Winter Tune Up
Within one minute of arriving at Health Sciences Centre Emergency at 5 a.m. Thursday with chest pains, I was seated and being interviewed by a nurse. Within ten minutes of arriving at Emerge, besides starting to speak in hospitalese, I was horizontal on bed #3 in the 30-bed emergency room getting oxygen. Within 15 minutes my pulse, blood pressure, blood oxygen and temperature were all taken, buttons stuck on my chest attached me to a heart monitor and a nitro glycerin patch was glommed onto my right shoulder. Two minutes later, the patch gave me a raging headache, which lasted most of my hospital stay. Within 25 minutes, I had been given an EKG and blood drawn for first measure of my blood gases. Within 40 minutes, I encountered the first of seven doctors who’d eventually see me over the next six days. I can sense my American readers are already calculating the cost of all this medicine and the bill I’ll get when I leave. I’ll give you the grand total at the end of the story.
That was Thursday, entirely spent in Bed #3 while the blood gas series was taken every 5 hours, EKGs repeated and compared, two other doctors turning up including a cardiologist who described himself as “one of the best plumbers in the city, Mr. Dickie.” There are two kinds of cardiologists: clinical ones who see people with appointments in nice offices, and plumbers who see people under duress and often have to plumb them to keep them from dying or similar. I liked Dr…umm, let’s call him, Dr. K, as in Special K. He was the one who said I had to stay in the hospital when all day I thought I was going to go merrily home and all would be well. With much kindness and good humour Dr. K convinced me I needed to stay. Because HSC was “full,” I was to stay the night in the emergency room in bed #3.
Bed #3 at HSC Emerge and I have a history. On October 22, 2009, Linda was diagnosed with cancer as she lay in bed #3 HSC Emerge. She had her first surgery that night. Two months and three days later she died. When the nurse said I was going to bed #3 my small quiet howl prompted her question and that bit of personal history. Immediately I was determined to be as brave and strong as Linda had been that night in that bed. I wasn’t able to match her courage. Luckily, I felt my beautiful one watching over me the whole time.
Bliss, sensing The Emptiness, arises as Compassion. Nurses are angels come to help life, beings of pure compassion, especially one. I’ll call her Nurse A, for Amazing, Angelic, Awe-Inspiring. I’d told her my history with bed #3 and, just before her shift changed, she made a special arrangement to have me moved to bed #4 next door so I didn’t have to sleep where Linda had been. Young Nurse A was back on Friday as well and demonstrated that same depth of caring and compassion with every patient she encountered. She is my first nomination for Reid’s Angel of the Year.
I don’t recommend staying overnight in an emergency room. How would my young filmic friend Kevin Uddenberg describe my experience: it was as if One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was remade with the cast from Animal House directed by some bad TV drama hack.” Among the other patients in Emerge was a poor lost woman who wailed in the most forlorn fashion all night long. Siren-like, her howl rose out of the din, faded slightly then repossessed the room time after time. I couldn’t see the proceedings from bed #4, but the general ambience among the staff was party party! A radio played loud til after midnight, raucous laughter and around 2 a.m. the staff started to howl along with the poor woman, mocking her. The little bit of medical care that managed to slip away from the party to look after patients was perfunctory and impersonal. I was very glad to see the shift change and this band of monkeys dispersed. (As a preview I have already found the worst accommodations of the year and it’s not even mid-January.)
By Friday morning, the docs had decided I needed some plumbing, an angiogram where they open the femoral artery in my thigh, slide in a hollow wire up over my heart and inject dye into the arteries while watching it all live via X-ray. I’ve seen my heart beat on a screen in 2002 at my debut angiogram. It’s an amazing and humbling sight. How fragile we are! One bag of muscle feeds the whole fire. The living hope among the docs was the angiogram would happen today, Friday. I waited all day in Emerge. No angiogram. Another night in the cuckoo’s nest? No.
A small and subtle cage rattling ensued. By nine Friday evening, I was ensconced alone in the window bed of a double room on a quiet ward, my heart thumpery sent via telemetry, monitored by computer, surrounded by angels. Kevin would say, “It’s like the first Tron with feathers.” He’s deep.
I slept like a baby.
Since only dire emergencies can lure cardio plumbers from their weekend dens, my merely urgent angio was unlikely so I resigned to lolling away Saturday and Sunday, hopeful for Monday. On Saturday, I get a room mate who speaks mainly Spanish. Free to walk the halls due to the telemetry, I was feeling good, a little shaky, palpitations but better. I’m familiar with the squints and squawks of this old body after its various medical encounters and realized what was needed. A little tune-up. What’s that going to cost?
You Guys Give Good Angio
First thing Monday morning the head cardio nurse points his finger at me and says, “No food, no water, you are on today, Mr. Dickie.” Excellent! Angio was imminent. Inexplicably, although the procedure is done regularly at HSC, I was transported by ambulance to St. Boniface Hospital for the angiogram. More angels.
Is it a prerequisite that EMS workers in Winnipeg must be above average in looks? Any of the three handsome devils, who treated me like glass from pick up through to delivery, could have stepped into an Armani ad in GQ and felt right at home. Compassion on four wheels. What’s the price of an ambulance ride between hospitals?
