The room was quiet. Only two other people sat about the large room, while staff in brightly coloured outfits darted past the doorway. I glanced at the big clock above the tv playing some daytime talk show on mute. I was early. Don’t like being early! It means I have too much idle time to think about everything. But then a very friendly nurse stepped into the room and called out sweetly, “Michael?” I guess that’s me. This really isn’t my idea of going on an adventure. So how did I end up here?
This little adventure had its roots almost two years before, when I was sitting at home, enjoying a quiet, peaceful day to myself. A day that had so much promise. So much possibility! But it was not to be…
It was late on a May morning. I had just finished my second cup of coffee and was considering what to have for lunch, when I began to feel some discomfort in my belly. An odd pressure was building slowly, pushing up against my chest from below. I winced and rubbed the top of my stomach, willing the discomfort away. But it did not go away.
As I stood in the kitchen rubbing my stomach, the discomfort leapt into pain, and my breath caught. What the hell!? My breathing came in tight, raspy bursts. It become more difficult to take a breath. I walked into the living room, slightly hunched over, trying to find a comfortable position. Sitting was no good. Lying on my back provided no relief. So I stood, hunched and wheezing. The pain kept creeping up. My chest was being squeezed in a vise. It moved up to my neck, across my shoulder and down my arm.
What Is Your Emergency?
I shuffled back to the kitchen and picked up my phone. Was I having a heart attack? Do I need to call 911? My brain simply could not comprehend that this could be a possibility, so I stared at my phone while the pain hovered around a 7. Finally I keyed in the three numbers and hovered my thumb above the green button. I told myself, if the pain gets any worse, I’ll call. And suddenly it was. I dropped to my knees and hit the button.
A pleasant sounding man answered almost immediately. He asked me where to direct the call, and I wheezed out “ambulance!” He then asked me a series of questions that I did my best to answer while being bear-hugged by an 800 pound mountain gorilla. Then he told me the ambulance would be here soon, and to make sure the door was unlocked. Then he hung up. He hung up!!
I found my feet and moved to the front door, making sure it was unlocked. Then I sat, hunched over on the couch and waited for the ambulance. This was a pain I had never experienced before. I was dizzy, sweating and wheezing. It was incredibly difficult to take in a breath. And I waited for the reassuring sound of the ambulance. But the sound did not come. Five minutes. Then my phone rang!
An Unexpected Call
It was Heather. What was she doing calling me from work? She’s a teacher, she never calls during a class! I answered, and she started to ask if I could pick something up at the store for a colleague who was going on sick leave or some such thing. I interrupted and gasped, “I think I’m having a heart attack.” She said “Okay, I’m hanging up and coming home. I’m going to call Aaron and tell him to go over.” Aaron is our next door neighbour, and a nurse.
And sure enough, about 20 seconds later Aaron bursts through the door and crouches by my side. He asks if I called 911, and do I have any Aspirin, and when I shake my head he tells me he’ll be right back. He ran across the street to another neighbour and returned with a handful of Aspirins. I chewed on three of them, swallowing the bitter mush. But there was no change to the pain, and I still had difficulty breathing. I felt like I was going to faint.
Aaron got back on the phone with the 911 operator, demanding to know where the damn ambulance was. Seconds later, the town’s emergency siren activated, and I knew someone would come. That siren can be heard all over our town, announcing to the community and it’s volunteer fire crews that help is needed, fast.
Probably less than 30 seconds passed before I heard the first fire truck siren. We live just two and a half blocks from the firehall, and right on the emergency route.
The fire chief pulled up and ran into the house with an oxygen kit. Right behind him I heard another siren, and a minute later the ambulance was here. Now we were having an adventure!
Go Big Or Go Home
Things happened very quickly. Now my living room had Aaron, my neighbour, the fire chief, and two EMTs. Then I heard another siren. And then another siren. Two more fire trucks pulled in front of my house. Somewhere in the chaos Heather came in with our daughter Beth-Rose, who prudently disappeared up to her room to avoid all the madness. And so ended my quiet, peaceful day off to myself.
Incredibly, another ambulance arrived. Now we were generating some real excitement on the block! At this point I should maybe suggest that, if any of you ever need emergency first responders to come to your house, get my neighbour Aaron to call them. Talk about getting results!
