Remembering a Year Ago Today

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My body remembered, even if I did not. While setting up my calendar for appointments next week, I forgot to set the calendar back that resides on the front of my fridge. Being naturally scatty sometimes (Sometimes? I hear you cry. Only sometimes?) I glanced at it on Thursday and decided that today, Friday, was the 27th.

I decided to do yet another blog post on my 30 August experience on the actual day. I even had a title for it. Anatomy of a Heart Attack. Catchy, no?

But even though my conscious mind had made the anniversary date two days in the future, my body did not. I actually called it an early-ish night. Stopping at around 03:30 in the morning. I finished up some projects that I was “multi-tasking,” or attempting to. I shut everything down; locked the downstairs windows; double-checked the doors and took myself, the iPad and the fan upstairs.

After checking all the windows upstairs, I then went to bed.

I was tired.  I had walked over five miles yesterday at varying paces and had written five articles. Feeling both body and brain tired, I started that pleasant drifting off feeling that usually preempts my entry into the land of Nod.

Suddenly, at around 05;45,  my stomach decided to swell and cramp with a combination of indigestion and gas. The end result was up and down to the bathroom the remainder of the early hours of the morning. I finally gave up trying to sleep and went downstairs. Turning on both laptops, I then went to make a coffee and start writing.

After the coffee had been sorted, I sat in front of my MacBookPro and signed in. The first thing I noticed was the date: 30 August 2013.

I suddenly got very tired and shut everything down again. I left the coffee and went back upstairs. It was 07:45, the exact time that I woke up last year on the 30th and went downstairs to wait for the electric chap to come fit a new meter.

I lay back down and drifted off to sleep around 08:30, waking up about one-ish. Fully awake now I went back down to make another coffee, make breakfast and remember last August when I almost died.

Twice.

As I said before, I’d set my alarm for 07:45. The electric guy was coming around between eight and a twelve to hook up the meter. I went downstairs in a pair of sweat pants and put the kettle on for a cup of coffee. While it boiled, I turned on my old laptop to check my emails and my blog. A few days previously I’d been Freshly Pressed and I wanted to see how many views my post was getting and to answer any comments.

Once I made my coffee, I lit my first cigarette of the day and stood in the back garden drinking coffee and smoking. I then went inside and sat in front of the laptop. As I reached for the keyboard I experienced pain in both of my hands. The best way to describe the pain is to liken it to how your hands, and arms, feel after doing a particularly heavy session with weights. Like when you’ve really crunched out a set of arm curls.

Your arm muscles and hands feel like they are going to explode. If you look at them after the set, they look bigger because they’re full of blood. My hands felt like that, but worse. It was incredibly painful. I sat looking at my hands as I opened and closed them. Making a fist and then releasing, like that would help the pain go away.

I stood up and walked out to the back garden and lit another cigarette.  While I pondered this pain, I finished my coffee and the second smoke and went inside to boil the kettle again. I had an earache in both ears and thought that I might be getting a sinus infection.

Second cup of coffee made and back down in front of the laptop. Reaching again for the keyboard  the pain returned, this time not just in my hands but in my forearms as well. The pain has cranked up a few notches. I went back out to the  garden, coffee in hands that felt like they were going to explode, along with my forearms. Lighting my third cigarette. I decided to “wait out” the pain.

In my mind, the entire time,  I was  thinking I had done something like pinched a nerve or  somehow strained muscles  and that this would  pass.

I finished my second coffee and checked my cell phone, I’d gotten a text from the electric guy. While going to make my third and final coffee, the pain came back. This time it is in both arms and spreading towards my chest and back.

I stand there in agony and wonder, “what the hell is going on?” I’d had my arteries and heart checked out a year or so before and everything was “normal.” So I’m thinking, “It cannot be my heart…So what the hell is it?” The earache has returned and I’m having trouble thinking.

I then realise that I must be having a heart attack, or something very close to it. The pain was now so bad that I cannot stand. I crawled up the stairs to my daughter’s bedroom and knock the door open with my forehead.

