The Cold Room by Steven Donnini

by Steven Donnini

This true story can cause hysterical amnesia, nausea, spontaneous weeping, insomnia, shingles, blood loss, chest pain, headaches, backache, flashbacks, shortness of breath, post traumatic stress syndrome, melancholy and pump head.

Copyright 2009 Steven Donnini Austin, Texas Orlando, Florida


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini

One morning in May 2005, I was heading out for a meeting when I noticed my chest hurt more than usual. I asked my

loving wife to take me to the hospital in Orlando, Florida which is just 4 blocks away from our house in Winter Park. We arrived at the ER in a few minutes she was very worried about what was happening because she has a medical background. A long history of heart disease have plagued It was clear to me that my

be, but nothing like this.

heart wasn’t working too well and I was likely having a heart attack. The ER doctors and nursing staff were The

concerned about my blood pressure 240 over 160.

testing went on for three days to determine how clogged the arteries were in my heart. We blew off the stress test, no The primary issue in my Insurance companies like

point in stressing me anymore. mind was will I survive surgery?

to use stets and balloons to open arteries in the heart because they are relativity quick and cheap. On the third

morning a polite young cardiologist stopped by to see me. He had the tattered look of the resident who had not had a full nights sleep in many months. He said, “The Cardiology

team has concluded that you are not a good candidate for


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini stents because your arterial blockages are in bad places for that procedure.” I said, “That’s not good, I can tell by the look on your face that the rest of this conversation is going to have some dire news for me. What’s going to happen?” He

answered, ”We need to do 4 arterial bye passes to get around the arterial narrowing problems and restore blood flow to the heart muscle. quickly.” The thing is my mother had the same surgery several years ago. So, I had seen the process. Three of the bye passes All these were in And we need to push ahead

are on the front and side of my heart. the 80%-90% range.

The real big problem was where the 4 It was on the backside of my heart He went on to say, “Your I asked for a

arterial clog 90% was.

a very tricky place to get to.

surgeon will stop by later to talk to you.” visit from a hospital priest.

I had never written a will

so there was that to do as well. Later that day, a 60 year old doctor opened my door and came to me. He asked, “How you doing?” I answered. “How

would you fell?” passes on you.”

He went on, “We are going to do 4 bye I asked, “What’s your batting average?” I said, like I had a choice, I could see he was concerned

He smiled and answered, “98%” “That’s good enough for me.”


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini about the 4th bye pass. I didn’t want to know any details

because there was nothing I could contribute. The next morning, I was riding feet first into a hospital operating room. The glass doors slid open to release ice

cold air that flowed across me from my feet to my face. It smelled like antiseptic coming from the huge sterile room. I thought, this could be the last thing I experience in this lifetime. I could see nurses and doctors and surgeons My memory of what A All

preparing the tools of the trade.

happened during the next 15 hours is completely gone. bright light at the end of a long tunnel? Don’t know.

I know of those hours is that one team of doctors removed veins from my left leg below the knee to the ankle. Another team cut my chest open from just below my neck to just below my ribcage, revealing my sternum. They cut

their way through the sternum bone with an electric saw and opened my chest like a Christmas Turkey. My heart was A surge

still pumping when it was exposed to the cold air.

of potassium and my heart stopped beating for 26 minutes while the surgeon grafted four veins around blockages in artery’s creating four bypasses. The procedure has been

done to many people, but bypass surgery doesn’t mean you bypassed surgery by no means. agitated and angry. When I awoke in ICU I was

I had been awakened from a deep sleep


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini against my will. I had been fighting back at life itself. Then, I thought

I was thinking I don’t want to come back. of my wife and 2 children.

What would they do without me?

I don’t think they would let me die even if I wanted to, but I like to feel I had a choice in the matter. I chose

to live even with the pain, 4 broken ribs, chest tubes and catheter. Time was fleeting in the ICU but the sound of

plastic containers opening every few minutes became unbearable. Everything in the ICU has to be sterile, so

everything is packaged in sealed plastic containers which when opened make a very unpleasant sound. so was a struggle in consciousness. The next day or

I was told that to get

out of ICU I had to drink fluids, have a bowl movement and get the three chest tubes and the catheter removed. This

was a tall order, but when I heard the following words over the intercom I was motivated. Spoken in a soft woman’s That can’t be me. I must

voice, “Number 7 to the morgue.” be 11 or 12 at least. been my luck number.

Who is number 7?

That has always

I looked around through the clear

plastic drapery walls and across the hall to a woman that looked quite alive, but very unhappy. I thought I got to

get out of this place even if it means getting a suppository from the young nurse who was caring for me.