So now everyone was here. (The only thing missing was SWAT, but I’m okay with that. That would be a whole different kind of adventure…) I was starting to feel in pretty good hands. Nothing like a first-rate, genuine emergency to rouse the neighbourhood from its Monday torpor.
Turns out the last ambulance to arrive was a special cardiac unit. There were 3 people riding with this one, and that was the ambulance that would take me to the hospital.
The intense pain I had felt was beginning to subside. About 45 minutes had passed since I began feeling uncomfortable. I could breathe normally, and I no longer felt faint. The EMTs strapped me into a chair that would get me down the steep front steps of my house, where they would transfer me to an ambulance gurney. By the time I was strapped in and heading down the stairs, the pain in my chest was completely gone. I felt almost euphoric! I even cracked a lame joke about being on a better ride than Disneyland.
The Pseudo Prognosis
The rest of the day was mind-numbingly boring, consisting of a 30 minute ride to the hospital, followed by 3 hours sitting in an emergency waiting room. Waiting. When I finally spoke to the doctor, he spent 5 minutes with me, explaining that they didn’t know what had happened to me. My heart was good. In fact, he told me that I had about a 3% chance of having a heart attack in the next ten years!
Maybe I experienced a spasm of the diaphragm, he suggested. They don’t know what causes those, and they don’t have a treatment for it. Great! So what happens when I experience this again?!
The entire time I spent with this doctor, he never once examined me. I had spent all this time waiting to see a doctor, after a half hour ambulance ride, and it amounted to nothing more than a five minute conversation!
As he walked me back to the waiting room, the doctor reassuringly added, “Even though it wasn’t a heart attack, bear in mind you did the right thing by calling 911. It’s never wrong to make the call in an emergency.” Wonderful! I did the right thing! Thank goodness for that bit of reassurance…
Months passed without another episode. Then, while camping on remote Quadra Island, the same thing happened. Another adventure. I recognized the pain immediately. And for 45 minutes, I lay writhing in excruciating pain on an air mattress, while my poor family fretted and experimented in vain with numerous treatments and remedies. It was only when Heather spritzed a lavender scented sanitizer on her hand and held it under my nose, that I experienced relief. Oddly, the pain ceased immediately. I stood up and felt completely normal, albeit exhausted. Weird!
The Adventure Continues
The months wore on, and the attacks returned infrequently and with no warning. I had learned I could mitigate the severity of the attack by sitting down on my knees with my head resting on a chair and breathing deeply into the pain. Sometimes the lavender smell helped, but more often it smelled rancid to me. After one particularly long attack, followed almost immediately by another, I returned to my family doctor. When I told her the emergency physician had not actually examined me, she was shocked. Unconvinced my heart was not the culprit, she ordered a battery of tests and referred me to a cardiologist. And so my adventure continued…
First came the ECG, which came back normal. Then the cardiologist had me do a stress test. Those are fun! Get on a treadmill while we hook you up to a variety of machines and run uphill until you die. Thank God I live in a town perched on a mountainside!
The goal of the stress test is to get your heart rate up to 80% of maximum for about 15 minutes. During the test, the cardiologist monitors your heart rate, blood flow, and other factors. Your personal goal is just to stay alive.
Michael The Lion Hearted
My test went very well. At 80% of my maximum heart rate, I was breathing heavily, but could still talk. The doctor asked how I was doing. “Great,” I puffed. “Like walking home from work!”
Once the test was done, he asked if I wanted to keep going. Why not? Let’s see how good I am! So the treadmill tilted a little higher, and I puffed on. Five minutes later he asked again how I was doing. I was out of breath, but I still felt pretty good. A few minutes later he stopped the test and informed me he had taken me to about 99% of my max heart rate for a 40 year old. About 177 beats per minute.
The normal max heart rate for someone my age is about 160 BPM. And no angina, no arrhythmia, no dizziness. “The heart of a lion,” according to my doctor. So the emergency room doc was right about that.
The Gall Of My Doctor!
Now that heart problems were eliminated, my doctor moved onto other areas of my belly. An ultrasound test was conducted. Two days later she called me with the news. “You have gallstones. It’ll have to come out.” Hurray! My adventure takes a new turn!
