(You’re reading this on Friday April 5, but I’m writing it on Wednesday.)
Here it is April 3 and I’m still alive. I’m not in an ambulance speeding toward Sutter General Hospital hooked up to a bunch of monitors and dripping bags. Ten years ago yesterday (April 2, 2003) I was lying in bed all night having a heart attack. I didn’t realize I was having a heart attack until early the next morning, but I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t sleep, didn’t feel quite right. Then the elephant stomped on my left side and I felt it all the way to my toes. And it was off to Marshall’s emergency room.
It’s all a bit hazy now, 10 years later, but the ER staff confirmed that I had indeed enjoyed a nightlong heart attack and they sent me to the nearest available cardiology specialty place — Sutter General in Sacramento. Those fine folks inserted a long device into my groin and fired a camera or something up the chute and determined that I had a collapsed artery. They recommended installation of a stent to prop up the collapsed arterial walls and following my consent for that treatment, they scheduled the angioplasty for the next day.
Reading up online about the procedure, I see that it may be done without using full, general anesthesia. Not for me. As far as I know, I was knocked out about as far as I could go, and that’s how I would recommend any kind of heart-related surgery.
I was only in the hospital a couple of days, then spent a week or so at home until reasonable recovery had set in. Piece of cake really. Now, four years earlier, to the day, that is, April 2, 1999, I had a major league heart attack. No elephant stomping that time, just a nine-hour case of the most intense nausea and overall discomfort I’d ever experienced. I kept thinking it was the Kung Pao Shrimp lunch I’d had or maybe the beer and pool game with my son and his buddy later in the afternoon. (That was when you could get a beer and a game of pool on Main Street.)
I used to eat Kung Pao Shrimp several times a month, and so it seemed odd that this time it would have messed with me to the extent that my wife finally took me to Marshall emergency about 1 a.m. April 3, “with chest pains.” The fine folks there did an EKG which didn’t suggest I was having a heart attack. Same as in 2003. The blood and heart enzyme test however stated conclusively that I was having/had a heart attack. Off to Sutter General in the ambulance.
For some reason, I remember that trip down Highway 50 fairly clearly, while the one four years later, I don’t remember at all. At Sutter, they gave me an angiogram and determined that four of the arteries connected to my heart were from 75 percent to 100 percent blocked by what’s known as plaque. It’s a cholesterol thing. About three weeks earlier I’d finally taken my doctor’s advice and started an aggressive anti-cholesterol regimen. I was 54 at the time, and I’d been doing diet and exercise for many years and, in fact had made significant reductions in my cholesterol, but evidently the damage was already well under way.
After consenting to play along, they scheduled me for open heart surgery the next day. That’s where they chop into your chest, hook up a machine that keeps your lungs going and cut out the bad old veins. Then, while you’re still residing on some other planet far, far away, they cut four veins out of your left leg and convert them to cardiologic arteries and voila, you’re as good as new.
Returning from that far away planet was no walk in the park, no piece of cake. I thought I was done-for when the post-op nurse pulled the breathing tube out of my lungs, and I was supposed to breathe on my own. For maybe a second or two, or maybe even a fraction of a second or two, I couldn’t breathe on my own. I remember seeing my life pass before me in that heartbeat or two. No more Kung Pao Shrimp, no more pool and beer, no more anything actually. I didn’t really have time to assess my life, apologize to anyone I needed to apologize to, nor time to plan how I’d change everything and be a model human being if only I could have another crack at it.
Then I breathed and breathed again and again and kept on breathing. Then I realized I hadn’t died and maybe didn’t need to become the perfect human being I’d promised in that dark instant. I wasn’t planning to be a worse human being, just pretty much stay the same as I’d always been. Four years later I found out how that was working for me. But really, what could I have done to avoid a collapsed artery that maybe should have stayed in my leg for crying out loud? The surgeon said I should have quit smoking for all four years not just for some of them.
I said, “How do you know you guys didn’t do something wrong the first time? Maybe you should have harvested a better artery, hmmm?”
He actually took that pretty well, and we moved on from there.
The first stay at Sutter lasted nine or 10 days. They had to teach me how to walk down the hall and climb up a little platform simulating stairs, and they woke me up every hour or so and told me to breathe into a weird little plastic tubey thing that measures your lung capacity. The technicians always said I was doing great, best patient on the floor, and I’m sure they say that to everyone in their care. I couldn’t go home on my scheduled day because it had snowed in Placerville, and I told the doctors I wouldn’t be able to get up the driveway to my house that day. They let me stay one more day.
After the snow had melted on my street, I went home. About 30 hours later I developed an infection of some kind and back I went to the cardiology-plus-infection department for a couple more days. Then I went home for good (not counting four years later).
April 2, 1999 is now the stuff of legend in my family. While I was having that massive heart attack, my niece was delivering her new daughter in Austin. At about the same time, my brother-in-law’s brother was dropping dead in the middle of a cardio-treadmill test in Atlanta. All things considered, I didn’t get much attention for awhile.
And so it is that I look forward to every April 3 when I can wake up from a good night’s sleep uninterrupted by a damn heart attack.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.