One year ago today . . .
After my father died of a heart attack at the age of 58, I had experienced sympathetic chest pains for months after the funeral. Despite being profoundly scared standing next to my father’s bed, knowing from that experience the symptoms of a failing heart, when my turn came over forty years later, I was not surprised I waited almost a full day before driving myself to the hospital, something the experts say you should never do. Famous last words in many cases, I guess, but the pain was hardly severe, not at all like the pain radiating across my father’s back that had made him sick to his stomach. What I thought while driving to the hospital—stopping at every red light—was getting a cure for the annoying discomfort before the weekend. I had books to read and writing to be done.
It began Thursday evening with discomfort behind the sternum, from stress I thought from financial concerns in retirement and because my wife was ill. Took aspirin and meds for my arthritis and went to bed. Awoke at 4:30 Friday morning—long before daylight—with the same discomfort and knew that was unusual but went back to sleep for a while, always the best way to escape concerns, or the best way to die for that matter, as several people I knew had done, to sleep, perchance to dream before sudden painless nothingness. Inclined as most men are when it comes to doctors and hospital, I put off doing anything, always aware of the discomfort and now some pain on the back of my left bicep—something felt plenty of times from arthritic pain in that shoulder. For short periods of time, the discomfort and bicep pain were joined by slight pain along the jawline and all were with me until early afternoon Friday.
Getting admitted to the emergency room was rapid, dizzying. It became the beginning of the story of how to avoid paperwork and waiting in a room full of sick people. I told the ladies through the round hole in the glass, I know this may sound dramatic, but I need to see if I’m having a heart attack. From the moment of uttering those words until I was on the gurney in an operating room, naked except for a gown, shivering because it was so cold in the room until one of the men put a warmed blanket on me, in that span of an early quick EKG and an emergency room doctor asking if I knew I was in atrial fibrillation and had high blood pressure (no to the first, never ever had the second), from the moment of being on a gurney and racing down a hall while talking on a cell phone to Dee who was too sick to come to the hospital and telling her I was headed to the cath lab, from being amid a gathering heart team and after the cardiologist introducing himself and me sort of echoing my father by asking if the doctor was any good, from that first utterance about checking to see if I was having a heart attack to having a line installed from groin to heart along mysterious pathways and three stents installed in an artery with 99% blockage, in that time, thank you, thank you, thank you, far less than one hour had raced by.
I was never in a great deal of pain, feeling only flushed warmth during the procedure. There was some pain from two IVs, some slight pain from the shaved pubic start of the pathway to the heart. The endless blood gathering always hurt and bruised, but the most pain came from countless sticky contact pads for always awkward and tangled lifelines connected to them. Despite shaving various hairy areas, the worst pain was the removal of two hand-sized sticky pads stuck to chest and all the hairs upon it in case my heart needed some shock therapy. After just one firmly fixed pad was yanked off I was ready to confess all the bad things I had ever done.
There is always a value to serious illness. After my daughter’s battle with encephalitis, it was learning not to sweat the countless and ultimately meaningless small stuff that makes up so much of life. Her illness also brought an appreciation of living in the moment. True of all serious illness, I guess. But I learned something entirely different from having a heart attack.
Dreading it despite knowing it is mostly an infinitesimal part of living, I have always been afraid of the actual act of dying since I was old enough to understand the process. Somehow, lying there on the table before snaking a line up to my heart and installing three stents to save my life, despite knowing I could go into a full-blown attack and die, I felt no great fear, and part of that may have been the speed of the process from when I first spoke to the lady at the ER window. It was a feeling that one of the shoes had dropped, that finally the end process had become visible. Not that I wanted it or welcomed it, but it was a dance with the actual end game that binds all humans most strongly to each other.
I am not sure what the lack of fear during that dance with mortality meant ultimately. Maybe I became a slightly better person. Wife and children would have welcomed that early on. Maybe I appreciated even more the time I had left, a grand gift, enjoying family and watching granddaughters grow into beautifully brilliant young women. But other nagging fears crept in, no doubt to balance my earlier lack of fear when I was having the heart attack, small daily concerns: the blood thinner that immediately created problems; being told not to miss taking another drug because I now had foreign bodies in my artery and the body loves to clot around anything not its own.
A half-century after my father died from his heart attack, two decades after Jennifer’s illness, I was just glad there was another lesson learned from my illness: sometimes you do have to sweat some of the small stuff because some of it can kill you.