“Your father is going to die”

Joseph Merz

On the evening of Saturday 11th of May I spoke to my 80 year old father on phone. I do this most days. He asked about me and how my businesses were going. But this time he told me he had stomach pains and felt that he was going to be sick. We thought he’d eaten something, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking ‘the last time he complained about pain, he was having a heart attack’. It’s not like him to complain.

That night he suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm rupture. My mother found him on the floor of their bathroom at their estate in New Zealand.

He was taken to hospital by helicopter within about 15 minutes but the surgeons called us to say there was no saving him. They told us our father was going to die and operating would make no difference.

We’d been briefed on the numbers. More than 50% died before reaching the hospital. More than 80% then died during the operation. The mortality rate increases by about 1% per minute – and he had reached a mortality rate that was just too high.

The surgeons knew the numbers, but they didn’t know our father. One of the strongest people I’ve ever met. Growing up I often thought if I ended up half the human being he was, I would be lucky.

He was in the best hospital in the country, with the best surgeons in the country. I kept reminding myself of that. I kept thinking if I could just have one more hour with him. One more hour where we could talk again, and laugh together. Drink coffee together in the sun, eat speculaas, or collect fruit together.

Finally, we told them to go ahead with the operation and for 5 hellish hours we waited for news.

Then news came.

“He’d survived, but…” But. There was always a but.

They were keeping him under anaesthetic. There were clots and they weren’t sure if they were in his brain. Blood to his legs wasn’t circulating. They may need to amputate one. Actually, no, they may need to amputate both. They still weren’t sure if his brain was OK, or if he’s suffered strokes during the operation. They needed to operate again.

They operated again a few hours later. Then again, a few hours after that. Each time, more complications.

Time was passing painfully slowly. Hours turned into days but his complications were being resolved one by one, and it was time for his final operation, a relatively simple one. They just needed to close up one of his legs.

Then came the news that he had vomited during that operation, and had breathed it into his lungs. He was back in intensive care with a lung infection. With pneumonia.

A total of six operations over a two day period. He survived. He survived every one of them. But now he had pneumonia and was entirely reliant on a breathing machine.

Once again, it felt like the end. He didn’t even look like my father anymore. He had tubes out of his nose, tubes down his throat. Needles in his veins. He was asleep as he had been for days, surrounded by machines and strangers watching every change.

I just kept thinking the same thing. If I could have one more hour with him, the real him.

After what felt like weeks, it was time to wake him up. Surely the clots had done some damage. Even if his body had made it through all of that, surely his mind had gone. How can someone survive all of that? How can an 80 year old survive all of that?

He awoke and began talking. Joking even. Calling my sister “Flopsy” as he had done when we were children.

Over the coming days his pneumonia improved more and more. He went from strength to strength. The father I knew – a man who never gave up. All the while surrounded by machines and strangers. Although some of the faces were becoming familiar.

Yesterday we were told he was ready to be moved to rehabilitation, and that he could start walking. This photo is him walking again for the first time since the whole ordeal began.

I cannot even find words for my gratitude toward his surgeons, doctors, nurses, rehab specialists… Everyone who was involved in bringing this total stranger from the brink of death, back to us.

You’ve given me many more hours with him and for that I can never thank you all enough.

If you are reading this, take it as a reminder on the importance of helping other people. Even if they are total strangers. It’s not only a concept my father taught me, or a concept at the core of every organisation I’ve started – it’s the concept that brought him back to us.

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