"The same sun that melts the wax can harden clay
And the same rain that drowns the rat will grow the hay
And the mighty wind that knocks us down
If we lean into it
Will drive our fears away."
(How Can We See That Far?, Amy Grant 1991)
I must admit that I thought quitting smoking would be the challenge for me. It was easy in comparison to the medical nightmare I faced throughout the initial aftermath. It had been the chest pain and lung irritation that acted as the final straw, pushing me to finally quit after over thirty years. I was successful in this endeavour. Although the symptoms I experienced started fading the moment I tossed those cancer sticks away, I still wanted to make sure there was not some lingering health issue that needed to be addressed. Occasionally, in a very random manner, I still had trouble breathing during moments of exertion, even during moments of rest. I had mild chest pain and mild arm pain, but both these inconveniences dimmed with the day I kissed the cigarettes goodbye. I knew getting checked out was the right thing to do, regardless of the pain in the ass procedures that meet with almost anyone trying to maintain some semblance of their health. It took over four months before I was able to see a cardiologist in
By that time, the massive weight of the chest pain I experienced had mostly disappeared
with my yellow fingers and nagging cough. I just assumed any lasting lung
problems or discomfort were smoking related and not so much a more serious
condition. On February 11th, 2015,
I took a seat in the waiting room of the cardiac clinic, unaware of what
was to come. I was ill prepared for the roller coaster I was about to take a
ride on. London, Ontario
She took chunks out of my chest hair like I was a poodle. She moved so quickly I was sure that my blondness almost caught fire in her wake. I feared for my nipples. The half-hour ultrasound of my heart was over and I had been sent to another room down the hall for an electrocardiogram. A stoic and seemingly unresponsive nurse hooked an electrode to every place I had been violated (and a few I care not to mention). I sat for the longest time, waiting for anyone to return. I started to have flashbacks of the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, where I was the president connected to a million wires as miniature radar consoles scanned over my body. My journey was interrupted by a different nurse and the doctor. We went through my history, he asked questions and I began to feel at ease. No news is good news. At this point, everything looked a-okay. The same cannot be said of my next endeavour. The treadmill test was not my friend. I was fine until the incline and the increase in speed. My lungs started to expand, they were inflamed and I
could barely catch my breath. I kept going as long as I could. This was no Herculean effort. I felt like I might pass out so I got off and flopped down in a chair.
It was here that the scary part began; not for you maybe, but for me I assure you. You would have thought someone had shit on the carpet. The doctor went from a passive and gentler man into a raging mountain of concern. The words flowed from his mouth like acid: "It would be malpractice for me not to tell you that you need to be in a hospital tonight." There was no way in hell. The hundred kilometres from
to home was necessary. It was not my car. I had to return it to the owner or
they would be stranded. I could go to a hospital in Kitchener, I agreed, so he phoned to speak to
the cardiologist on call. "They believe you can be treated with medication," he informed me. I screamed
so loud in my head that I swear ear wax hit the diagram of a heart on the wall
beside me. I might well have peed my pants, just a little, when he handed me a sprayer
filled with nitroglycerin. It looked just like the one my Dad still carries
around. With a few heart attacks and strokes behind him, I wondered to myself
if I had inherited this doom from my father. I had to remind myself that not
once in thirty years did anyone force me to smoke even one of those cigarettes.
I was to blame.
When I got back to the car, I sat in stillness and tried to take it all in. I was confused and didn't understand what I was supposed to do. The doctor left my room without clarifying anything. I had no instruction. Little was clear or even made known to me. I knew the hospital I should go to but I had no idea who I was supposed to contact once I got there. The nurse even left all the electro pads stuck to me under my shirt. I discovered them when I got home. One might imagine that all the ups and downs in my life would have made me conditioned to the ride. In private, I am not convinced. I had a little panic, sitting all alone, as the snow began to fall and my body got the shakes. I rummaged through the car looking for anything I could stick in my mouth and smoke. I had to stop myself and remember the culprit that had brought me to this place. I could never give in, never again.
"This may be a dream come true
This may be poetry in motion
This may be a dream come true
But when it all comes down
It's an awful lot to do"
(Hats, Amy Grant 1991)
Going to the hospital was a joke. Since I currently had no chest pain and no referral from the cardiologist, I had no appointment and would not be seen. It was a nice walk home and did my heart good. The next day things got weird. Twice in one afternoon, the receptionist called me to ask for the pharmacy phone number that I use in my city. She really called twice, asking for the same number each time. I explained to her what had happened regarding a referral and she said she would tell the cardiologist. I waited to hear from the doctor for the rest of the afternoon. With a three day weekend to follow, my Friday was spent anticipating the call which never came. Three days passed and I sat bemused, especially considering the shunning I got from the one hospital. I was left hanging in a doorway, with no sense of what was wrong, no idea why I needed to go into a hospital that didn't want me, and a nagging sense that this was all too much for most people to handle. The noose constantly tightened but only in degrees. So far I had maintained some decorum. Lucky for me, I can switch into survival mode.
I was dropped off at the emergency ward of
around 9:00 AM on a Tuesday morning. I sat hooked up like a monkey for almost 6
hours. I was poked. I was prodded. I managed to get some rest as I lay in a
hospital gown much too short and tight for my damaged body. I used a blanket to
block the view. When they found nothing of concern, they handed me a new
referral and sent me out the door through which I had entered so many hours
before. The blood work, the ECG, the examinations revealed nothing out of the
ordinary. The ER team saw no reason to keep me, regardless of the cardiologist's
urging the week before. I was not admitted. I even managed to walk partway home
all on my own. The tiny white container of explosives I clutched along the route.
