By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
After not quite two years of marriage, my wife decided she had already had enough. I agreed to leave, but circumstances dictated that I stay around the house for two weeks for her kids (my step children). I told her to take those two weeks to think about this request, if she truly believed she would be better off without me, and decide if it is truly what she wanted. Shortly thereafter, I had my heart attack. Yes, it was pain down my left arm, but also my entire left side, across my chest, up my neck, and basically my entire torso. I couldn’t get comfortable, sitting or laying. I basically found one position that wasn’t excruciating, and couldn’t move without vomiting (or dry-heaving before long). My wife just told me that she wanted a divorce, though, so frankly, I didn’t care if I lived or died, and clearly, seeing what I was going through, neither did she.
So, I never went to the hospital.
Eventually, the pain subsided, taking most of the two weeks to do so. Having decided that I was “faking it”, she decided she did want me gone, and the divorce proceeded. I told a few of my friends about what had happened, and they were very upset with me that I didn’t go to the doctor, and made me promise that, should it happen again, I would.
About half a year later, I was working as a poop chemist. Technically, I was a water treatment chemist, but, honestly, how many people can say that they’ve stood on top of a massive septic tank for an entire city and opened it?!? Working with a new poop slosh sample that arrived at the lab, I started feeling those familiar symptoms again, but, not nearly as bad. So, I muttered to one of my friends that it felt like it might be happening again, and she grabbed me, took me out of work, and to the urgent care facility. The urgent care facility took a quick look, and called for an ambulance.
In the emergency room, having examined the medical imaging results, the doctor explained to me that, yes, in fact I was having a heart attack, and based on the scar tissue on my heart, I seem to have had one six months earlier. And where was my ex wife so I could throw THAT in her face?!?
He proceeded to tell me that they should do surgery immediately, but it is Friday afternoon, and nobody wants to work on a Friday, so they’ll stabilize me. And leave me in intensive care. For two days. So they could start their weekend early. Oh good.
The nurses loved me. Frankly, it’s not hard to be popular with nurses. You just really need to understand and appreciate what they are going through. They are doing a highly stressful and difficult job, and usually don’t get the respect they deserve, especially from the doctors, for their hard work. What’s more, patients don’t vacation in the hospital. They are typically frightened, and often in pain, and take it out on the closest people to them, which is usually the nurse. So, I made it a point to be especially courteous to the nurses, saying “thank you” and “please” for everything they did, even if it was sticking me with needles or waking me up to give me sleeping pills. Eventually, they would begin apologizing, saying things like “I’m sorry, but with the hair on your arm, it’s going to hurt when I remove this tape.” I always responded encouragingly, with something like “Please don’t apologize, you’re doing your job, the pain is not your fault and I appreciate what you’re doing.” Then I would thank them. Yup, I was popular. Not, like, write a letter to that magazine popular, but popular. Get your mind out of the gutter!
Twice a day they drew blood to be sure I was still stable. Once in the morning, and again in the afternoon. Saturday night, I was suddenly very hot, much like I imagine hot flashes to be like. Well, I take off the blanket, and cool back down in a few minutes. Not thinking much about it, once it subsides, I put the blankets back on and go back to sleep. Sunday morning, they draw the usual blood sample, and I mention the event. The response was, of course, “Why didn’t you page a nurse?” The answer, for a guy like me and of my generation, is the typical “I didn’t want to be a bother.” Besides, it was just a little hot flash, right?
I get up to go to the bathroom where, well, I do…business. You know. And while you may think it’s gross, remember that it was my job! I come out of the bathroom to see three of my nurses, with a wheel chair, and IV, and looks that were a mix of concern and anger. “Get in the chair, you’re going to the Operating Room right now!”
So they try angioplasty. They shave me. Like, everywhere, because they used to use the artery that runs through the groin area, but these days they use the wrist. They give me a mild sedative that knocks me out as they are preparing the wrist, and wake up to discover they had, at some point, switched to the groin. A few minutes later, the doctor looks up, with exasperation in his eyes, and says, “there’s nothing I can do, his arteries are too brittle.”
In the afternoon, the doctor tells me the angioplasty fails, and repeats what the doctor had said in the OR. He explains it will have to be an old-fashioned bypass early on Monday morning. He goes on to say that this might be the better option anyway, because at my age (I was only forty-seven at the time), bypasses tend to last longer anyway.
Against my wishes, my sister flew in to be with me throughout this. That night, I was thinking about her in the recovery room. I knew I would have to say something, so she would truly know that I was okay. If all I said was “I’m fine,” she’d know that I’m not. It would have to be something goofy, lighthearted, funny. And, facing open-heart surgery in a few hours, I realized what that would have to be.
The next day, they put me out. They took an artery from my right leg leaving a horrible scar, and opened up my chest, leaving a horrible scar. Not, I’m not upset about the scars. I just think it’s cool that I have these horrible scars. Typical man-think, it just seems cool to be scarred up. Unbeknownst to me (because I was unconscious), the surgery was a success. Triple bypass. They gave me the percentage of blockage, but I don’t remember it. I had my Frankenheart, and it seemed to be holding.
My first memory was coming out of the anesthesia. In the medical shows, they keep playing with the patient’s feet and asking them questions like “what is the day?” How should I know? I don’t even remember that on good days! But, here’s the amazing thing. I thought of that joke the night before, and I remembered it coming out of the anesthesia. In my first blurry memory, I remember opening my eyes, seeing my sister, and just before passing out again, muttering…”Did I have a boy or a girl?”