Don’t Blame My Icelandic Heart (Part II)

images

There is the myth of immortality. At some time we all believe in it. More people believe in it than in any organized religion. Without it, there would be no armies. High risk jobs would be shunned. Crazy antics and stunts would not happen. Although, before we enter into dangerous activities, we do not kneel and pray to the god of immortality, we do offer him obeisance in our complete trust in his power.

I distinctly remember, at noon hour on a school day, racing along the highway outside of Gimli in a new Ford Fairlane owned by a friend’s parents. The goal was to see how fast it would go. No seat belts in those days. No air bags. Big motor. Big car. Public highway. Going at a speed that allowed for no mistakes, no farmer crossing the highway with his tractor, no rocks on the road, no potholes.

The land outside Gimli is flat. There’s no downhill skiing. Didn’t stop us. We found an old pair of cross country skies, tied a rope to the car bumper and raced along the highway, one of us driving, another in the ditch, skiing. Whooohoooo. We didn’t know how to stop so when we were coming up on a traffic sign or a post or anything else, we let go of the rope and fell over.

We worshiped the god of immortality. Yet, around us, teenagers died from drinking and driving (oh, did I mention that? Drinking and driving. Only an idiot would have thought you could drive properly without a few drinks to loosen up, sometimes, quite a few drinks.). Changing drivers at 60 miles an hour was a good trick. So was trading positions with someone in the back seat. You climbed out the window and into the back, then the person in the back climbed out the window into the front seat.

Hunting was usually an exercise in bowing to the god of immortality. You know, two friends in a duck boat in the marsh at Willow Island, one yells duck, his partner stands up and says where just as his buddy lets fly with his twelve gauge shotgun. The god of immortality took care of them that day. Left one of them with a throbbing headache but at least he still had his head.

Sometimes, worship wasn’t enough. There was an airbase next to Gimli. The young pilots were learning to fly Harvards, bright yellow trainer planes. From time to time, while we were watching, one of the planes would fall out of the sky. We’d be shocked, say something like “Did you see that?” and there would be sirens followed by a day of gossip but it made no difference, we never wavered in our belief in our immortality.

Getting older robs the god of Immortality of adherents. Older men don’t make as enthusiastic front line soldiers. They are inclined to wear seat belts. They calculate the odds, insist on wearing safety helmets and steel toed work boots. They lose friends and family members to accidents, disease. They sit at bedsides and hold the hand of someone who is dying. They have kids, kids are hostages to fortune, kids may believe in immortality but mom and dad know too much about head injuries, have read too much. They’ve lost the faith.

Later, later, as the years slip by the god of immortality is revealed as a fraud. No one gets out of life alive. No one has found the fountain of everlasting life.

Recently, I had a triple bypass. My belief in my immortality was long gone but now with an unexpected disease that was on the verge of killing me ((I saw the cardiologist’s report. It said “Urgent”), I felt vulnerable, fragile, exposed, of little more substance than the fish flies that rise from Lake Winnipeg each summer, then turn into empty exo-skeletons.

I denied there was a problem. My parents didn’t have heart disease. My friend Dennis Stefansson died of heart disease a while ago but his family is known for having heart disease. I took the stress tests as a bit of a joke except that I discovered to my dismay that I couldn’t finish them. I just need more exercise, I said to the cardiologist. He wasn’t impressed. An angiogram sorted that out. Ninety percent blockage in the artery called the widow maker. Blockages in other arteries. I protested. This is crazy. I’ve been a folk dancer, hiker, rock climber, wood cutter. My diet, while not perfect, is good. I seldom eat packaged food. I cook from scratch most of the time. I eat a gluten free diet. I was only five pounds overweight. I was often walking two miles a day.

Protesting did no good. JO came from Salt Spring Island to see the surgeon with me. She was still hoping that diet changes, supplements, stents would do the trick. The surgeon said, “Too late.”

Bad DNA was the most likely culprit. But from where? Mortality forces one to confront various truths. My mother’s parents were from Ireland. The internet reveals all secrets. Mortality from heart disease is high in Ireland compared to other countries. Ireland has the highest rate in men and is third highest in women.

Iceland, all that fish, I guess, is #158 in the world for heart disease. That’s in spite of butter, skyr and whipped cream. Icelanders love desserts. There was always such a shortage of fat in Iceland that there are folk tales about trying to obtain it. Maybe a shortage of fat isn’t a bad thing.

