Part 2 of the day I had a heart attack. Part 1 can be found here. I’m not sure why I can’t ever do these in one shot, I guess I miss having an editor.
So I ended with me being ready for surgery, but I wanted to talk about the leads for a minute. You remember those, right? The paramedics hooking them up to my body, to take readings, measure my heart rate, make sure I wasn’t dying? Pretty cool.
So these leads were on basically the whole time I was in the hospital. As I made my various stops on the way to the CICU, it seemed like they added more leads with every person or nurse that saw me. Sometimes they’d have to shave an area of my chest before applying, sometimes not, and it seemed arbitrary when they shaved or didn’t. The hum of a razor became an oddly comforting noise, despite it meaning I was about to get another sticker with a metal piece attached on me.
When I first got to the hospital, the nurses were going to replace the leads the paramedics had put on with more permanent ones. Any time a lead was switched or replaced, they had to pull the sticky part off, and replace it with sometime equally (or more) sticky. The first time, I remember thinking it was going to be like that scene in the 40 Year Old Virgin when Steve Carrell’s character got waxed.
The nurse who was replacing them apologized, and then, as if reading my mind, said, “This is going to be like- have you seen the 40 Year Old Virgin?”
“When Steve Carrell’s character got waxed!”
She smiled. “Yeah, kind of like that.”
“Alright, just yank it off.”
I had it easier than Carrell (who is as hairy as a bear, and had to deal with wax and not stickers), but it was nice to chuckle at that memory when they were swapping leads out. The nurses would usually do it, though when I was discharged, I ended up doing it myself, which was a worse process.
At some point, I think I had eight of those leads on my chest, strewn about in various places around my heart, and four just hanging out, two on either side of my stomach. ‘What, are those spares?’ I thought to myself, being a smart-ass in my own head.
And during a rare alone time in the CICU, a nurse came in, looked at me, looked at those ‘spare’ leads, and arranged them in a line with the others, as if it was the most normal thing in the world, barely saying a word before leaving. I now had around a dozen wires hooked up to me, most of them in a line near my heart, and a couple up near my shoulders.
I kind of deserved that for my smart-ass-ery.
Anyway, I told that story to tell this story better, now that they were about to wheel me out for the operation.
So they were ready for me, and had some prep to do. Now came the hum of the razor again. They were going in through my leg, and that required a clean surgical area. They always asked permission before doing it, which was amusing: this was something they needed to do. What happens if I say no? I don’t get the operation because they can’t Bic me? Whatever the nurses- cheerful, professional, relentless, underpaid, and soon, even more overworked- asked of me, I did.
And now, some more lead movement to make room for some large, square defibrillator pads on my chest. “Just in case,” they said. They hoped not to need them. I had similar hopes.
I remember thinking I should use the bathroom before the operation, and not doing it, which was one of my few regrets from that day. Someone commented that there was a lot of useful information in my post about heart attacks, and while that wasn’t the aim, I’m glad to help any way I can. But if there’s one takeaway you get from this, friends- one takeaway beyond “Call 911 if you have chest pains” or “keep baby aspirin around for heart attacks”- it’s to use the bathroom in a hospital when you have the chance. Turns out I wasn’t going to be able to for a while.
So I was wheeled just outside my room, around a corner near a nurse’s station, where I was left for a few minutes while a second person came to help wheel me up. I was given very specific instructions to have my hands inside the stretcher as they wheeled me to the operating room. While this made all kinds of sense, it tested my resolve as we steered close to mobile workstations, other stretchers, and a bin we sideswiped coming around a corner.
The operating room was abuzz with activity when I got there. Everyone had something to do, and every set of two people seemed to be having conversations, some having to do with me, and a few that had less to do with me. Someone was talking about trouble with plane tickets through Air Canada, which got me a semi-serious query of “Do you work for Air Canada?” once I mentioned working at the airport. I did not, which increased the chance of me getting the operation I needed. I assume.
There were two doctors in the room, theirs was the conversation that had the most to do with me. One of them stepped out, as the other explained the procedure. I was getting an angiogram: they were going to put a catheter in an artery in my leg, and then they were going to inject some ink to find the blockage. Once they did, they were going to go in the same way to put a stent in to cut through the blockage. Easy peasy.
He had me sign a form (“There is a 1 in 1000 chance something goes wrong”), which amused me. What if I couldn’t sign? What if I didn’t? But as with most everything else asked of me so far, it wasn’t a hard choice.
The second doctor came back in, I got some anaesthetic (and a hilarious amount of blood thinners), and they got to work. I listened to the beeps and hums of the equipment, conversations dropping out for the one or two that had to do with me. I felt the occasional twinge, the ink going in, but otherwise, stared straight up as they did their work.
I heard words, but didn’t understand their context. I wasn’t expecting to, but it was odd, being unable to do anything. The nurses would check in and make sure I was okay, which I was grateful for- even when it was me on the table, it felt very much like I wasn’t there. It probably helped them work. The ink went in, they looked around, and found the problem.
