Controlling Hypertension Naturally

“Mr. Durden, you’ve had a heart attack”.  Those were not the words that I wanted to hear, but as my wife was driving me to the emergency room of the hospital nearest to our home those were the words that I suspected I might soon be hearing.  I had been experiencing symptoms of cardiovascular disease for three years but every test that I took in order to diagnose my chest pain came up negative.  Even the EKG which the technician performed on me as I lay on a gurney in Room 41 was read by the machine as “normal”.  The ER physician was not so sure, and the blood work confirmed that my heart muscle was indeed unhappy.  The story of my heart attack, surgery, hospitalization and recovery I have already written.  There is a side story however that I believe needs to be told in the hope that it will help somebody somewhere, and that is the tale of my high blood pressure.

Hypertension is what high blood pressure is called in the Medical world, and in 2013 the prevalence in America of hypertension in people 18 years of age or older was 28.6%.  The population in America in that year, according to the Census Bureau and the World Bank, was 316.1 million souls.  That works out to 90,404,600 people in America with hypertension, adjusted for how many of those people are over 18.  Here’s where it gets just a little bit tricky.  There are two measurements which constitute your blood pressure.  The high number, called systolic, reflects the pressure of your blood in your arteries when the heart is in full contraction, ejecting the blood out through a large artery called the aorta at the top of the heart and sending it coursing through increasingly smaller channels until it gets to every microscopic corner of your body.  The low number is called the diastolic, and this number reflects the pressure of the blood in your arteries when the heart is at rest, filling up the chamber in the left side with good, oxygen-rich blood returning from the lungs and preparing to send it out into the system with the next contraction.  These two numbers, displayed as X/Y in which X is systolic and Y is diastolic, is what we call your blood pressure.

Now we get a bit more technical but bear with me; this stuff’s not as complicated as you might think.  According to the American Heart Association normal blood pressure is less than 120/80.  Prehypertension, or a sort of warning stage, is systolic of 120-139 OR diastolic of 80-89.  The first stage of hypertension is systolic of 140-159 or diastolic of 90-99.  Stage two is systolic of 160 or higher or diastolic 100 or higher, and hypertensive crisis is, well, anything higher that all of that other stuff.  Now that you know these things, you know when to look for help, and I strongly suggest that you check your blood pressure periodically and act accordingly.

I was bouncing between prehypertension and stage one for many years.  My mother had to deal with hypertension for over thirty years and I assumed that I had inherited that gene from her, along with my good looks and sweet disposition.  Mom took a bunch of pills to control her hypertension (among other things) but I really did not want to follow in her path.  Winston Churchill, after all, scorned doctors and lived to be ninety with hypertension. He smoked cigars, ate and drank whatever he wanted, and defeated the Nazis with a little help from his friends.  Couldn’t I do that too?  Apparently not, and when I emerged from the hospital ten days later with a bright red zipper running down my chest and some brand new plumbing on the backside of my heart I carried with me a bag of pills that I was directed to take morning, noon and night.

This was not my thing, but then neither was falling onto my face dead before I hit the ground my thing.  The pills were very successful in keeping my blood pressure down; too successful in fact.  My pressure two weeks after my surgery was so low that I was readmitted to the hospital for fear that my new arteries were leaking.  An adjustment of my medication was all that was needed to set things right.  No modification was successful however in correcting the light-headedness which afflicted me as a side effect.  I could walk about well enough, but everything was fuzzy; my balance not what it should be.  I am an alternative medicine guy and this side effect plus other possible effects that were listed on the prescriptions and on the internet drove me to contact my naturopathic doctor in order to see what could be done to replace my pharmaceutical medications with more natural approaches, and a successful plan has been worked out.

It would take a long time to describe each medication and its effect, and how each naturopathic alternative was particularly applied to perform the desired control without side effects, so I am going to cut to the chase, just give you the verbs, get to the bottom line, etc., etc.  But before I do that I will tease your curiosity into reading further by saying that my average blood pressure for the last two weeks is 121/65, and that is without any prescription medication.  What follows is how I have accomplished this.

