Hanging by a Thread

Family and friends in the waiting room at St. Francis hospital in 2008.

By Lloyd Graff.

Labor Day Weekend is coming up. As a kid it was a day for double headers on TV, barbecue and watermelon. It was the demarcation line between vacation and school.

When I joined the working world, it was the signal that the machining world was going to get serious about finishing the year strong. It meant IMTS every four years and selling machines.

But for the last five years, it has been the long weekend when my life teetered on the blade of life and death.

Labor Day 2008, is shrouded in fog for me. The doctors filled my veins with narcotics designed to eliminate memory after they diagnosed me with congestive heart failure caused by a lateral descending artery that was 99% blocked. The lateral descending artery is ominously nicknamed the “Widow Maker.” Three other arteries also had precious little flow as well.

Incredibly, I walked into St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, 50 miles from my house, under my own steam that Friday. I had thought I might have pneumonia because I was having trouble breathing, so I called my friend Dr. Chris Costas. Thankfully, he told me to come in that Friday morning before the holiday weekend. I waited while he treated a young boy for a minor issue. When Chris walked over to greet me in the waiting area he looked at me strangely. He immediately put a stethoscope on my chest and said, “Lloyd, I’m wheeling you to the emergency room myself. You’re in congestive heart failure.”

Within seconds the nurses were pulling my clothes off. The last thing I remember hearing is “can we cut his boxers?” My wife Risa yelled “of course!” And then I was out of it.

I can only imagine how horrible the next few hours and days were for Risa. Dr. Costas told her after an emergency angiogram that my odds were awful if they had to do an immediate bypass surgery, because I was in such bad shape.

My best chance of survival was to insert a balloon pump and stent in the lateral descending artery, a very dicey procedure in the best of cases. Fortunately, Dr. Mohammed Akbar was on call at the hospital that day and he volunteered to attempt the procedure. Even if it went perfectly, everything had to go well between Friday and the day after Labor Day for the surgeons to feel confident about doing a quadruple bypass and valve surgery.

Dr. Akbar maneuvered the stent in beautifully.

I had my shot at life.

Risa and my kids, Sarah, Ari and Noah, set up camp in the hospital. Friends brought in clothes and toothbrushes for the family. Word spread and more people descended on St. Francis Hospital to support them. I had to live through Labor Day and get strong enough for the bypass. Risa had to be strong – for me and everybody else.

The nights were excruciatingly long for them. I don’t know how I would have survived the waiting if it had been Risa teetering on the brink of death.

They hung on every word from the nurses and doctors.

I slept most of the time, I guess. My sister Susan got to the hospital from Washington DC by late Friday afternoon. My daughter Sarah flew in from San Francisco and reached the hospital by early evening. My brother came as well. I know there was some Jewish praying going on in that Catholic hospital that weekend.

Because it was Labor Day Weekend, there was virtually no elective surgery going on, so the Graff family and friends had the waiting room almost to themselves.

Risa says she got through those hard times because of the support. Sarah’s in-laws, the Roys, dropped everything and flew in from Florida on Saturday to take care of her children so she and her husband Scott could be at the hospital. Every close friend converged on St. Francis Hospital to comfort Risa and my children. It was a loving time, a hugging time, a sleeping on the couch time. That Labor Day was a labor of love for Risa.

And mostly, I slept. And got a little bit stronger.

There is a Jewish prayer recited on the holidays of Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, which are celebrated right around Labor Day – the Unetanneh Tokef. The prayer asks, “Who will live, who will die?” in the coming year and hopefully states that prayer and good deeds can avert the worst events.

My daughter Sarah, a Rabbi in Palo Alto, wants me to speak on that topic this year. I think Risa probably is the one to talk about it.

I endured Labor Day 2008, lifted by the support of my family, friends, nurses and doctors. The Tuesday after Labor Day, the doctors felt I was ready for the bypass surgery.

Before I was to be wheeled to the operating room, a throng of people came to my bed and sang my favorite songs for 45 minutes. I have a fuzzy recollection of the finale, a rousing, Harry Careyesque rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Inspiring. Death defying. It was what I had lived for.

Now, Five years and counting. One day at a time.

Question: Has your life or a loved one’s life ever hung by a thread?

Lloyd Graff is Owner and Chief Space Filler at Today’s Machining World and Graff-Pinkert & Co.

