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

My Near Death Experience Six Months On

Unknown

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)

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?

121712_2256_BlamingViol2.jpg

The Other Boot Dropped…

English: A roper boot style cowboy boot. Note ...
English: A roper boot style cowboy boot. Note the square, short heel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I go to my “follow-on” appointment with the surgeon who saved my life. After a little small talk about how I was feeling and about how rude my works doctors were being, he cut to the chase.

He informed me that the operation I’d gone through was a bit more dramatic than I had initially thought. I think the figures he bandied about were 5 out of 6 folks don’t survive it, dying about 5 to 7 days after receiving it. The tear which had been made by the other surgeon to open up my slammed shut arteries was going to be a lifelong problem.

I was lucky, he said, the tear was “man-made” versus congenital (in other words being born with it) but, and it was a big but, it would need to be closely monitored for the rest of my life. The other “bombshell” was that I probably would not be able to continue in my current occupation.

The “fitness test from Hell” aka the bleep test would be too taxing in all probability but not deadly. The Control and Restraint (C&R) part of my job was out of the question, unless of course I didn’t mind dying while in the middle of restraining a prisoner.

All very sobering stuff.

I have said in other posts that I was still waiting for the other shoe (in my case cowboy boot) to fall. I have not had that sudden realization that I had come so close to death and that the effects of my surgery were going to be a lifelong monitoring process to see if I needed more surgery.

Oh, and on the issue of more surgery, only two hospitals in all of England do it. London or Papworth both could perform surgery to repair the tear, however, there’s a 20% chance of dying and a further 20% of becoming paralyzed. The good news is I don’t require it right now.

The bad news is that if the tear gets any bigger, I’ll need the surgery. It may be fine, but, if my blood pressure goes up (like it does during a C&R incident) I could have another, more fatal, heart attack and or it could cause the tear to get bigger. Of course the bigger the tear, the more likely the “iffy” surgery.

I can honestly say, with hand on heart, that the other boot just dropped.

I’ve been walking around and laughingly referring to the fact that I came “Awfully close to meeting the big guy” and that I was lucky that I didn’t have to.

I knew that it had been a close thing on the 30th of August. Two surgeries in one night, the last one an emergency one, counted as close in my book. My daughter said that they had explained to her just how close it was and I assumed I knew also.

A surgery clinic in Greenwich, London.
A surgery clinic in Greenwich, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not true. Like most other things in life, I had a “Mike” understanding of the facts. I’d heard “close” and “emergency surgery” and that it had been “touch and go for a while” and I’d put two and two together and come up with 4 and a half.

I will say that I was only marginally surprised at how close it really was. But I will admit to being stunned at the news that I’d have to keep this tear monitored for the rest of my life and that my current job could cause it to become fatal.

So the other boot has dropped with a thud and the plans I’d sort of been making have all been tossed out like so much used dishwater. My initial game plan of getting better and easing myself back into the old grind has been scrapped.

I know I have been thinking (very peripherally) about having to change my career, but that was not really an option, I thought.

Wrong.

So in the blink of an eye my life has been diverted from its present course. I’m now headed for yet another fresh start. I think I’ve broken some kind of a record.

Fresh Start number one was leaving and then divorcing my second wife (just under two years ago).

Fresh Start Number two was the accident at work and having to re-evaluate my life style.

Fresh Start Number three was the heart attack and the realization that my lifestyle was going to have to change further.

Fresh Start Number four was the discovery that my career wasn’t going to see me into retirement any longer.

Wow.

That’s gotta be some kind of record.

I suppose that deep down inside my reaction to this new information is mixed. One part of me is excited to think that I’ve got a chance now to write more and pursue a more creative type job. Another part of me is scared; a fresh start at 54 is a bit daunting. Yet another part want to tear my hair and rend my clothes in frustration.

Ultimately though regardless of how many different ways this latest bit of news has been received, I’ll just “get on with it.” I remember once, a boss that I had said that the main thing he liked about me was the fact that whether I liked a job or not, I just got on with it.

That’s what I am going to do now. Despite my windfall of fresh starts, I’ll just get on with it.

Boot hooks and a bootjack, often needed to get...
Boot hooks and a bootjack, often needed to get tall boots on and off (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!