My treatment plan is simple; diet, exercise, and supplements.  I will begin by describing briefly the supplements.  First, and most important I think, my doctor makes up for me a tincture of a substance called rauwolfia.  This is made from the root of a plant from India, I believe.  It is a bitter, unpleasant tasting liquid of which I administer two droppers orally twice each day.  In addition I take magnesium in a form specified by my doctor, and these are the primary supplements that address my blood pressure.  I take other supplements to address the general health of my body, which in turn will be passed on to the heart;  various vitamins such as C and D, antioxidants, Co Q 10, fish oil, nattokinase (a substitute for aspirin) and red yeast rice, which is the natural source of statins which are prescribed in their pharmaceutical form for the control of cholesterol.  Everything that I take has been recommended especially to me by my doctor, and I do not recommend that anybody wing this on their own.  I don’t think you can find rauwolfia on the shelf anyway.

My diet is paleo with some modifications.  I eat primarily meat and vegetables, and I know that this would make my conventional cardiologist cringe.  Fat, I believe, is not a bad thing.  The trick is to eat good fats.  I will not write much about this but suffice it to say that there are many schools of thought about the role of fats in the diet and dangers of fat and cholesterol.  Books have been written on the topic, and I suggest that you read some.  What I do shy away from however is sugar in whatever form I find it.  Our society and our diet is saturated with sugar, and what’s worse, chemical sugar substitutes.

Sugar is a primary source for inflammation in the body, particularly of the lining of the arteries which causes the breakdown of those linings, which cholesterol then tries to heal by laying layers on the damaged arterial walls.  At least that’s what some folks believe, and I’m one of them.  Also, sugar really monkeys with the pancreas, and that organ has to work overtime to regulate the tidal waves of sugar that sweep in from the mouth on a depressingly regular basis in America from obvious sources; candy, sodas, pastries and so forth.  But sugar also invades our overtaxed bodies in the form of grains like corn and rice, breads, pastas and white potatoes, and finally in fruits and especially dried fruits, although fruits in very limited quantity have many other redeeming factors.  I have, for the most part, removed these things from my diet.  Oh, and then there’s processed anything.  Any form of chip or wafer, spread or sauce, or canned or packaged ‘food’ with more than five ingredients, any one of which contains more than four syllables or a single ingredient which cannot be pronounced, DONT EAT IT!

So that leaves chicken, fish, pork and beef, leafy greens and other vegetables other than white potatoes and easy on the root vegetables.  I have just begun to reintroduce legumes into my diet and we shall see how it goes.  I love pinto beans but there is an issue with a substance that they contain called lectins.  I believe that this issue may be controlled by much rinsing in the soaking and first boil phase of cooking them, but if this turns out to be a problem they will have to go.  I have found this to be a limiting diet it is true.  Nevertheless it is one that is easily doable and I am maintaining a decent weight for my height and I consider the payoff to be well worth the sacrifice.

The final leg to my program is exercise, and that one will not require much description.  I walk three to four miles three to six times each week.  I am often busy with after-work events and this can cut into my walking, but one hour after work is sufficient for me to put in three miles on a treadmill in the basement of my workplace.  I prefer walking outside but since I live in the Pacific Northwest, that can be a cold and wet prospect.  I prefer walking because it is easier on my old joints and if the treadmill is on an incline, or an outside route with hills is selected, the workout can be just as effective as would be a run.

So there you have it.  This is my story of how I gained the upper hand on years of hypertension which included a heart attack.  I want to reemphasize that this is a very individualized program devised for me by my doctor, and that anybody else might need some other formula for success or may even have to turn to conventional pharmaceuticals to manage their health.  There is no judgement here.  My point is that alternative medicine is a viable option for many of those 90 million people in America with some level of hypertension, and I want to let them know about it.

Just A Walk In The Park

Five days before my heart attack, on the day that I turned 66, I had planned to take a thirteen mile walk just celebrate the fact that I could still walk that far.  It rained that day so I said “I’ll do it later.”  “Later” turned out to be after a heart attack and bypass surgery and several months of regaining my former vigor.  I am still regaining my old form and taking walks of four, five and six miles, so when my wife said that she wanted to go to a store twelve miles away on a bright and sunny day I sensed that this would be a great opportunity to see how far I have come on my journey back to health.  After church we gassed up and nosed the car into freeway traffic and drove south to the store which my wife wished to visit.  After checking for the item that we sought at the store I used the restroom, buttoned up, and stepped out of the store to begin my walk home.

