Four weeks. A long time? A short time? Not enough time?

Mt. Finlayson
My former colleague, Dave Godfrey (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Godfrey-Brownell-Vineyards/), sent an email to say that having a triple bypass must have been frightening.

Shocking, yes. Frightening, no. No time to be frightened.

It was a sunny day. All was right with the world. I went to see my GP for a seven minute appointment. It was about something minor, a bashed toe or something. Then he said, how are you doing? And I said, fine, no problems except I’m short of breath carrying groceries up the Rise. It was only worth mentioning because I’m a former rock climber, hiker, folk dancer. Before I retired, I was walking over Mt. Tolmie and back on my way to work at UVic and home. Although, after retirement, I’d moved, I was still walking up to 2 miles a day. And, I added to the feeling of breathlessness, one time there was this odd pricking feeling on the left side of my chest.

“You’ve got my attention,” my GP said and whipped out a form. I said yes to every question he asked. I hate that. I hate saying yes to doctor’s questions. That never leads to sunshine and ponies.

I hurtled from him to the cardiologist. This is absurd, I was thinking. I was often walking two miles a day, sometimes further on hilly ground. Nobody, but nobody, with a heart problem could do that.

More questions, more saying yes, and I was launched onto a treadmill. And someone shot me up with radioactive waste. I’ll glow in the dark, I thought, promising myself that I’d stand in a closet that night to see if it was true.

I grasped the treadmill bar, walked as whips cracked around me, haul that barge, tote that bale, except I couldn’t finish either of the tests and having miserably failed them, I hurtled back into the cardiologist’s office where he said something like your heart isn’t getting enough blood. It’s okay, I thought, I’ll talk to it. I’ve had this heart for seventy-four years. It’s always been reasonable.

Except I was launched into the angio department at the hospital and, before I could catch my breath, I was lying on my back, staring at a TV screen. I felt like I was in a medical reality TV show. There was my heart, not that it looked like anything exciting, and a wire moving around like a mouse sniffing for something good to eat.

“Looks like a bypass,” someone said. Shortly, someone said he could do a stent but there were problems with that and I said, “Bypass.” And lickety split, I was walking down a corridor with my daughter who had come to take me home.

I lay down, slept, got up, met a heart surgeon who drew a diagram that did not look promising. A triple bypass, he said. You need to sign these forms. One for the operation. One for a blood transfusion. Operation in four to six weeks.

Somebody greased this slide. I slid into a lawyer’s office to update my POA and my will. I typed up a list of my assets, my possessions and which ones might be worth something if sold at the auction, my passwords for my various accounts, and I walked, walked, walked, 1.2 miles to the mall, 1.2 miles home, around and around Playfair Park.

As I circled around Playfair Park one day, I explained to a young woman I’d pulled in behind that I wasn’t following her, I was getting ready for surgery. Nowadays, men of a certain age, who walk behind young women need to justify their behaviour. Especially when they’re walking circles around a park for no good reason.

Circles, circles, circles. Little did I know that I should have also have been doing squats because for 12 weeks, I wouldn’t be allowed to bend over. Squats for strong thigh muscles to help me get out of bed without using my arms. Too late we learn these things.

Four weeks. A long time? A short time? Not enough time? There were tests. There was trying to get a messy life organized so that if I didn’t make it, I wouldn’t leave a disaster behind.

I’d been POA and Executor for my father and mother and even though their estate was simple and straightforward, it was filled with frustration and grief at times. I considered piling up all my manuscripts, correspondence, furniture in the middle of the house and setting it on fire with me in the centre. That way there’d be nothing left except the bank and retirement account. And it would save on a cremation fee. There wasn’t time.

JO came from Salt Spring and we raced through the halls of Jubilee hospital into a day long session on the operation and post operation. That evening was a frantic rush to do everything that needed to be done, pills to take, a sterile shower, change for the metres (no situation is without its compelling trivia), clothes packed for post op, then sleep until the alarm at 4:30, no liquid, no food, rocketing through the darkened streets of Victoria to be at the hospital at 5:30.

And then it is all a blur, memories driven away by the anaesthetic that erases a chunk of one’s life. JO tells me of things of which I have no memory. She says there was a wonderful nurse. JO walking with me as my bed was rolled to the operating theatre.

She says that after the operation, I woke up many times, but I have no memory of these times. When she asked if I was in pain, I apparently pointed to the breathing tube. All I remember is waking up and thinking that I was waiting for the operation, then realizing the operation was over. Shock.

