← Back to portfolio

When his heart gave in

Published on 8th May 2017

Ruby hands the pills she took out from the medicine drawer to her husband David as he slowly pulls himself from the couch he had been resting on. It has been six months since the frightful night when he was rushed to the hospital for the fear of a heart attack that had left him screaming in agony on the bathroom floor. It was in fact, a rupture of his valve that had built up due to his awfully high level of cholesterol and his severe smoking addiction. Somehow, he had pulled through the multiple operations including an acutely risky open-heart surgery. But what he is now left with is a wound that does not allow him to go back to his normal life and a trauma that has left the whole family in disbelief.

David lifted heavy weights every day. He was tired of being called the skinny one amongst his siblings since he was a child. But when he started working out hard himself at home and pushing himself to his upmost, he never stopped, and nor or did Ruby. She made sure that every day, her husband had gotten his daily dose of protein. After coming back from a hard day of labor work at the construction site, a plate of eight hard-boiled eggs and four bananas, that too as a pre-dinner eat, would be on his table after which he would finish up the second packet of cigarettes for that day. “Don’t worry, I am balancing out my diet with my workout,” he would say, whenever someone showed concern about his extreme eating habit.

This routine went on for almost two years before the unfortunate day struck him, quite literally. On an exceptionally hot day around mid-June, David cleared his heavy snacks before pulling out two dumbbells from under his bed−forty kilograms each. After being immersed in beads of sweat, he stepped into the tiny bathroom where he would sit down for a drag or two. As Ruby was just finishing doing the dishes, a painful yell disrupted the calm of the house. “Ruby!” David screamed, making her frantically rush over, heart thumping with every step. When she managed to open the bathroom door, she saw her husband sprawled naked on the floor, his hand clutching onto his chest. She immediately dialed 999 as she used every ounce of her petite body to lift up her husband as he continued to growl in hurt. Meanwhile, their six years old daughter watched them in silence, frozen with fear, unable to comprehend the mess.

When one goes in a state of panic, everything seems to slow down. The five minutes wait for the ambulance seemed to take forever as Ruby struggled to stay calm, pacing back and forth, imagining the worst scenarios possible. Within twenty minutes of both chaos and blur, she found herself sitting outside the emergency room, a painful silence engulfing the waiting hall on the seventh floor of the hospital. “Maybe this is all just a nightmare,” she thought to herself, “maybe I will wake up and David will be there, sleeping peacefully beside me.” But she knew this was just her wishful thinking and that she had to deal with the plight that was thrown at her, no matter she was able to or not.

After a distressing wait, a middle-aged doctor walked out of the emergency room, with deep eye bags under his oversized glasses, a clear size of concern and exhaustion. Ruby rushed up to him, desperate to hear any news about her spouse. He explained that it was a very rare case for a relatively young man like David to have his valve burst at this age. “We will try our best to save his life, but the chances of survival after this surgery is only twenty percent,” he said.

Anger and frustration started beating Ruby down. Not at the doctor, nor at situation, but at herself. How had she let David live such an unhealthy life right under her nose, and what’s more, assisted him in doing so? How had she been so blind to what consequences were laid at the end of the path that he was taking? She could not even remember the last time he had measured his blood pressure level, let alone get a thorough body check-up. This could have been preventable had he taken precautious measures, had she been more adamant on encouraging David to quit his smoking habit. Her husband would not have been in this helpless circumstance.

That is the thing about heart diseases though. One moment you are perfectly fine, living your life like any normal person. And the next thing you know, you are on the verge of death, trying to cling on to life with every amount of strength you have left in you. The build-up strikes at you like a meteoroid, with only a slim chance of survival because it is usually a little too late. Since the 1960s, coronary heart diseases have been the third leading cause of death in Hong Kong. The year prior to David’s his near-death experience, cardiovascular diseases had caused 13.2% of the deaths. Ruby could only pray to God that her husband would not add to the horrifying numbers for their year.