Within a block I realized that my walk was going to be a cold one.  The temperature was somewhere around 36 or 37 degrees but the wind was blowing at over twenty miles per hour, and the weather app on my iPhone said that it “feels like 24”.  I think that it felt colder than that.  I’ve walked in cold before but this was more than just cold.  This was blue ice, bone chilling, face burning, digit numbing, freezing ass cold.  This was the kind of cold that just snatches the breath right out of your lungs.  The first three blocks of my walk were straight into the teeth of that wind and by the time that I had made it to the bicycle path which I intended to follow nearly all of the way home I had tears streaming laterally from my eyes and headed towards my ears and more snot running out of my nose than Aqualung.

Upon reaching the path I turned north and began to churn at a good clip north towards my home twelve miles distant.  The path was very nearly empty, which did not surprise me at all.  Who in their right mind would be out there in conditions like this?  Present company excluded, of course.  I walked along and tried to let my mind wander like I usually do when I take such walks, but on this day my wandering mind constantly came back to “damn, it’s cold”, so I finally gave up on that and instead simply tried to pay attention to what was around me and think as little as I could.

What was around me was evidence of the wind storm that we endured a week or two earlier.  Fence sections were lying flat where they had been blown, while holes gaped in the ground where trees had been blown over, sawn up and carried away.  Piles of trash had collected between the chain link fence and a guardrail on a light rail overpass which paralleled the bike path, and the wind was trying to pick that trash up and spread it out across the rest of Portland to the west of where I walked.

After about a mile I began to run into pedestrians, mostly homeless people and bicyclists.  I was puzzled by the bicyclists.  I was walking at about three miles per hour and the wind chill was making my life miserable.  The bicyclists were whizzing by at several times greater speed than I was walking and I know that the wind chill must have increased for them exponentially.  Portland Oregon is a place where common sense is viewed askance if not with outright hostility.  Even so at some point simple survival should kick in when common sense has failed you.  Still, by ones and by twos the bicyclists came in increasing numbers, peddling past me with their bright red faces as I continued to plod north towards home.

At length I passed over Foster Road and it occurred to me that I really don’t know the streets of Portland.  In Vancouver where I frequently walk I know all of the streets and can gauge how far I have come and how far I have yet to go by what street I pass at any given moment.  Along this day’s path I would intersect the dead ends of one street after another and their names meant nothing to me, apart from the big ones that are familiar to me for one reason or another.  Holgate, Powell, Division and Burnside were familiar names but separated by great distances; great if you are walking into a mind-numbingly cold wind many miles from home.  At one point I passed a street named St. Francis, and I thought of the Catholic Saint by the same name.  I couldn’t remember what St. Francis was supposed to be the patron saint of but my mind wandered back to the 1960’s when many of us wore St Christopher medals around our necks.  St. Christopher was said to be the patron saint of lost causes (I have no idea if that is true or not) and as I shivered and continued to stump forward on rapidly numbing feet I thought that Christopher might indeed be my guy.  I also wondered if there was a guy who was the patron saint of old dudes of 66 years who try to walk twelve miles in freezing temperatures just for the fun of it.  St. Doofus would be the guy, I think.

By the time I had walked a mile and a half I was cold in every part of my body.  I was properly layered with sweat shirt and jacket, wool watch cap and gloves, and a scarf which I had borrowed from my lovely wife, yet the wind found every crease and crevasse in my attire, or had just blown through inadequate fabric.  Even my upper lip provided inadequate insulation for my teeth, which began to ache early into my journey.

As I wrote earlier, the cold had found the switch which turned on the mucous machine in my head. I had a package of tissue paper in my jacket pocket but fishing them out and using them would have required that I remove one of my gloves to get the job done, and that just wasn’t going to happen.  Instead I would swivel my head to see if anyone was riding up behind me, and if the coast was clear I’d launch a couple of snot rockets and keep on moving.  By three miles I did not care who was behind me.  Fully gloved I would fire a couple of blasts that would freeze soon after making contact with the icy pavement.