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini I could only hope amnesia was part of the deal with this procedure. In fact, everything is a procedure. It’s

almost ritualistic the way the cardiac nurses do things. The last procedure in ICU was the removal of the three chest tubes and the catheter. catheter. The first to go was the The

It was a relief to get that thing out.

chest tube removal was a strange dance of nurses and procedures. procedure. It all began with the “who” part of the Which one of the nurses was going to do the

procedure that involved instruments and a carefully executed technique. The procedure is to remove three, 24”

milky white large plastic tubes from my chest at once by pulling on them all out with one motion. One tube was

inserted in between my ribs under my left breast, another was coming out just below my re-attached sternum and the last tube was to the right of that one. I could remember

what it felt like when the tubes were removed from my kidney surgery years before. It was unforgettable. Being

disemboweled is the only word I can use to describe the feeling. Trifecta. I wasn’t looking forward to this tubular A type of bet, esp. on horse races, in which the

bettor must select the first three finishers in exact order. But it was the only way out of the ICU. This was

gonna hurt and there was no way around it.

I was just


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini hoping whoever did the dirt deed was good at it. But what

if they got the tubes all tangled up and could get one out? What then? The three ICU nurses were scouring around But they

arguing about who’s turn it was to pull tubes. never used those words. what the subject was.

It was understood between them This banter went on for an eternity

between the two women and the male nurse until he couldn’t take anymore harassment. He said clearly above the noise

of all the monitors, plastic wraps and trash disposal. “OK, damit I’ll do it.” I thought, this is going to be much If they don’t want to be the

worst than I had imagined.

one to do it, I’m in for the king of pain of all post op procedures. He walked in and carefully checked me out. I thought, this

Then he walked away without saying a word.

can’t be his first time. In self-distraction, I flashed back to an “Ayahuasca” (death) ceremony I had attended with my wife when I first began having symptoms of heart failure. I was being examined by a Peruvian Shaman who “You have a broken

looked down at me and said in Spanish. heart.”

I knew what he was talking about since I had

failed a physical at an Army Doctors office years ago. Just before I walked out of his office he said, “Sorry, Son but you can’t serve your country. Not with that heart.” So

I’ve known for some time that I have a problem.


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini That Christmas years ago in Dallas, my two daughters came to visit from Florida for the Holidays. We had a great time shopping in the local malls and eating out. Two days before they were to return home my chest

started to hurt so I called my cardiologist for an appointment. I booked it for the day after their They were

departure, so they would know what was going on. young and I didn’t want to frighten them.

The morning of

their flight home I looked down in the toilet and noticed several bloody polyps floating in the water. That night I lay awake writing letters to all my loved ones telling them how much I loved them. The next morning at My Doctor

the Doctor’s office I got an EKG and examination.

said, ”Get dressed and come to my office we need to talk.” I know he’s going to be pissed that I failed to mention the bloody polyps but I can only handle one deadly symptom at a time. So, I’m holding back on that one since it could be The other thing is I was terrified

the worst of the two.

that I was going to have a heart attack and bleed out at the same time. I sat down across from him thinking Doctor M. said, I though that’s

everything in my life is about to change. “You have asthma and a enlarged heart.” not too bad.

He went on explaining things.


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini Then I said, “There’s one other thing. in my BM today.” He asked, “Have you noticed that before?” what did you eat the night before?” cranberries.” “No.” “Then I had bloody polyps

“A chocolate cake with

We had a good stress relieving laugh. As I was driving home I

I walked away feeling better.

remembered a session with my therapist Charlie Clark who specialized in dealing with the many problems creative people have in life. need to work on that. He said, “You are an early dier. I don’t want you dying on me.” We He

explained that people like me don’t live long lives. Now in the ICU , all the things he said were about to come true. I didn’t have any choice. I started to prey. “God

I’ve come this far, don’t let this kill me from fright before I can see my wife and girls.” The male nurse walked

in and stood over me with clamp scissors and asked, “Are you ready?” I closed my eyes and said, “God help me.” I

waited for the horror that was to come. surprised face.

I looked up at his

He had removed all the tubes at once and I He was about to say

didn’t feel anything, not even a tug. something like “I’m sorry.” amazement, “We’re done!” nurses to see me. were out.

But instead he said with

In rapid succession came the two

They couldn’t believe that the tubes

I must have passed out with relief.


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini I awakened out of ICU with my friend Marshal sitting in a chair next to my bed. black. At 6’3” and weighing in at over 300 lbs he resembled character Rubeus Hagrid played by actor Robbie Coltrane from the Harry Potter movie. He had been sitting there You would The next He was dressed from head to toe in

quietly waiting for me to come to consciousness. never guess he is a rocket scientist with NASA.

week, was a drug induced blur of doctors and nurses coming and going, making notes on my chart that was growing into a Russian novel. When I was told it was time to go home I

was terrified that newly stitched bye passes could spring a leak and I would bleed to death before I could get to my feet. I started crying and didn’t stop for about 2 years. I wasn’t a

I still don’t know when it’s going to start. big crying man before the heart surgery. uncontrollable. over salad.

But it’s been

We sit in a restaurants and I start crying Listen to

Watch a movie and I start crying.

music and I start crying. gushing out.

Look at my wife and tears come

At first it was a surprise and a search for Now it’s become a joke. Shopping in

what was the problem.

a store I will get the feeling and cry. tears but that only makes thing worst.

