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)

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!

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.