At one point the path rose up a small hill and the shattered peak of Mount St. Helens came into view.  I wondered if it was any colder up on that peak.  Maybe so, maybe not.  Once you get to “cold”, “colder” seems to lose meaning.  Right after seeing the mountain I reached Burnside and crossed over the freeway to continue my journey on the east side of that road.  At this point I had walked nearly four miles and my legs and joints were feeling it.  Also, this part of the trip was more exposed than most had been and the wind was hammering at me unimpaired by buildings, trees, or retaining walls.  I knew by this time that I wouldn’t be walking the whole way home.  The sun was now hanging low in the western sky and shadows were beginning to creep across the city.  But so far I had not tackled any kind of a hill, and this walk would not be complete if I did not conquer one good rise in elevation.  Past Gateway Transit Center I knew that there was a good drop and rise on the way to the next light rail stop in Park Rose, and I decided to walk the last two miles to that stop.  I purchased my train ticket at Gateway however, because I had no confidence that my frozen digits would be able to extract a couple of dollar bills out of my wallet and feed them into a slot in the ticket dispenser after two more miles of walking in that cold.  I could barely get it done at Gateway.

Train ticket tucked safely into my wallet, I struck out for Park Rose.  I wanted this hill very badly to complete my accomplishment this day.  In the Army one of my nicknames was “Weasel” because if I didn’t want to be found by our first sergeant who was looking for people to complete a list for some nasty work detail, I would not be found.  The man hated me for this.  I was proud of that name.  Weenie sounds a lot like Weasel on the surface.  Both start with a ‘W’ and have the long ‘ee’ sound, and both are composed of two syllables.  But there’s a world of difference betweenThe Weasel and a weenie.  I won’t be a weenie, so with numb and aching face, fingers and feet and muscles and joints protesting because of the effort that they had already expended, I walked past two homeless guys standing and smoking at the point where the bike path resumed at the north end of the Transit Center and resumed my trek north.

As I passed those two gentlemen I reflected that I didn’t look so very much different than them.  My old blue jeans and blue jacket show the signs of the years upon years that I have worn them.  My shoes are pretty good but the old woolen watch cap pulled low over my ears and neck and the gloves with holes here and there make me look like a member of the brotherhood of the road.  To complete the picture, I found that I had lost one of the earplugs which I intended to use to keep the deafening road noise from the freeway out of my ears.  In order to address that shortcoming I dug one of the tissues out of my pocket and stuffed it as best as I could into my right ear and tried, with limited success, to tuck the tissue under my watch cap.  A corner of the white tissue paper insisted however in peeking out from under my cap.  Therefore, with my somewhat shabby clothes, snot trails and tissue paper hanging out from under my cap I looked appropriately demented and people left me completely alone, which worked for me under the circumstances.

That final leg was just miserable.  The first half of that segment of my trip took me through an isolated patch of grass and trees between two stretches of freeway.  This is a place where a guy could get mugged and nobody would be anywhere close to provide aid or call a cop.  As I walked through this half mile of my journey I reflected that nobody in their right mind would be hanging out in that lonely and Siberian piece of real estate, but that did not give me much comfort.  Under that formula, the only people whom I might meet there would by definition not be in their right mind.  There was nothing that I could do about that however, and I was way too done in to run if I was accosted, so I just put my head down and trudged on.

Finally I crossed that last two miles and felt a surge of anticipation as the Park Rose Transit Center came into view.  Now all I had to do was to wait for the train that would take me to the next station, where my wife would be waiting to take me the rest of the way home.  Now that the walk was over another problem took first place in my consciousness;  my bladder had been sending ‘full’ signals for the last three miles.  There were several points along the trip that I thought I would like to find a bush or tree to get behind and relieve the pressure but modesty, the legalities of the thing, and ultimately the thought of the frigid wind on tender and exposed flesh put a damper on any such thoughts.  I elected to pace around the platform for the thirteen minutes that it took for the train to arrive and carry me to the waiting car and my wife who whisked me home to the restroom, a hot bowl of soup, and a glass of good red wine that combined to relax the weary wanderer who is now providing you with the story that you have just read.

Serious As A Heart Attack: Epilogue

Home at last. Home, where I can lie in my own bed, eat food of my liking, sleep in front of my cheesy old movies and relax while my body knits itself back together. At last I can truly heal, because I am home. At least that is what I thought. The reality however is that I have never before had my chest split open and sewn back up and been put on blood pressure and antiarrhythmic medications, so I really had no basis for expecting anything. And the unexpected is exactly what I got.