At St. B., I was prepped for the procedure then waited my turn. Five and a half hours later the cardio plumber met me, discussed everything and offered me the disaster waiver to sign. Before I sign it, I did something I have done with every doctor who has ever invaded my body. I asked Dr. G, for Great, to put his hands in mine. He did and I felt his warm strong touch, the power and the wisdom his hands contained. I looked in his eyes and I knew he understood. My ritual satisfied me, I signed the form and minutes later I was joking with the nurses who situated me among the devices. Music played in the room. A couple of modern country tracks then a song still going through my head, Electric Avenue by Eddie Grant, came on and the nurses all sang along. It’s show time, with apologies to Bob Fosse.
Angiograms require only slight sedation. I was awake during the whole show. Dr. G performed his techno magic on my little body, his little wire probe (an extension of his hand) searched toward my heart with determination and skill; the moving X-ray head (an extension of his eye) pivoted about me giving him intimate views of my heart and its foibles. I caught a glimpse of the throbbing bag on the screen with the dark dye swirling around and through it. I thought of Linda. She was right beside me. The thought crossed my mind that Dr. G. would see Linda’s face on the screen because she is so alive in my heart. If he saw her, he didn’t mention it.
What he did say after 20 minutes was, “Good news, Mr. Dickie. The grafts from eight years ago are both open and clear. Your native arteries (ones I was born with) have a few small occlusions but don’t require angioplasty or stents. Medication should take care of it.” A few tears of relief rolled down my cheek as I half cry/half laugh at my good fortune. The thought of having this old body rendered and reassembled again as it was eight years ago terrifies me. I have dodged that bullet.
This is the diagram of my heart Dr. G supplied after the procedure. The highlighted arteries are the graphs put in 8 years ago. The darkened spots on the other arteries indicate where there are partial blockages.
Dr. G stitched up his tiny incision, taped the area shut and I am wheeled out with the nurses telling me I was their most entertaining customer of the day, something I always try to be under any circumstances. With me all day and still there when I get back to the waiting area was my dearest, most compassionate angel Kenny. We shared the good news with delight, relief and mutual understanding. After fasting all day for the test, finally I got to eat and drink the best cold milk and the best roast beef sandwich I’ve ever had. One nurse called it my “victory sandwich.”
Shortly I was returned to HSC via ambulance, attended by one of the handsome devils from the morning and two very attractive new EMS people. The young woman remembered seeing me in Emerge last week. By six o’clock, I was back in my HSC room, weary but relieved and wondering if what waited under the lid of my dinner tray would be edible. So-so.
The decision to spring me (the head cardio nurse said the medical term is “punt me”) from HSC came Tuesday morning after a doc confab. I was discharged with new prescriptions, paperwork for my files and the ability to plan the rest of my life. I was home by 3:30, Tulu the cat happily yowling about my feet and all my familiar stuff around me. I slept for ten and a half hours in my own wonderful bed last night and this morning feel well rested and ready for whatever the day and the rest of this life holds.
If you have this kind of experience among angels and can find nothing to be grateful for, check your pulse. You might be dead. My gratitude to the staff at HSC is enormous, almost inexpressible. Small gestures can help to say it so I had my friend Kevin, who picked me up, buy a dozen muffins from the Tim Horton’s in the hospital. I wrote “with my gratitude Dickie 309” inside the lid and gave them to the surprised staff for their lunchroom. I told them muffins couldn’t begin to say thank you for their angelic duties but to please enjoy them.
I mentioned at the outset, seven doctors saw me over the six days. There was an eighth phantom doctor who was assigned my case just before discharge that I never saw due to scheduling. Of the seven actual doctors, all but two were exceptionally caring and concerned, truly listened to what I said and treated me with respect and compassion. The other two only saw numbers on a chart and a piece of meat lying in a bed – meat department special $2.69 a kilo. These bad doctors are glaringly obvious among the milieu of angels in which they are immersed but their huge unintegrated egos preclude them ever seeing themselves as anything but glorious saviours.
Since 2002 when I had the double cabbage (two Coronary Artery Bypass Grafts – CABG) I have exercised by walking thousands of kilometres and stayed true to a healthy diet, maintaining good body weight and condition. Only one of the seven doctors, Dr. K, acknowledged that my regimen had contributed to my relative good health. All the others had a pill for every occlusion and gave me no personal credit whatsoever, even when prompted. Thus, the doctor breakdown is one exemplary (Dr. K), two excellent, two very good and two very poor.
Besides the heavenly ones who tended me with such care and concern during the hospital stay, my gratitude extends to my wonderful friends who helped me and visited me. By name thank you Garcea, Mike, Chris, Alex, Kevin and, always, Kenny. Special thanks to Kevin for lending me Johnny Depp reading Keith Richards’ autobiography on CD. Extremely well written and honest, it helped many hours pass quickly.
After six days in a modern big city hospital which provided every necessary service for my treatment and my comfort from pillows to painkillers, continuously monitored my heart and brought my current health situation into clear perspective, are you ready to hear the total figure on the bill they gave me when I left?
What bill? This is Canada, a civilized country with publicly funded health care that has concern for its citizens and, though often expecting patience from us to wait for certain appointments, comes through when the need is great. Oh Canada!
There was never a moment over the six days that I did not feel Linda’s strong and supportive presence with me. On Monday, while I waited for the angio, I felt her so near she was hugging me, holding me in a loving embrace, fleeting but powerful. Thank you Beauty.