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A brush with mortality

mortalityNOTE: A year ago the Doctor was on the verge of heading to the hospital. Afterwards, he wrote this. Today, he’s doing fine. But he thinks the post is worth a re-read!

I almost died on Tuesday.

Let me explain.

I had just released a post on the latest Recruiting Trends survey and was feeling pretty good. Then I went for my daily 1-mile walk – from my house, to the coffee shop, and back (yes, I live in a small town). As I left, I noticed my arms were aching, and as I walked, my chest began to ache as well. I attributed it to house projects over the long weekend. On the way back, the aching continued. As I neared my house, I began to feel dizzy and nauseous. Once inside, I sat down. My aching started to recede. But I was nervous – so I queried the internet. Every search results said ‘call 911’. Not reassuring. Even though my aching was still fading, I decided to actually heed the advice. I drove myself to the emergency room (again, in my town a 3-minute affair).

Chest pains move you to the front of the line in an emergency room. The nurses ran an EKG. There was a physical exam. They pulled blood. They did an X-ray. Then the ER doctor came in and said, ‘We can’t find anything. Everything looks fine.’ I reiterated how much pain I had had. He called in the internal medicine guy. Same conversation. But this time, the doctor said, ‘we’ll keep you overnight, run a stress test in the morning. That will give us a better idea of whether this is cardiac or something else.’

By then my wife had arrived. She listened to me complain about having to spend the night in the hospital. Then – since nothing was happening – she left to take her mother to dinner.

The nurse arrived to take me to my room – which happened to be in the ICU, since there were no available beds elsewhere. As we went down the hall, my chest began hurting. I told her I didn’t feel good. By the time we reached my room, it felt like my chest was in a clamp. My arms were aching. It was like a swelling wave. I was theoretically lying on the bed but I couldn’t keep from twisting. She ordered an EKG. “What is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?” I told her it was 10. She called another nurse in. During this entire time the pressure kept building. If someone had given me a knife I would have sliced myself open. I was shaking now, and sweating. She gave me morphine. I didn’t feel a thing. She said I should call my wife. I started crying.

The doctor arrived and grabbed the EKG. The pain seemed to blot out everything. And right then I realized I might die. Not sometime in the future, not some day of my choosing. Then. Right then. And I realized I was OK with that. I didn’t want to die. But if it happened right then, well…OK.

By now they had given me nitroglycerin. No effect. Again. No effect. And then…the third time the pressure began to ease. Not much, but enough for me to talk. Maybe I was at 6 on the scale. My wife showed up. I told her the things you tell someone you love when you believe you are going to die.

The doctor appeared. The EKG had changed. They were flying me to Des Moines. Twenty-five minutes later I was in the cardiac operating room in Mercy Hospital. I watched as the surgeon worked on my heart. I joked with the operating room staff (they had given me a couple of doses of fentanyl during my helicopter ride). And I felt the pain suddenly go away. “He just put the stent into your blocked artery,” the nurse told me.  A half-hour later, I met my wife in the ICU, where I spent the next 2 days. Then I came home on Friday.

They put four stents in my heart. I had 3 arteries with blockages of 70-80%, and 1 that was full blocked. The last caused the pain – and the heart attack. The cardiologist said, ‘You’re a problem’. (Right, big news, eh?).’Your vitals are fine. You are basically healthy. You eat well, don’t smoke, are only moderately overweight, and exercise. But…you had 4 blockages and we had no warning. You have crappy genetics. A grandfather who died of a heart attack. Two parents with hypertension and high cholesterol. Your numbers were normal. But for you, we know now that normal isn’t good enough.’ He prescribed some high powered drugs, some physical rehab, and some serious monitoring as I go forward.

I know many of you have gone through something similar – a heart attack, cancer, an accident. For those of you who haven’t, I hope you never experience the pain I felt on Tuesday. I was incredibly fortunate to have skilled healthcare professionals helping me each step of the way. For me, it was life-saving; for them, it was another Tuesday.

If – like me – you are saddled with ‘crappy genetics’, talk to your doctor about a stress test. Maybe a coronary calcium scan. But most importantly, listen to your body: if you start feeling bad – and believe me, my chest was pretty unambiguous about the pain – get help. I know that if I hadn’t gone into the ER that afternoon, if I hadn’t already been in the hospital when my heart attack began, I would most likely be dead.

Next week I’ll be back on the recruiting beat. But right now, I’m just going to enjoy breathing.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jeff,
    Glad to hear you recovered — I just had 3 day vacation in my local hospital with unexpected, unwelcome, and inconclusive mini-strokes. Don’t you think those adventures just make us more grateful for each day!!
    Best wishes,

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