Today, June 4th 2022 is the one year anniversary of me almost not being here (or anywhere). I’m not really sure how close I got, but the type of heart attack I was given is often called “the widow maker”. That’s a 100% blockage of the left anterior descending (LAD) artery. I still don’t really know what that means, but when I mention it to people who do, they get a little pale. That’s why from now on, I’m going to be calling June 4th, Gratitude Day. At least for the first two years, most businesses and offices will be closed for the day to celebrate, even if they have never heard of it. Personally, I will celebrate in three different ways: First, I gave away some money. (Let’s just leave the details at that so I can stay on target with “gratitude” rather than “look what I did”, but I did have a little fun with it.) Next, I spent some time reflecting so I can write this up (side note: It’s taking forever).
While I wrote briefly about my experience on Facebook a few days afterwards, I’ve since tried a few times to write about how I felt about the whole thing, but for whatever reason, I just keep coming up blank. Or more specifically, I can’t seem to find a focused, cohesive thought about it all. I expressed that before as wanting to tie a ribbon around the whole thing. It’s the writer in me (sorry, “writer”) that seems to want to sum everything up into some kind of life lesson or big perspective point. I’m still not sure I’m there yet, to be honest. So now I’m thinking, maybe I won’t ever be able to do that, maybe that’s expecting too much. So instead, I’m going to throw out three relatively incohesive thoughts on the subject and hope they work together for something. Once I’m done, (third, if you’re counting ways to celebrate) I’m going to go back to that Facebook post and thank everyone for the well wishes they sent when all this happened.
Not specifically, I mean that as a general statement. I hate to make this super long story even longer, but I need to tell another story to drive this home. You see, as soon as I got out of the hospital, Nancy was trying to kill me. Probably not on purpose though. Probably. When I was allowed to go home, they stressed the fact that I needed to be taken care of. For example, I could not lift anything more than 5 pounds (later I’d be upgraded to 10). But I didn’t feel like I could pick up anything that heavy anyway. I could barely walk and my medications (and ordeal) made me prone to passing out with effort or bending over (or the effort of bending over).
My heart actually felt tired and worn out, which kind of makes you nervous. Both of these sensations manifest in the same place and feed off each other. It’s like when you bang your thumb and you can feel it kind of ringing in pain for a while, except you can’t fidget-sooth a heart, or even touch it, so you just kind of have to deal with it, feeling like you should be doing something with your hands but you can’t. Also, they told me a bunch of horror stories about how I can’t make my heart race too badly and if I open my wounds I might bleed out. Death seemed like just one accidental scare or here-let-me-get-that-for-you away.
So, pained, weak, constantly in a state of about to faint, and just generally freaked out, my movements were slow and delayed. It seemed like I could stay by myself in my apartment at first, but once I took the long, exhausting journey to the car from the wheelchair with which they had pushed me to the car, I was convinced I should stay with my friend. (Thanks again, Heather!) I got home and settled with some supplies and a nice spot on the couch. Nancy was glad I was home, but I was too exhausted to really play or anything. It didn’t take long for me to decide to take Nancy out one last time so I could head to bed. Thank goodness I was staying at a house with a backyard. At home, I’d have to grab leashes, keys and poop bags, attach a leash and head down the elevator, through the lobby and walk Nancy around until she decided on a spot worthy of peeing. Usually that doesn’t take too long, but she does have this weird habit of making it an odyssey the exact moment when you need her to be quick.
“Do you want me to let her out?” I was asked. “No, I can open a door,” I replied, though unsure about that.
“Just watch for skunks”
“Watch for skunks?”
“Hang on, I can’t hear you and Nancy’s growling at something. Let me check on….”
That’s when I saw a very angry Nancy lunging at something under the fence. I called out at her to stop, then back in the house to Heather, as I slowly walked outside towards Nancy, cursing her for not listening when I really, absolutely, truly and not exaggerated life-and-death, needed her to listen to me, very conscious of my beating heart, still unsure of what to do with my hands. “Please,” I begged, this time to the skunk, as I walked in forced, exhausted slow motion, “don’t do what you’re about to do.” Except he did. Three distinct spray sounds. Then a whine. Then spits and sneezes and shakes of the head. Nancy looked back at me in dismay, senses overloaded, as if to desperately ask me, “How did you let this happen?”