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7 thoughts on “Hanging by a Thread

  1. John J. Frost

    Lloyd, a great story.It was a blessing that all those who dedicated their lives to the ministering the needs of others were available. Congratulations for their success. In my profession, there were many times that I thought i was hanging on by a thread as I flew through typhoons in the far east and thunderstorms in tornado alley as I watched the St Elmo’s Fire play off the prop and wings while in the grip of turbulence beyond imagination and the lightning played a chaotic overture to what might have called the last Opera. This might sound like an exaggeration, but I am reminded to that day in December 1944 when Chester Nimitz took his fleet into a typhoon fo such violence that the waves crested at 90 feet. Three destroyers were enveloped by those waves and went straight to the bottom. 780 men were able to count the seconds before that very thin line of life would be cut. In the profession of war, the thin line of life is not always
    secure. Lloyd, here’s to you. Cherish every day that your lifeline has been extended

  2. Jeff Poole

    A a matter of fact, Lloyd, yes it has.
    Mine was a thing called a patent foramin ovalie, which is a hole between the atrial chambers of the heart. Defect had been there since birth, and never been detected. Till it caused a stroke on Dec. 7, 2001. Then the stroke site decided to bleed out a bit between Christmas and New Year. It got a bit complicated for a while there.
    Long story short, I survived all that, and the open heart surgery to repair the hole, and the recuperation. Today, I’m up and at it, and 12 years older. Still cutting iron, making chips.
    Makes one re-assess a lot of things. Priorities get re-aligned. Bucket lists get re-evaluated. Friends and family become much more important. But I’m sure you’ve been there, from your story. Glad your still with us, on this side. The other side is still waiting, but it’s not time, just yet. Hug everyone that comes to mind, thinking about all that’s happened. It’s all you really have. The here and now. Forever waits, for a while.

  3. DEMojica

    Only in America is there the freedom for a Muslim doctor, at a Catholic hospital, to operate on a Jewish used machine tool seller! That’s the reason God still blesses this country.

  4. Dick Crosby

    Saturday, August 6, 2011. Two years and three saturdays ago. Mowing grass in the back yard on my little John Deere 165, I felt like somebody stuck a golf ball under my right armpit. But it went away before I finished my acre. As I rode, I reflected that I’d had the same experience during the night before. Then it occured again as I walked in the back door, about a half hour later.
    Wife, Georgia, and daughter, Donna, were sitting at the dining room table drinking whatever. I sat down at the end of the table and told them about my experiences. Georgia said “Dick. You look like hell!” (Just our love talk.) Donna agreed, Georgia asked if I wanted to go to the ER at ST. Anthony’s, where she had worked, and we go without question. I said “Hell No! Who wants to go to the ER? Besides, I’ve got stuff to do. And it would cost 50 bucks.” Donna says “Well. You could go to the emergency care clinic at Alpine & Harrison, and that would only cost $30, but they’d just send you to the ER, so I’ll save you $30, by taking you to St. Anthony’s.” Georgia says “Let’s go! Now!So, we (Gerorgia and I), went to the hospital. (Donna went home. No longer interested.”)
    The gal behind the window looks up and says “Hi Georgia!” “what’s going on?”
    Well! I spent Saturday night, and all day Sunday as a guest of St. Anthony Med. Center, because my Troponin level was up. (A blood test.) Normal is zero. Mine was .378. 1.000 & you’re history. During the night they took another sample. I asked the nurse if it had gone down. After a pause she said “No!’ I asked “What is it?” She said “.894.”
    I’m nine tenths of the way to dead.
    Georgia came back about 9AM. A cardiologist came in about 11:30. I wanted to know why they weren’t doing something about me “Now!” He said they had (4) cath labs, but only (1) cardiac team available on Sundays, and they had to hold them for emergencies.
    Obviously I was expendible Definitely not an emergency. He said they’d get to me about 9 o’clock tomorrow morning. That was comforting!
    To make a short story long, I was angioplastied and stented in my LDA, about an inch and a half below some critical junction where a major branch takes off, and the doc said I was 99% blocked too. If the blockage had been at the junction, I’d probably have been gone. My blockage was about 5/8″ long, and the mesh stent was/is about 1 1/4″ long.
    I’ve got (2) other smaller blockages in other places, to keep track of, but my guy doesn’t seem to be too worried about them. I keep asking my super-dooper cardiologist when he’s going to take a look. He says when I have my next stress test and he can review the results. That’s nice! It’s been two years and three Saturdays. Oh well!
    I spent the rest of Monday being observed, and went home Tuesday, before noon. I had a whole bunch of emails, so I spent the next (4) hours back at work.
    The funny thing was, I never experienced any pain. Just that stupid golf ball sensation.
    I guess it wasn’t my time. Besides I’ve still got a mess or two to clean up.
    Lloyd! Your’s was big time. Mine a good bit less. I’ll take mine, thank you! It’s nice we’re here to communicate with each other.

  5. L. Brown

    Well I guess it all means your job here on this earth isn’t done. Your family is blessed to still have you around and so are we.
    I am sure you get lots of advice but I recommend a video called Forks Over Knives
    Netflix has it in their documentary section.
    Their website is forksoverknives.com
    It is absolutely life changing !!


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