I try to hide the I know there are

other people who are afflicted with the same problem


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini because I see them in supermarkets and restaurants other places. In fact, I find myself stopping to talk to them. open with “How you feeling?” about. I always

They know what I’m talking

So we talk about what’s going on and how expensive Then there are things I

it is to stay alive these days.

don’t talk about like the feeling that I was spared to be shut out of the world I worked in for so many years. love my work. I

But I made the mistake of telling people I learned that many people see me as a The

what had happened. throwaway now.

I’ve become unreliable to them.

insurance industry won’t touch me.

It’s very hard to get a Maybe it’s a

film completion bond or health insurance.

primitive tribal thing that happens when someone in the village gets sick. They don’t want to here about it. Just

get out of the way so we can get on with life.

I had an

occasion to call a lawyer who after hearing my story said, “So you survived death to become the walking dead.” way he said it, the tone was sarcastic and rude. was right. make me cry. He couldn’t help me. The

But he

Interestingly that didn’t

That stuff doesn’t do it for me, but a club I started to do some research

sandwich and salad will.

into what happens to people who have had the same surgery. What I discovered is “PUMP HEAD”.


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini In the highly competitive surgery business there’s a postop effect in the brain they call Pump Head. It’s one of What

the leftovers from being on a heart lung machine.

happens is that tiny bubbles of oxygen are pumped into your blood to keep the brain alive and some of these bubbles get stuck in between brain cells and stay there. It’s like

having microscopic ball bearings in you memory banks. Sometimes a word just rolls over them in the middle of a thought. out. You know what the word is but you can’t get it

It’s just gone on down the memory highway and makes It helps to have a standard out to I have asked The thing

for awkward moments. another subject.

Like a sneeze or cough.

myself, why not talk to Doctor about this stuff? is I have a Doctor who is an ass hole.

I can’t talk to him

about stuff like crying because he is only interested in the numbers. He says, “I don’t care how you feel. Lets

get the numbers right.”

I think he has issues with me

about the fact that I didn’t have the surgery on his watch and he lost out on some fat cheese Doctor payday. I’m

going to stick around to gig him a bit before I tell him how I feel about him. He could be trying to get rid of me before he has a death on his resume. Can’t have too many of those or his Or maybe he’s

insurance company could raise his rates.


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini really a sensitive guy who doesn’t want to show guilt feelings that come when one of his patients falls over on a treadmill during a stress test. My wife is in the medical business. She knows all the She also

procedures, insurance, and what can go wrong. knows many medical workers. over for dinner.

One night she invited a friend

I made dinner while they talked shop. She answered,

I served dinner and asked, “What do you do?” “I work in the OR.

Lana told me about your heart surgery. By job is to

I handle the heart during the operations.

hold the heart with both hands to keep it from beating while the surgeon stitches in the bye passes.” She looked up at me and saw my expression. “Oh sorry.” Like how A

There’s a lot more stuff they don’t tell you.

much this is going to cost you in cash and suffering.

few weeks later, my wife asked the insurance person in her medical office how much my surgery cost. It’s confidential

but she looked it up on the company insurance plan we have. The total was 1.7 million dollars. I thought what would life be like if we didn’t have A+ health insurance? of all the hospital wouldn’t do the surgery. First

They would

give me blood thinners and push me out the door. In fact, 10 days after my release from hospital I made a creative presentation to head of production at


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini NBC/Universal. ideas. It involved presenting 12 new TV show

Just before going in the hospital the same people

offered me a job as Executive Producer of the production company. I considered what it would be like and offered an

alternative where I would develop programming with them but not be on staff. I told him what had happened and he said

that his Dad had the same thing happen. He was very understanding. When people discover you have heart surgery they won’t hire you unless your Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, Charlie Rose or Larry King. employment is concerned. You’re screwed as far as

Companies don’t want an employee What

who could spring a leak and drop dead in a meeting. would the clients think?

You could ruin a perfectly good

meeting and make everyone feel bad. The reason I wrote this is to express these feelings to others who may have experienced the same thing. share what I have learned in the process. And to

The truth is We Every

that in our society we don’t like to be uncomfortable. expect that everything should be made secure for us. situation we encounter will not be easy.

In fact it can be

down right miserable and or abusive. Other people have gone through the same thing I did and never complained about it. They just go forward with their life and never talk about


The Cold Room by Steven Donnini what happened to them or what they were feeling. I think

it takes a lot longer to heal when we don’t express our feelings. Many knowledgeable people have said we heal from However there is one thing that nags at

the inside out. me.

Where did my spirit go to during the 30 minutes my My mind had to know what was happening. I have a feeling of Where did I go

heart was stopped?

After all my body was cut in half. coming back from somewhere.

But where?

that I didn’t want to return from?

The drugs the doctors

used are very powerful, yet many surgeons ask that the OR staff be quite. Or that a soothing kind of music be played

while the operation is in action. Many people have reported to hearing different sounds or talking after being completely unconscious. Now, I look back and realize that everyone will handle the same experience differently. And that is as it should be.

The important thing is I’m here with the people I love.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein


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