How I Spent My Spring Break

…and no, it wasn’t a trip to the beach.

I’ve been a diabetic for nearly twenty years; at least, that’s when I was first diagnosed with this damnable disease. I spent the first 12 years or so in denial. After all, I didn’t feel as if anything was wrong so why should I care about my blood glucose levels? I was given meds by the doctor, which I dutifully took while eating what I damn well pleased and didn’t keep close tabs on my health. The type and variety of meds I was prescribed increased, and insulin was eventually added to the mix. I continued my carefree denial and life was otherwise good.

That all changed on a business trip in the fall of 2003, when I awoke thousands of miles from home with most of the vision obscured in my left eye. I contacted my ophthalmologist and made an appointment for my return. The diagnosis was that the blood vessels in my retina had weakened and begun to leak blood into my eye. After several months when the vision cleared enough, laser surgeries were performed from outside the eye to seal those blood vessels. When I was finally confronted by the effects of diabetes I got religion. I started eating right, tracked my blood glucose, and tried taking better care of myself.

In the nearly nine years since then my body has suffered an ongoing series of indignities. Blood leakage in both eyes eventually led to more laser surgeries and finally two vitrectomies that saved my vision.  I had gastric bypass surgery almost four years ago in an attempt to halt the diabetes in its tracks. It failed to do so but reduced my dependence on meds and made the glucose easier to control. (I also lost 90 pounds.) Several years back I discovered that I’d had minor heart muscle damage when my LAD artery was found to be collapsed in two places and narrowed in another. After two stents and an angioplasty I’d beaten the Widowmaker.  Life was good again, but I always wondered what was lying in wait for me.

I found out in March. I returned to my cardiologist when some of my pre-stent symptoms returned. He scheduled a heart cath to see what the problem was. I checked into the hospital with no particular worries—I’d been through this before and it wasn’t a big deal, right? Afterward while I was still groggy the cardiologist talked with me about the results. Both the front and rear arteries to my heart were blocked 90 – 95% at their junctions. He said he was referring me to a heart surgeon for a bypass, and then he quickly bowed out and left me alone with my thoughts. A bypass? Wasn’t that where they cracked your chest wide open and worked directly on the heart? That was the one thing I’d heard about over the years that really made me nervous. The surgeon finally arrived and talked with me about what I’d face. He told me he’d needed the same procedure himself three years earlier. He told me that the first eight days would be rough but things would quickly get better. He then said he was back in the O.R. performing surgeries three weeks later.  His staff wanted to schedule the operation for the following week, less than five days away, but I had it scheduled for nearly two weeks out. I had a number of things to do and I needed to do them quickly. They were skeptical but agreed to my timetable.

The first thing I did was to make a will. I’d put it off for years, but after doing it I was finally at peace. I knew that things probably wouldn’t go exactly according to my wishes even with a will, but I’d done my best.  I consulted with several good friends to get things lined up that needed done, and made arrangements to board my dogs for the week or so I’d be in the hospital. And just in case the worst happened, I spent some time writing a statement I’d want read aloud at my funeral and even picked out some music for the ceremony.  Did I ever mention there are times I can be anal-retentive?

I spent time having a number of tests done before my admittal to the hospital, and checked in on Thursday for my 7 a.m. surgery the next morning, on Good Friday. You read that right—and these circumstances led to several good one liners from friends and co-workers about that one.

“Good Friday? You know what happened to Jesus!”

“Just don’t let them spread your arms out when they get you on the table.”

“Let’s hope the surgeon’s sober at 7 a.m. that morning.”

I added to the last one, “And that his Tourette’s is under control.” This is a good place to mention how important it is to keep a sense of humor when you’re faced with serious situations. Mine tends toward Black Comedy, with a good sense of the morbid thrown in, but whatever your style you should always try to find the lighter side.

Good Friday 2012, 5:20 a.m. I’d managed to sleep fairly well and was awakened for my prep. Soon I was wheeled down to the surgery waiting room where I was joined briefly by my friends Jim and Dawn. I’d already been given a sedative and I was a bit anxious—where was the surgeon? I’d talked with the anesthesiologist and a number of nurses but really wanted to see the guy with the knife. He finally came in and we talked briefly (I guess; I was already half-sedated and I don’t remember much of it). After Jim took a picture of me in the bed with both thumbs raised high, I was wheeled into surgery.

