Although India has been quite an emotional roller coaster during our last nine months, I never expected it to include a trip to an emergency room and four day stay in ICU.
I have been concerned for some time about pressure around my lower chest, shortness of breath, tiredness, even some hoarseness. So back in late June I visited a doctor who sent me for a series of tests.
Reports, here in India, are not sent to doctors but to a “report department” where they are given directly to patients. So as I went in for various tests, throughout the week, I’d pick up previous reports. I picked up my CT heart scan on a late Thursday afternoon and read it as I sat in a security booth while waiting for my Uber. It was actually quite alarming to read about a blockage and “severe” narrowing of my LAD artery. My wife was at home sick and so I was alone, except for a couple of Hindi-speaking security guards sitting nearby doing everything possible, giving up a chair and turning the fan in my direction, to make sure I was as comfortable. Little did they know.
My wife and I continued our normal work routine during the next few days. I wouldn’t see a cardiologist until Tuesday. However, on Saturday night I shared my news with our mission president and his wife and they immediately sent a scan of my report to a doctor in Hong Kong. The doctor was alarmed when he saw my CT scan early Sunday morning. He called and told me that people with my atypical symptoms can have a heart attack immediately with no warning and, worse yet, it would kill me instantly. He also told me that the location of my blockage, the fact that was a mixture of soft and hard plaque, and at the opening of the LAD (main artery which supplies 60% of the blood to the heart) not only puts me at greater risk but can also be a very tricky surgery, not something all cardiologists can do. Furthermore, he told me it might not be amenable to a stent but I need open heart surgery. At first he told us to start packing for home but then, after getting a second opinion, said I should not travel but recommended I go to an emergency room immediately to make sure I was stable.
Needless to say, I got off the phone feeling anxious. Not only was I concerned about my heart but stressed that I was 12,500 miles from family and friends and unsure of my medical care. But I had little choice. I got a blessing of health and comfort from our mission president and he and his wife accompanied us to the emergency room in MAX Super Specialty Hospital in New Delhi. I was given an EKG, blood tests and eco-cardiogram. The good news was that everything was in the normal range. Not surprisingly, they admitted me to the hospital and recommended I receive an emergency angioplasty the following day. I actually began to feel some peace as I accepted this option.
Well, I had the procedure done on Monday the 4th of July around noon. It took a while—about 40 minutes for the angiogram, and then another 30 to 40 minutes to place not one but two stents due to the size of the blockage and also because it was near an arterial branch.
The procedure was fascinating. I was awake, as are all patients, and could watch what was happening on a few computer screens as the doctor sent a catheter up my arm and into my heart. The room was filled with 6 or 7 medical staff doing different jobs from moving the scanner around my chest to prepping the lines and stents, to monitoring my progress. I’m not sure what all, but know I was very grateful for the entire team of people helping save my life. I actually felt confident that the process was going to be a success, little anxiety during this time.
I came out of the procedure and was suddenly surrounded by 5 or 6 nurses. Nope, there were no high fives. This was not a congratulatory celebration. Apparently my heart rate had dropped to under 40 beats per minute. Once I realized their alarm my blood pressure went up a few notches and a nurse turned the monitor so I couldn’t see it. Another nurse turned the machine off and on a few times wondering if the problem was the monitor. Another held my wrist for a long time doing her own count. Gradually, things began to stabilize and after 45 minutes or so they decided I was okay and took me to my room. By now I was a little on edge and watched my pulse which hovered around 42-45 until I’d do something like sit up to make sure I was still alive. Sure enough, it would then go up into the 50s. I felt like I had to keep moving to make sure I wouldn’t “expire” as they say here in India.
This was my first hospital stay and much like I would have expected—being hooked up on monitors, receiving regular doses of medication, being bored at times as I wanted to get up and be active, anticipating each meal, waiting for the nights to end, and watching the comings and goings of staff and patients. The best part was getting to know so many of the staff. I would say it was a novelty to have an American under their care so they were interested in learning about me and I was interested in learning about them. They treated me exceptionally well. I stayed for two more days and was released with a number of medications although free of all the probes and pic-lines. Hooray!
I’ve now been out of the hospital for more than a month and have continued to have some challenges. I have lacked stamina and suffered from some shortness of breath and hoarseness. My doctor had me take a few more tests to rule out a few different cancers. Fortunately, those results were negative. So I visited my cardiologist who thinks I’m feeling side effects from my medication and changed them completely. It has now been close to two weeks and I am feeling better although still sometimes feel chest discomfort and lack of stamina.
The toughest part of this last several weeks is being so unsure of my health and new “normal.” What will I be able to do and not do in the future? I have been very physically active throughout my life and particularly in the past four or five years—running mountain trails, hiking, skiing, and, of course, playing chase with my grandkids. Play for me is physical and I don’t want to give this up. And yet, I don’t know the limits of what I will be able to do or not do in the future. This has been a scary and depressing thought. It is a real possibility that I’ll have to give up a lot of what I’ve done in the past. Maybe not give it up but certainly slow down, back off.
So I’ve been doing some grieving. Underneath my worry and depression is a deeper sadness about an emerging reality which I cannot simply will away. As I authentically face it (physical limitations…and my mortality) I have, on a few occasions, shed some tears. It feels good to cry. Although it doesn’t change the nature of things it does help me accept and make room for a new, albeit still uncertain, reality.
You who have followed me for long know that I teach about the three Rs—reality + responsibility = results. I’m doing my best to accept a new reality and, with support from my wife, take responsibility by making good choices—doing regular yoga, practicing deep breathing, improving my diet, accepting my genetics, challenging negative thinking, and slowing the pace of our day-to-day life.
I know I’m not alone. Millions of people have had stents placed in their hearts (including my brother some 18 months ago). Millions more have faced even more serious health and life challenges. Being human means dealing with hard things.
And so life goes on…as well as up and down…always changing, always giving me new opportunities to practice living from faith rather than doubt, love not fear. Mostly, I am learning to slow down and be present at this moment—the only moment that is real, the only moment I am alive, the only moment in which I can make choices. It is a nice way to live and well-spring of appreciation and gratitude.
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