My appetite and enjoyment of the taste of food did not return right away, and although I ate much more than I did while in the hospital, and ate much better stuff, there was little joy in it. A persistent light headedness continued and continues to make walking difficult, and the slightest hill of any sort will exhaust me almost instantly. The combination of less food and a lower sodium intake than before my surgery, plus my various medicines, led to dehydration which for one night put me back into the hospital. What a scare that was, as one of the possible causes of my problem could have led me back into the operating room to be opened up again. I think I would have preferred to slip into God’s arms rather than to do that. Fortunately for me, my problem did not need to be addressed in that manner, and I will always be grateful for that fact.

One thing that I mentioned earlier was the threat of constipation, the result of anesthesia plus pain medication plus heart medications. I ate salads and veggies galore and other high fiber foods, drank a lot of water, and still fell afoul of constipation. To a great many people that seems like a minor problem, a humorous side-note, a potty joke. It was none of those things. Constipation is a vastly painful condition which is exacerbated when in the context of major surgery, which left me in agony for at least six hours and almost sent me back to the Emergency Department, so awful was it. I feel constrained not to describe my pain or the difficult and messy manner by which my constipation was resolved because I believe that the story should be told in detail with proper prefaces so that the reader will understand from the very beginning that there is nothing in that story meant to be funny or gross or shocking or anything else. If I ever write that story it will be because I hope that at least one person will read it and take it to heart so that they never have to go through what I went through that day.

And then there’s the sweating. I would wake up in the middle of the night with bedclothes, sheets and pillows drenched in a cold sweat. I assume all of the medications I had taken plus the anesthesia had to work their way out of me, and also my improved eating which replaced what was already a fairly good diet was probably liberating toxins stored up in fat cells which were now melting away. I have lost nearly fifteen pounds since my surgery and the junk stored in those fat cells has to get out one way or another. My wife was kept busy washing clothes and sheets and pillow covers every morning for much of the first week that I was home. This has now subsided and I hope is at an end, although I deep protective coverings over my bed just in case.

Still, there have been many things at home that have lived up to my hopes. I cannot go into my garden but I can see it from the deck or a window, and I can eat out of it. I would love to pull the weeds creeping amongst my rows and beds and lift the drooping tomato plant branches and support them with cloth slings tied to wooden frames that I have build around the plants, but that is not to be for now. Instead I can watch my wife and my son water and tend and harvest my vegetables, and that counts for a lot.

So it’s been two steps forward and one step back; one step forward and one step back, and so on. My recovery is very likely to take the whole three months that I have been given off from work, and I still wonder if I will have the energy to return to what can be a physically demanding job. I’m not overly concerned about that as we could probably do all right if I was to retire, but I did not want to do that yet and it would be a hardship of sorts if I should have to. I will continue to pray for healing and be comforted to know that I have family and many good friends praying for that end as well.

Now it’s time to tell other tales and lighten the mood. No matter what happens from this point on, my life has still been an interesting one, to me at least, with many stories to write and hopefully many laughs to share with my readers. And from now on when I am tempted to respond to somebody’s question of ‘seriously?’ by saying “I’m serious as a heart attack”, I believe that I will catch myself and ask “was I really that serious?” My guess is that the answer will be that I am not quite that serious after all.

Serious As A Heart Attack, Part VI

“Good morning Glenn. How are you feeling today?” Kim, my new daytime nurse, was smiling and active, even perky. Nothing could have been more diametrically opposite of how I felt. I had been awakened two or three times the night before by a nurse taking vital signs or a phlebotomist drawing blood or somebody sticking a needle into my belly injecting something, insulin I think. I still felt light headed, as I had since I awoke from surgery, and I was still without any appetite at all.

“Today we are going to walk a little, and if you want you can take a shower. Your urinal is in the bathroom; if you need it, call and we’ll help you walk to it. Your breakfast will be here in a few minutes. Is there anything else I can do for you now?” I assured Kim that I was all right for the moment and she left to perform other duties, leaving me in bed to ponder my new stage of recovery. I did not feel at all like eating OR walking, and even though I knew that both would be good for me my body recoiled at the thought of it. As Kim had promised, my breakfast did arrive within minutes of her departure.

