As he approaches emergency open heart surgery, Elie Wiesel reflects back on his life in a new book entitled, Open Heart. Below is an excerpt:
June 16, 2011
"It's your heart," says the gastroenterologist after performing an endoscopy on me.
I am surprised: "Not my stomach?"
For some time now, acid reflux has been one of my nightmares. My longtime general practitioner also feels it has contributed to the various health problems that have afflicted me for the past several years.
My wife, Marion, and I have just returned from Jerusalem, where, every year, we spend the holiday of Shavuot with close friends. In keeping with the tradition to which I have remained faithful, friends and I spent the night in a yeshiva in the Old City studying biblical and Talmudic laws and commentaries dating from the Middle Ages.
This time, in Jerusalem, it had all gone well. No terrorist attacks. No border incidents. Even my cursed migraines seemed to respect the sanctity of this night, of this city unlike any other. But now, back in New York, suddenly my body revolts. The new piercing pain in my shoulders rises all the way to my jaw. I swallow a double dose of Nexium, the medicine I take for acid reflux. This time without success.
"No, neither the stomach nor the esophagus," replies the doctor after a moment of silence. "It's certainly the heart." Ominous words, inducing fear and the promise of more pain. Or worse.
As soon as he receives his colleague's message, my primary care doctor, a cardiologist, reaches me at home. On the phone, he appears to be out of breath; he speaks in a tense, emphatic voice, louder than usual. I have the feeling that he is trying to contain or even hide his nervousness, his concern. Clearly, he is unhappy to have to give me this bad news that will change so many things for me . . .
"I expected a different result," he explains. "But now the situation requires some further tests immediately."
"Please come to Lenox Hill Hospital right away. I am already there."
I protest: "Why? Because it's the heart? Is it really that urgent? I have never had a problem with my heart. With my head, yes; my stomach too. And sometimes with my eyes. But the heart has left me in peace."
At that, he explodes: "This conversation makes no sense. I am your cardiologist, for heaven’s sake! Please don't argue with me! You must take a number of tests that can only be administered at the hospital. Come as quickly as you can! And take the emergency entrance!"
On occasion, I can be incredibly stupid and stubborn. And so I nevertheless steal two hours to go to my office. I have things to attend to. Appointments to cancel. Letters to sign. People to see—among others, a delegation of Iranian dissidents.
Strange, all this time I am not really worried, though by nature I am rather anxious and pessimistic. My heart does not beat faster. My breathing is normal. No pain. No premonitions. No warning. After all, hadn't I just three days ago gone through a complete checkup with all kinds of tests, including a cardiogram, administered by my physician, the same one who is now ordering me to the hospital? There had been no indication of a coronary problem: no chest pain or feeling of oppression. What has changed so abruptly in my body to destabilize it to this extent?
All right, I'll go to the hospital, since both doctors insist. I don't take anything along. No books, no spare shirt, no toothbrush. Marion says she wants to accompany me. I try to discourage her. In vain.
A team of specialists is waiting for me in the emergency room. The very first blood test instantly reveals the gravity of my condition. There is a definite risk of heart attack. The doctors exchange incomprehensible comments in their own jargon. Their conclusion is quick, unambiguous and unanimous: An immediate procedure is required. There can be no delay.
Marion whispers in my ear that we are fortunate; she has just learned that the surgeon who will perform the angiogram is the one who operated on her two years earlier. I remember him, a handsome, strikingly intelligent man. I had been struck by his kindness as much as by his competence.
"I hope," he tells me, "that we will be able to do for you what we succeeded in doing for your wife: to restore a normal flow of blood in the arteries by inserting a stent." But then he adds, looking grave, "I must warn you that we may have to intervene in a more radical way. We will know very soon."
I am drowsy and fight against sleep by trying to follow the brief professional exchanges in the operating room. Actually, I don't understand a word. About an hour later, I hear the surgeon saying, "I am so sorry, I don't have good news for you: Your condition is such that the insertion of a stent won’t suffice. You have five blocked arteries. You require open-heart surgery."
I am shaken. Sure, I know that these days open-heart surgery is regularly performed the world over. Dr. Christiaan Barnard's face appears before me; I had met the famous surgeon at a conference in Haifa and we had engaged in a long dialogue on medical ethics, comparing Judaic and Christian points of view. I had looked at his hands, wondering how many human beings owed them their survival.
But now the words "open-heart surgery" are meant for me. And they fill me with dread.
"You're lucky. A colleague of mine, an expert in this type of surgery, is at the hospital right now. I have spoken to him. He is ready to operate on you."
"Doctor," I ask, "have you told my wife?"
"No, but I will do it right now."
In a moment he is back: "I've seen Marion. As well as your son, Elisha."
The fact that my beloved son is already at the hospital does not surprise me. Since his earliest childhood, he has always made me proud, always been there for me.
"What do they think?"
"They agree; we have no choice. But the decision is yours alone."
"May I see them?"
Marion and Elisha are not good at hiding their anxiety. Their smiles seem forced. And how am I to hug them without falling apart? Marion, holding back her tears, tries to reassure me: "The doctors are optimistic. The surgeon they propose is world-renowned."
"It will go well," says Elisha. "I know it, Dad. I am convinced of it."
I remain silent.
"Shall we go?" urges the attending physician.
The nurses are ready to push the gurney toward the OR. I steal another glance at the woman with whom I have shared my life for more than forty-two years. So many events, so many discoveries and projects, unite us. All we have done in life we have accomplished together. And now, one more experience.
As the door opens, I look one last time at our son, the fine young man who has justified—and continues to justify—my life and who endows it with meaning and a hereafter.
Through the tears that darken the future, a thought awakens a deeper concern, a deeper sorrow: Shall I see them again?
Excerpted from Open Heart by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 2012 by Elie Wiesel.
How Emergency Open-Heart Surgery Changed Elie Wiesel
In June 2011, Elie Wiesel underwent emergency open-heart surgery at age 82 after doctors found he had five blocked arteries. Watch as he opens up to Oprah about why he wasn't sure he would make it through, his fear of dying, and the first thing his grandson said to him when he came out of surgery. Plus, find out why Elie says he came out of surgery loving his life—and those in it—even more.