In December of 1969, I was one of the first pediatric patients in the area to undergo successful open-heart surgery. Born with a congenital defect, I’d undergone closed-heart surgery when I was two months old. My doctor was a dashing Asiatic Indian man who seemed more king than physician. His dark skin, wavy hair, and stylish goatee sparked fantasies of white stallions and exotic lands. His warm eyes conveyed a gentle strength that dazzled and reassured me.
I don’t remember all the details—I was six years old, after all—but I do keep mental video clips of my hospital experience. Like wearing a pretty nightgown someone had given me, and seeing my mother asleep in the cot next to my bed the night before surgery. Or waking up in intensive care, only to witness my hero tending to my wounds. After glimpsing the blood, I saw Dr. Subramanian smile at me and then I quickly fell back asleep. During my time in the ICU, my mother kept a constant vigil. She sat next to my bed, usually holding my hand and singing Japanese lullabies.
What I don’t remember is ever feeling afraid. From my vantage point, the world was filled with people who loved me beyond words and who would do anything to keep me safe. And though I couldn’t articulate it, their love defined my existence—and enabled me to touch God in ways I still can’t explain.
I was lucky enough to be discharged from the hospital a few days ahead of schedule, and just in time for Christmas Eve. When I entered Children’s Hospital before my operation, winter had not truly arrived. But by the time my parents were escorting me through the doors and out into the cold, I could smell and feel the crisp, clean snow.
Aside from my early release from the hospital, there are only two Christmas presents I remember. One was a baby doll my grandparents had given me. Sally had blonde hair and plastic limbs; her torso, made of tan fabric, had stuffing inside. One of the first things I did was take a fat magic marker and draw an incision down the middle of her chest. I used pieces of yarn to create an IV and EKG. I had a grand time playing with Sally in the corner of the living room. Little did my grandparents know that through this doll, they had given me the gift of feeling in control.
Then there was the turtle from my 10-year-old brother. As he showed it to me, George proudly explained the animal’s eating habits and pointed to its slow, but steady, movements. I tried my best not to let on that the brown creature was perhaps the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Today, I finally realize the turtle’s significance: like me, my brother needed the gift of control that Christmas.
In fact, we humans are in a lifelong struggle between control and surrender. When we’re feeling the most fortunate, we tend to give ourselves all of the credit. And when we’re feeling beaten, it’s easy to blame our sorrow on others—including the Creator.
Not surprisingly, I still look forward to the first snowfall of every winter. Offering a visceral connection to my childhood, fresh snow becomes a supreme gift of memory, surrender, and gratitude. I feel alive when I feel the gentle, quiet snowflakes of Christmas, brushing against my cheeks.
Originally written in 2005. Pioneering surgeon Dr. Sambamurthy Subramanian died in 2015 at the age of 81.