JO says that on day two we watched a cartoon movie on the TV for an hour. I remember nothing. Yesterday, she showed me part of the movie on Netflix. Nada. Nothing. It may be because it was a terrible movie. I deliberately forget terrible movies.

So, no, no time to be frightened. There was too much happening, too much that had to be done to get ready to die, ready to live.

And later, there were the crazy challenges. They’d cut my chest in half with a rotary saw, they’d picked up my heart, checked the back of it, made three bypasses, wired me together and a nurse sat beside me and said, “I’ll help you sit up.” “Next,” she said, “we’ll go for a walk.” And then there was a shower. And painkillers and using a Spirometer and coughing to keep my lungs clear and five days after the operation, climbing a set of stairs and down until I had proved I could go up sixteen stairs but by that time I was less crazy and life was less incoherent with stretches of time connected instead of disjointed.

And seven weeks later, the big change is that life has slowed down, has become coherent, one day is connected to the next, and the challenge is to get ready for the treadmill tests on September 25 and hope like hell that the operation has worked and I can finish them.

I’ll know the operation worked when I can hike to the top of Mt. Finlayson. I used to climb it every Wednesday, winter and summer, in sun, rain, snow. When I get to the top, I’ll be able to see Finlayson Arm and whether the swans still float like an armada of small white ships on the blue water.

A Theory of Disease

After a triple bypass, two visits to Emergency with arterial fibrillation, I’ve developed a theory. Heart attacks (and other diseases) attack disorganized, messy people more often that organized, tidy ones.

Now that I’m one day away from four weeks after my operation, I’m sitting in my office a few hours a day. I noticed the piles of paper, one the floor, on the desk, the books, the binders, the chaos that goes with my creativity.

I’m positive that diseases lurk. I think they lurk under messy piles of paper, piled up books, dirty clothes in the closet in a corner, clean clothes on the drier waiting to be hung up. I can hear them snickering, rubbing their hands as it were, in glee.
A pile of dirty dishes on the cupboard probably has bubonic plague under it. A bunch of opened and unfilled letters is likely hiding something more benign, like the common cold.

I have a friend who is super organized, is a model house keeper. Nothing is ever messy. No piles of this and that here and there. She’s never sick. “Sick?” she asks, “what is that?”

I do my best. I remember, now and again, that the car needs vacuuming, that when I get gas, I should run it through the car wash. However, that sort of thing is always somewhere just on the edge of my peripheral vision. The need to clean the car, wash it, usually catches me by surprise. It’s the chocolate bar wrappers or the empty ice cream sundae in a drift under the seat that does it.
When I hear voices from the closet, I know that it is time to hang up everything, haul clothes to the washing machine. Either that or there are no more shirts on the hangers.

I get a lot of work done, writing that is, research, but daily life frequently comes as a surprise. When I notice the flowers on the deck have started to droop, I apologize. “Sorry, sorry,” I say, as I bring a pot of water out to drench the shrinking soil. I was going to put a micro watering system onto the deck so the begonia, the Astilbe, the geraniums could depend on being watered instead of suffering drought and floods. Didn’t make it before the operation. When I’m able to haul stuff around, puncture holes in pipes, I’ll do it.

I’m a good cook but hunger sneaks up on me. I’m deep into writing a piece of fiction and lunch time comes and goes and sometime in the early afternoon, if I smell the neighbour’s BBQ, I go onto high alert. Food. Hungry. Eat. Now. My hunger instinct isn’t into grammar. It’s pretty basic. The problem is that by that time of day, something quick is needed. This is no time to be cooking anything complicated. If the dishes in the dishwasher are clean, no problem. There’s always something to put into a pot and heat up or into the microwave. Well, nearly always.

If the dishes in the dishwasher aren’t washed and the dishes on the counter are hiding some terrible possible germ war aspirant, then it’s time to plunge into the reality of life. I fantasize servants who, at a call, appear with plates of exotic food but I probably settle for a toasted sandwich and soup.

I’m convinced all this lack of control, lack of being in charge, lack of a schedule that sees floors washed, carpets vacuumed, dishes washed and put away, meals planned a week in advance, clothes washed and hung up on schedule, is responsible for my triple bypass. No one who is properly organized, in charge of their life, keeping track of what they eat, getting exercise on a schedule that maximizes their physical health, would allow this to happen.

I vow to change. I’m going to file, sort, organize, leave no pile where Beri Beri or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease can hide. I’m going to clean out my car before the floor in the back seat looks like the debris caught in a Saskatchewan barbed wire fence. Hopefully, like rats, the lurking vermin of disease will look and leave, knowing there’s no place for them here.

Don’t Blame My Icelandic Heart (Part II)

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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)

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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.