Diane, a nurse assistant, brought in my breakfast tray and set it on a bedside table. “Come on, Mr. Durden. It’s time to get into the chair.” I grudgingly complied, grasping a pillow against my sundered sternum and allowing Diane to get her arms around me so that she could help me up to a sitting position on the side of the bed. Using my own arms to push myself upright was forbidden, as the muscles of the arms are leveraged against the muscles of the chest which attach, among other places, to the sternum. I did not need the muscles attached to either side of my sternum pulling in opposite directions, separating that bone which was now cut into two pieces and wired back together. One surgery was enough; I had no need of another to rewire my sternum.

“Up we go.” And up we went. I sat on the edge of the bed for a minute or two, getting my balance, and then stood up, once again using my legs instead of my arms to push me erect. The chair was only a few steps away and I carefully sat down in it, still pressing my stiff pillow tightly against my chest. “There you go” said Diane. “Now lets see what we have for breakfast.” What we had was oatmeal with raisins, a small fruit bowl, a cup of cranberry juice and something else, the memory of which escapes me now. I looked upon my feast with a relish approaching that with which a taxpayer looks upon the approach of an IRS auditor.

“You have to eat to get your strength Mr. Durden” said Diane, and I knew that she was right. So I lifted my spoon and began first to work on the chunks of canned peach and pear and a few bits of melon which might have been fresh, and washed it down with my juice. That didn’t amount to much but it added up to more than I really wanted. Now I dipped my spoon into the oatmeal and began to mechanically chew. It was like asking a T-Rex to eat tofu. I rolled each spoonful from one side of my mouth to another, chewing and chewing and finally swallowing, just to get rid of the noisome stuff. I probably ate no more than a quarter of the bowl and then pushed the button that would alert my caregiver that I was finished. Diane quickly arrived and swept away my tray.

“I’d like to get back into bed now” I said. “Since you’re already up, why don’t we get your weight and take a little walk” Diane replied. I groaned but nodded my approval. Clutching my pillow I once again arose and walked unsteadily about ten feet to where a large scales awaited me. I stepped onto it, Diane recorded my weight, and then we headed out of the doorway and into the hall. I really didn’t want to do this and so I set out to get it done as quickly as possible. I probably went thirty feet down the hall, and at a faster rate than I should. I turned around to make my return trip and the distance to my room looked like miles to me, so I quickly pushed on, wanting to get this ordeal over with and back into my bed.

At last I did get to my bed and carefully fell back into it. I could feel my heart pounding with the exertion and my nurse quickly made an appearance. Kim took my vital signs, felt pulses, listened to heart and lungs and then disappeared for a few minutes. When she returned she injected a medication into the central line that was still in my neck. It turned out that the exertion caused my heart rhythm to go into atrial fibrillation, and the result of that was a new medication taken each day to ensure that my heart stayed in what is called a ‘normal sinus rhythm’. I still take that pill every day and will probably continue to do so for another month or two to come.

This pattern of activity dominated the rest of that day and the next two and a half days to come. I finally got my shower the next day, and not a minute too soon. I had worked and hurt and sweat for four days by then and I could draw my fingernails across the back of my neck and scrape up an opaque bit of dirty oil underneath them. A chair was placed in the shower and I sat on it while I sprayed myself with a hand held shower nozzle. I have never felt better than when I emerged from that shower.

Thursday and Friday were a monotonous progression of walks and meals (which nearly made me throw up) and blood draws and finger pricks and belly injections and attempts to have a bowel movement. Anesthesia, pain medication, and even some of the heart meds that I was taking have the unpleasant side effect of causing constipation, and when you have had your chest cloven in two any sort of straining is to be discouraged. My central line was removed from my neck (a very strange sensation if I do say so myself) and a final few wires in my chest were extracted. It felt good to finally be free of all technologies which had invaded my badly beaten-up body. Friday was proposed for my discharge, but my doctors, nurse, and ultimately I felt like one more day would do the trick.

