At seven a.m. on Thursday, I got a call from Susie, my father’s wife. She blurted out, “I don’t think Sid is going to make it.”
”What?!” I responded, panic settling in. “What do you mean?”
“The surgery went all wrong,” she said. “The doctors don’t know if he’s going to make it. They really don’t know. I bet they didn’t want me to call you yet. It hasn’t been twenty-four hours.”
“Should I come now?”
“No, wait until I can tell you something more definitive.”
An hour later Susie called again and told me that the doctors were not happy at all that she called me. They really didn’t know what was going on with my father, but he wasn’t in immediate danger. No, I shouldn’t come yet. He coded (died) on the table and they revived him. They didn’t know whether or not his brain was damaged. They had put a defibrillator in his heart and they had thought it went fine, but he was in a permanent state of tachycardia—his heart beating wildly. He had inhaled saliva, so he had pneumonia with a high fever. His blood oxygenation was low. He was on a breathing tube, so he was under heavy sedation in a medically induced non-responsive state.
She said she’d call me later with more information.
I don’t remember how many times we talked that day, but in the evening I decided that I had to fly out the next day. I got there as soon as I could, which, because of the flight availability, was not soon enough—something like 4:30 p.m. By this time, my father had been in the same state for at least fourty-eight hours.
I didn’t know what to do.
But I’m a Jew. What do Jews do at the bedside of someone who is sick? We recite or sing Tehilim psalms. My father is an atheist, but I’m not. In fact, I’m a rabbinical student. I decided that he’d forgive me for doing the only thing I could figure out to do. Besides, he is a musician. Maybe he’d like the music.
I sang psalms. With all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might, I sang.
It wasn’t long—a few minutes only. My father, whom the nurses said was non-responsive (meaning that he would have no awareness of what was going on around him due to the deep sedation), turned his head to face me and stretched out his neck as if to get closer to the song. I was heartened. For three hours, until they kicked me out of the ICU, I sang. And while I was there, over three hours, I watched the monitors surrounding his bed. I sang Psalms and his fever went down from 103 to 102 to 101 to 100 to 99. I sang psalms and his blood oxygenation came up from 80% to 85% to 90% to 95%. I sang psalms and his heart rate stabilized.
The next morning when Susie and I returned, his temperature, heart rate and blood all remained in good shape. I continued to sing.
One of his doctors came in. He explained that he had lowered the sedative dosage enough so that my father could hear his voice, and if my dad still had his mind, he could respond to a simple request. The doctor came back a bit later when my father’s fog was only partial. Watching him contort and struggle with the pain and discomfort of the thick respirator tube was almost impossible to bear. Then the doctor asked him to stick out his tongue. I was holding my breath. Was his mind there? What would happen? Never would I have thought that the sight of my dad’s tongue would bring such exultation, but there it was, and there were my tears.
Even with this progress, with a normal temperature and a stable heart rate and a solid oxygenation level, the doctors weren’t sure that my dad was strong enough to come out from sedation. They kept him under for another ten days! When they brought him out he went through several days of predictable physical weakness and sedation induced dementia. After that his health returned to the same state he was in before the surgery. He had lost no heart strength, his mind was 100% whole, and he regained his muscle strength very quickly. He doesn’t recall my singing; he doesn’t remember anything from that time, but he likes to hear the story.