Recently I attended a “progressive dinner” in my condo building. It sounds like an avant-garde gathering of enlightened neighbors; it was not. It was a Caribbean-style meal, the three courses of which progressed between various residences. And my neighbors were not enlightened, but rather entirely incapable of handling their mojitos.
This evening hardly would have deserved a second thought, let alone a blog, had it not turned out to be the strangest and most perturbing evening of my entire life.
Mere seconds after entering the first condo on the evening’s itinerary, I was approached by a man that seemed to know far more about me than I did him. Before I even had a chance to pour myself a glass of wine, he spoke.
“Do you remember me?”
I scanned the depths of my drunken one-night stand recollections.
Former client? High school acquaintance? Bank employee?
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” I admitted.
“A few years ago I was out on a run and didn’t have my keys. I asked you to let me into the building, and you said you would. You said you believed that I lived here,” he offered.
“Oh,” I said, confused and irked that I still had no wine.
“Yeah, so I’ve been meaning to find you because I wanted to tell you that I was the perfusionist in your open heart surgery last month,” he blurted.
In my days on Earth, I have found no less than five dead bodies. I discovered the girlfriends of my (ex) husband. In the field of social work, I have borne witness to antics so outrageous, an esteemed fiction writer could not invent anything more unbelievable.
I have had my fair share of shocks.
And still no blow compared to what I felt upon hearing this man’s disclosure. I froze. The conversations around me were far away; someone had poured water and then shoved cotton into my ear.
This man saw the most vulnerable moments of my existence— the moments after I was wheeled into the operating theater for my second open heart surgery but before I was forced into a black abyss from which I could only hope to return.
These were not pretty moments. Tears galloped from my face as my eyes darted from piles of terrifying tools to bizarre-looking machines. All I could see of the people who operated on me were the avoidant eyes that rested between sterile surgical caps and masks. Someone offered to play me soothing ocean sounds while the anesthesiologist inserted arterial lines, but there was no soothing me.
This man saw me naked. He saw my boobs, my ribs and my lungs. He saw my heart. He saw it get sliced. He saw it get stitched. He saw everything I would never want anyone to see.
And he was standing right in front of me.
As my perfusionist, this man was responsible for operating the heart-lung machine. During cardiac surgery, this machine maintains circulation of blood and oxygen to the body while the heart is still and unbeating. This man proceeded to share with me details of my surgery that I had not heard. He said if I saw my surgeon again, I should thank him for saving my life when my pericardium began to bleed out.
In the spirit of the evening, I progressed from one emotion to the next. I excused myself three times to sob in the stairwell before making the decision to just go home. I felt violated, and enraged.
The man had no right to disclose his involvement in my open heart surgery, least of all at a crowded social gathering. He overstepped. His breach was unethical. He infringed upon my emotional and spiritual recovery from the most traumatic event of my adult life.
With a bit of perspective on his transgression, my anger has faded. My recovery has continued. This man’s choice impacted me profoundly, and yet it is not for me to judge his action or his motivations. Life is full of decisions made by others and the often unintended ways they affect those around them.
And when the decision of another comes barreling into a life—an unethical disclosure, a drunk driver, a break-up, a layoff, a suicide—we certainly can choose anger and rage. We can choose pain and suffering. We can choose resentment.
But I choose grace. I choose humility. I choose forgiveness. I choose compassion. And I choose to hold and honor these qualities for both the perfusionist and myself.