The next little bit is kind of a blur. The skunk ran away. Nancy finally came to me. I had to both hold her from running around like a crazed animal, away from inside the house, but also away from my body, as she felt the strong need to rub herself clean on me. (Yeah. Thanks.) I also had to yell for help. Help couldn’t hear me. Nancy got away from me and made a big stink on rugs that later needed to be thrown out.
You know that feeling when something’s your fault so you want to do something, anything, to help but you can’t. It’s like an intense, pacing version of when you can’t figure out what to do with your hands – which, as mentioned I had that too, by the way. My heart rate needed to be kept low, and my right arm couldn’t lift anything (more on that later). I am very annoyed and ashamed to say I just had to sit there, very, very conscious of my almost racing heart, watching my friend scrub Nancy over and over again to try and get that unyielding skunk smell to give us some peace.
It’s then that I realized, and even said it out loud, I would not have been able to do this on my own. I needed help. And I’m very lucky to say that I got that help, and support for the rest of my recovery, for which I am going to be eternally grateful.
That wouldn’t be the last time Nancy tried to kill me, by the way. Two days later she decided to trap herself under some deck steps she can normally get in and out of no problem, but this time required me to very slowly, very purposefully dig the ground, with only my good hand, enough so she could get herself free. All other attempts seemed to be less creative though. As my precarious heart got a bit less vulnerable, simple jumps in front my feet on the stairs in my still weakened condition would have to suffice for the next couple of weeks. While I grew stronger, the attempts were less risky, and so less scary. I think if she could talk she’d joke that she was just trying to make me strong so I could heal.
But she would say it in just that way where you’re still really not sure whether she’s kidding or not.
Strangely, a week later I’d be back in the hospital, but this time it was a much different experience. When I first got sent in it was like those scenes in the movies, an ambulance came, raced me to the hospital where a bunch of medical-jargon shouting people quickly pushed me around, pushing past everyone as they scattered our of my way, set me up on machines that made medical-beeping sounds, telling me it was going to be alright as they shaved me then jammed things in my arm vein. After a tense NASA situation room time, they patched me up, whisked me to the post-op cardiac ICU, strapped me to monitors with medical-animation lighting, and proceeded to tell me all the things they were watching for and all the things I needed to be careful about so I don’t die.
Don’t get out of bed, because I could pass out and die. If my arm starts to bleed I need to tell someone immediately so some medical SWAT team can be on me to patch it up again so I don’t bleed out from all the blood thinners in my system. If I felt any discomfort in my heart, again, tell someone quick, for more SWAT stuff (presumably the same team). Though I’m not sure how I was supposed to feel that, since my heart was basically wringing with discomfort this whole time.
I was surrounded by the fanciest medical equipment available, with all kinds of monitors that would cry bloody murder if my vitals changed ever so slightly. There were staff at my bedside every 5 minutes, sometimes out of breath. Actual doctors visited me, regularly. Things were serious. I’m not sure I could die even if I tried.
Then sent me home with some pills and instructions. I was to take 8 various pills a day for exactly 1 year, then baby aspirin indefinitely. I followed those orders, but after one week, I was having chest pains and went back to the hospital, as instructed.
I had a few paragraphs written up about just how different the second experience was, but it started to sound a bit ungrateful, which is the opposite of what I wanted to write. Having said that though, it was kind of comically different. I did not have the intense attention or fancy equipment as before. The experience was kind of like they were selling me on a heart attack, but now that I had already bought one, I was sent from sales to support. They did go back up my arm vein again, and didn’t find anything.
This set me back a bit, because it meant I can’t use my arm again. You see, they send this little camera up your vein, your main artery, actually, right up your arm and into the heart. The cut is open and I had so many blood thinners it takes this whole process to plug it up (until they give up on it and have a nurse apply pressure for fifteen awkward minutes of small talk). And they warn you very sternly that you absolutely cannot use that arm, and especially pick anything up for a week. The repeat the scary idea that if it comes open, you will not have enough time for an ambulance to get there.
So you can understand that in my less luxurious room, in the back somewhere, when I was finally able to get a hold of a nurse to tell her the monitor wasn’t working, I found it a bit weird that she didn’t seem to upset. I asked about how we’d know if the arm cut opens up again, and she suggested I push the call button. I didn’t sleep that night, but I am very grateful that be cared for, don’t get me wrong.
