal life on that day. For some, this will mean fitting in a dentist appointment; for others, making sure the children get to school on time, dressed in their favourite book character, and don't wait on the pavement at the end of the school day (you have all my utmost respect!); others might be coordinating house renovation work, hoping for it not to turn into a catastrophe worthy of a Channel 4 programme.
On that Thursday morning, I woke up knowing that at some point in the day, my partner Paulo was going to undergo open heart surgery.
This followed a two-year period where we knew he would need an operation to address a heart malfunction, during which we had conversations with consultants and hospitals on various options, hoping to qualify for a minimally invasive intervention. With covid getting in the way and causing delays, our hope for a planned operation faded as Paulo started showing symptoms and required emergency hospitalisation. Upon further examination, it was becoming clear that the most likely course of action was going to be open heart surgery, and after a 12 day wait in hospital, the operation got confirmed on a Wednesday evening, for the following day.
With hospital visits not allowed, all that was left for me to do was to wait at home, carry on with my day's work, trying not to worry. Here is how the day unfolded.
5am - Awake
Being quite naturally an early riser, and adding to this the nervousness from knowing what was going to happen that day, trying to stay in bed despite being wide awake was pointless. I therefore went on with my usual routine, albeit over an hour earlier than usual. First stop is my home office, to switch on my laptop, tidy up any overnight emails, look at my calendar for the day, and how that might fit with Paulo's schedule; at that point we understood it to be a midday start for the operation, so expecting to speak to him mid-morning before he'd have to get ready, and exchange a few messages prior to that. Inbox tidy and plans clear, off to breakfast, then shower.
7am - Fresh air
Since Paulo had gone to hospital, I started trying to go for morning walks before starting my working day, to clear my head, and make sure I got my steps in. As we are lucky to have the seafront on our doorstep, I set out for my usual itinerary. Quite randomly, I decided to do it in reverse, start by walking through Southsea's high street and grab a cappuccino on the way, rather than rewarding me with it on the way back - maybe I needed the mix of caffeine kick and smoothness to get me going.
As I started walking, the environment around me felt different from other days. Almost as though I was moving in a different reality from everything else around me, because in my reality so much was at stake on this day, when for the buildings, trees, dogwalkers and barista, it was "just another day" - of course I know that isn't fair as anyone else might have been fighting a battle of their own.
7.30am - It's getting real
Paulo and I had been messaging since early morning, and I knew he had already started being prepared for the operation, got into a gown, cleaned and shaved in the appropriate places - thus far, not very different from an underwear model's start of day routine... He then messaged me as he learned that he was now the only one scheduled, and ready to go at any moment. Suddenly the feelings I thought I'd have a couple of hours to process rushed through as it felt that "the moment had come". And, as I was still walking, and just passing an outdoor fitness class with people alternating burpees and short runs - another reminder that the world around me was operating in a different dimension to mine - I knew it might be my last opportunity to give Paulo a call, and reached for my phone, noticing my fingers shaking slightly.
7.35am - See you on the other side
Despite the situation, and feelings which we were both experiencing, our discussion didn't take a dramatic turn, and we focused more on practicalities, what had happened so far in the morning, what doctors and nurses had said, how I would keep myself updated with the hospital, and how in turn I would keep family and colleagues updated. Of course we ended the call with words of love, support, and reassurance, but still stuck to our understated display of emotions, very well aware of what we were both truly feeling.
7.45am - Deep breath
By that point, I had reached the seafront, ready to walk along the coast for a bit before getting back home. The sun was just slowly appearing in the distance, trying to push up the grey clouds, in the same way I was trying not to let my own grey clouds take over. It helped to be outside, take deep breaths of fresh air, as I knew that it would definitely be hours now before I would be in a position to get any news at all from the hospital, and even longer before I could hear Paulo's voice again. I continued with the same feeling of detachment from the reality around me - the Isle of Wight ferry almost felt arrogant in the way it was quietly making its way out of the harbour, continuing its back and forth journeys when in my world it felt like everything had ground to a halt.
8.30am - Showtime
Back in my home office, sitting at my computer, the "real" reality was well and truly back, as I dialled in to my first call of the day, joining it with my characteristic chirpy "good morning!". Luckily, I was speaking with people who knew my situation, and I could therefore explain what was going on and talk about it for a few minutes, which helped me transition into work mode without feeling I had to ignore what was going on in the back of my head, and was met with empathy and compassion. I have written about it before, and it is often said, but it is so true that small attentions and words can make such a great difference in times like these, and I am lucky to have been on the receiving end of these on that day. That said, and regardless of the level of support and compassion received from colleagues, there is always an ever so slight awkwardness in moving on from serious personal matters into business discussions - transitioning from talking about open-heart surgery to progress in recruitment is up there with the type of 180 degree topic changes the likes of which you can find on the One Show. My turn to show a little support and help us swiftly move into the next topic..
I continued my string of conference calls all morning, varying in tones and topics, with opportunities in most to share what was happening that day. Interestingly, on some occasions, opening up about my own situation meant that others also opened up about the challenges they were facing outside of work at the same time, giving us an opportunity to provide some mutual support, which we might have otherwise not had. It is one of the tips most guides in support of mental health will share, but asking people a genuine "how are you" which sounds like you are interested in the response can there too make such a significant difference in someone's day.
