Happy Heart Attack Anniversary…Almost

English: Skull and crossbones
English: Skull and crossbones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As it gets closer to the one year anniversary of my heart attack and near-death experience, I find myself  in that state of cautious anticipation at night before sleep. The one where any little twinge in the chest or forearms – it was agonising pain in my forearms and hands that presaged my heart attack – and I will lie awake for hours waiting to see if I am going to have a revisitation to the most pain I’ve ever felt in my life.

Another anniversary date is also approaching, it has almost been a year since my blog was Freshly Pressed. An event that occurred just four days before my heart attack. Interestingly enough, that anniversary has none of the wariness and fear that the other one has.

I was lucky in a sense that after my two emergency surgeries – that for the record, kicked my ass – I was in such an exhausted and doped up state that I had no problem sleeping. I was so messed up that I found that one night I had squashed a good sized spider to death by apparently rolling over it. When I found the poor critter’s carcass the next morning my only reaction was to dispose of its body.

The first few months of my recuperation are a blur of pain from a lower back injury sustained at my previous job as a prison officer and the subsequent steroidal injections just a week before the heart attack that made the pain worse instead of alleviating it.  Shambling to the bus stop that is only a 20 second walk from my front door, stopping no less than seven times, heart pounding and head swimming from the pain.

The slow process of increasing my walking distance each day and feeling like I had a sign on my back that said,  “Mug Me I am Helpless.”  During that time period I was given an early retirement from my job with Her Majesty’s Prison Service and was in financial dire straits. It was not a great time, but apart from the stresses from my life changing event, I was shocked to find out just how close to death I’d actually been.

I had come to grips with that a little while back. I was sleeping like a baby at night and had increased my “usual” sleeping time from four hours a night to eight and over. It is only recently that I have had problems dropping off and fighting the panic that these unknown twinges evoke.

In my old job, the mental health folks who dealt with the prisoners (aka psychiatric types) used to talk about triggers and anniversary dates as being a normal thing for people to experience and in-turn, these two things affected how people reacted to things. While not a prisoner, I’m finding myself back to the time when the terror of an unknown pain could keep me up for hours.

This trigger will pass, just as surely as the anniversary of my heart attack will come and then go.  While time rushes on in the greater scheme of things, the minutiae of our lives trudges along with all the intensity of a turtle trudging resolutely against that fast footed rabbit that is our life. I, like many others have to fight against that irrational fear of the grim reaper calling again so soon.

For as resilient as the human body is, like the old Timex adverts it can take a licking and keep on ticking, we all have a limited warranty in the area of the body’s  almost magical ability to heal itself. As we get older, besides the obligatory aches and pains that increased age brings about, the parts of our machine get worn, old defects that we never noticed before suddenly leap to the forefront screaming, “Look at me!”

As we all reach that age where our mortality is shoved, sometimes brutally, in our face we have to accept that, like everyone else in the world, we owe a death. It is a debt that we all must pay, as Katherine Hepburn used to say, “Of course life is hard, it kills you.” But I have not yet reached the age where I can look back over my life and say, “I’m okay with dying right now, I’ve lead a good life and won’t complain when it is time to pay my dues for a life lived.”

I do not think that such an age exists for the average person. I believe that none of us are ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. Most people fight the grim reaper with whatever strength they have left. Some, who have been in pain for so long that they welcome it, are of a different ilk. Suffering for any amount of time is tiring and soul destroying. I thank God, or whoever is in charge, that I have not had unbelievable pain for longer than the 5 hours  or so that I was conscious before my heart surgery.

I admit that it is only at night, in the quiet hours, that I’ve had a revisitation of the alarm that came once I’d gotten out of my exhausted stage of post surgery. The daytime is full of more things to do than I have time for and that is a blessing. This anniversary heart attack trigger, my almost one year anniversary, will pass soon enough. Until then, I’ll lay in bed at night listening to my body and sweating every time something feels “wrong” in the areas that my body remembers from the heart attack.   During the day, I’ll keep writing the articles for the paper, doing posts for my blog and trying to fit everything else in around the two.