Saturday arrived and I initiated my final round of unappealing meals and walks around the hallways of the sixth floor. I took another shower and brushed my hair, and for the first time in a week and a half put my baseball cap on my head. My wife appeared at about ten thirty and we waited as a depressing series of doctors and pharmacists and dietitians made their final interviews with me. Finally a cardiologist cam into my room, spoke with me for a few minutes, and pronounced me ready to go home.

Words are inadequate to express how I felt as I rode in my wheelchair down that elevator to the first floor. My wife had moved our car to the front entrance and we rolled out to it. I rose up out of my chair, sat carefully in the back seat, said my goodbye to Diane, and my wife fired the car up and rolled away from the hospital and out onto the street. I relished seeing the blue sky and the familiar houses as we crossed the five blocks or so which separate my house from the hospital. People were out working in their yards and at one house a small child played at it’s dad’s feet while dad puttered around the garage. The beauty and rhythm of the life I watched as we drove home were healing medicines all by themselves.

In a very few minutes we rolled in front of our house. My wife pulled slowly up the driveway and I looked out of the window at the abelia and hyssop that I had planted years ago. I saw that the white, pink and coral flowers were crawling with bees, and it looked good and natural. I also saw that the hyssop needed water. Hyssop has more shallow roots than abelia and must be watered more frequently. “That’s OK” I said to myself. “It’s all right now. Daddy’s home.”

Serious As A Heart Attack, Part V

Day number three after open heart surgery dawned in a fog, much as day number two had ended. My nurse had configured my bed in such a way that I was semi-upright all night, and for some reason that helped to control the pain which had run riot in my body the day before. As always I slept most soundly in the later morning period, so I slumbered pretty much right up until breakfast arrived. I was transferred to my chair and waited for my breakfast tray to be brought over to me.

I don’t remember what it was that was brought to me for breakfast but I do remember my response; I grabbed the nearest plastic bucket – they kept one within my reach at all times – and threw up explosively into it. I had hardly anything in my stomach so the volume was low, and I felt a good deal better when that was done. I had no interest in breakfast however and asked them to remove it from me. It would be several days before I would have any desire to eat again.

Nobody had arrived to visit with me yet and so I remained in my chair for a while with my eyes aimed in the direction of the television screen but with no real recognition of what channel it was on or what they were saying. Time passed in this manner as people slipped into and out of my room, some to draw blood from the central line in my neck, others to poke my fingers to monitor sugar, and still others to give me some kind of injection into the fat around my belly. Most merciful was the nurse who came in to push another syringe full of Dilaudid into my central line. More than that is only a blur and I would not be able to accurately describe it.

As the morning wore on the various doctors taking care of me stopped in to check on me. First was the Family Medicine general practitioners, usually consisting a trio of Dr. Manning and two residents who are not yet licensed to practice on their own. Dr. Manning and I have known each other for years and he is a lover of history as I am, so we usually ended his visits by giving each other a history challenge question. “What was the Beatles’ album which changed the course of rock music?” (Answer: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), or “Which WW II battle took place in May of 1942 and changed the course of the war?” (Answer: Battle of Midway), and so on. On this day I was in no kind of shape for such banter and Dr. Manning could sense that. A brief examination by the residents ensued and I was returned to my bed because my exhaustion was now becoming more of an issue than the pain.

My wife appeared at this point and took up her position by the bed, stroking my forehead or brushing my shoulder, completely unable to reduce the pain but communicating clearly that she would do anything in the world if she could to take it away, and there was comfort in that. We passed an hour or so I think in that way until the next group of doctors made their appearance.

Dr. Willis is with the surgical group of which Dr. Grossing, my surgeon, is a partner. He was checking on me that day along with Rachel Lenz, the physician’s assistant who was involved with my actual surgery. They examined the incision site on my chest and declared it to be infection free so far and healing nicely, and then they knelt down by the bubbling canister at the foot of my bed. “Take a breath and bear down on it Mr. Durden” said Ms. Lenz. I drew a breath and bore down on it as much as my stoned stomach muscles and screaming chest would allow. “That looks good Mr. Durden. How would you like to have your chest tubes out?”

I had been told that the tubes draining grunk from my chest could be a major source of the pain I had been experiencing for the last day and half so I jumped at the opportunity. In a flash the tubes were gone and after a little puttering around on my chest, which probably represented suturing the holes where the tubes had been, I was finally free of the tubes and the urinary catheter which they removed at the same time.

