Today, I am mailing this letter to the surgeon who decided to perform my Dad’s third and final coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery in 1999:
Dear Dr. Vitikainen,
I hope you don’t mind me tracking you down through Bruce Wheeler, M.D., in Tacoma. I’m fairly sure you won’t remember me, but I wanted to track you down to thank you for the nearly 14 years my father, Henry Campbell, has enjoyed since you performed what we all knew was a high risk CABG surgery in April 1999.
I am sure that surgery as a specialty carries a fair amount of gratification. But I hope this letter will give you just one more chance to remember what a difference your skills made.
In my Dad’s case, you saw an 82-year-old man struggling with extreme angina who was in the hospital following a small heart attack. He had his first MI in 1962 and had already had two prior CABG surgeries. We all felt that nothing more could be done. But… his wife, my mother, was home with very late stage lung cancer. He hoped to be able to return home so that he could be with her in her final days.
You were also the surgeon who was able to repair the tear in my mother’s very friable lung in February. That repair made it possible for her to go home with hospice, which she did in late February. I remember fighting with the physician who was in charge of her care initially; he told me it would be “kinder for all parties if she just winked out in the hospital.” We felt differently. She was afraid in the hospital and we knew she would want to die in the comfort and security of her own home.
I remember sitting with Dad in the hospital, hooked up to a drip of nitroglycerin that was as strong of a concentration as possible. You came in and told him you thought it might be possible to consider surgery – that his heart function was quite strong. If he had enough veinous material that would work, and other indications turned out to be favorable, just maybe a CABG was possible. You explained that the surgery would be high risk. “What do you mean by high risk?” my father asked. You said that he had at least a 25% chance of dying due to complications from the surgery.
From my father’s perspective, he had a 100% chance of dying soon without it, and would not get to be there for my mother. He opted for the surgery.
We know that the surgery was difficult. It took five hours to open. When Dad was recovering, you explained to us that this surgery was unlikely to last as long as the others given the amount of blockages and damage to the heart that could not be repaired. You estimated five years.
My Dad is now in hospice, here at my home, almost 14 years later. He has had some great years in between.
Perhaps most importantly, he was holding my mother’s hand at the moment her heart stopped, the day after Mother’s Day, May 10, 1999.
In those initial years after Mom’s death, he lived in the family home in University Place. He continued to hunt with his friend, Bob. Eventually he felt he should no longer drive and he moved to Seattle near my brother, Dean. He had a major stroke in 2003 or 2004 from which the doctors at UW expected he would not recover the ability to walk. He eventually walked unassisted without dragging his left foot, and had a complete recovery. (In later years, he used a walker for balance, but you still could rarely tell he had any effect from that stroke.)
I moved Dad here in 2006 when he was becoming more isolated and it became more difficult for him to walk alone in the Seattle wet. I retired to have more time to spend with him in what we expected would be a short time ahead of him. Until this summer, we walked together at least five days a week. He had another small stroke while living here – this one affected his speech temporarily but the effects disappeared within days.
If you’re keeping score, that’s one major heart attack (1962) and two small ones, three CABG surgeries, one major stroke and two small ones.
We’ve had a lot of great times together. He’s continued to entertain us all with vast amounts of memorized poetry. He’s seen the family grow. Until 2010 we took him on family fishing vacations. He and I have traveled to the Monterey Aquarium for his birthday, and last summer, to Seattle for a family reunion. Although he had an assisted living apartment the past few years, he has spent about three-quarters of his time living at my house. And we’ve had many a pre-dinner glass of wine and convivial gathering.
He is very much “himself” although he is now quite weak and struggling with late stage congestive heart failure, and in hospice here with me. He expresses gratitude constantly for me, and for the team of people who help him. He continues to be a gracious, humble, loving man.
In 1999, when you performed that last CABG, it was outside the norm to consider surgery on an 82 year old man with a long history of heart disease. I just want you to know: that was a great decision.
We’re down to the hard part – the failing and the letting go, and it isn’t easy. But he is safe, and loved, and cared for.
As I review the times we’ve had with Dad, I could not help but think of what made it all possible: your initial decision. I just wanted to say THANK YOU!