Happy heart attack ‘almost’ anniversary to me.

Thumbs up!
Still here and damned glad! Self-photo

Michael Smith

United kingdom

22 August, 2013

Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control…

Unknown

I honestly believe that there is no other phrase in the English language that can so instil a sense of dread as the preface of “Due to circumstances beyond out control.”

It not quite “heart stopping” nor is it so alarming that visions of death and destruction immediately spring up full-blown in your imagination. But what it does instead is get your Spidey senses tingling.

Why?

Well, mainly because it signifies that something has gone wrong or at the very least not as expected. Of course the worry that this detour off into left field is somehow your fault also adds to the worry quotient that this phrase conjures up. What ever the reason or cause of this “change of events” it is a signal or signpost that the journey is not going to be as smooth as you originally expected.

Of course I use the term (or word) journey as a sort of “catch-all” metaphorical image of what ever this “due to…” effects. But whether the thing altered because of these circumstances is an appointment (which in this case was a surgery follow-on appointment) or an agreement or the cancellation of a favourite telly program; it generally evokes images of disaster.

I guess I’ve always found the phrase to be the precursor to an announcement of death. Almost every time I’ve seen this particular phrase it is immediately followed by information that the person you were scheduled to: see, talk to, meet with, or watch, has died. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly and certainly most inconveniently.

The only other phrase that will guarantee a rise of blood pressure is the “In memory of ‘insert name here’ at the closing credits of a film. Although the individual that the film-makers want to memorialise can sometime be so eclectic that you may never find out there connection to the film or if they died during the making of or whether their death was just while the film was awaiting distribution.

While writing this post – which, by the way, was prompted by a letter I received yesterday – I had a brief childhood memory jump up out of the recesses of my ageing brain.

See if this rings a chord or bell with any of you:

Now I don’t think I was the only kid whose heart-rate sped up along with his blood pressure rising to dangerous levels when this was broadcast. The second this came on the telly, my flight or fight mechanism kicked in. After watching this on YouTube, I found that it still does.

Walk down memory lane over…

So I am a little bit curious. What phrases or sounds (or sights for that matter) instantaneously cause your blood pressure to rise and your heart-rate to double. I am really only looking at the “fear factor” here; not the similar bodily reactions to a pleasure stimulus. Let me know.

Maybe you have a similar reaction to mine to this foreboding phrase. If you don’t come up with anything, I’ll assume that you were stopped by circumstances beyond your control.

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Matters of the Heart Part 2 or I’m Coming to Join You Elizabeth!

When I was growing up I loved the television sitcom Sanford and Son. Back then I didn’t know it was an American version of the British telly comedy Steptoe and Son. Like All in the Family, (another British comedy titled Till Death do us Part) Sanford and Son ruled the airwaves of the 70’s.

I adored Redd Foxx and thought (still do as a matter of fact) that he was one of the funniest actors and comedians going. The story of this father/son business ran for years and it never failed to make me laugh. Foxx as Fred Sanford had a running gag throughout the series. If son Lamont did something that Fred did not like, he would clutch his heart and yell “I’m coming Elizabeth, it’s the big one! I’m coming to join ya!” He would stagger about and gasp while he “suffered” his heart attacks.

This “fake” heart attack of Fred Sanford never failed to make me (or the canned studio audience) laugh. It was a device used to great effect by Redd Foxx and fans of the show loved it.

Sadly, in real life, Foxx died in 1991 while working on another sitcom The Royal Family while suffering a real heart attack that his co-workers mistook for a practical joke. Somewhat ironically, the working title of the show was Chest Pains. But I am digressing.

This post is not about Redd Foxx, even though he was one of my comic heroes when growing up, it is about heart attacks and how you deal with them after you’ve had one.