My Irish grandmother’s favorite saying was, “Butter betters everything.” Except your heart, of course. Slather your heart in butter and it’s going to plug up.

I’ve been checking my family’s health history. On the Icelandic side, my father’s eldest brother did die of a heart attack. My father died of pneumonia. His younger brother died of cancer. His youngest sister died of a stroke. When my grandfather’s wife died from the effects of diphtheria, he married again and had four more children. The eldest has had a quadruple bypass, his younger brother has a couple of stents, the third brother, and the youngest sibling, a sister, have no problems that I know of. So, from where came the heart disease in the eldest and next eldest? Their father was Icelandic. Their mother Polish-German.

It is hard to pinpoint a villain in this. I suspect the Irish side of the family for the dangerous DNA. However, would it have mattered if I had not believed that I was immortal, immune to vast numbers of perogis, vinarterta, rich gravy, lots of meat, pie, butter tarts, cookies, French fries, as I grew up. My mother was an exceptional cook and food was an expression of love. When my father got married, he said, “I’m going to have lemon pie every day.”

Our families had come from hard times. To be thin was the mark of poverty. To be chubby, if not fat, was a sign of prosperity. One mother, after her son had died of a heart attack in his forties said, “I thought his being fat meant he was healthy.”

If I had known, when I was young, what I know now, I would have gone Icelandic. I’d have eaten dried cod, baked cod, cod heads, rotten shark, lamb, skyr, potatoes, some occasional desserts for the calories. Would it have made a difference or are Irish hearts, slathered in butter for generations, doomed? Even when it’s only half an Irish heart.

When I am over this operation, I’ll change my diet, swallow supplements, walk every day. I’ll do my best to live until the bypasses wear out.

Don’t Blame My Icelandic Heart (Part 1)

images

I’d gone to see my doctor over a small matter that took about two minutes to resolve. He then said, “How have you been?”

I said, “Fine. Except when I’ve been hiking up McInnis Rise to my house, I’ve become short of breath. One day when I was carrying groceries, I had this odd sensation like someone was pricking my left chest with a needle.”

He whipped out a form and started asking questions. Unfortunately, I answered yes to all of them. “I’m arranging for you to see a cardiologist”, he said. I was taken aback. My mother and father lived to be 90 and never had any heart problems. I didn’t take it all that seriously. I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I walk nearly every day on ground that rises and falls. I was walking, with no problem, to the local mall which is a mile away.

The cardiologist asked me questions, used a model of a heart to display possible problems and arranged stress tests. The stress tests looked like they were fine, except, except, except, the numbers weren’t right for someone resting. Not enough blood going through.

Back for another test. Indecisive but worrying. An angiogram was arranged. There was no indecisiveness about the angiogram. Ninety percent blocked main artery. Seventy percent a second artery. Fifty percent another artery and the blockages precluded stents. It was a bypass or nothing. A rupture of the plaque in the main artery and I was history.

I had no idea what I was getting into. However, I did know that Victoria was one of the two top places in Canada to have heart surgery. They perform over 800 operations a year. Lots of practice. If you’ve got to have it done, this is the place.

JO went to the cardiologist with me. When an appointment was made with the surgeon, she agreed to leave Salt Spring and come to Victoria. We met with the surgeon. He drew diagrams, made a list of percentages of possible failures. There is a 2% chance of your dying of this during the operation. A 3% chance of dying from that. Etc. The medical world is a world of percentages and technologies. New technologies allow operations to be done that could never be done before. The operation would take about 4 hours. I’d be on a heart lung machine while they stopped my heart and made the bypasses. They’d harvest veins and arteries with which to make the bypasses. Probably from my leg and chest. They’d cut my sternum in half, make the bypasses, then wire my sternum back together.

I would have an IV in both arms and my neck. There’d be tubes running from my chest to drain fluid. There’d be wires on either side of my heart for a temporary pacemaker. I would look like a monster from the Dark Lagoon. Or a space alien. I’d have a breathing tube down my throat.

I was given two books that dealt with pre-op, op and post op. On a Sunday, JO and I went to an all-day pre-op session. It scared the crap out of me. All I could think of was “Into the Valley of Death rode the five hundred. Cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right of them.” Doomed, the brave soldiers faced certain death. The people preparing us all for the coming day were very good.