She sits up in bed, eyes wide and startled.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m, I think I’m having a heart attack. Call 999 and tell them to get here.”

She grabs her cell phone and calls. She talks to them calmly, only a slight tremor surfacing in her voice. She turns to me and asks what are your symptoms? I try to explain and offer to take the phone.

The emergency operator, says no, sit down somewhere and wait for the ambulance.

I went into my room and got dressed in my summer trousers, after putting on underwear as I had not been wearing any, (my grandmother would have been proud as they were a freshly cleaned pair)  and put on socks, shoes, and a shirt. I got my wallet and went back down the stairs by sliding my ass down over each step till I got to the bottom.

I unlocked the front door and went to  sit on an armchair.

45-0605b-ambulance

The ambulance arrived and the two paramedics came in. By that time, I was sitting   on the floor as I felt like I could pass out. I was not that lucky. The pain was increasing steadily and I have never felt pain like it. Sweat was pouring out of me like some kind of comedy skit with freshets of the stuff spurting out of my pores.

One of the paramedics asked me if I could sit in the chair. Out of breath I answered no. He stopped, confused, “Does it hurt you to sit in the chair””

I replied, “No, but it’s a lot further to the floor from the chair if I pass out.”

He nodded and  started trying to attach the sticky pads to me to get an EKG or EEG or whatever they call it. I was sweating so profusely that the pads would not stick. They could not get a reading.

Everything became a blur. My world had shrunk to just me and the pain and the sweat. I concentrated on trying to make the pain go away. At no time did I not believe that they wouldn’t  have something in their ambulance that would give me relief.

They did not.

On the way to the local hospital, they give me shots of morphine and “spritz” nitro-glycerine under my tongue. Nothing helps. My daughter watches me with eyes the size of Texas.

We get to the hospital with sirens wailing, that to me, sound very far away. We get there and I’m carried quickly into the emergency room. A lady doctor comes over and after what seems like hours, the sweat drys sufficiently to get the pads to stick. I’m asked to “breathe normally.” I want to laugh at that, but I’m in too much pain to do more than snort.

They get their reading and ask if I’d rather go to Papworth Hospital at Cambridge, an hour and a half away, or Basildon. I don’t care either way and the decision comes down to lack of bed spaces at Cambridge; so it’s off to Basildon.

I find out later that the drive should have taken over an hour and twenty minutes. We got there in 45 minutes. Meg, my daughter, told me that they drove through the thunderstorm from hell. Sirens screaming as they swerved around traffic. On the way, they gave me some sort of gas.

It was magic. Unlike the morphine or the nitro-glycerine, this stuff makes the pain bearable. So bearable that I am able to breathe somewhat normally and the sweat begins to dry up. When we arrive at the hospital, I ask everyone if I can have some more of that magic gas.

The rest you already know. How close I was to dying. The emergency stents and then stopping everything bringing me back to consciousness and the emergency aortic dissection aka bi-pass.

My sleepless night in the wee hours of the day I had my heart attack a year ago, because of  my “stomach ailment” must have been some sort of “carry-over” from that event. Even though, in my mind, I thought Sunday was the 30th.

Funny how the mind and the body remember things that we’ve chosen to forget, or have forgotten to remember. I hold my hand over my heart (pun intended) and promise that this is the last time, for a very long time, that I’ll be writing about my “life changing” experience.

I decided to chronicle the day’s events as I remembered them. I will point out that I  did relate it in time slots. The time I got up and the time I got the text are imprinted in my memory. I do know that by the time we got to the first local hospital, it was almost four  hours, if not  more, from when I first started having my symptoms.  I also believe that I’ve left a cigarette out…Like I said, it was sort of a blur.

I’ve written the account in both past and present tenses. It seemed appropriate to help get the confusion across that I felt on the day.  I would also like to point out that, at no time did I think of the possibility of dying.  It never entered my head. There were no moments of praying for God, or whoever, to make it all stop or to “spare” me. I just “knew” that the doctors would help me.