"I'm coming to join you Elizabeth!" Photo courtesy of ihigh.com
“I’m coming to join you Elizabeth!” Photo courtesy of ihigh.com

Like the old rhyme says, paranoia can annoy ya. Unfortunately if you have a heart attack, you do become a bit paranoid about having another one. I am no different. I’m not afraid of the dying part, that is unavoidable and we all “owe” the big guy a death. To say that I am not scared of dying would be untrue. Of course I am, I am just not paranoid about it.

No, the bit I am paranoid about is the pain. To be more precise, the pain of the actual heart attack, the pain after the surgery and the pain of the recovery.

Like other folks recovering from heart attacks and the resultant emergency surgery; I have to constantly battle against becoming an irritating hypochondriac. Someone whose every ache and pain sends them screaming to the doctor’s office or the emergency room at the local hospital; a person who is convinced that these same aches and pains are the prelude to what is probably the worst episode of their lives, a heart attack.

I pulled a muscle in my chest the other day walking back from the local shop carrying a small but heavy-ish bag of shopping. The muscle is on the left side of my chest.

At least I think I pulled a muscle.

I had done this once before (about a week ago) and luckily for me I had a doctor’s appointment and he checked it right out. I was fine, the ECG came back normal except for a little circulation problem that he said was to “be expected” after the surgery I’d had. I was, of course, relieved and felt a bit silly that I’d even mentioned it.

Then I pulled the same muscle, again.

I re-acted exactly the same. “Shit! Is it my heart? Can I feel it in my back? Is that a strange feeling in my left forearm? Crap!” I had this “inner dialogue” with myself all the way home from the shop. Oh it varied a little, but the main gist of it was the same. The bottom line was, I was attempting to stave off a panic attack (not pleasant, but not a heart attack) and calm myself down before I had a real heart attack from the panic.

Of course the fact that I have an “in-operable” hole in my aortic arch is why I tend to panic. Despite my surgeon’s assurances that, apart from having to restrain prisoners as part of my old job, I would eventually be able to participate in cardiovascular exercises like running and lifting heavy objects (such as doors) and not worry.

But…

I have this feeling that I have a ticking time bomb in my chest. This “hole” (my works doctor referred to it as an embolism) will get bigger with age and if I suddenly have to perform an isometric exercise and cause my blood pressure to rise rapidly as a result, it could either kill me or make the hole rapidly increase in size. Neither one of which is good.

As I am sitting her typing this post, the left side of my chest is aching and hurting in sympathy with the information that I am relating. Does it bother me? That would be an emphatic yes. Am I frightened? That would be another yes.

Will I call the doctor? That would be a no.

“Why,” you ask, “if you are frightened surely you’d call someone?”

The reason I won’t be calling anyone just yet, is simple. The pain I feel in my left side is nowhere near as incapacitating as the actual heart attack was. When that hit on the 30th of August this year, I was immobilized. I couldn’t do anything. The pain was so all-encompassing that I had to crawl on my hands and knees upstairs to get my daughter Meg to call the ambulance. This pain is nowhere near the league that the heart attack was, pain-wise.

I have an appointment on the 3rd of January in the New Year. If I am still around and I haven’t completely misdiagnosed myself, I’ll mention it to my doctor then. Until then, I’ll continue my paranoid existence of panicking each and every time I have an un-identified pain.

In the meantime, I’ll grit my teeth and try not to do an old-man Sanford and clutch my chest dramatically and stagger about. But in my head?

Yup, you guessed it.

“It’s the big one, I’m coming to join ya…”

Merry Christmas…

PS, If you have recovered from a heart attack and surgery, do you suffer from displaying hypochondriac type tendencies? Or is it just me. Let me know, okay?

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For ‘Every Beat of My Heart’ Thanks

The King of the Hoodies.

It has now been 44 days or one month and two weeks since my heart attack and the two subsequent surgeries (one of which was an emergency surgery) that saved me from taking a prolonged vacation with that king of all ‘hoodies‘ the big Grim Reaper.

Wow.

