Blogging took a back seat to health, family and my 8th grade science teacher the other day. And it may do so for a while into the future, which I’m sure will make some very happy on the right side of the cheddarsphere. I only mention the incident to provide some thoughts about mortality and making the most of the time we have here.
About 1:30 am Wednesday morning I woke up with what I thought at first was a sore throat. I felt pressure on the sides of my neck, precisely where those big arteries are (hey, I’m not a doctor) and my felt pressure in my head as well. In general, I felt uncomfortable.
Kelly woke up and asked if I was all right. I checked my pulse (as one gets older, checking the pulse becomes something regularly done). It did not feel regular, not the usual lub dub, lub dub. Instead, it felt choppy and fast.
Not knowing what was going on and not willing to raise an alarm yet, I went to the bathroom and retrieved the portable blood pressure unit a neighbor had loaned us a couple weeks earlier. I finally figured how to make it work and it returned a blood pressure reading of 128 over 115, with a heart rate of 57. The heart rate did not seem right, though mine is normally that low. And, I thought, the blood pressure reading had to be incorrect because I have never had blood pressure issues.
I couldn’t get the unit to work properly after that, so I went back to bed and tried to fall to sleep again. I couldn't, though, because now I could feel my heart pounding in my chest … I rolled over to the other side … this didn’t help.
At this point I asked Kelly to check my heart rate for me. She couldn’t find a pulse. This would have been cause for some fun jokes about being dead, but I wasn’t feeling funny. I was becoming worried. I checked it again and still found it to be jumpy and fast. I went out to the living room and tried to pull the recliner out from the corner. My intent was to sit up for a while and perhaps I’d fall asleep. The effort of pulling the recliner out almost made me swoon. At that moment I decided that perhaps I should go to the hospital.
I went back to the bedroom and informed Kelly of my intentions. We debated calling 911, but I thought I was feeling okay to drive and I didn’t want to alarm the kids, so I drove over to Froedtert, about 5 – 10 miles away. I almost turned back on the way because I thought I was feeling better. However, I continued on to the ER and went inside.
A nurse came over and asked what the problem was. I said I was sure it was nothing, but my heart felt strange. She checked my pulse and immediately had me sit down. She said my heart rate was very fast and called for someone to bring a wheelchair.
Next thing I know, I’m in an emergency room, with two doctors and three or four nurses, two IVs puncturing my skin and with electrodes connecting me to a heart and blood pressure monitor.
I’m somewhat in a daze, not from feeling ill, but from how swift I was moved from ER entryway to being totally plugged in. One of the doctors is talking to me. The initial tests are confusing and so they’ve decided to try a drug that would essentially slow my heart almost to the point of stopping. This does not sound like fun. I am told the procedure will be unpleasant, but it is safe. I’m told this a number of times. By now the population in the small room has swelled to about fifteen. Why do I feel they are witnesses to something unpleasant?
The nurse on my left has a plunger that he will push in to insert the drug. The nurse on the right has a similar instrument filled with a saline solution that is supposed to usher the drug through the heart quickly. I’m about to find out why.
“On three,” the nurse on the right says. He counts and injects the drug. She counts and injects the saline solution. I ready myself by watching the faces of the two doctors who are intently avoiding my hopeful gaze and are instead watching the heart and blood pressure monitor.
One of the doctors says, “Hmm. It didn’t work.”
Then, a moment later, “Oh, there it goes.”
He’s referring to my heart which has finally been introduced to the drug. All of a sudden, both arms become to feel very, very heavy. Then my legs, and finally my chest. Later, I was asked to describe the feeling. The only word I could think of was “BLACK.” I asked later if this is what it felt to have a heart attack. I was told it was worse. I wonder how that person knew.
Anyway, this procedure did not work. My heart continued beating erratically away at 180+ per minute. For the next few hours I was introduced to a few other drugs. None made quite the impression of the first, though. One finally worked about 7:30 am while I had dosed off.
My wife arrived about 9:00 am after dropping the kids off to school. In response to their questions of where daddy was, she simply said I had gone to the hospital because I wasn’t feeling well. They ingested this with their cereal and went off to school none the worse and not worrying.
I was very glad to see Kelly. We had a few teary moments. Later she confessed to being a bit mad at me. With a baby on the way and two youngsters, she would have been left in an unenviable position if I had … you know … left the scene. I didn’t mention that I would not have been very happy either.
Numerous EKG tests, an ultrasound of my heart and a stress test determined that my heart was in fact very strong. The issue had to do with a disruption of the normal functioning of the electrical system of the heart.
Normally the atria and ventricles work well together. Electrical impulses are sent from the sinoatrial node to the atrioventrical node … these impulses induce the valves to contract and pump in unison.
In atrial fibrillation and flutter, which I was experiencing, the atria are stimulated to contract very quickly and differently from normal activity. This results in an uncoordinated contraction of the atria. The condition can be caused by impulses which are transmitted to the ventricles in an irregular fashion or by some impulses failing to be transmitted. This makes the ventricles beat irregularly, which leads to an irregular (and usually fast) pulse.
I was finally okayed to depart about 7:00 pm. Before I left I noticed that a newcomer had been added to the cardiac intensive care unit. He had suffered a heart attack. I looked at the name posted next to the room and wondered if it was just a coincidence. I got a nurse to talk to the man’s wife and discovered that indeed he was my 8th grade science teacher from 37 years ago (for the sake of family privacy, I will not mention his name).
Before I left I asked if I could speak to him. He was conscious, but obviously dazed and in some pain. I told him who I was and that he surely did not remember me, since 37 years had passed. I remembered him, though, I said, and told him that he had been a good teacher and he had made a difference to me. He smiled.
It was a good ending to a day that had begun with much uncertainty and fear.
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