…And Remember, It’s All Small Stuff
The passing this week of two people who loved life has made me remember the vow I made when I almost lost mine. It’s so easy to get caught up in all of the inanity and minutiae that life throws our way, and when I hear of people whose life was cut way too short it makes me think of what I almost lost.
Besides my friend Jes-Z, a high school classmate of mine, Scott Martinez, passed away after collapsing last Sunday. Unfortunately, I had not kept up with him but I remember him fondly as a guy who was always smiling and always had a kind word to say.
In March and April of 2003 while still living in New Orleans I was working for the Louisiana Philharmonic, and it was a very busy period. We had concerts almost every weekend, and most of these were concerts that were not part of our traditional series, which meant that extra work had to be put into them. Also, we were announcing our upcoming season and trying to sell subscriptions in addition to selling out the concerts we had then. On top of all that, I was involved in two major fund raisers, one for Bridge House and the other for Southern Repertory Theatre. I was co-chairing the major annual fund raiser for Bridge House, the Cochon Cotillion, which raises over $350,000; and I was on the board of Southern Rep, whose major fund raiser was one week before the Bridge House fund raiser. Both of these were in mid-April.
In early March I bean having chest pains periodically. What would happen was I would be going along, feeling okay, then all of a sudden this pain would grip the middle of my chest, it would hurt like hell for anywhere from 10-30 seconds, then go away and I would feel fine. Actually, I would feel better than fine; I would feel great. It was a particularly stressful period so I chalked it up to that.
On the day of the Cochon Cotillion we were setting up for the event that night and I had a pain and it was so bad that I had to stop what I was doing and sit down for a few minutes. The pain went away, as usual, but it left me feeling weak. Brian was there and started in on me, sounding very concerned and bugging me to make an appointment to get it checked out. So I called and actually set up an appointment for the following Thursday to see my primary care physician.
Never Made It
Unfortunately, I never made it to the appointment. The Monday night/Tuesday morning of the week of my appointment, I woke up at 4 in the morning with severe pain that wouldn't go away, plus sweating like a stuck pig and my entire left arm numb. I tried to call my sister, who lived next door to me, but she didn't answer, so I called 911. They took me to Ochsner Hospital in Jefferson where I was wheeled into the emergency room.
They put me into an examination room and nurses started hooking me up to various machines, etc. and sticking me with needles. I started to calm down and actually feel silly that I even bothered to come to the ER. My last thought was that they must have given me something to put me to sleep because I all of a sudden felt like taking a nap and just lay back, letting the darkness overtake me.
The Harsh Truth
Have you ever seen one of those medical shows where they show you someone being wheeled on a gurney, and then they show you what it looks like from the patient’s perspective? You see a fluorescent light, then a ceiling tile, then a light, then a tile, light, tile, light, tile, and it gets faster and faster. That’s the next thing I remember, then they busted through a door and it’s brighter and colder than any room I’ve ever been in. I’m lying flat on my back and I can hear people talking anxiously. Then a face appears over mine. It’s the face of an attractive young lady with a forced smile, and she said, “how are you doing?”
I replied, “Well, I’m still in pain but otherwise okay.”
She said, “You gave us quite a scare there.”
Turns out I “coded,” which means that my heart stopped beating and I was, in effect, dying. I blacked out during this, and then they had to shock me back to life. The reality didn’t sink in then, all I knew was that I was in pain and I was cold and I was aggravated. The bright, cold room I was in was a trauma room, and the attractive young lady was the attending physician.
Next thing you know the room is filled with cardiologists; it surprised me how many were on duty at 4:30 in the morning on a Tuesday but there they were. I guess they don't get many 34 year olds dying from heart attacks in the ER so I was kind of a novelty for them. One of them sat on the gurney and explained to me that I'd suffered a massive heart attack and most likely had severe blockage in one or more arteries and they were going to have to put a stent in me and blah, blah, blah. The whole time I'm thinking that I just want to get out of there and how I had three meetings that day and finally I blurted out, "Does that mean I have to stay here all day?"
The doctor was kind of taken aback with that and replied, “Yes, you’re going to be here for awhile.”
It was then that I noticed my brother Robby in the room and he came over, took my hand, and asked me how I was feeling. Shortly after my mom and sister Ka arrived. Mom looked good but haggard. My brother and sister just looked relieved.
They took me upstairs and performed several diagnostic tests, which revealed that I had 80% blockage in one artery and almost 60% blockage in a second. The doctors explained to me that they were going to put a stent into me. According to Yahoo Health, “A stent is a small, coiled wire-mesh tube. During a procedure called angioplasty, the stent is inserted into a blood vessel and expanded using a small balloon. A stent is used to open a narrowed or clotted blood vessel, most often an artery in the heart.”
The doctors were all very nice to me, very good people, and very professional. About 6:00 that morning, I underwent the procedure to unclog the 80% blocked artery.
After the procedure they put me into the Cardiac Care Unit and informed me that I had to spend 5 hours lying flat on my back because the balloon was still in me. Apparently they can’t take it out right away because of the risk of bleeding, so they need to let the stent set before they take the balloon out.
Well, I was having none of that. I was very uncomfortable and I like to shift around a lot when I’m lying in bed, so that’s what I started doing. It was then that I met my CCU nurse, Darlene. Darlene was a mid-40ish black woman whom I would vote for for president were she ever to run. I swear she could affect world peace in less time than it takes Condi Rice to put on her makeup. I look back on it now and I was a son-of-a-bitch the entire time I was in CCU. I was pissed off, not understanding what was happening to me, uncooperative, complaining, sick, just in the worst shape I’d ever been in in my life. Darlene and I fought many battles, and she won every single one without ever raising her voice, demanding my cooperation, or even agitating me beyond what I was when I came to her. How she did it I still have no idea. The woman is a genius, and I hope that she is well and that she is being paid what she is worth.