12 noon - Lunch in a void
It was one of the days where I successfully managed to protect my lunch break, and after preparing and eating the exact same sandwich, fruit and biscuit as every other day (creature of habit, moi??), I had another little walk around the block for a bit of fresh air. I was very aware at that time that Paulo would have been well into his operation, and that there was absolutely nothing to do but let time pass, and trust the very capable hands he was in.
This wasn't the first time we had been in this situation, as Paulo had to have open heart surgery nearly 10 years ago already. The difference is that this time around, I knew perhaps too much about the operation, having been able to see him in intensive care straight after last time, with a nurse very patiently explaining to me what had happened. So I knew that, as I was walking down the street, Paulo's body temperature would have dropped significantly, his ribcage opened up, lungs emptied to make more space to operate, and heart stopped to be able to operate on, blood now circulating via an external machine. Despite my full and genuine trust in the surgeons, this remained an image that was difficult to get out of my head.
13.00 - And we're back
Back at my desk and ready for the afternoon's events, which started with me being part of a panel judging graduate awards, and hearing from some of our talented graduates talking about their achievements. Interacting with people who are at the start of their career, and bring energy, passion, and innovation in what they do has got to be one of the best parts of the job, and a source of true enjoyment. I was initially afraid to be slightly distracted, and in fact it was quite the opposite, probably the only time in the day I was 100% focused and concentrated on something else, and a great boost of energy for the remainder of the day.
17.00 - No news is good news?
As I am still finishing my last conference call of the day, I see a message flash up on my phone, from Paulo's family, checking in to see whether there had been any news on his operation. This quickly brought my head back out of work mode, into the acknowledgement that, realistically yes, by now we should be in a position to get some news. For a second there, I even had a sense of guilt (which never seems to be very far in any circumstances...) for not seeking to try and call the hospital earlier, reassuring myself in the knowledge that if something had happened, they would have proactively called me. Chasing these thoughts away from my head, and completing my final call, receiving more words of support from colleagues, I got to ring the hospital.
17.20 - Good news is even better news!
Getting through to the intensive care unit, I was welcomed by the calm, friendly and reassuring voice of the nurse looking after Paulo. It was good news, the procedure had been a success (reflecting about the meaning of "success", I think that hearing the word in this context is probably the most powerful..), and Paulo was back in ICU, everything being as they would expect it to. At that point of course, he was still under anaesthetics, and not expected to wake up for a further good few hours. Knowing that I would, again, not manage to stay asleep very late, I agreed to call back for further news first thing the following morning.
I hung up the phone with an immediate feeling of relief and quite literally a weight lifted off my shoulders, somehow feeling lighter, smiling, and with a top up of positive energy. Of course, I had seen him before in ICU straight after the operation, so I know that it remains a critical stage, but I was more than ready to take the confidence and reassurance the nurse was giving me.
I went on to share the news with close family and friends, mindful that I was their only channel for updates, and that many would have been waiting anxiously for an update, and I was delighted to be in a position to give them the same sense of relief I got from the nurse a few minutes before.
18.00 - What now?...
That's it, the first piece of news post operation is positive; I feel reassured, and so do all others who have received the news. The energy levels are still high, and so are the positive feelings. At this point, there isn't much to do but wait some more. So, on with the evening, and another ready-meal for one (yes, Paulo does the cooking..) - I think that the sound of the fork piercing the film of a ready-meal for one before putting it in the microwave will remain a sensory reminder of the feeling of loneliness and worry of that time period... I managed a little bit of light-touch studying, before retreating into the living room for a bit of TV watching, hoping for something light-hearted and entertaining. Luckily, it is Thursday night, and Taskmaster is on, which will do the trick. It is one of the programmes we enjoy watching, and laughing to, together, and as I watch I am happy to feel the reassurance that there will be many more of these evenings.
6.15am - Hello?
Even though I had a more restful night than the night before, the knowledge in the back of my mind that Paulo wasn't out of the woods, and eagerness for me to get some more news meant that I still woke up extremely early, and then again eventually gave up on trying to get more sleep. Torn between the very early hour, and the appreciation that from the perspective of the nurses who would work all night, this wouldn't matter as much, I first had breakfast, before putting me in position with my phone, a paper and notepad to be able to write down any updates, and make sure I relay them accurately to others.
There too, I was greeted by a friendly voice, one which doesn't reflect the fact that the person talking to me had worked hard all night to keep people alive. And much to my relief, the update was still reassuring, Paulo had woken up around 1 o'clock, of course was under a lot of medicine, but had been seen by the consultant, who was pleased with his progress post-operation. There was no issue to report, which was sweet music to my ears. And as I thought we were getting ready to conclude the call, the nurse asked me: "would you like to talk to him?". It hadn't even occurred to me that this might have been possible at all, so soon, so it took me a minute to process this, and confirm that, yes, of course I would! And what I heard next was the voice of someone half asleep and heavy on drugs, and while he wasn't making much sense, just hearing him had a great deal of meaning to me, and never have a few slurred words given me so much joy.
7am - Fresh air again..
And so off I was, starting another day, with another walk by the seafront, but with very different feelings from 24 hours earlier. In fact it felt like much of the feelings from the past 24 hours emerged all at once, and it was the first time in these 24 hours I was allowing these emotions to surface. And as I was continuing to walk, I started feeling a part of the reality surrounding me again.
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