I put the title in quotes because the events I describe here happened in 2010. I hope the medical professionals among you will forgive my if I bowdlerize a few things.
SUNDAY (1 August)
On Sunday August 1st, I was feeling a little tired and decided not to do my usual Sunday afternoon shopping trip and to postpone my laundry expedition until the next day. I decided that I did need to take out the trash (collection day is Mondays), so I loaded up the bin and wheeled it to the curb.
I dropped it off and had turned to walk back to my apartment door when my right calf began to tingle. After a step or two, every single muscle in my right calf siezed up, and I could not move my right leg. I took a few feeble hops on my left leg and was rewarded with a sudden wrenching pain in my right calf -- worse than any muscle cramp I've ever felt, and the second worst pain ever. Fortunately, one of my neighbors in the fourplex I live in saw my distress, helped me to my porch, and called 911.
One of the paramedics in the responding ambulance turned out to be my newphew, Galen Wasem, who knew the family medical history and something of my own -- Galen made a joke of the coincidence, saying that if I had wanted to see him at work we could have arranged a ride-along -- I needn't have gone to all this trouble.
He noticed that I was cold and clammy, not hot and sweaty on the 100-degree day, took a blood sugar level and started an EKG. He then declared that he was going to treat the incident as a potential heart attack and I was off to the hospital. I expressed my concern was that the leg pain was a DVT (deep vein thrombosis), which can cause a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolism, and Galen acknowledged that might be true, but insisted that my EKG showed problems as well, and that had to remain his main concern.
The ER doctors said he had made the right decision, ordered a series of tests (mostly for my heart, but they did do an ultrasound of my right leg (which eliminated the DVT possibility). Still, my only pain was in my leg, and I felt nothing out of the ordinary in my chest. I was placed under observation and underwent a series of tests. I began receiving the first of a series of calls from friends and family, which I will not cover in detail.
MONDAY (2 August)
The next day (Monday), it was decided to do a catheterization exam, a stress test, and some other procedures. The calf had recovered almost completely-- stiff, no pain , but my blood pressure and glucose levels were very high. My bloodwork further showed that I had indeed suffered a heart attack and the treadmill and other tests gave the doctors the information they needed for a diagnosis. Diabetes had caused poor circulation in my legs, triggering a cramp. Diabetes and high blood pressure masked the crushing chest pain typical of a heart attack, which was why I had felt nothing. I spent Monday recovering from the cath procedure. Last time I had one of these, I had to spend 8 hours flat on my back with a 40-pound sandbag on my hip -- things have improved: no sandbag, and only 6 hours with one leg immobile.
TUESDAY (3 August)
The cardiac surgeon who talked to me said there were several variables, but but he thought there was a good chance that the damage to my heart muscle was repairable, but that he could not be certain until he went in -- he proposed surgery to install one or more bypasses, and explained what was involved. For the first time in my life I heard the words: a little under two percent chance of death" in connection with my immediate future. Most of that, it seems, is in connection with general anaesthesia). Aside from a few minutes after the cardiac surgeon's briefing, I went into the operation feeling very confident that I would emerge alive and unharmed. I had confidence in the skills and professionalism of the people who would be performing the operation, and confidence in western medicine in general -- the thought of dying didn't occur to me as a real possibility. I joked with the prep staff and the anesthetist about this being a huge operation, how it was my first time under a general, and how I had saved all my operations up to get them over with in one fell swoop. It seems kind of odd to me thinking back on it that I didn't more have more concerns.
WEDNESDAY (4 August)
Wednesday morning I was awakened early for several blood draws (something I was becoming increasingly used to as time passed), and I was eventually taken down to get shaved and prepped for the operation. They drew blood (almost as an afterthought, it seemed) to type and crossmatch my blood for the operation, and installed an arterial line and a central line for the surgery. The arterial line seemed to give the most trouble, and popped out once -- as I watched the spurting arterial blood washing across my palm for the second or two it took to secure things, I remember thinking that this was more of my own blood (15-20 cc) than I had ever seen in one place before. I was wheeled into the surgery area, and the anesthetist told me that he was going to give me the first of a series of injections to knock me out, and a few seconds later, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, it was late afternoon, my breathing tube was out, and I was in the recovery area. Everything had gone well. I had a large (but closed) incision on my chest, and seemingly innumerable tubes, wires, and drains coming out of my abdomen (and a foley catheter coming out somewhere else). One of the nurses recited a list of everything going in/coming out, and said many of them might come out as early as Thursday if all went well. The operation had gone smoothly, with no complications, and I was recovering well. I spent the rest of Wednesday in the recovery ward, and was transferred to a special section for cardiac paients as Wednesday turned to Thursday.
After going home, I would have odd dreams that I can only attribute to subconscious memories of the operating room.
THURSDAY Through SUNDAY (5-8 August)
I spent the next couple of days having tubes/wires, and such removed from my various bodily cavities, and by Friday I was encouraged to begin doing "laps" of my end of the ward as a means of exercise. I was increasingly visited by roving bands of people in white coats, and by physical, occupational and respiratory therapists. By Sunday, the last of the connections with the outside world had been removed, and I was told I might be able to go home Monday if all went well.
During these days, I had to request light duty pain medications several times for general body aches and some quite signifcant pains. Aside from the incision scar and the holes for the various drains and such, I had been poked dozens of times for blood draws of various sorts, and my arms and legs were covered in spreading purple bruises. I remarked to one of the nurses that I looked like I had been worked over with a tire iron. I found I could remain comfortable and (relatively) pain free if I did not move. However, since breathing involved moving, remaining still was not conducive to long-term survival.
MONDAY (9 August)
The wee hours of Monday morning saw an episode that must be familiar to many patients in my condition: I ran out of blood. The technician tasked with drawing a few more ccs for various pre-release tests was unable to locate and skewer a suitable vein, and my RN was called. Then the charge nurse. At intervals of 30-45 minutes, calls to higher levels of authority were made, and additional experts added to the retinue in my room. I had remained (mostly) still through several hours of repeated insertions into my skin, some of them involving quite convuluted schemes to capture a vein large enough to provide the needed blood. Finally, someone at a lesser level of authority than the surgeon general achieved the desired result. I was praised for my cooperative attitude and called "a trooper" . . . I anounced that I had just been tortured for several hours (albeit for my own good) and demanded cookies. Oatmeal raisin if possible. At least three.
As the group broke up, the charge nurse told me I would get cookies. Within the hour I had three graham crackers (which were a sign of the nursing staff's bona fides, I was told) and at lunch I got a large oatmeal raisin cookie.
I was discharged later in the afternoon, and driven home by my nephew the paramedic.
My recovery continues. My medical bills are currently at $12,000 and counting. I now have a $140-per-month Insulin habit, and spend another $100 each month on assorted prescription medications.
Anyone who would like to make a contribution to help defray my medical expenses (I have no insurance) should go to Paypal.com and make a voluntary donation to firstname.lastname@example.org