And they did.

Michael SmithPhoto on 30-08-2013 at 13.50 #2

United Kingdom

30 August 2013

My Near Death Experience Six Months On

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It’s been just over six months since my close brush with the grim reaper in the form of a heart attack. I have referred to it as a life changing event and it was. It’s amazing how quickly your life can change so much in such an incredibly short span of time. If I owned a crystal ball, I don’t think even then I’d have believed what was in store for me.

In case you missed the event (or the blog-post I wrote about it) I’ll do a recap of what transpired last year. Don’t worry it won’t take long.

February of last year, the thirteenth to be exact, I was injured at work. I sustained nerve damage in my lower back and was off work just under six months. I had just started back to work (in a return-to-work scheme that allowed me to gradually increase my hours) and had taken two weeks leave to get a steroidal injection in my lower back.

On the 24th of August I had my injections (they gave me two) and on the 27th I got Freshly Pressed. On the 30th, I had a heart attack. I actually had the “attack” for over five hours. I was rushed to one Hospital Emergency Room where they verified that, yes indeed, I was having a heart attack. The ambulance then rushed me to another Hospital for surgery.

While having stents put in, the surgeons realised that my aorta was shot and had to stop mid-surgery, bring me back to full consciousness to tell me that they were going to have to perform an emergency aortic dissection. My daughter was told (and so was I but I do not remember it) that things were going to be very “dicey” and that I might not make it, but, if I did not have it I was going to die.

I almost did anyway.

After my surgeries, I recovered incredibly fast. I was out of the Hospital after only four days. I then started the very slow process of recovery that I am still in, truth be told. Despite my quick recovery, the second surgery kicked my ass. On top of that, the surgeons tore my aorta in the arch close to the heart and it is so damaged that they can’t repair it.

Well, to be more accurate, they could try, but they think that it would cause more damage than what they could fix.

In the preceding time period between the heart attack and now, I’ve been ill-health retired from my Prison Officer job and I still haven’t been assessed for rehabilitation because the folks who do the test are concerned that they could kill me, or at the very least, mess my aorta up considerably and hasten the damage along considerably.

With the absence of proper rehabilitation, I’ve been walking. When I first got out of the hospital, I could literally take about 10 to 15 steps and then I had to stop. Not so much because of my heart, but because of the combination of my surgery and my back which was still playing up. As I got better, the rest stops got further and further apart. I can now walk a fairly good distance without stopping and at quite a snappy pace.

I received my pension “payout” and my last ever pay check from the Prison Service. I also got my first pension payment.

I will admit to being a bit lost during these last six months. The payout, the pay check and the pension payment helped me find my way. At least, it made the whole thing real. I was bordering on depression and the reality of the money and my avenues of options suddenly became clear.

I didn't really need a signpost to tell me I was lost.
I didn’t really need a signpost to tell me I was lost.

Before I left the Hospital, they told me that I would have a moment where the enormity of what happened to me would sink in. My too close for comfort brush with death would, in essence, overwhelm me. I was urged to seek help when that pivotal “epiphany” occurred.

It still hasn’t happened. I have come close I think. One night as I lay in bed just starting to doze off, I could hear and feel my heart beating. Everything stopped for a split-second and then as I became aware of the silence my heart started pounding 90 beats to the bar. My chest muscles loosened and tightened in an instant. I had a flash of a thought about almost dying and for that split second I was scared.

But as quickly as all that happened (in the blink of an eye, really) it was over. Everything went back to what passes for normal every night now as I approach sleep. I lay there and feel my heart thudding against my chest and think, ever so briefly, I hope it doesn’t stop just yet.

It is only now, just over six months after the event, that I have realised my own mortality fully. Before, even in the ambulance on the way to the Hospitals, I never thought once of dying. If I could think at all (and it was difficult to think of anything but the pain) I thought of getting to the Hospital and the doctors fixing me up and sending me home. Death did not feel close or even real.

Even after the doctors told me how close it really was and how lucky I was to pull through, it didn’t seem real.