In many ways it seems like a lifetime ago and in others ways it does seem like 44 days. I know that I am recovering incredibly well, everyone is telling me so. My scars (quite impressive if I do say so myself, 9 inches on my chest and 12 inches on my right calf) are fading quickly and no longer itch as much.

I can walk a little bit further each day without my traitorous back seizing up and today I actually went into the town centre and traipsed up and down the High Street. Although I was not able to do too much gallivanting about, I did have to stop occasionally and stretch my back and butt muscles. I only limped a little bit and in the area of breathing and heart rate, I don’t think I did too badly at all. No breathless episodes and my heart didn’t feel like it was going to come leaping out of my chest.

All in all, a good first shopping day out.

I am still learning to curb my natural inclination towards impatience and feel that I’m not doing too badly. My first ‘follow-on’ appointment with the surgeon is on the 17th and I will be driving the almost 2 hour drive to the hospital myself. On the first of November I’ll have my initial ‘fitness’ assessment and I will finally learn what I can and cannot do and how to get my self and my heart back into shape.

There are other tests and assessments scheduled as well, like cholesterol and the like, but everything is going pretty smoothly and I am not inclined to rush any part of the process. I’m even going to have a ‘flu jab‘ this year. I have never liked the flu shot. When I was in the USAF each year I had the damn thing (in the Air Force it was mandatory, you had to have it) I invariably got some sort of chest cold that lasted for months.

This nasty experience has led me to turn down all offers of flu jabs full stop. But in keeping with my new healthier mindset I’ve agreed to having the jab in two weeks time.

I am learning to make healthier meals. Meg and I made our first turkey mince chilli the other night. While it was not a blazing success, it was not inedible and as we cautiously picked our way through it, we saw how it could be improved with the addition of various spices and the odd herb or two.

Turkey chilli from leanonturkey.co.uk

It will never taste as good as the ‘real thing’ but it’ll do. I had thought very briefly about making chilli using Quorn. The moment I saw the price of this ‘meat substitute‘ I began to think the stuff had a solid gold base. Price prohibitive to the nth degree, I doubt that I’ll ever be using that stuff as a substitute for anything. I’m sure that some of the Quorn products aren’t that expensive, but the mince is obscenely overpriced.

We have a recipe for a winter vegetable lasagna that, despite having the horrible white sauce that the English insist on putting in every Italian dish instead of cheese, looks and sounds quite yummy. There are chilli recipes on websites that sound tasty, although the one I just looked at had celery in it and no mushrooms, but I will be adapting the ones that sound the best sans celery.

The lovely Marilyn over at Serendipity gave me some wonderful suggestions on food ideas after my blog post on the blandness of my new diet. She pointed out that spice is our friend and that sushi and sashimi were not only healthy but tasty as well. I do like sushi and although I never actually thought of preparing it at home, Meg (who also likes sushi) said we’d “give it a go” as soon as we find some recipes.

So there we go. It’s all stations full steam ahead. I’ve been incredibly lucky, I think. I was talking to my mother the other day and she told me that her father (my grandfather) had died age 52 of a massive coronary caused by his leaky aorta aka the  widow maker.

I still think I have a hard time realizing just how close I came to taking a “dirt nap” and not being part of this wonderfully exasperating world. When I left the hospital, they told me to expect it to all sink in later. “Most likely,” they said, “It will be when you least expect it. Some people go home and burst into tears when they walk through their front door. Just don’t be surprised when it happens.”

Well it hasn’t happened yet. I suppose I’ve still got too many plates spinning up in the air. Of course there is the possibility it will never ‘sink in’ as they put it. I might go through the remainder of my life blissfully unaware of just how close it was (and according to the experts it was very close) and that would suit me fine.

I’ve had my warning shot and I may not get another one. I consider myself very, very lucky. I just hope I can do something to justify this extra time I’ve been granted.

Your time starts…Now!

Why the Hell is this Taking so Long?

It has now been exactly one month to the day that I experienced my ‘life changing’ day of pain and two (count em, two!) surgeries. One which  is often referred to as the ‘lunch hour op’ and the second which was emergency surgery and pretty damned serious.

