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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

be, but nothing like this. It was clear to me that my

heart wasn’t working too well and I was likely having a

heart attack. The ER doctors and nursing staff were

concerned about my blood pressure 240 over 160. The

testing went on for three days to determine how clogged the

arteries were in my heart. We blew off the stress test, no

point in stressing me anymore. The primary issue in my

mind was will I survive surgery? Insurance companies like

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. And we need to push ahead


The thing is my mother had the same surgery several years

ago. So, I had seen the process. Three of the bye passes

are on the front and side of my heart. All these were in

the 80%-90% range. The real big problem was where the 4

arterial clog 90% was. It was on the backside of my heart

a very tricky place to get to. He went on to say, “Your

surgeon will stop by later to talk to you.” I asked for a

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?” He went on, “We are going to do 4 bye

passes on you.” I asked, “What’s your batting average?”

He smiled and answered, “98%” I said, like I had a choice,

“That’s good enough for me.” I could see he was concerned

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

preparing the tools of the trade. My memory of what

happened during the next 15 hours is completely gone. A

bright light at the end of a long tunnel? Don’t know. All

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

still pumping when it was exposed to the cold air. A surge

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. When I awoke in ICU I was

agitated and angry. 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.

I was thinking I don’t want to come back. Then, I thought

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. The next day or

so was a struggle in consciousness. 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

voice, “Number 7 to the morgue.” That can’t be me. I must

be 11 or 12 at least. Who is number 7? That has always

been my luck number. 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. The first to go was the

catheter. It was a relief to get that thing out. The

chest tube removal was a strange dance of nurses and

procedures. It all began with the “who” part of the

procedure. 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. I wasn’t looking forward to this tubular

Trifecta. 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

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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

arguing about who’s turn it was to pull tubes. But they

never used those words. It was understood between them

what the subject was. 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

worst than I had imagined. If they don’t want to be the

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.

Then he walked away without saying a word. I thought, this

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

looked down at me and said in Spanish. “You have a broken

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

departure, so they would know what was going on. They were

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

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

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 worst of the two. The other thing is I was terrified

that I was going to have a heart attack and bleed out at

the same time. I sat down across from him thinking

everything in my life is about to change. Doctor M. said,

“You have asthma and a enlarged heart.” I though that’s

not too bad. He went on explaining things.

The Cold Room by Steven Donnini

Then I said, “There’s one other thing. I had bloody polyps

in my BM today.”

He asked, “Have you noticed that before?” “No.” “Then

what did you eat the night before?” “A chocolate cake with

cranberries.” We had a good stress relieving laugh.

I walked away feeling better. As I was driving home I

remembered a session with my therapist Charlie Clark who

specialized in dealing with the many problems creative

people have in life. He said, “You are an early dier. We

need to work on that. I don’t want you dying on me.” 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. I looked up at his

surprised face. He had removed all the tubes at once and I

didn’t feel anything, not even a tug. He was about to say

something like “I’m sorry.” But instead he said with

amazement, “We’re done!” In rapid succession came the two

nurses to see me. They couldn’t believe that the tubes

were out. 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. He was dressed from head to toe in


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

quietly waiting for me to come to consciousness. You would

never guess he is a rocket scientist with NASA. The next

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 still don’t know when it’s going to start. I wasn’t a

big crying man before the heart surgery. But it’s been

uncontrollable. We sit in a restaurants and I start crying

over salad. Watch a movie and I start crying. Listen to

music and I start crying. Look at my wife and tears come

gushing out. At first it was a surprise and a search for

what was the problem. Now it’s become a joke. Shopping in

a store I will get the feeling and cry. I try to hide the

tears but that only makes thing worst. 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


In fact, I find myself stopping to talk to them. I always

open with “How you feeling?” They know what I’m talking

about. So we talk about what’s going on and how expensive

it is to stay alive these days. Then there are things I

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. I

love my work. But I made the mistake of telling people

what had happened. I learned that many people see me as a

throwaway now. I’ve become unreliable to them. The

insurance industry won’t touch me. It’s very hard to get a

film completion bond or health insurance. Maybe it’s a

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.” The

way he said it, the tone was sarcastic and rude. But he

was right. He couldn’t help me. Interestingly that didn’t

make me cry. That stuff doesn’t do it for me, but a club

sandwich and salad will. I started to do some research

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 post-

op effect in the brain they call Pump Head. It’s one of

the leftovers from being on a heart lung machine. What

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. You know what the word is but you can’t get it

out. It’s just gone on down the memory highway and makes

for awkward moments. It helps to have a standard out to

another subject. Like a sneeze or cough. I have asked

myself, why not talk to Doctor about this stuff? The thing

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

insurance company could raise his rates. Or maybe he’s

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

procedures, insurance, and what can go wrong. She also

knows many medical workers. One night she invited a friend

over for dinner. I made dinner while they talked shop.

I served dinner and asked, “What do you do?” She answered,

“I work in the OR. Lana told me about your heart surgery.

I handle the heart during the operations. By job is to

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.”

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

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

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? First

of all the hospital wouldn’t do the surgery. 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. It involved presenting 12 new TV show

ideas. 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


When people discover you have heart surgery they won’t hire

you unless your Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton,

Charlie Rose or Larry King. You’re screwed as far as

employment is concerned. Companies don’t want an employee

who could spring a leak and drop dead in a meeting. What

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. And to

share what I have learned in the process. The truth is

that in our society we don’t like to be uncomfortable. We

expect that everything should be made secure for us. Every

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

the inside out. However there is one thing that nags at

me. Where did my spirit go to during the 30 minutes my

heart was stopped? My mind had to know what was happening.

After all my body was cut in half. I have a feeling of

coming back from somewhere. But where? Where did I go

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