I don’t remember the author or the title. I didn’t read the book – only read about it. But the opening sticks with me.
“Blam blam blam! Three shots plowed into my body, and I fell to the floor, dead.”
That was me, on November 10. I was on the floor, dead. No heartbeat. I didn’t get shot, and I was more lowered to the floor instead of falling to the floor, though the EMTs who had me hooked up to a heart monitor were gobsmacked that I was flatlined.
But I lived.
Bettie and I had gone up to Janesville, Wisconsin, for a memorial service. That was on Friday night, and was a very nice service for a very nice lady. Saturday morning, we were getting ready to check out of the hotel when I didn’t feel very good. I told Bettie that we should pray, so we sat down on the bed. I got out a few words and then laid back on the bed. Bettie looked over, wondering but not yet alarmed. My eyes were open, but I wasn’t there. I made a little snoring sound, my legs shook, and I had the first of six heart stoppages.
Bettie was trying to dial 911, but we were in a hotel room, so the phone system ate the first digit as asking for an outside line. She was starting to panic, wanting to wake me up, wanting to call 911. And then my heart started beating again, I woke up, and I wondered what the big problem was.
I wasn’t doing well, but didn’t want Bettie to call 911. She eventually did – neither of us realized exactly what had happened, but she understood it better. I got very hot and had sweated through my shirt. Sitting in a chair with the window open for a breeze, I could hear the siren approaching. “That’s my ambulance.” The ladies looked at me, had me hooked up to a heart monitor, and everything looked normal. They were advising us to go eat breakfast, and to visit a local clinic if I felt funny – and then my heart stopped again. They say my words trailed off, but I was unconscious and don’t remember.
They lowered me to the floor and were getting ready to do heart compressions when my heart started up again. Each time, it stopped for fifteen to twenty-five seconds. I found out later that brain damage from lack of oxygen starts at around four minutes, so I was safe from that, but I didn’t know it at the time. My concern was that I had lost some brain capacity – I’m ready to die and go to be with God in Heaven, but I’m not as comfortable living life with less horsepower between my ears.
The EMTs called for a firetruck, with a carrying chair (we were on the third floor of a hotel with no elevator), and bigger guys to carry me. The EMTs rolled me over on my side so I wouldn’t aspirate – I was trying to vomit. I have my head in a bucket, retching, and I think of something funny to say. I want to tell jokes, to ensure my brain is still functioning. But I’m heaving. I manage to get out that I want to stop vomiting long enough to tell a joke. No, I don’t remember what it was.
They get me into the ambulance and on the way, and my heart stops a third time. Apparently when they start the compressions on me, I try to throw their hands off me – I recovered that fast.
The emergency room was a blur, and they get me up to the Intensive Care Unit pretty fast. They know what’s wrong already – they just don’t know why. So by 1:00 Saturday afternoon, I’m resting comfortably in my bed. I’m awake, alert, responsive, and talkative. I’m still making tons of jokes – the ICU nurse is really happy to have somebody on the floor who can talk back to her. Bettie is taking care of the paperwork and notifying people, and comes up to the room eventually. She leaves around 9PM. My first big procedure – a heart catheterization to see how blocked my arteries are – is set for Sunday afternoon. Bettie goes to stay with relatives around 9. Aside from the heart stopping thing, it’s been a quiet day.
Until around 10:30. My heart stops three more times. They bring in a crash cart, they have nurses and doctors running around, and they decide to put in a temporary pacemaker. They finally get the people in place and the surgery room prepped around 1:30. They don’t put me all the way under – some Valium to distance me from the pain, but no general anesthesia. The temporary pacemaker goes into my neck, with the box of electronics hung over the side of my bed. While I’m in the room and somewhat sedated, they do the heart cath – and nothing is blocked. They say I look beautiful. I’m sure they meant internally.
My Sunday is taken up with not moving. Moving could dislodge the leads of the pacemaker, which could result in my heart stopping again, which the hospital really doesn’t want to have happen. So I’m stuck on my back. I have told Bettie about the new set of heart stoppages, and she comes in Sunday morning. I can’t sit up and talk to her, but we hold hands. We talk about the future, and God, and how we didn’t get breakfast the day before. Then it’s time for the permanent pacemaker.