I heard them talk about when the stent was going in, and felt… excitement? anxiety? were they going to fix me? Was this it? They showed it to me first- a tiny spool of aluminum, barely as large as a needle. They’d put it in, expand it where the blockage was. That tiny thing was going to fix me.
I felt the chest pains return after they went back into me: mild, but coming back. A moment of panic as they got worse, and I was about to tell them when the nurse said, “You might feel the chest pains for a few moments.”
“I was about to say…” I quipped, my first words that weren’t yes or no in quite a while. A doctor called for an injection, and a breath later, the pains were gone. And they got back to putting the stent in.
When they got close, they asked me if I could hold my breath for a few seconds, which gave me some pause. Why did they need that? Was it going fine? But I didn’t think too long, just agreed.
I held my breath. It was only a few seconds, but those seconds felt like ages, until they said I could exhale.
The nurse called it: the stent was in, and they were done. They got to pulling everything out, and stitching me back up. Once the doctors pulled away, one of them mentioned about me having a wicked bruise, and free of the restraints, I started to sit up to look.
Several voices all at once told me to lay down. A nurse mentioned that I wouldn’t be able to sit up or move that leg for several hours. I COULD move both of those things, but they didn’t want me to. Apparently the aforementioned hilarious amount of blood thinners I was on meant that blood would pool at the spot on the leg they cut open if I moved it too much. This was information that would have been helpful to me several seconds prior, when somebody mentioned a wicked bruise that piqued my curiosity, but there we were.
I was wheeled back to my room in the CICU, and I slowly realized how annoying it was going to be not being able to sit up or move that leg. I could look side to side, stare up at a phone or the ceiling, but no adjusting the bed, no sitting up, no pivoting or turning. Lunch came shortly thereafter, and soup was a cruel addition to the plate in the circumstances. At least the sandwich was manageable.
The operation was a success, so I was back under observation for the afternoon. Nurses checked on my vitals, I got the leads hooked back up, a dozen wires through the front of my gown to various places on my chest and shoulders. The places they went behind the bed, I was worried they might tangle up like behind the television if I went anywhere (not that I could at that point). I got a blood pressure monitor on one arm, that took readings every fifteen minutes. I could deal with needles all day, but honestly, if I could go the rest of my life without having my blood pressure taken ever again, I’d die happy.
The cardiologist came by to check in on me, but he continued his streak of being remarkably unhelpful when he passed by after the operation. The first words out of his mouth were “Do you have any questions?” rather than… (deep breath) …giving me a summary of what had happened to me, what the operation had found, what the surgeons had ended up doing, how long I could expect to be in the hospital, what medications I would be taking, and other useful tidbits like that. On the one hand, he did get me the operation quickly, and seemed smart, but on the other hand, he had zero presentation skills, and equal sense of what his patient was wanting to hear. He was surprised I asked questions.
(The day they discharged me, he was positively bubbly compared to post-op: “We’re letting you go home. Do you have any questions?” Settle down, bud, maybe switch to decaf. Thank goodness I had a folder full of things to read, I learned more in sixty seconds of reading that than anything I pulled kicking and screaming out of him asking perfectly reasonable questions)
After the cardiologist left, my visitors were much better. My parents came again, my brother, a friend, and finally later in the afternoon, Kari, with someone at home to watch the girls. She thought about bringing them up, but didn’t. She arrived at an awkward time, when the nurse was doing a final check on where they’d cut me open, and see if my readings were good enough that I could sit up and move the leg again.
I asked about the day, and how the girls were. She mentioned that they seemed to notice I was gone, that they were more stressed.
I feel like I get emotional at strange times. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense when I feel sad or cry or do any of that, because being emotional and expressing that is perfectly normal and fine and healthy. I guess it’s more that I don’t get emotional at times when it makes sense.
Kari said that Elise especially seemed stressed, and I felt tears for the first time that day. “I didn’t want to worry her,” I said, voice cracking, only then feeling the weight of the day, really stopping to think about everything that happened. It was strange that this was the first time, right? That it took this long to feel that way?
The whole day, I’d held it together, cracking wise and pretending everything was fine, when it definitely wasn’t. It wasn’t until Kari and I talked with the nurse that I realized how bad it had been. I’d had a heart attack- a “significant” one. And if I’d called a few minutes later, “the outcome could have been much different”.
When Kari was there, I felt the emotion wash over me, as if being with her or being alone gave me permission to feel that way. I didn’t need to pretend it was fine. So I didn’t. Neither of us did.
I wasn’t fine. But I was here, and would be for a couple days at least while they made sure there were no complications. Everyone was cagey about how long I’d have to stay when I asked, which made some sense: they didn’t want to tell me a couple days and have it be much longer. Even if it did end up being a couple days. I got moved out of the CICU at midnight the day before I was discharged, but that’s another story for another time.
The evening got me sleepy, and with no one around (save for my nurse who kept popping in to check my vitals), I relaxed. Listening to the beeps of the monitors, feeling the blood pressure monitor clench around my arm every fifteen minutes, nurses popping in to make sure I was fine, occasionally give me some pills. The clock, the familiar red on black, was a comfort in an uncomfortable place.
I had my heart. And I was going to do what I could to keep it.