I was sitting on the edge of my bed, the mattress covered with a red flannel sheet colored blood red. My hands were open, the palms flat, pressing down at my side, and my feet planted on the floor, stabilizing my balance. I had leaned over to lace my right shoe and dizziness and shortness of breath zapped my body when I raised my head. I sucked air into my heaving lungs and dropped supine on the bed. My heart and lungs slowed down. Calm replaced a budding panic.
How long was I there…two hours? I pushed myself up and walked shakily to my office, 12 feet down the hall, and called my cardiologist. I had visited his office yesterday and was told by Nurse Nancy Strong to come back for a stress test today. She filled a prescription for me of nitroglycerin tablets.
“Take them if you feel your heart is being compressed and you are not doing anything active.”
On this call I was connected again to her. “I am not coming in for a stress test. I want to go straight to the hospital. I am much worse than yesterday. I had to use nitroglycerin last night”.
“Two. They worked.” A ghost hand I called it, cold and grasping, had squeezed my heart for no good reason.
Nancy arranged for my admittance to the Vermont Medical Center, 26 miles away. I live alone and was lucky to have Mary, my sister-in-law who lives within a few miles. Sometimes she talks non-stop but in these situations she is calm, listens well and acts promptly. I told her I needed a ride to the hospital for my heart was fudging its responsibility.
“I’ll be there in minutes,” she said.
“Heart attack, heart attack, heart attack!” I said to myself. I felt no great pain, maybe it was only blockage
of arteries, but at the rate blood was flowing, I thought I woouldn’t last another day—unless I lay flat so the ghost hand doesn’t squeeze.
It was a quick wheel chair trip to the emergency room. The orderly moved me to an empty, frigid cubicle and helped me onto a bed.
“You have to stay here until there is a room upstairs,” he said. “We’re loaded up.”
“How long before I’m hooked up? He shrugged his shoulders and left. Someone entered to attend me… maybe to see if I was breathing.
“I am a journalist,” I said, “this will make interesting reading in my blog. Can’t you find a room?”
I wasn’t too coherent. Soon I was in Room 516, next to Mounir Khouri, a 58-year old business man from South Burlington. He suffered a complete blockage of his widow artery. I was amazed he was not dead. So was he. Mounir was due for another stent procedure.
The Vermont Medical Center cardiac section is very good, staffed with highly competent cardiac specialists—surgeons, diagnosticians, artery plumbers, visiting students, foreign residents. In their Interventional Cardiology program there are 8 physicians and 17 nurses who are responsible for 2,600 procedures a year (diagnostic catherizations, stenting, peripheral revascularizaion and heart valve replacement via catheter).
Two residents, one from India, the other from Egypt, gave me a succinct review of my problems and the options they had. The chief surgeon visited, with two others and shook my hand as if to say I am in good hands. With his sterness and sense of being in control I thought he might be handing out Purple Hearts.
IV attached, vital sign monitors skipping along the screen, I wondered if I would see that moment when they stopped chasing each other. Nurses and nurse assistants and helpers attended me at all hours—clean the bed, hand me cups of pills, bring meals (surprisingly good for a hospital, save for the scrambled eggs that looked like yellow tofu and tasted like congealed powdered eggs), put an oximeter on my finger tip to measure the oxygen in my blood (low, 88!) pricked my finger for a blood sugar count and did all sorts of things to indicate I was alive and sick—and a link to bureaucracy due to the number of papers I had to sign. If I died, the digital equipment would regurgitate the information and prove that they did the right thing.
I lay flat on the bed and when the lights were out the ghost hand hovered overhead, shimmering a luminous, sickly green. On my third day in the hospital, shortly after noon, they wheeled me out of 516. My room partner was back from what they call the “procedure”. His two new stents were doing their job and he was okay. He was watching a tv show where I was being interviewed about my latest book while the crumpled me was being wheeled down a long windowless corridor, past doors and rooms, nurses, doctors, patients with masks, standing next to the walls, watching silently my passage. I am leading a parade? I looked up into overhead fluorescents that emitted a green luminescence that sparked a flashback to 1984, when I was photographing a corridor at Dachau Concentration Camp outside of Munich. It was made of cement blocks, scratched and crumbling and colored a gaseous green from weak fluorescents that barely lit the shut doors on either side. But there were no people, only ghosts of the prisoners kept there, in solitary confinement, over 40 years ago, before American troops liberated the camp. These prisoners, were led past where I lay on the floor, taking photographs. They turned to their left and into a courtyard and were ordered to stand against a concrete wall and shot. Thousands of them.
The plumbing room was large, lit by fluorescents and other lights that were not glowing green but mimicked daylight. Bustle, placement of equipment, few words, the staff slid me onto the operating table and readied all the equipment. A quick acting drug was injected and I was out. It was not the dread I felt at Dachau but a shrug of the shoulders: let it all play out.
I am 81. I had a stent inserted in 2006 when I returned from India. On both heart incidents the doctors did not tell me that my heart was whacky until I diagnosed myself after exercising. (“Why do I feel that numbness and that hovering ghost hand?) The first time was a numbness in my left arm and heart. It happened on three days within the first five minutes on the rowing machine. After the third workout I called my GP and he yelled at me to go to cardiac at the UVM Medical Center. The next morning I had a stent in my widow’s artery. My cardiac doctor visited when I was back in my room. “Close,” he said. “95% blockage in what we call the Widow Maker’s Artery.”
It was a photo finish this time too. They gave me a sonogram before they wheeled me into the plumbing room. The sonogram created an image of my heart and the weak spots. Why don’t they do that every year, or give me a stress test? My self-diagnosis was last-minute scrambling.
The Plumbing Crew put in four stents—one to replace the stent in the widow’s artery that was stuffed with gunk, another just before it, and two smaller ones in the right coronary artery. Maybe this was the artery that was feeding my heart but was slowly damming up with sludge and when it was completely blocked, along with the Widow’s artery already shut down, why that ghost with the hand would envelope my body and lead me to another world.
The UVM Medical Center gave me a summary of my “visit”. I was diagnosed with Non-St. Elevated Myocardia Infarction and the diagnosis also included Coronary Artery Disease, Native Coronary Artery and Atria Fibrillation. I have been home for three days and am now allowed to walk up and downstairs. Very slowly, the visiting physical therapist advised me, and take deep breaths. I can tie my shoelaces without heaving lungs and dizziness. Visiting nurses check my vitals. I feel great, although there is no sun and the outside temperature remains in the single digits. I traded photographs to a friend to bring up firewood and stack it next to my stove. Another friend brought food and a Coors.
I am still short of breath and strength but the physical training will take me up to par. I can continue my photography and get going on those two new books I have started. Why did all this happen? Was it inherited and sloppy living? Or the two years working on my Lifetime book, so intent on doing a major work I put on weight and developed a “tourniquet leg” that swelled up as if I were an attachment to my computer? I had to ice my leg and elevate it. I was stressed out and of course financially bereft. The book’s expense I covered, but not myself. I couldn’t pay my bills, stacked helter-skelter on a corner of the desk and I realized what with high taxes and energy costs, I cannot afford to live inVermont. I have to reinvent myself. As it is, I am a redundant being. Good thing I have a couple of Medicare plans otherwise I would be out on the streets.
My daughters called from England.
“How are you?”
“No big deal, “ I said and started talking about a new project I just thought up.
“DAD! SLOW DOWN”