Same surgery room, with the addition of a guy from the pacemaker company. He’s the one who sets it up and makes sure everything is going well. Same sort of anesthesia – I’m pretty much awake. I talk to the doctor about movies, I make jokes to the nurse whose name is Sandy. I’m sure she’s heard every possible joke about Hurricane Sandy already, but she is kind and doesn’t beat up on me. I forget to ask the cardiologist the joke about “Will I be able to play the violin afterwards?”. Terrible lost opportunity.
After surgery, I go back to the room. Since they know that my problem isn’t a blockage, that it was only electrical, I ask the doc if I can be taken off the cardiac diet (AKA cardboard). He, being the kind, wonderful, and generous man that he is, agrees. I order pizza.
As the anesthetic wears off, I notice that when I breathe deep, I get a shock in the middle of my ribs. Turns out that one of the leads into my heart had become detached, and was touching a diaphragm muscle. Breathing deep brought it into good contact. The pacemaker, being a good pacemaker, was not seeing the diaphragm muscle beat like a heart muscle, so was encouraging it (shocking it). That was the sharp pain I had been feeling. I had to go back in to surgery Monday for them to re-attach the lead.
Tuesday morning the rep from the pacemaker company stopped by again, verified that the pacemaker was doing exactly what it should, and gave me a copy of the summary sheet. That’s cool – I’m a techie, and I like seeing all this stuff.
I got discharged late Tuesday morning, with no limitations except that I couldn’t lift my left elbow over my shoulder for two weeks. I drove us to lunch (and then let Bettie drive – the seatbelt was hitting the pacemaker incision just wrong). We stayed in Janesville an extra day, to let the pacemaker act up if it was going to, and then Bettie drove home Wednesday. I worked from home Thursday and Friday, then got back into things as normal.
It has been just over seven weeks since this all happened. I’m getting some perspective on this, and I’m starting to learn to live with it. I have been to see the cardiologist here in Cincinnati, and that check-up went well. The battery life on my pacemaker can be up to 11 years. It is pacing (working, “firing”) less than one percent of the time. That’s the lowest bucket they have. My heart rate is up around 90 or 100 per minute, so it could be firing around once per minute, every hour of every day – but I don’t think it is. I think that God was doing something for me – reminding me that life is precious, remind me that He is in charge, something.
People have asked me if I saw a light. Nope. No light, no angels, no throne. I was unconscious – completely out. I would come to with people around me, asking if I was OK. I appreciate the concern, but they were all humans. No angels (except Bettie, who has taken very good care of me, before and after). For a while, I wondered if God was preparing me for something (Something, with caps, maybe with italics). Not that I was going to start a cult or anything, but I felt a little special. I have come to understand that what God wants for me is what He wants for everybody. From the very end of Matthew:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
From a practical standpoint, I was dead. No consciousness, no heartbeat, no respiration. I came back, yes, but for those few seconds each time, I was effectively dead. From a theological standpoint, though, I didn’t die. “It is appointed unto man once to die”, yet I’m still here. That can be a topic of discussion if you wish.
People ask if I had any warning about these. I did see a pattern, eventually, and it was about five seconds long. I got this sudden, intense depression. Whatever I was looking at would be sad. “Oh, that’s such a sad telephone.” It wasn’t the telephone, but my perception. Then everything would start looking prickly, like it was stretching to me in points. Then I’d see the circle of people looking down at me after my heart restarted.
The cardiologists don’t know why this happened. It’s purely electrical – no blocked arteries, just no heartbeat. I didn’t have a heart attack. There was never any damage to the heart muscle. I just didn’t have a heartbeat, which does have rather immediate consequences. If God didn’t restart my heart that first time, I wouldn’t be here right now.
Living with the pacemaker has one drawback. The incision is neat, and isn’t sore. But the pacemaker is right under the skin of my left shoulder, just below the collarbone. I have trouble moving my left arm across my body. I can’t wash the back of my right shoulder very well – the pacemaker gets in the way. I could get a scrub brush, I guess, but haven’t yet. I did pick up a seatbelt pad for when I drive, so there’s a separation of the seatbelt from my skin. I picked up one that used memory foam, which molds nicely around the pacemaker.
The last thing is something I found out after the lead separated. Apparently the leads attach to the heart by screwing into the heart muscle. That’s how they maintain good contact for reading the heart’s natural beats, and how they deliver the jolts when necessary. So the leads are not just attached, they are held to the heart muscle by mechanical force. And that’s just screwy.