*Although to be honest, the seriousness of the second surgery still has not really kicked in. I still keep looking around to see who the doctor is talking about when they get to the serious part. In my mind if it was that serious, I’d still be bed-ridden and hooked up to about a trillion tubes.*

I do have to keep reminding myself that is has been just one month since my ‘new life’ started. The parting words of my cardiologist were, “Get ready for your new life.” I still cannot figure out if she was being facetious or not. But new it most certainly is.

2012 has been a year of recovery for me. An accident in February caused so much nerve damage to my lower back that I still had not returned to work full-time when the heart attack decided to ‘kick me while I was already down.’  Of course the recovery for a heart attack and two surgeries is a lot different from recovering from lower back nerve damage.

As frustrating and painful as the nerve damage was, it was never going to kill me. Oh it might aggravate the living hell out of me but it definitely would not put my life directly in danger.

*Unless of course, my back decided to freeze while I was crossing a busy motorway. In that case I think all bets would be off.*

The other parting words from the cardiologist was that, “You need to completely rethink your life style and your attitude.” I was a little insulted. While in the hospital, I was so grateful to everyone who had made the galvanizing pain disappear that I had a permanent grin pasted on my face. Of course they may have misconstrued that as a grimace which, in all fairness, does look an awful lot like a grin.

But I got her point. I am by very nature, a little grumpy (A little grumpy?? I hear some of my colleagues say. That’s like saying Hitler is a little dead! I maintain, in my defense, that applies only to work. Not all the time.) and very impatient. Living in England I have always been able to pass this off as a less than attractive American trait. But to be completely honest, I am so impatient that even my fellow Americans disown me.

Mr Fredrickson from Pixar’s Up…Even he’s not as grumpy as I am.

I know that I have to slow down, chill out and be more cheerful. Unfortunately, knowing that I have to do this does not make it happen spontaneously. I still get impatient at the amount of time everything takes.

For example: I will walk to the post box, which is about 100 yards from my back door. I take my time and still have to stop halfway there. Not because I am winded or tired. No the reason I stop is because of my damned back! This pain in the buttocks ailment that I have been recovering from since February this year! It seizes up and I have to stop and stretch and rest it for ten minutes before I can resume my slow snail-like crawl to the post box.

Then, because of the seizure, I have to stop several times on the way back. Embarrassingly, the first stop is after I have posted what I needed posted and I limp slowly  to the fence right by the post box. I always wear a floppy hat and sunglasses in case someone I know is driving by.

I know that I am getting better though. Yesterday I cut the grass in my back garden. Now before you get too excited, I need to explain that my back garden is not that big and my mower is not that heavy. I also really took my time and besides dragging my right leg a bit, finished pretty much pain-free. I am having to wait to cut the grass in my front garden, which is considerably smaller than the back garden. I’m waiting because I don’t want to over do it.

I have gotten used to my right calf looking like an over-ripe banana and finding the odd bruise in places that don’t make sense. *The oddest one is right in the middle of my right foot’s instep.* I am also learning to walk that very fine line between hypochondriac and really knowing when something isn’t right.

I have learned not to panic when I get pains in my hands or forearms (both of which hurt beyond belief during the heart attack) and I’ve learned to stop worrying about getting fit for work, although that one is a bit harder.

We run a fitness test for my job. It is called a ‘bleep test‘ and it was obviously invented by a sadist. I have never really had too much of a problem passing it in the past. Not too shabby for a smoker of too many years to count. But now? I’ve quit the nasty weed and I am on the mend, but, the idea of running that test makes me feel nauseous.

Invented by the Marquis De Sade
Buzz Lightyear and Meg. My two guardians.

But the one thing I have learned from my recent ‘life changing’ experience is this: While I sit here and roll my eyes to the heavens and shout, “Why the hell is this taking so long!” I am, mentally at least, accepting that this is going to take a while and that I’m pretty damn lucky to still be here and if I ever forget this fact, my daughter will remind me.