Eventually they suggested it was all a misunderstanding. I was supposed to be taking 8 various pills AND aspirin for a year, then just aspirin after that. Sadly, I was pretty excited when I got to my pill anniversary, only to find out they’re keeping me on them.
But my point here really is, that things are different now. My diet, exercise, taking pills every day, my whole perspective is all changed after having a heart attack. Everything is now filtered through this experience. I’m well past the stage where I have to worry and take it easy before I do anything, but that did last a few months. I have to pay attention to my heart rate. I’m not sure I ever looked at that before. I have to be around my apartment at 9AM and 9PM because that’s where my pills are. Or I have to plan to take them with me. It seems I have to do a lot more thinking now.
And if that sounds like a complaint, it’s not. In fact, I’m quite grateful that not only do I seem to have a reason for structure and schedule, but I’m also having to be a lot more mindful about everything. I have to exercise, I have to eat well, both of which requires a bit of planning and time management. It sounds boring, check that, it is boring, but I sleep better now. I handle my day better. For that I’m very grateful.
And if I’m being honest, I feel so much better now – like even more than before the heart attack, and very shortly after the attack, even with all the weakness and pain at the time. Obviously something was wrong before. After all this though, I feel better, I breath better, I have more energy – or at least the capacity for energy, if that makes sense. I’m even in a better mood. I feel like the process seemed to have cleaned things out. It might seem weird to be grateful for a heart attack, but I guess I’m saying I’m grateful for a heart attack. I don’t need another one any time soon though.
I was told to expect a long recovery. I already mentioned the pills for a year. I had no idea what things were going to be like. Luckily, I have a great job that just told me to take the month off and recover – super grateful for that, obviously. So that’s what I did. In fact, I took a big break from everything, including social media. I’d check up on things here and there, but I maintained radio silence. It was kind of neat.
That first month was slow. Progress was slow. I was slow. I walked at a pace like I had just learned how to walk. After a couple of weeks I was now told I needed to ease myself back. So I went on walks. Everyone asked me how they went and worried I was walking too much. Also kind of like I had just learned to walk.
I started to walk up hills. Then further. Then further up hills. It really didn’t take that long, maybe a couple of months before it seemed I was back to normal – a better normal.
After a month I was back at work. After a couple more months I was planning ways to test my energy and heart rate. And would you believe it, three months after, I was paddling down the French River, testing myself with a light trip. A month later, I found a rarely available lake to try a harder portage trip. It seemed pretty freaky, to be honest. My favourite lake – Grace Lake – that I had such a connection with, was just open for me. Nancy and I went in and spent a few days. I even climbed up one of those white-capped Killarney hills to find Carmicheal’s Rock.
I had missed camping this year for sure, but that wasn’t the end of my adventures. I decided on a bit of a whim, after day dreaming about travelling again, to see if my heart was ready for more adventures. My heart reminded me that life was indeed short, so if I was planning something, maybe I shouldn’t procrastinate.
My doctor had mentioned I should try the Mediterranean diet, famous for being heart healthy. While researching, I kept reading about how healthy living in Italy was, how they were very focused on digestion and simple, good ingredients. I should visit that place, I thought to myself.
Long story short (because this story seems to be ridiculously long now), I decided to spend the winter months there to test out the lifestyle. You’ll be hearing a bit more about that in the next while. Once I returned, I even presented about that trip, along with Nancy’s canoe demo.
So after a year, things seem to be back to normal. Except a much better normal. I lost weight. I gained energy. My cholesterol numbers went way down. I reconnected to some of my favourite places. I travelled to new ones. I had quite an adventure this past year. One that I might not have had if things went a little differently.
So yeah. I’m grateful. I’m grateful for everything that’s happened to me, and everyone that has helped me and supported me and checked up on me. Not to mention everyone who listened to my stories of my little adventures. I’m grateful to all you people out there. Especially grateful to anyone who made it all the way down here. You guys are troopers!
I’m also grateful for next year. Who knows what that’s going to look like. I can’t wait for next year’s Gratitude Day to tell you what I’ve been up to.
And I sincerely hope that you have a great year too. If you’ve been putting some adventures off, maybe this is the sign to go do them. Maybe you can tell me all about it on June 4, 2023.
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