I didn’t want to lie still. She got me to agree to lie still. I didn’t want to use a bedpan. She got me to use a bedpan. I didn’t want to stay in the bed. She got me to stay in the bed. And she was just as pleasant as can be the entire time she was handling me, and polite to my mom and sister and all my visitors.
Oh yeah, that first day I had tons of visitors. I can’t even remember who all came, but there was a steady stream in and out almost from the time I got into the room. Later I found out what happened. My sister called my coworker Ken, who called my coworker Rico, who knew a lot of my friends, and so e-mails began to fly, and word began to spread.
The first visitors were actually hospital employees. Ken’s wife is a wound care and catheter specialist at the hospital, and she came to see me right away. Bette has always been one of my favorite people, and she was able to cheer me up right away. My coworker Kurt’s partner Greg was in charge of the blood bank at the hospital and he came up and said hello. My friend Mark’s coworker Sean’s wife Kendra was a neurology nurse and there she was. I swear I’m not making any of this up. Darlene actually came in at one point and said, “Wow, you know all the important people.”
The stream of visitors kept up the entire morning. I can’t even name all of the people that stopped by, there were so many. I felt bad that there they were and all I could do was lie there on my back and repeat the same story over and over, but that’s all I could do. After the doctor finally came in and took the balloon out I was able to sit up and move around a bit. The dietician came by to meet with me along with the cardiac rehabilitation specialist. They were a bit taken aback by the numbers of people coming in to see me and tried to tell my mother that I shouldn’t be having so many visitors and that I should just rest. I didn’t like either of them one bit. They were snotty so I was snotty right back. At one point when the dietician was talking to me, the phone rang, and I answered it right there in front of her!
What they didn’t realize was that I was not in charge of the situation. Darlene was. She could have cut off the visitors at any time, but she never did. She told me later that she was monitoring my heart rate the entire time. When it was just me lying there by myself, my heart rate was all over the place, and it concerned her. Whenever there was a visitor in the room, my heart rate would even out and be steady. That’s why she never denied a visitor coming into the room.
Well, I remained in CCU Tuesday night and Wednesday night. Finally on Thursday they moved me to a regular room. The visitors had gradually slacked off, and by Thursday there were just a few. I had a long time to sit there in my room and think. It overwhelmed me how many people had taken time out of their days to come visit me when I was sick.
Yes, it took me awhile to fully grasp the seriousness of the situation, but once I did, I realized how close I came to never seeing anyone I cared about, ever again. I started thinking about my nieces and nephews, my Mom, my sister and brothers, my cousins, aunts, uncles, my friends, all the things I want to accomplish in my life, and how little I actually had accomplished, and I became determined to live each day to the fullest, to stop caring about things that don't matter and instead focus on what does matter.
If I had died that morning in the ER, nobody would remember how much money I had, what books I read, what kind of car I drove, what kind of shoes I wore, what I watched on television, how clean my house was, what I ate, what kind of vodka I served, anything like that. What they would remember is how I made them feel when we were together, if I made them laugh, if I succeeded in uplifting them, the kinds of things I made them think about and consider in their own lives.
On Friday they sent me home. My cardiologist, Dr. Milani, came in and announced, "Well, you're out of here.” Dr. Milani was very pleasant. I liked him a lot. Only later did I find out that he’s one of the head cardiologists at Ochsner. A month later I had to go back and have the second stent placed for the 60% blocked artery. They can’t do two of them at the same time. The second time it only involved a night’s stay in a regular room.
On the morning after the second stent was put in, 6 or so of the resident cardiologists came in to check on me. I’d had a refill of one of my prescriptions and it didn’t look the same as the first pill, so I asked if they had a PDR to check to make sure it was the right pill. They all got very excited, got the PDR, and we were all poring over it when Dr. Milani walked in. It was as though the pope walked into a room of parish priests. They all stopped talking, stepped back, and kind of bowed their heads as Dr. Milani walked over to me and asked what was going on. I replied that I was concerned about one of my medications and we were checking the PDR. He leaned over, looked at my pill, and said, “It’s fine.” That ended the debate.
So that’s the story. I spent a couple of months in pain, died in the most fortunate of places, and came out of it with a new sense of myself, determined to make every interaction a positive one, uplifted by the people I cared about.
Scott wasn't one of the lucky ones; neither was Jes-Z. In many ways I feel like I should have been the unlucky one; after all, I had the warnings and chose to ignore them. I'm not sure about Scott, but I know that Jes-Z had no warnings. He and I talked about my situation quite a bit, and I told him the warning signs that I ignored. He always asked how I was doing, and I know that if he had experienced any of the things I told him I went through, he would have been alarmed and checked in with his doctor. He just went, right there in his go-cart in the middle of the day in Chicago. I think I owe it to guys like Scott and Jes to appreciate life for as long as I am granted it, and to treat those around me in a way that will make their lives better. When I was a senior in high school, a Christian Brother challenged us to ask the "question" in all of our dealings with others. I can't remember if he called it the "ultimate question" or what, but it went, "Will this decision help me (and others) to become more fully human or less fully human?" It's one of the few things from high school that I actually remember as relevant to my life, and I wish I knew where Brother Bill was now to thank him for it, because it guides me every day in every one of my interactions with other people.