Friday, April 27, 2012

Let Me Tell You About My Operation

Guest Voice

In yesterday's post, I wrote about the world's successful first coronary bypass surgery performed by Robert H. Goetz more than 50 years ago. Today's guest post is by George Jochnowitz, a recipient of this life-saving surgery. Prof Jochnowitz recounts his experience of his loss of memory and the feelings post-operation: "I opened my eyes. What a wonderful thing to be able to do!"

by George Jochnowitz

The first symptom was fatigue. "It's psychological," some people said. My mind felt fuzzy. I was suffering from stupidity: my memory got worse; I couldn't find the words to express myself. "You're depressed," some people said, but it didn't feel like depression. It felt like illness.

The chest pains didn't begin until a year later. After my second midnight trip to the emergency room, I had an angiogram. "You have 70% blockage in three coronary arteries and 50% blockage in a fourth," I was told. "You can have bypass surgery at 8 A.M. Friday—tomorrow morning."

Under normal circumstances, a suspenseful movie is too scary for me. I didn't have the alternative of just walking out of the theater. "Better sooner than later," I thought. The surgeon came to introduce himself. So did the anesthesiologist. "I'll see you tomorrow morning," he said. "Only you won't remember it."

"Yes I will," I said.

"No you won't. You'll get an amnesic drug."

"I don't think I want it," I said, but I didn't have the confidence to argue or insist.

A nurse, or was it a social worker, came later to talk to me. "What is your approach to dealing with fear?" she asked.

"When I'm scared, I'm just scared," I replied.

"Do you pray?"

"Thank God I'm not praying," I thought. Prayer is good for thanksgiving; religious ritual celebrates the passage of time and may help in time of mourning. But when you're scared, prayer only sharpens the fear. If God could hear prayer, he already knew what I wanted. "If I live, maybe I'll be grateful," was the only prayer I could formulate. That was exactly right.

Could I have fallen asleep? I couldn't open my eyes. I couldn't try. I wasn't breathing. I couldn't try. "Maybe I can roll over and bang the side of the bed," I thought. I couldn't try.

I wasn't gasping for breath. I wasn't doing anything. I couldn't make the effort. I didn't feel paralyzed; it was just impossible to attempt to move a muscle. If it had been possible to try, I might have been able to move. I had just been turned off.

"Without air I will get headachy and lose consciousness," I thought, but I didn't have a trace of a headache. "If I am found before I have been unconscious too long, maybe there won't be too much brain damage," I thought. But I was very conscious. I felt very smart. My stupidity had gone away.

The terror was unlike any other I had experienced. "Three minutes left," I thought. "This is all so unnecessary."

"Am I dead?" I asked myself. "Does the mind function after the body dies?" Then I felt air entering my lungs. I had not been abandoned after all. "How could someone have put a tube for air into my mouth without my knowing it?" I wondered. And finally—a voice: "George, this is Sheila, your nurse. It's a quarter to five in the morning and you're all right."

Relief. There is someone who knows I can't answer. At last I could fall asleep. But the voice came back to tear me out of my rest: "George, this is Sheila, your nurse. It's a quarter after five in the morning and you're all right."

If the words hadn't been almost exactly the same as the previous time, I might have forgotten the whole thing.

I opened my eyes. What a wonderful thing to be able to do! The ceiling was the same hospital ceiling I had been looking at when I was able to move. I couldn't talk, but I could distinctly feel a hose in my mouth. Did I dare hope? Could the operation be over? The ceiling was the same, but lots of rooms in the hospital must have the same ceiling. If I could find out what day it was, I would know. I pointed to my wrist.

"It's a quarter after five," said Sheila.

I shook my head no. I was able to move it as easily as always. "What are you trying to say?" asked Sheila.

I pointed to my wrist again.

"Something about the time?" she asked.

I nodded.

"It's Saturday," said Sheila. Thank God. The operation was over and I was alive. I was in a different room despite the similar ceiling.

The anesthesiologist had been right. I didn't remember seeing him before the surgery. Later, after I got out of the hospital, I asked my general practitioner about my experience. She told me I had been given a paralytic drug. "You weren't supposed to remember that."

The amnesiac had worn off before the paralytic drug. The paralysis should have been forgotten along with my trip to the operating room. Is terror all right if it has been erased from your memory? If the memory is gone, has it never happened? When you die, does that mean you have never lived?

Is an erased memory the same as a repressed memory? Probably not. Do erased memories survive as anxieties? Who knows?

I was tormented by anxiety for over a year. I went to a shrink. It is always nice to be shrought
(think : thought :: shrink : shrought). Unfortunately, psychiatry hasn't been invented yet. The talking cure works when you talk to friends or acquaintances, but it is much less effective when you talk to an analyst. Nevertheless, a combination of talking and drugs helped me to feel better.

Would it be better to warn patients about the paralytic experience and not induce amnesia? Let me give the last word to Primo Levi, citing a Yiddish proverb: Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu dertseyln. It's good to tell about past troubles.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at 

Copyright ©2012. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay appeared in And Then, Vol. 7, 1996; and in Sh'ma, September 5, 1997. It can also be found on George Jochnowitz. It is republished here with the author's permission.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your article, particularly the connection between memory and existence. So, if you lose your memory, does it invalidate your personality? who you are? were?


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