My first heart attack, a true story for a change !
Don't ignore the signs, there's nothing to win !
The car was a complete mess ! The engine fire had damaged the whole rear half of the 1965 Creamy white Porsche 356C cabriolet and burned part of the convertible top. The intensity of the heat through the firewall had partially melted the carpet, which also needed replacement. And that was going to be my job. That's what I do, I restore the interiors of classic European automobiles. So this job was right up my alley. I was to manufacture a new carpet, install another convertible top and replace all the inside panels. In order for me to do that, the car had to be in my workshop, so I could disassemble the whole interior. The faulty engine that had caused the fire was, of course, not running. So we had to push the car from the mechanic's shop from across the street. How far ? Three hundred yards at the most. Piece of cake ! So four or five of us, including yours truly pushed. And we pushed hard. At least, I did ! To the extent where, when we got to my place, my heart was pounding in my chest and I had difficulties to breathe properly. My friends asked me if I was all right as, supposedly, I didn't look so hot. I was later told that I had turned grey ! I said I was fine, all I needed to do was to catch my breath. Well, it took a good fifteen minutes for my breathing to get back to normal.
The day was January, 22nd, 2009, around 10 in the morning. I had returned from my summer quarters in Europe early in November, to enjoy the unbeatable sweetness of the winter weather in Florida. Sometimes in October, I had experienced a comparable occurence. I was helping someone to move and that too, had led to an acute shortness of breath to be followed by long minutes of recovery.
Several times between October and January, I woke up in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in my chest, but it always went away after a few minutes. I knew something was wrong with me. But, I'm a guy and the same stupid way most guys won't ask for directions, they won't rush to the doctor every time something feels wrong. It'll go away ! And most times it does. For a while...
I was in a state of near panic inside though. From where I stood, there were only two possibilities. My heart had decided to quit doing its job, a family tradition if I may risk a little joke here. Or, and that's the part that terrified me, I had an advanced state of lung cancer, which would be only half a surprise as at the time, I was smoking like a chimney. I don't know much medical stuff and to be honest, I don't want to know. I'm the opposite of hypochondriac. But I had heard enough to know that the chances of surviving lung cancer are usually not very good. So if this was what I had, I was a goner. Quickly too. There was really nothing exceptional about my life, but I happened to like it. A lot, and just the way it was.
From bad to worse...
After we got the Porsche inside the shop, I started assessing the damage and to slowly take it apart. Somewhere around noon time, I was considering going to lunch when suddenly I didn't feel so good. Sharp chest pains had returned, I was feeling weak, my legs could barely carry the weight of my body and I started to sweat profusely. I said to myself I would give it five minutes to go away and if it din't, I'would get some help. I didn't even wait five minutes. Just in case, I swallowed two aspirins. I had heard that it was the right thing to do, and I figured it couldn't do any more damage. Something, probably instinct, told me this time it was serious. So I used the remains of my quickly failing energy to close the shop, and walk across the lawn to the T-shirt printing place next door. The owner and one of his employess were inside :
_ "Could you guys please call an ambulance, I'm not feeling well!" One of them went to make the call while the other helped me lay down on a couch in their break room. Then I passed out. When I opened my eyes, they were both looking at me with a somber, concerned look on their face. I knew this couldn't be a good sign. The 911 operator had said that I should chew on two aspirin tablets immediately while waiting for the ambulance, so I did that.
- "The ambulance is on the way. In the meantime, Austin, we are going to pray for you". Now, I'm not religious, but I used to be. So I know enough about people praying at the bedside of someone who's sick. And as I've already stated, I'm a grown up man. When two other grown-up men start praying for YOU laying sick on a bed, religious or not, you know something serious is up and it'can't be good.
By my estimate, it took the ambulance a good twenty minutes to arrive, which is probably accurate but feels like a very long time when your life happens to depend on it. Two paramedics started working on me. I had no clue what they were doing but I trusted them . That too felt like an awfully long time. Finally, one of the guys probably in his early thirties, told me :
-"Buddy, you're going to the hospital, you're having a heart attack !" I'll remember that sentence for the rest of my life. I think it will seem difficult to believe, but I was actually somewhat relieved. I knew the alternative, the lung thing, would have meant my personal version of "For whom the beel tolls". At least, there was some hope that they could repair me at the hospital, since I seemed to be heading that way. I was given more pills to keep under my tongue, which I learned later was Nitroglycerin, a drug that dilate clogged arteries. The thought crossed my mind that to this young paramedic, I was just another old fart having heart touble, something he probably encountered ten times a week. And that's probably why he was so casual about it. Then, I passed out again...
I was transferrred to a gurney and loaded into the ambulance. Finally, the circus got on the road.I was laying right on the floor. I remember the siren being so loud and the ride was quite uncomfortable, bumpy. I could feel the vehicle changing gears as we gained speed. And I passed out again ! The more I got unconscious, the weaker I felt. I was slowly fading away. And then my last wish crossed my mind. I wanted to see some greenery, some trees, some shrubs, anything, it didn't matter. But I had this urge to try to look out the window and see natural beauty for the last time. Through the lower window of the rear door, no more that eighteen inches wide if that much, my wish was granted. I managed to see some shrubbery and some oaks, palms and pine trees. I'm not really a tree hugger, but I do love and respect nature, so that made me happy and I could safely pass out again, which I did.
