How Kingdom Hearts Got Me Through Open-Heart SurgeryS

I stood in front of my TV in my living room, perusing the pile of games that had accumulated on top of my Playstation 2. I opened the disc tray and removed Virtua Fighter 4, a game I had sunk countless hours into that year. I knew it would continue to entertain me in the weeks to follow. Snapping the disc and my memory card into place inside the game box, I wondered if I would have the strength to string together the complex combos I had spent the summer memorizing and practicing. It didn’t matter, really. It would give me something to do at the hospital.

As we were about to make our way out the door, my mom presented me with a gift bag. “We got you something,” she said, handing it to me. I looked inside. It was Kingdom Hearts. My mood improved immediately. My parents knew how badly I wanted it, mostly because I would never shut up about it. It was a marriage of my favorite childhood movies and my favorite pre-teen games — the perfect game.

I gawked over the holographic cover art, eager to meet these characters that were solemnly gazing into the heart-shaped moonlight. I thanked her and hugged her as hard as I could, clenching my fingers into her black hoodie. In our embrace, I saw my dad through our front windows loading the trunk of his Camry with the bags containing all the belongings we would need for the next week. He had a cigarette in his mouth. He had gone three months without one before that.

It was October 17, 2002, and we were on our way to the Nemour’s/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children Cardiac Center in Wilmington, Delaware. I was 12 years old, and I was about to undergo open-heart surgery.

Call it naivety, but I was optimistic about my upcoming operation. Born with a murmur, my aortic valve leaked, which put strain on my aorta itself. The surgeons told me they would re-support my aorta and stitch my aortic valve to correct the leakage they feared would intensify if left untouched. The stitching would even dissolve over time, as if they had never cut me open at all. They told me that once I recovered, I’d be as good as new. So, really, how bad could it be?

Once we arrived at the hospital and settled ourselves in, my parents and I ate dinner in the cafeteria and said a prayer in the small chapel on the first floor. We returned to our room, and a nurse carted in a TV and PS2. I ripped the plastic wrap off my new game and booted it up. If my parents were mildly amused to see all the Disney characters of my youth modeled in 3D, I was awestruck. There was Donald Duck and Goofy with Cloud Strife, Cid and Aeris inhabiting the same space as Pongo and Perdita. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The game’s opening cinematic pulled me in before it offered me the opportunity to play. I watched as Sora drifted down through the depths of the ocean, sinking deeper into darkness. His descent into the dark mirrored my own: Our lives were both changing overnight, and we were too confused and afraid to know what to make of it. Just as the forces of darkness came to Sora’s home of Destiny Island and robbed him of an innocent, simple life, so too was I being denied a normal life by forces beyond my control. It struck a little too close to home.

As he spirals to the bottom of the ocean in what is soon to be revealed a dream, Sora says, “I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately. Like, is any of this for real or not?” I had my own weird thoughts at the time. Was surgery going to be painful? How long was I going to be stuck in the hospital, away from my home? When will I see my friends again? What if I don’t wake up? The questions and doubts swirled in my mind all night, even after I finished playing through the prologue.

The next day, the nurses came to my room, ready to cart me into the operating room. I lifted myself onto the gurney, and the anesthesiologist wrapped the mask onto my face, instructing me to breathe normally and count backwards from 100. My parents walked with us as far as the operating room. The last things I remember — my parents telling me they love me — the nurses telling me the operating room is 62 degrees Fahrenheit, so I’m going to feel the chill through my thin robe — the rush of cold air as they opened the door, staring into the blinding lights above — and then, nothing. Darkness.

I awoke in the ICU, my dad seated next to me watching The Lord of The Rings on a TV the nurses brought in. I asked for the time, glancing over at the clock. I don’t remember what my dad said or what I saw. I was so heavily sedated I couldn’t comprehend much. I fell asleep again shortly after.

When I was brought back to my room, I was conscious enough to be able to play Kingdom Hearts. With a urinary catheter in place (ow) and a severe case of constipation, I literally didn’t have to move from my bed. So I began my journey with Sora, Donald and Goofy. We traveled to Wonderland, Olympus Coliseum and Deep Jungle, locking the game’s antagonists, the heartless, out of the heart of each world. With each world explored, each experience point gained, Sora not only accepted, but embraced his bizarre twist of fate. He doesn’t know why the keyblade chose him. At first, he’s reluctant to join Donald and Goofy in his search for his friends. As he crosses over from world to world, he realizes it doesn’t matter why the burden of defeating the heartless so unexpectedly fell on his shoulders. All that matters to him is finding his friends, and he won’t let an army of shadow monsters stop him.

