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Nevertheless, the sense of breathing as or with someone else hits home for Nalley. “It messes with your mind, similar to thinking about how small we are in the universe. That the universe is so vast and then you think, there’s this part of me that’s not me … but I’m alive because of it.”When Tibayan mentioned to me using a form of cardiopulmonary bypass called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, in transplant surgery, I remembered what it looked like. The ruby blood in thick tubes. The sound of the nurses banging their fists against the machine to prevent clots. The way the patient is sometimes drugged up to prevent him from moving so that the cannula feeding directly into his carotid will not jostle and detach.

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My son was on ECMO for 10 days. He was kept alive effectively as a cyborg, his vitals inextricably linked to the machine that kept him breathing — and to the nurses who monitored the blood as it circulated out of his body, and the doctors who checked for air leaking into his chest cavity. I remember the strange attachment to the machines that were keeping him alive, a simultaneous revulsion and tenderness for the care he received. Besides the high-tech instruments in the room, a small electric candle flickered in the window, near the cot where I or my husband slept each night. I had never imagined that parenthood would begin mostly as a vigil.