It does now.

And as I said in a previous post about second chances, I acknowledge that Ive been given a second chance at living. God or whoever (if anyone) is in charge of things, has given me another go on the merry-go-round.

So while I decide which carousel horse to ride, I’ll make sure that I try like hell to appreciate this little bit of longevity that’s been passed my way. I think that I’ve had my “epiphany” that they warned me about or at least I hope I have. I don’t want to waste any more time pondering the why’s and where-for’s of my continued existence.

I just hope that the second time that I come face-to-face with my own mortality, I can do it as calmly as I did the first time.

Death
Death (Photo credit: tanakawho)

Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth by Trevor Norton: Eccentric Experimentation

The title of this vastly informative and entertaining book comes from a “self” experiment towards the end of the book. The experimenter in question was testing decompression rates and a rapid ascension caused “one of his filled teeth to emit a high-pitched scream and explode because of air pockets that couldn’t vent fast enough.” The first part of the title; smoking ears also comes from this experiment and the end result was a pin hole in each ear enabling the recipient to blow smoke rings through his ears.

Author Trevor Norton takes us through an amusing and incredible journey through the trials and tribulations of the inventors, experimenters, scientists, doctors and (perhaps) the mentally unstable in their quest for knowledge and a cure for most of mankind’s ailments or a solution to what seemed to be insurmountable problems. Written with a sort of wry humour, these antidotes (pun intended) are a testament to the men and women who put their own safety last while searching for answers.

Norton even includes a couple of chapters that do not deal with medicine, health or science. He has dedicated several chapters to advances in warfare, deep sea diving, discovery of predatory animals of the sea, air travel and breaking the sound barrier.

Some of the names you encounter in this book, while not exactly household names, are fairly well-known to most people. The Curie’s, Chuck Yeager, and Louis Pasteur to name but a few; but the book concentrates mainly on those unknown and “unsung” heroes who have helped their fellow-man by unselfishly (and quite often fatally) experimenting on themselves to advance the knowledge of science and medicine; even researching dietary requirements and what non-domestic animals were good to eat.

These pioneers and rebels thought nothing of exposing themselves to various diseases via means that were nauseating at best and dangerous at worst. The fact that a lot of these self-experimenters came close to death and a good portion of these heroes did; but they also paid the ultimate price for their discoveries. Some like the Curie’s who, pretty much everyone knows, died because of their research into radiation; these “high-profile” visionaries are fairly well-known for their ultimate sacrifice for humanity. Others died unknown and forgotten by but a few of their colleagues and families.

The vast majority of the book details the men and women (but mostly men) who worked their entire lives to advance medicine and surgery. Norton’s use of humour helps to tone down some of the more unsavoury aspects of the lengths that these people were prepared to take. On more than one occasion I felt myself gagging only to have that reflex effortlessly segue into chuckling laughter.

Most importantly, the book sets the stage not just for the participants and their eccentricities but the politics, egos, jealousies and competition for recognition in their peer groups.

Trevor Norton deserves every ounce of praise he’s received in reference to his story telling skills. Not only is he erudite and entertaining but he obviously spends a great deal of time and care on his research. At the end of the book he has a bibliography for each and every chapter in the book.

Even if you have no real interest in the people who risked everything to find out answers, the intelligent and humorous way that Norton describes their individual stories is worth the price of admission alone.

Since I am interested in these types of stories, I’m giving the book a full 5 stars out of 5. And after discovering Mr Trevor Norton, I’ll be checking his other books out as well.

Author Trevor Norton.

Matters of my Heart…

English: A thoracic surgeon performs a mitral ...
English: A thoracic surgeon performs a mitral valve replacement at the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center. Slovenščina: Kirurgi med operacijo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s odd. I’ve been sitting here wondering about the bypass surgery and how they went about it. Oh I know what goes on I just don’t know the specifics. *And before you say anything, yes this will be the last time I write about the adventures of my heart…maybe*

After the surgery and before I was allowed to go home, we had a briefing from a lovely lady who was a cardiac specialist. She motioned for  me and my daughter to sit down and then after setting herself down  looked at us and smiled.