I kept hearing, "You need to be in hospital now," over and over in my
head. It was like singing a simple, annoying tune. "This could be
wrong," and "If this is wrong," seemed poor harmony in my muddled
mind. As I slipped and slid most of the way I travelled, I was overwhelmed with
what I should do. Who do you believe? How do you measure the danger based on
maybes? Quickly, mid-February became of more concern than the hidden gambit in
my chest. I hailed a cab to quicken my journey back home. I checked the weather
app on my computer in order to confirm that it gets fucking cold in Canada come
the middle of winter (-18 Celsius plus wind chill). Grand
The next day was madness. I would have preferred having to face the deep freeze which lingered over most of
time. Instead, I spent my day on the phone. From one receptionist to another I
was bounced like ping and pong. The highlight of my day occurred when I called
cardiologist. The main switchboard informed me that I was registered for a
Cardiac Cap. This was total news to me. I didn't even know what a Cardiac Cap
was when reception filled me in. This open-heart procedure attaches a
"supportive device that is sewn around the heart to help normalize its
shape and function." Holy fuck! You would think someone would have
mentioned this to me. Not surprisingly, the receptionist had written down the
wrong procedure. It turns out that I didn't require the Cap, I needed an
angiogram to determine what was wrong with my heart. I would need to see a
different cardiologist, to pinpoint the/any problem. Having just been informed
about the erroneous Cap, I was told that I might only need medication. I might
need a shunt. Bypass surgery was not out of the question. Of course, the newest member of the crew, the
latest addition, would determine what ailed me. I would be able to see a local
cardiologist, that I was referred to by the Grand River
physician, the one who examined me and found nothing to give him pause. I was warned
that I might dangle for three months or more before I could be seen.
"I saw you walking by yourself
Your eyes were crying out for help
I know you feel your pain is more
Than anyone's been hurt before
I know love hurts when it's over
If you wanna cry it's alright
You're like a fallen soldier
But you just can't lay down and die."
(You're Not Alone, Amy Grant 1991)
Just living can be a royal pain. It's tough to get through one day without having to think about the next and what chaos will come. I use the word "will" because we never get a break, strife and struggle seem a constant in all of our lives. Granted, my chaos may not equal your chaos, and each individual experiences such matters in their own way, from their own perspective. A drug user, having lost everything, may be forced to sleep on the street but he wakes up the next day and carries on just as before. In the same vein, the businessman loses everything and is forced to sleep on the street so he takes a head dive off the nearest bridge rather than facing tomorrow. We all react differently to the bedlam we face. How we respond to those trials will determine any outcome.
Sometimes I get tired of being "the strong one." People really seem to think that strength means emancipation from worry and care. I would argue that strong people are that way because they feel, maybe even a little bit more than the regular person might feel. We don't use walls to hide, we use them to protect ourselves. Sometimes, when my world is harsh, I wish things had been different for me. I question the reason I remain here. I wonder if it might have been better to have died in that cemetery all those years ago. I don't get this way very often but when I do, it is like a heavy burden for me. I am conflicted, eager to carry on but yearning for peace. It is part of me to feel this way at times. I don't think after everything put before me in this life that I would not be tempted on occasion. It's not in the thinking that lies the danger. It's in the doing.
My appointment on February 11th could not have been scheduled at a worse time. The following week marked the 20th anniversary of my first partner's death and the milestone of my NDE. My little rat
Sydney died on February
17th the year before. A week of Doug and yet another rat slowly
dying (February 25th made me fear what was yet to come. It was a
horrible, awful place to visit even if only for a few days. It's the time of
year when it sucks to be me. I was forced to use my survival kit. Having one
doctor tell you all is well while another telling me I "might" need
open-heart surgery is inane. Having to wait three more months or more until I
see a local cardiologist made things even worse. I just wanted to curl up in a
ball and fucking die! Sometimes this life is more than one can bear. There is
so much more than needless sufferings. It can be so damned hard to just get up,
let alone carry on. I wasn't suicidal but I just wanted to die.
If I think there's a God up in the heavens
I see no mercy
And no one down here's naming names
Nobody's naming names"
(Ask Me, Amy Grant 1991)
Even five years ago I would have convinced myself that this dilemma was well deserved. Punishment and consequence went hand in hand for me. These days, not so much. If God is punishing me, if this is my Karma, then I have no one to blame but myself. I did not need any help bringing all this on. This is needless suffering. Still, I find my heart is in motion. I am sure to learn any lesson that comes from this. My Mom died on the floor of her bedroom from a massive coronary. I remember how merciful it seemed to me then. I just don't believe in such silly notions any more. I do believe that this same event also built me to be a better man, a better person. There is not much difference between learning from a negative experience or learning from a positive experience. I am unsure of which this will turn out to be. My only hope is that this is not just the theory of a dead man.
I was surprised, to say the least, when the call came early in March. The angiogram was scheduled for the end of the month and determining if there was a problem began in earnest. Having to wait only a few weeks made things a little bit better. Not having to have open-heart surgery and a support device placed inside me blew the wind right out of those sails. It would be a good thing to know if there were issues from 30 years of smoking. It would be irresponsible to the people in my life and myself not to make sure. I just wish I had managed a less complicated introduction to the world of cardiac care. No wonder so many people's hearts are broken.