Personal Stories: Doug Bakshis

It was Mother's Day, May 15th, at about 9:30 p.m. I was talking on the phone with my mom when I experienced a sudden sharp pain that felt like someone had stabbed me through the roof of my mouth and my jaw locked up. The pain actually brought me to my knees and I had to abruptly end the phone call with my mother. I hoped that it was just some sort of weird spasm and would pass momentarily. After a few minutes, I realized that this pain was not going away and was not likely to pass in the next few minutes.

Immediately, I started running the possibilities through my mind. Stroke? Heart attack? I didn't really know. Several years back my mother had a minor stroke due to a spike in her blood pressure. For good measure, I decided to check mine. It was elevated, but not alarmingly so and for being in some distress it was not a surprise it was elevated. I also checked my blood sugar, thinking I was having some sort of weird diabetic reaction. It was reassuringly normal 96.

I remembered that in the previous month's issue of Men's Health magazine there was an article with a flow chart of heart attack symptoms. I thought I should check it out. I never did find the article for two reasons. One, the words on the page made very little sense to me and two the faces of the people in the magazine were distorted. Every single person in the magazine had a face that was warped and unrecognizable to me. I knew that something was wrong far beyond the ordinary.

At the time, I was going through a divorce and my ex-wife and I still lived in the same house. She took me to the emergency room at Edward hospital in Naperville, Illinois. As I sat at the admissions desk, the only thing I truly remember now is having great difficulty signing my name. After that point in time, everything that occurred for several hours, is either a blur or has been relayed to me. It seems, I repeatedly told the nurses that my hands were cold and numb. Apparently, the next several hours involved a lot of vomiting. I guess I should feel fortunate that I don't remember most of that.

Several hours later, I do remember coming out of a stupor and remember throwing up the last few times just as I had been given a potassium pill because my potassium levels were low. The doctors had not yet come up with a diagnosis for me. Several tests, including a stress test were planned for later. As I began to feel better, I started to feel really stupid for overreacting and wasting a whole lot of money on medical bills.

At some point in time, The cardiologist, Dr. Chris Geannopoulos, visited me and had great difficulty detecting a pulse in my right arm. He ordered a CT scan. I had the scan and went back to my room to wait. The stress test was still scheduled.

After a while, the cardiologist came back into the room, walked over to the television and turned it off. I knew that was not a good sign. He informed me that I had a dissected aorta and needed immediate surgery. I didn't panic, but that is the most scared I have ever been in my life. Not only had I never had surgery before, but I was facing surgery that was necessary to save my life. My only two references for aortic dissections were the actor John Ritter and the writer of Rent, Jonathan Larson. Unfortunately, both had died from an aortic dissection. I was terrified, wondering if these were going to be my last conscious moments. I didn't have any playback of my life or regrets over things I hadn't done. My biggest concerns were that I wasn't going to get a chance to talk to my children before surgery and tell them how much I loved them, just in case, and that not making it through the surgery was just not an acceptable option. It was not going to happen if I had anything to say y about it.

From the point of being told I had to have surgery on is a bit blurry. In the rush, chaos, and madness of being prepped for surgery I don't really remember too much. In part I think it is due to medications kicking in and the non-stop barrage of questions and explanations coming from the medical staff. I half think that they do that so that you don't really have time to think about what is happening to you. Most of my energy was focused on trying to remain calm and not freak out. I don't know how many times a nurse asked, "How are you doing?" or "How are you feeling?" The answer was always the same, "Scared S@&^*@#s!"

To a large degree the whole process of getting ready for surgery is not as bad as I anticipated. Your don't really have time to think, there is so much activity happening, and medications make the whole thing a blur. Thankfully, I only remember bits and pieces of the process. I wonder if our conscious mind has a way of editing those things that are too traumatic out so that we don't have to remember them, much in the way someone in a disaster or car wreck doesn't remember anything. Much like sleep, you aren't even aware of that moments you slip into unconscious. If the process of death is anything like going to surgery, then it isn't as scary as I thought, not that I am in any hurry to try it.

So, while I was in surgery with a machine doing my breathing and circulating my blood for me, my family spent several intense hours in the waiting room. I can't imagine what it was like for them and to be totally truthful, I don't really want to know. I have enough of my own stuff with which to deal. I can't handle any more.

At some point, after the surgery They let me regain consciousness for a little bit. I couldn't speak because I was intubated, but I had to communicate to everyone that I was fine. I was surprised that I was coherent enough to think that I needed to do more than some generic thumbs up hand gesture. I had to do something more specific to me, to truly let them know that I was fine. Quickly, I formed the palm out, split finger gesture made famous by Mr. Spock. Live long and prosper.

The rest of my recovery went pretty smoothly. I made steady progress without any setbacks. About the worst thing to report was a series of very disturbing dreams jolting me out of sleep and being drenched in sweat. The best day part was the day that I was finally allowed to take a shower. Getting sponged off or using one of those shampoo caps is fine as a stopgap measure, but there is nothing compared to the feeling of hot water and soap cascading down your body. The only thing that I was concerned about with the shower was that the force of water hitting the foot long incision down the center of my chest would cause some pain. It did not. On Saturday, I was released from the hospital and spent the next month recuperating at home before returning to work.

For the most part, life is back to normal. There are still days where I experience some pain or fatigue. There are days where I have fears and worries that the surgery failed or that another section of my aorta will tear. I hate those days.

I haven't quite decided how to view one aspect of the surgery of which I am reminded ever single day. Everyday when I get into the shower or get dressed, I have a visual reminder of that surgery, the scar. Fortunately, the surgeon did a great job and I don't have a jagged keloided zig zag running down my chest. It is just a smooth gently curving line. I just wish that it would fade already and not be so visible to me. I am not sure whether it is a reminder of the ordeal I went through and that in this case I was "someone else" (you know, the bad things always happen to "someone else") or if it is a reminder that despite something really bad happening, I am still around. I wonder how I will feel next summer. I have never been very comfortable baring my chest and now that I have a scar on top of it, I don't know how self-conscious I am going to feel the next time I go swimming.

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