“Are you ready for your new life!”

She then went on to say that after the first few weeks, my diet did not have to change one iota. When I questioned this she smiled and said, “You are in recovery mode right now. You can eat whatever you want  and as much as you want. After that the ‘new rules’ will come into being, but we’ll talk about that a little closer to the time. Welcome to your life changing event.”

That  whole somewhat surreal conversation got me thinking then. All sorts of random thoughts swirling around in the  nooks and crannies of my doped up mind. The lady did ask us if we had any questions. I didn’t bother. I was high as a kite with all the ‘feel-good’ stuff they had me on and I knew  that I’d never remember any answers to anything I might ask.

It was only later that, in between pain medication doses, that I started wondering about the whole process and what it ultimately might mean. I know, for instance, that at one point in the procedure they stopped my heart and used a machine to breathe and pump blood for me while they worked on my heart.

Does that mean that, technically at least. I was dead? If I was ‘dead’ would I now be able to ‘see’ dead people? Or go on the road telling fortunes  like some sort of fairground gypsy?

Leaving the fanciful questions behind for a minute, how about when they ‘pulled’ my ribs apart? Did they use some sort of fancy gleaming chrome bolt cutter thing that would look more comfortable in a Slasher movie or something else. Staying with the ribs for a moment longer, how did they ‘wire’ them back up? Did they use some sort of super-glue, or did they use some sort of titanium wire?

When I look at my body I see a mass of stitches and swelling and different shades of bruises. I look like the survivor of a plane wreck or like a chap who went two seconds with Mike Tyson when he was on form.

Mike Tyson: Main Event
Mike Tyson: Main Event (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The whole time I was in hospital the staff kept telling me how great I looked and how wonderful my colour was. If that was true, why do I now look like a 95 year old anemic albino who is tottering slowly towards the gate to the afterlife. Were they exaggerating wildly so that I would check out early and let another customer in?

I can see them now waving at the car I was being driven away in, their other hand over their mouth and giggling uncontrollably. “Can you believe he fell for that!”

Apart from the more immediate events (surgery, re-hab, et al) I also wonder about the long term affects. For example, I had a friend who had his gall bladder removed. No real dramas here, but, ten years later after complaining of an internal pain that the doctors could not pinpoint at all. They opened my friend up for some explorative surgery. They found a set of forceps and a few sponges in his cavity. Not surprisingly,  the pains stopped soon after.

I once met a chap who swore that his grandfather had something similar happen to him. Back in the days when surgery was more of a ‘by-the-seat-of-your-pants practise than today, his grandpa had his appendix removed.

Now grandpa was a big fellow. Tall and big-boned he had worked for years as a circus strong man. His appendix was really causing him some pain, so surgeons quickly got him under knife and had the troublesome organ removed.  Everything was fine at first. Then Gramps began to get hot flashes, hear voices and feel little tremors in the area of his operation.

Doctors admitted that they were puzzled about what was causing these mysterious symptoms. Explorative surgery was quickly set up for the next day. The old circus strong man came in and got ‘prepped’ for surgery.

Surgeons had not even finished their first incision when a pair off hands shot out of the freshly made hole and started pulling the edges apart. The anesthesiologist and two nurses screamed and passed out. The surgeon watched in disbelief when a small medical technician came clambering out of grandpa.

It turns out the the technician had fallen in while over stretching him self to retrieve a clamp. Before he could raise anyone’s attention the surgeon had sewn the circus strongman back up. The hot flashes were from the small tech’s lighter. The sounds of voices had been him screaming for help and then talking to himself. The tremors were from the same technician who kept attempting to climb his way out.

Physically the man’s grandfather recovered well from the surgery. Mentally he did not make out so well. As he got older, the old man had developed the odd habit of screaming and cursing at his stomach if he got a touch of indigestion or heart burn.