JO and I had read the two books they gave me. Still, in these high stress situations, it is hard to take in everything you are being told. Having someone there with you is a blessing. One fellow was alone. He was in for a new valve for his heart. God help him, I thought.

However, there wasn’t much time to worry. I had to have a full body anti-bacterial shower. I was rattled. JO made sure I did everything that needed doing. She set four alarm clocks and then, just in case we didn’t wake up, I called my daughter and asked her to call at 5 a.m.

Last minute decisions had to be made regarding my coming home in five days. Five days! It seemed like madness. I was going to have my heart stopped for four hours. It was going to be cut into. My chest was going to be chopped in half. Veins and arteries were to be cut out and relocated. Five months recovery, I thought, in some Hollywood style recovery sanitarium in the Rockies. With nurses bringing fresh flowers and food while lambs nibbled at the grass. It turns out that only happens in Hollywood movies and in the lives of the super rich.

There were a number of surgeries scheduled for the day. Mine was an early one. JO took me to Jubilee Hospital for 5:30 a.m. I kept thinking, is this really happening? I had to have another shower. Other than that I don’t remember anything except lying on a gurney.

I woke up but I have no memory of it. JO tells me I looked terrible, my face swollen, my mouth wedged wide by the breathing tube. Someone leaned close and said, “I’m giving you some morphine.”

JO said “You had a triple bypass plus some other work.” The surgeon had called her and said the operation had gone well. However, she’d come to check for herself. I’d suggested she take pictures for my blog page. She wasn’t amused.

I was in shock. My body had been assaulted. There were tubes everywhere. Yet, a nurse appeared at some point and said you need to sit at the edge of the bed but time had lost all meaning. “Why didn’t I just walk in front of a bus?” I wondered. Still, I sat up.

Meals appeared but I was so violently ill to my stomach and bowel that I couldn’t eat. “Your oxygen level is good,” someone said. They’d used no blood transfusions. There was never any pain. If I started to thrash about someone would appear and give me a pain killer. If I couldn’t sleep, someone popped an ativan under my tongue.

JO would appear and disappear. She was the only semblance of normality. Everything else was foreign. Gut rumblings became central to my life. Why am I so seasick, I kept thinking? Someone said, I’m taking out your catheter. Food trays came and went back unused. Tubes and IVs were pulled out.

I got help at getting out of bed. Roll onto my side, put down my feet, press as gently as possible on the metal rail on the bed. Stagger to the bathroom.

“I don’t want this to be my movie,” I thought. “Lousy script for the leading man.”

JO told me the short sofa in my room could be lengthened to become a bed so she could lie down and rest.

Somewhere in there I went for a walk using a walker and thought “I’ve become my mother.”

And then I had a shower. It all seemed impossible. I’d just had a triple bypass and I was sitting in a shower trying to remember the rules. Don’t put your hands behind your back. Don’t bend over. Don’t get the spray on your chest. Sit with your back to the shower. Pat yourself dry. Don’t rub.

My right leg, I noticed, in my absence, had gone Goth. It had more metal in it than the most Gothic of Goths has in their faces. Four strips of silver staples. That’s what they do when they steal your veins for a bypass. I’ll never think of the office stapler in the same way again.

Five days, five days, then they kick you to the curb, if there’s no one there to rescue you, they feed you to the ravenous packs of dogs outside the hospital. Or so my drug induced dreams said.

Day 4 there was pre-release training. I had to climb 16 steps when I got home. They have a set of stairs and I had to climb up and down them to demonstrate that I could actually get into my house.

There was a group session. Three bypass patients and two heart valve. The guy that was alone at the beginning was still alone.

We got all the reminders of what we must not do and dire warnings about the consequences of forgetting. Patients have gone home and chopped wood, moved furniture, etc. so that their titanium wires holding their sternum came loose and they had to go through the operation again.

On Saturday I’m the last of the five to leave. JO has come to get me, take me back to the real world. I end up being the last patient released because of my problems with the violently upset stomach and bowel. However, there can be no dilly dallying as there are hundreds more waiting for this operation. Also, there are always emergencies as the para medics bring in heart attack victims

“I wonder how we’ll get you up those steps?” JO says after she’s helped me into her Honda CRV.

“It’ll be okay,” I say. “I’ll be fine.” But I don’t say anything about the packs of ravenous dogs hurtling about the entrance to the hospital. They are as real to me as everything that has happened in the last five and a half days.