The next time I became conscious,I was being rolled out, rather quickly it seemed, from the ambulance into the hospital's emergency entrance. One of the paramedics was reciting my vital signs to what must have been a doctor. I remember thinking :"It's just like in the movies". And I signed out again. Next thing I knew, I was laying now completely undressed on some kind of bed, someone was shaving my pubic hair, but I didn't care. I was asked verbally to give my consent to whatever procedure was going to take place and I replied :"You're the doctor, do what you have to do". The pain in my chest had become unbearable. I was asked to rate it on a scale of one to ten.It sure felt like a ten to me, but how was I suppposed to know it could possibly get worse or not. So I said ten. And I was rewarded with a first shot of morphine. Then I flew straight to la-la land in no time. I mean, before that day, the strongest drug I had ever used was probably aspirin. Never even smoked a joint in my entire life. So I was way up there. Another twenty minutes later, I was asked again to rate the pain level. No noticeable change so I said so. Okay Austin, have another shot of morphine. Out of about eight people I could count working on me, somebody rolled a little cart with a TV screen on it right next to my head so I could see it. On it was what appeared to me like the map of a mountainous area. With a lot of meandering roads that happened to be my veins and arteries. I was pointed to what looked like a tunnel between two ends of a road. That was a 100% blockage of my artery, about 4 inches long on that screen. Then the morphine kicked in. Goodnight sweetheart, it's time to go. Literally !
Dead or Alive ?
I woke up in a different, very busy noisy area. As I opened my eyes for the first time, everything looked surreal. I honestly didn't know if I was dead or alive. Observing the scene, it was difficult to make up my mind. And then, I saw my girlfirend and her mother, so I decided I must be alive after all. I guess I was so happy about the turnout, I became very emotional. I mean, I wept like a hungry baby. A nurse explained that it was a normal reaction to the morphine and boy, was I loaded with it. But I'm pretty sure there was more to it than just the morphine. In any case, the pain was gone. For good.
A couple of hours later, I was rolled into an individual bedroom where it was all quiet and comfy. Which was good, because all I wanted to do was going back to sleep. Not a chance ! Everytime I started dozing off, a nurse would come in to draw some blood or make me swallow some pills. Day and night. The following day, I was transferred again, this time to a less intensive care area on a different floor.The head nurse came to visit and told me I had come there highly recommended. I asked how that could be since I hadn't talked to anybody yet. And she said :"That's why !" The cardiologist also paid me a visit and explained that my left anterior descending (LAD) artery was 100% blocked and as a result three stents had been implanted after the blockage was removed. A major consequence of that blockage was that a part of my heart had died in the process and the damage was to be permanent. So a part of me is now dead meat ! I was also led to believe that I had been "that close" to kissing this world goodbye for good. A matter of minutes apparently. But two days later, I was released from the hospital...
Home, Sweet Home !
Out of this experience, I have learned two great lessons in life. I have come to realize that when you're just about to die, your body or your mind, maybe both combined, prepare you for the final voyage. When riding inside that ambulance, I know I had accepted my fate. I wasn't fighting at all and that's not like me. I know people will come with all kinds of explanations about this, and that's perfectly all right with me. Retroactively, the fact that I was not fighting at all scared me. It's actually the most frightening part about the whole ordeal.
The second great lesson I have learned is that you never really know who your true friends are until something bad happens to you. The evening of my return home from the hospital, someone knocked on my door at around 9.00 PM. It was a distant neighbor who had overheard what happened to me, and he somehow knew I was living alone. A guy I hardly knew and didn't even really care much for. He had brought over a large container of soup his wife, whom I had never met, had prepared for me. He told me that until I would get better and could roam around by myself again, they would bring me prepared meals twice a day. And they did ! That gesture alone is one of the very few nicest things anyone has ever done for me.
What now ?
You may be interested to know if this has affected my life in any way ? Well, it has changed everything, my whole perspective on life, on things, on people. I am perfectly aware that fifteen years ago, or if I had lived twenty miles further away from the hospital, I wouldn't be writing this today. So, I'm living a bonus slice of life. I hardly ever get angry or even upset about anything anymore. It's not worth it. I was sensitive to beauty before. But that has become more intense. I know I shouldn't be around any longer, so I enjoy every minute of whatever time I have left. I have opened up to people in a way I didn't think myself capable of. I have taken on new activities (writing is one of them) and I do more of everything I liked before. I even exercise and eat well !
You don't know the time or the place. You don't know when your number is going to be up. I have learned to live happy and contented with very little, having come to realize that the major asset in your life is...life itself. Less is more ! Waking up every morning brings a smile and fills me with pure, unadulterated joy. Rain or shine, it's going to be a beautiful day, as beautiful as life itself is...
Copyright 2012 by Austinhealy, his heirs and assigns
Another story by Austinhealy
- The Power of Two, a short story inspired by life
One person alone can change a lot of things. But when two men who don't even know each other and live thousands of miles apart team up, they can pull a miracle.