Don’t Blame My Icelandic Heart (Part 1)

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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.

an affair of the heart

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Up at six a. m. yesterday. Into a taxi at 7:30. Off to Jubilee hospital. Jubilee has recently expanded. Got lost on the way to medical imaging. Got lost again on the way to the blood lab. Good thing the’ve got volunteer guides or I’d still be wandering the halls like the Ancient Mariner, a white band on me wrist instead of an albatross around my neck. They didn’t trust me to find my own way to the heart lab. A nice lady said, Walk this way.” But she and I weren‘t built the same way. No matter how I try I can’ make my jello roll.

A nurse scooped me up and said put on this blue gown. You ever tried to put on a hospital gown and tie it up at the back? However, there is little chance, at my age, that anyone’s heart will be filled with lust by what the gown reveals. Unfortunately.

I passed the time re-reading Indridason’s The Draining Lake. I has my right arm shaved. Interesting, given how hairy I am. In school, the science teacher used me as proof that man descended from monkeys. So that’s what my arm looks like under all that hair.

We need to put in an iv the nurse said. My veins went into hiding. She looked. I looked. She shaved my left arm to get rid of the forest. Little voices said, No veins here. Just a few muscles.”
“I’ll find those cowards,” I said and I started clenching and unclenching my fist. p. Nope, no veins here,” they chorused.
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A nurse came and slapped sticky patches in places I’ve never had sticky patches before. Quick EKG. She gave me a thumbs up.

The IV nurse came back. She slapped my arm with her fingers. My veins squirmed deeper.

My friends all lied to me. You’ll be sedated. You’ll be partially sedated.” “I like morphine,” I said. “Nope,” the nurse said, ”all they do is freeze your wrist with the same stuff your dentist uses.”

It may have had something to do with me clinging to the ceiling light fixture but she said “If you get back into bed, I’ll give an Ativan. She popped one into my mouth. I was hoping for an entire jar.

She brought another hot sheet for my cowardly veins.
I kept reading The Draining Lake. It always makes me feel better reading about how depressed and unhappy Erlender is.

A fellow with great hair came and said, “I’m going to take for a ride.” He looked Italian.

In the operating room, there were a number of people. My veins were still hiding. The op nurse wasn’t fooling around. She said, “I’m going to have to poke you a number of times.” A vein appeared.

The doctors looked serious and told me about all the horrible things that could go wrong during an angiogram. “Now,” I thought, “why now, with me in a hospital gown that’s open at the back?” I could hardly make a break for it.

I waited for a bottle of whiskey like in the western movies before they dig a slug out. Nope. I waited for a cloth loaded with chloroform. Nope. The just froze my wrist. I yelped a bit as the first tube was put into my vein. There were a bank of monitors. I didn’t have Erlender to feel superior to so I watched this probe wandering around my heart. “That’s my heart,” I thought, “the heart of high school romances, the heart passionately mooning over some hot babe, the heart that felt broken and betrayed, that leapt with joy, that frequently got me into trouble?” I wasn’t impressed.

When they’d finished taking pictures, we had a meeting. I’d expected to have an angioplasty, you know, blow up a balloon and press the muck against the artery walls. If that wouldn’t work, I figured I’d need a stent. I know lots of people with stents. It’s become quit fashionable to have a stent. People share stent stories at dinner parties. Nope. No angioplasty. No stent. Three bypasses coming up.

I’m two months behind when I wanted to be in the Interlake to do my research for my current novel. Three bypasses. People who have had bypasses say everything is great. They golf, mud wrestle, jump out of airplanes. All I want to do is thrash around in the marsh with Dennis and Jim Anderson. Talk to your doctors they said, and think about it, like I’ve got a choice.

When my daughter picked me up (isn’t it great to have a daughter who, when the going gets rough, turns up and carts you away?), I said, “I’ll talk to my doctors but one artery is 90% plugged, another is in serious condition and nothing can be done with it.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Dead men don’t write novels,” I said and I thought about the skeleton in Lake Kleifarvatn.

On A Moderately Successful Poet

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ON A Moderately Successful Poet

Heart attack, heart attack
You’re dead.
There’ll be a cross behind your head.
Alack, alack
The crows will say.
The cows behind the fence will pray.
Last year’s stack
Of hay decays,
The graveyard grass bends with the breeze
When winter comes the rose will freeze.
The sun will wear away the days
Until no one knows that you are here.
New hands will lift the hotel’s beer
And falling leaves will be your praise.

A poem for myself brought on by the fact that hiking up McInnis Rise, the ridge on which I now live, left me breathless. Unusual for someone who, for years, climbed Mt. Finlayson every Wednesday afternoon no matter what the weather, who walked over Mt. Tolmie to the University and back.

I mentioned it as a curiosity when I was seeing my GP about something so trivial that I don’t remember what it was. Probably, a bashed and bloodied toenail.

You’ve got my attention, he said. Then he started asking me questions. I don’t like questions asked by doctors and I like it even less when I’m forced to say yes to them. In the morning do you cough up clear phlegm? Have you had a pain in your chest? A pain in your left arm? Etc. Yes, yes, yes. Unfortunately. Do you get short of breathe? Yes, I said, but that’s because I have a history of asthma.

“You need to have a stress test,” he said and arranged one.

Nonsense, I thought, I’m as fit as a horse, an older horse, mind you, a seventy-three year old horse. However, when I got an appointment for the stress tests, I said, “No coffee? You’ve got to be kidding. For an entire day and a morning? How about half a cup?” No. No. No. These people in the angio department aren’t into negotiating.

I went without coffee. I went to the hospital. I let them shoot me up with nuclear waste from Chernoble. I stood on that ramp and went walk, walk, walk. It didn’t work too well. Or, I didn’t work too well. Somebody sat on my chest. The second day we did it again. I didn’t make it to level three. A shot of Brennavin and I’d have been fine but they didn’t have any.

“I think,” the specialist said, “you may have a blockage here and here.” And he showed on a plastic model of a heart. “A CT scan of your heart will tell me what I need to know.”

“I was supposed to be in Gimli, Manitoba four weeks ago. I have a lot of work to do there.I’m writing a novel. I need to know when the pussy willows bloom.”

“A CT scan,” he said. “We’ll arrange it as soon as possible.”

I suggested they just rip out my heart and replace it with a polar bear heart. Grrrr. Unfortunately, polar bear hearts are in short supply.

After the CT scan, the specialist showed me that plastic heart again. Who makes these kinds of things? On Mondays we make hearts. On Tuesdays we make kidneys. On….

“Your artery is blocked 70% here. And this artery is blocked 50% here.” He pointed at two holes in the plastic heart. “We’ll arrange an angiogram.”

I don’t want to jump out of this plane. I don’t care if the engines are not working right. Just give them the gas. They’ll speed up.

Today, the phone rang. There’s been a cancellation. I’m to be at the hospital tomorrow at 9. Operation at 1:00. My daughter or my friends, Richard and Trish Baer, are to pick me up in the early evening or, maybe, the next morning.

I’m sure all will go well. The angiogram will probably be followed by an angioplasty. That’s where they inflate a balloon and squash the muck in the artery against the artery wall so more blood can flow into your heart. Personally, I’d have preferred a polar bear heart. Too bad they’re in such short supply.

(If you find yourself short of breath, have a pain, no matter how small in your chest, a pain in your left arm, have it checked out. Better before a heart attack than after.)