I was fighting my own battles in my recovery, both physically and emotionally. After a few days of lying bedridden, I felt I was ready to begin walking. The bathroom was 15 feet away from my bed, and it took me 15 minutes to get there. I only had enough strength to shuffle one foot a few inches in front of the other. I hunched over; standing up straight would stretch and tear my newly formed scar that now lay on my chest, adorned with a bandage for good measure. I needed to stop and break every few steps, refilling what little breath my lungs would allow me to take in. The expansion in my chest caused terrible pain, limiting me to constant, short inhalations, as if a 500 pound barbell lay across my chest. Leaning down onto the toilet meant risking falling on my ass and having to call in the nurses to pick me up off the floor, and standing back up proved to be an even more arduous task. Even after all that, I would then have to trek all the way back. When the entire production ended and I returned to my bed exasperated, I lay down and thought, “Why me?”

The more time I spent with Kingdom Hearts, the more I wanted to be like Sora. He didn’t agonize over the terror of facing darkness itself. He faced his fears because he had no choice. He had people who cared about him to help him along the way. He had dreams of returning to Destiny Island with Riku and Kairi, returning to the carefree life they once knew. I envied his determination.

But he pushed me. The game pushed me. There were people out there wondering how I was doing, just as I wondered how they were. They prayed for me. They wanted to see me again. I wanted to see them, too. Though I did have some visitors visit me an hour away in Delaware, I knew that if I wanted to see the people I cared for, I would have to go to them. It was time to stop questioning why I was the one who had to go under the knife, the one who had to be ripped out of school and swim practice and his quiet life in Cherry Hill, N.J. to have his heart reconstructed. It was time to fight my way back to the life I wanted.

So, with the help of my parents, I walked a little farther down the hallways each day. My mom stabilized me, while my dad followed behind with the wheelchair, just in case. Soon, I could make my way to the mini fridge across the hall and grab myself milk and water without becoming winded. I could even make it to the elevator, where I’d then have to sit in the wheelchair and get pushed the rest of the way to the cafeteria. As my body grew stronger, so too did my spirits. Just like Sora.

I left the hospital after a week. Even once I was home, I still had hurdles to overcome. Stairs proved draining, and showering was far more difficult than it should ever have to be (I had to cover my chest with plastic wrap so my bandages wouldn’t get wet). But none of that mattered anymore. I was finally home. I was there with my younger brother and sister. I had visitors every day — family, friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches — everyone. They brought cards, candy bouquets, flowers, even video games (Super Mario Sunshine FTW). They were all so gracious, their gifts wonderful. Their jokes made me laugh so hard I thought I thought they’d burst my stitching and send me right back to the hospital. I had my life back.

Even after coming so far, there was still something left for me to do — I had to return the favor to Sora.

Over the next few days, I blazed through Kingdom Hearts. I guided Sora through the Hollow Bastion, defeated Maleficent and overcame darkness itself, finally reaching The End of the World and the final showdown with Ansem. My sadness and anguish had no face, no name, but Sora’s did. Though he may have been a contrived villain (a silver-haired madman garbed in black bent on ruling the universe), I didn’t care. He was my suffering incarnate, the culmination of my journey through recovery and self-discovery with Sora. And I had never so intensely wanted to kick a final boss’s ass.

After fighting him in all his forms, after all the button mashing and aeroga spells and dodging and slashing, we defeated Ansem. Me, Sora, Donald and Goofy. Together. We proved that light always conquers darkness. Ansem disappeared in a flash of light, and we were left to watch the finale. This was it. Riku and Mickey helped Sora close the door to Kingdom Hearts, restoring order to the universe.

And then it happened.

Sora finally reunited with Kairi at the edge of darkness. No more fighting. No more heartache. But the reunion was fleeting. The ground fissured beneath them, the power of Kingdom Hearts separating them across worlds once again. Her hand slipped through his, and they slowly drifted apart. The game’s theme song, “Simple and Clean,” played into the credits. The tears started flowing. I clenched my fist and put it to my mouth to stifle my sobbing, but it was no use. I cried for hours. We won. Our journey ended.

In the following weeks, I returned to school, swimming and a regular social life. Surprisingly, I was even well enough to go trick-or-treating with my friends that year, even after getting a gallon of fluid drained from my chest the day before. Normalcy returned.

But playing through Kingdom Hearts showed me that others might not be so lucky. Some people might never wake up from their anesthesia. Some might flatline right on the operating table. Others may not have anyone to come home to in their sickness and loneliness. Some might fall over and die in their own homes from fluid build-up in their chest cavities. Some people may not be overwhelmed with gifts and blessings from loved ones, and even complete strangers, like I was. Some people struggle through the darkness every day, all for naught.

Some people don’t get a happy ending.

Those nights spent lying up in a hospital bed cursing my genes for my affliction taught me just how fortunate I am to have so many people in my life who care about me. Things could have gone very differently for me, but here I am, nearly 11 years later, and I still feel the impact Sora and Kingdom Hearts had on my life. Not only did my friends and family get me through perhaps the most difficult period of my life, but Sora did, too. We shared in an emotional journey of growing up and learning what we truly value in life. Sora provided not just escape, but a source of inspiration in a time when everything was shrouded in darkness. He taught me that even though I may have a fragile, ailing heart, it’s all I need to appreciate and reciprocate the love of my family and friends.