So I’ll wait to see what, if anything, was left in my body after my operation. I haven’t got quite the girth of grandpa so I think that small medical staff don’t stand much chance of being trapped in me.  Although I do at times feel like I have a tray or something in my chest after the operation.  So I might have a medical tool tray in there.

Or nothing at all. Medicine has moved on after all.

From a B grade Slasher Film
From a B grade Slasher Film (Photo credit: n8k99)

Don’t Go Breaking my Heart…

Bypass graft.

So come to find out, the hard part of my surgery was the bypass bit. Hard to perform and harder to recover from. When we arrived at Basildon Hospital and the local experts explained what would happen and how long it would take, I can remember very little. A general air of Bonhomie and an industrious feel about the whole thing was what I remember best.

With my daughter’s help, I can reconstruct the series of events. It would take at least the two of us anyway. Meg was in a bit of shock and I was so stoned from the pain medication that I made Keith Richards‘ look tee-total.

The first decision was easy. From my view point it was, “Blah, blah, blocked artery, blah blah, Stents, blah, blah, easy surgery.” It was all very relaxed and ‘Pip Pip cheerio old man’ we’ll be done in time for a cuppa tea and some biscuits.

Meg was able to get a bit more out of the conversation than I could in my drug induced euphoria. Her job (at least she felt it was her job) was to listen to everything they said and try to digest what was happening. She heard, “We’ve had a look. He’s got a blocked artery and we can put in a couple of stents. Very routine and it will take no time at all.”

Of course after this straight-forward and relaxing briefing, it went nothing like that at all. While putting the stents in they found another couple of problems. Sewing me up quickly they withdrew me from the ‘routine’ surgery room and I was ‘prepped’ again.

They asked me if I had a better leg for veins. Which leg had the least amount of varicose veins. But, like the earlier conversation, all I heard was, “Blah, blah, Veins. Blah blah, Bypass, Blah blah Tear.” Again Meg had to listen and pass the information on when I was less ‘doped up.’

It seems that I had a ‘dodgy’ vein and they would have to replace it with one from my right leg. There was also a ‘tear’ in The Aaortic  Valve that could turn nasty. This was all emergency bypass surgery and the bit that ‘kicked my butt.’ The valve would be watched throughout the surgery as this might have to be replaced with a ‘fake one.

The vast majority of this information is very much after the fact. Repeated conversations with my daughter has allowed a better piecing together of the events.

The bypass surgery bit I knew very little about. The stents I understood as my dad has had them a couple of times. I’d had an uncle who’d had a Triple-bypass surgery done when he was a couple of years older than me. He used to carry nitroglycerin tablets with him. He would be out cutting the hay and stop and put one of these tablets under his tongue.

I am going in this afternoon to get stitches removed by my local surgery’s nurse and start my first real steps to recovery.

It is all very different this surgery. I was sitting here thinking  back to my major back surgery in 1999. It was long and for the most part uneventful. It did not fall into the realm of ‘life threatening’ at all.

Of course neither did my ‘blockage’ operation until they discovered that I had deeper problems than they initially thought.

If you or a loved one (family, partner, spouse, et al) are due for bypass surgery, which is the one that requires the most work and ‘down time’ for the patient. Google it. If you are lucky you’ll know way before hand that you need bypass surgery and what that all entails.

I was wonderfully lucky. I had a team of top-notch professionals who knew what they were doing and were careful to let us know as much as possible about what was going on in the limited time they had.

So the bypass surgery was an emergency surgery, but, the recovery time was not. Despite having to check my torn Aortic Valve regularly I never felt that did not care about my recovering or that they were ‘put out’ by having to do a ‘running’ check on me.

A lot of people moan about the National Health Service (NHS), me included. But this is twice in my life that the NHS has stepped out smartly and taken brilliant care of me.

In the USA as far as I know they are still fighting for an American version of our NHS. Well let me tell you something mate, I’ve  had health care under both existing systems and I can’t say one negative word about the NHS.

If I do, they might want their stents back.

This little stent went to market…