What followed was nearly two days of “blurry.” I knew that I’d have a breathing tube shoved down my throat and that concerned me. I have a horrible gag reflex and could see myself being very uncomfortable. A nurse had told me not to worry. “You’ll be hooked up to all kinds of sensors. They’ll know if something’s wrong. If you move in bed they’ll know, and they’ll be watching you closely for the first twenty-four hours.” And so I awoke after surgery, arms strapped down and unable to open my eyes, with a tube down my throat. I heard a reassuring male voice and I clacked my teeth against the tube.

“You want some ice? I’m sorry but you can’t have any just yet because of the tube.” I could move my legs, so I thrashed them a bit to set off the sensors I’d been told about. Fade out…I was probably given more morphine. I awakened later, same drill. Clacked my teeth, was told no ice, and this time I shook my head back and forth. “Ah, you want the tube out.” I nodded. “I’m sorry, but it has to stay in a bit longer.” I thrashed my legs a little, faded out. The next thing I remember was a voice saying, “I’m pulling the tube, cough while I do it.” I did and the tube was out. I was finally given ice to crunch on, and it was the best thing I’d ever tasted.

The day after the operation I received bad news. A chest X-ray to check on the healing process showed cloudiness where my left lung should have been. I was bleeding internally which was making breathing difficult and painful. The blood needed to be drained off. I was directed to sit on the edge of the bed with my head and arms thrown over the tray table. I was first given more morphine, and then an aspirating needle was inserted through my back into my chest cavity. The effort was unsuccessful so we went to the next step.  The doctor administered a “nerve block” as the area where they would insert the tube had lots of nerves in it. Then he cut a hole in my side and inserted a tube between two ribs into my chest cavity. I’m told that a liter and a half of blood came out, and I think a lot of it ended up on the bed. He kept telling me I’d feel a lot better when the blood was drained off, but instead of relief I got new pain from the end of the tube being inside my chest cavity. It eased after a bit but bothered me a lot depending on how I positioned myself.

The next day I was transferred to a “step down” unit, or a room in a regular part of the hospital with less than one-on-one attention. At least the room was a single, and the door could be closed to block out some of the noise. You see, outside the room was a door to an adjoining hallway, which led to a wing that was undergoing construction. There was a constant banging from that door as well as a constant flow of noise and chatter from the floor itself.

That constant flow of noise coupled with the near-constant morphine injections created what I call “morphine nightmares.” Imagine this: you have a recording device (computer, digital audio recorder, whatever) that has a capacity of five seconds. You start recording and, when the five-second limit is reached, recording stops and the audio plays back in a loop. Every few loops it records a few more seconds of fresh audio, replacing part of the audio you’ve been listening to with new sounds. Meanwhile you’re left nodding in-and-out of consciousness while listening to this symphony of noise in your head. Oh, and you feel nauseous from the morphine. I mentioned the nausea to a nurse who told me she could give me something for the nausea, but they could only give it every eight hours while they administered the morphine every six hours. So there’s a built-in period where you’ll feel sick no matter what you do. Fortunately after a few days the morphine became less necessary and finally stopped altogether. What blew me away was the realization that there are some people who pay big money to achieve this type of high illegally. I now know I’d never be a druggie. I believe I’m allergic to them. In fact, when I left the hospital I was given a prescription for Percocet and I shredded it.

For the past few weeks I’ve been recuperating at home. I had some visits both in-hospital and at home from friends and co-workers who also brought food to my home so I wouldn’t have to cook. I started a course of cardiac rehab, where you exercise under medical supervision and a heart monitor. My biggest problem has been fatigue. In the beginning I got winded fairly easily and had to fight for air. It’s slowly getting better but it will be a few weeks before I can go back to work.  It’s given me lots of quality time with the dogs and enabled me to write. In all, it’s not the kind of spring break I’d have chosen for myself but I’m thankful for the time to slow down and appreciate life. A now-retired co-worker and friend left this message on my Facebook page: “Good to know you got through the surgery good. You get a new future.” That was a heavy thought…and I’ve had some time to figure out the implications. I’ve just had another birthday and I almost didn’t make it. I’m thankful I listened to what my body was telling me–and I’d encourage every reader of this blog to spend more time listening to your bodies. Someday that time spent might save your life.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “How I Spent My Spring Break

  1. Are you going to cardiac rehabilitation?

    • vvenesect

      Yes, I go three times a week and fill in the other days by walking my dogs. I’m already doing better than when I first started. I used to get winded fairly quickly and would have to rest. Those times are fewer and farther between these days.

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