Before the operation took place, Ruby was allowed to meet David inside the room. She groggily walked up to him, barely able to support herself with every step weighing her heart down. He lied on the bed whimpering in pain, a green gown covering his body and a green surgical cap around his head. Ruby tried to do everything she could to hold her back from breaking down completely. Millions of questions ran through her mind. Would this be the last time they held hands? Would this be the last time he could hear her? Would he pull through and win against a battle that was already unfavorable to his side? Seeing the one person she loved the most, the one person she found her greatest strength in, in such a vulnerable state shattered her heart. But no, she reminded herself she had to be strong for him.

Ruby slipped in and out of her naps as she waited for the next dreadful six hours throughout the night. Just when she was about to fall into a doze again, a nurse rushed out of the door all of a sudden. “Mrs. Tam? Can you please come inside? We need you immediately.” Ruby felt like the grounds beneath her feet had collapsed and her heart sank to a point where she could not even move her limbs anymore. This was it; she thought to herself, I have lost him. She aimlessly walked towards the nurse and into the room that David was, or, had been.

Ruby drowned in gratitude when she saw the flatline on his electrocardiograph monitor go up and down, indicating the odds had been in his favor. But she noticed something unusual and a little scary−he was grunting and kicking his feet vigorously, which were tied down to his bed. “He is under a lot of medication and that is affecting his thought processes,” the nurse explained. “Can you please talk to him and try to comfort him, ma’am?” Ruby let out a sigh of relief as she slowly approached David, now breathing heavily into the oxygen mask. “Papa, I’m here,” she said, addressing him by his nickname she used whenever her daughter was around. She softly caressed and smoothed his hair as his kicking began to lessen.

At this point, the surgeon entered the room to check on David. “Mrs. Tam,” he nodded at Ruby as he opened his folder. “Your husband’s surgery has been a success but please note that he is still not out of danger,” he said. “We are still trying our best to bring his blood pressure back to a normal rate.” Ruby gulped as her eyes welled up at the bittersweet piece of news. How long was this torture going to last for? Should she be happy that the operation was a success? Or should she be worried that there was still a chance of losing him? She could not bear the thought of not having an answer when their daughter would ask her where her Papa was.

The next few days were a mixture of sleepless nights and constant anxiety. Ruby would sit beside her husband during the visiting hours even though he had yet to regain his consciousness. But with every hour that passed by, David’s heartbeat started to get into a regular level and so did his blood pressure. It was a slow, but steady recovery. On the sixth day, he opened his eyes again, mouth dried out, yearning for a drop of water. Apparently, surgeries make you feel like you are tremendously thirsty as for days, water goes into your body straight through a tube instead of your mouth. But even allowing yourself to take a sip of water could rigorously mess up the post-operation state. At times where Ruby could not take watching her husband beg for the slightest moisture in his mouth anymore, she would soak a cotton Q-tip in water and put it between his lips, like she had been taught by the nurse.

It was not until three weeks later that David was healthy enough to be discharged from the hospital. “Remember, if you ever start to smoke again, there won’t be any more miracles to save your life,” the doctor said to him in brutal honesty before he was sent home. But it was not just the thirty-six stitches David had to make a painful recuperation from. One night after Ruby had put their daughter to sleep, he asked her, “How are we going to make our ends meet with just you working?” He looked down at the ghastly scar that stretched from the middle of his chest until his belly button. “We will be fine,” she tried to reassure him−and maybe herself as well.

For the next six months, David’s life was all about medical appointments, fifteen prescribed pills per day and a constant frustration that never seemed to go away of feeling like a burden to his family despite wanting to contribute. He could not go back to his old job as it required way too much physical strength yet at the same time, he also could not look for desk jobs due to his low education credentials. Ruby began working extra hours and knocked on the door of every source of financial assistance from different governmental and non-governmental organizations to support her family of three.

The misfortune is that only a few of us get the second chance to better our choices in life, and that too with the support of our loved ones. David had a reason to fight for his life; he had a family waiting for him to wake up again. Truth is, we are never really in complete control of the steer of the ride that is our life. What we can do is to try our best to make the most responsible decisions, which our future self will be grateful to us for. But we are all only humans and the slightly careless, slightly reckless actions of ours, pave the way to the most valuable lessons in our life.

“You just take care of yourself,” Ruby said to David, as he slowly fell into a doze; “I’m here for you, and for us”.