After discussing my options (remove my gall bladder, do nothing), she told me she’d refer me to a GI surgeon to discuss the procedure. She figured it would be 3 to 6 months before he got back to me. Two weeks later he called me to make an appointment. Maybe my adventure was nearing the end?
The consult was brief and to the point. Yes, we could remove your gallbladder. Pretty straightforward stuff. But would that stop these nasty attacks? The surgeon wasn’t entirely sure. Wouldn’t it be prudent to explore other possibilities before committing to removing organs, even ones deemed “unessential”? Sounds reasonable to me!
And so he described the process of a gastroscopy, what it was used for, what it could find, and what to expect. Hmm, stick a tube with a camera on the end down my gullet, have a peek around, maybe take a sample of my gut with it’s little toothy bit. No muss, no fuss, no organ removal. Let’s do that!
Time To Test
And so, here we are this morning, a few weeks later; me laid out on a hospital bed in a nice, freshly starched gown, waiting to have another adventure. They’re behind schedule, so I get to lie here, listening to the conversations around me. This lady is back because she keeps bleeding out her butt. This guy is having his third colonoscopy because his food isn’t digesting. Another keeps throwing up when they try inserting a tube down his throat. Good God, just put me under!
Finally the friendly nurse is back. She’s going to move me down the hall to a nicer, sunny spot to wait. “Costa Rica?” I ask hopefully. And five minutes later, I’m wheeled into the operating room. It looks like a movie set from “Alien”.
I’m introduced to the doctor who will perform the gastroscopy. She asks a few questions that have already been asked 3 times today, and gives me the lowdown. First, an unappetizing spray into my throat, followed by a second round, just to make sure the camera goes down without me gagging. Then a “mild” anesthetic will be given to relax me. There’s a chance I might fall asleep briefly, but here’s a monitor where I can watch the procedure. Cool!
I roll over onto my side and the nurse inserts a block between my teeth, to keep me from chomping down on the tube and losing the camera to my bowels, until such time as the bowels choose to release it to the toilet bowl. That would probably mess up the test. A pad is placed on the bed beside my head. “To catch the drool.” I glance at the monitor. It’s a blank screen.
Going On An Adventure-The Payoff?
I hear the doctor saying something like “…3, 2, 1…” and about a second and a half later, I’m in another room and being asked to sit up. Wait, what!? I seem to have just lost about 15 minutes of my life, and I didn’t even get to see the inside of my stomach! What a ripoff! Some adventure this is!
I’m given a drink of water to make sure I can swallow, then some ginger ale, crackers and cheese. It’s like a buffet for a starving person. But I am famished…
The doctor comes over and sits down. “Everything looked normal in there.” That’s a relief. Maybe now we can get on with yanking out my gallbladder. After all, I’m pretty convinced that’s the culprit behind these nasty attacks, which have been happening more frequently of late. And besides, I’ve been reading lots of online articles about the gallbladder, so I’m practically an expert now! I’m pretty sure I know as much as my doctor…(yes, I’m kidding!).
But now I’m looking forward to getting to the end of this adventure. I’d very much like to put it behind me and get onto new, more exciting adventures. A little less drool, a little more tropical beverages. Those adventures that involve hammocks, beaches, palm trees and margaritas. Yes, it’s time.
Time For A Health Check
All in all, I’ve been pretty smug about my health as I’ve gotten into my sixties. I take no medications, my heart is in great condition, and I’m not (too) overweight. I have no dietary restrictions, no allergies, no “trick knee” or brain fog. But I am at the age when I ought to be paying attention a little more to my health. I can’t be eating and drinking anything I want, whenever I want, without some consequences.
Having a fatty liver or gallstones are the result (mostly) of lifestyle and diet choices, so I do have to think about that. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the food I put in my body going forward needs to be feeding me more than just my appetite. I don’t need to eliminate anything. I just need to have balance. My dark beer ain’t gonna disappear!
So what’s next? I’ll take care of this gallbladder thing, start feeling great again, and get on with the business of being a Dad and Husband. Continue enjoying my time with the kids before they head off on new adventures of their own. And then Heather and I can plan to go on our own adventure, together. One that doesn’t require an anesthetic spray and a drool pad!