The improvement in my pain situation was almost instantaneous. There was still pain aplenty but the Dilaudid was more than adequate to keep that down to an acceptable level. I could finally lie in my bed and enjoy my wife and son, who appeared a short time after one in the afternoon, and carry on a conversation with them between naps which tended to remain on point more or less. I would describe that afternoon as pleasant, at least as pleasant as one could expect it to be under the circumstances.

A big change occurred at about five o’clock however. A gurney appeared and it was time for me to leave the CVICU and transfer to the sixth floor where less critical patients continued their recovery. I knew right away that I would miss the staff in CVICU. They had been very kind and attentive and I felt very well taken care of. I want to visit them very much when the time comes that I can walk and move about with more ease than is currently the case.

The sixth floor was an entirely different place with an entirely different mission. Once deposited (lovingly) like a sack of potatoes in my bed in room 6102 I was in the care of people who’s mission was to get me ready to function at home again. Because I arrived in the afternoon, rather close to shift change, I had a grace period where I could lie quietly in bed with my thoughts and narcotic dreams. My new nurse and her team of two assistants introduced themselves and then that was all that I saw of them that night unless somebody had to take vitals, take blood, give me pain meds or empty my urinal. The evening was passed in broken sleep, but the morning came soon enough and my new recovery plan took off in a big way.

Serious As A Heart Attack Part IV

The second day of recovery began when I emerged lazily and with some difficulty out of a fog of anesthesia, narcotic pain killers and sleep. My wife was beside me, as she almost always was, and as the fog cleared she was asking if I wanted to sip some chicken broth. The doctors had explained that it was important that I resume eating and drinking in order to speed up my recovery. There was nothing I wanted more than a speedy recovery, so I was eager to comply.

The broth was listed as low fat, low sodium. I guess that this is standard for hypertensive cardiac patients, but I thought that low taste, low interest would have been a good deal more accurate. Still, an order is an order, so down the hatch it went. I drank a cup of cranberry juice as a chaser and relaxed back into my bed to continue my nascent healing process.

I knew that my urine was draining out from my bladder through a catheter and found the convenience of that arrangement comforting. All of the peeing in a urinal that I had been doing before my surgery had now been taken out of the picture, and I didn’t miss it. I was actually mildly disappointed when the catheter was removed the next day, which will illustrate as clearly as possible what a lazy man I truly am. I also had one or two surgical tubes protruding from my chest and coursing into a bubbling container. Why the container bubbled is a mystery to me. Those tubes were draining blood or air or anything else which might be in my chest post-surgically but didn’t belong there. I was practically unaware of those tubes at first, but that would change.

My nurse, who was one more wonderful person in a parade of wonderful people, was constantly flitting in and out of my room taking vital signs, checking IV fluids, and generally making me feel as comfortable as possible, and the latter duty involved administering periodic doses of a pain killer called Dilaudid. The dose was prescribed to be given every three hours as needed through a catheter threaded into a vein in my right neck.

My son made his first post-surgical appearance that day and I greatly enjoyed chatting with him, although the pain killer had the exceedingly weird effect of loosening my grip on reality. I have an active if somewhat shallow mind and it is not at all difficult for me to slip in and out of a daydream at any time. Under the deluge of Dilauded which was pouring down my central line I was no longer slipping into daydreams; I was now jack booting down the door and commandeering the residence.

A conversation might go something like this. WILL: “I’m going to go to the house tomorrow and water your garden. Are there any special instructions that you have for me?” ME: “Yes. Use the sprinkler on the onions and just lay the hose at the base of the tomatoes. Don’t worry about the dog (author’s note: I don’t have a dog), he stays in the shade and will fix the bicycle tire himself if you have a…. Wait a minute, that didn’t make sense, did it?” WILL: “Some of it, Dad. You told me to sprinkle the onions and just put the hose in the tomato beds.” ME: “Yes, that will work. Do the same with the cucumbers and squash and don’t worry about the asparagus because they take care of themselves since they moved out of the house and haven’t had much trouble except that one time that the police….” It was like that all day.

As morning moved into noon the pain in my belly began to grow and by lunch had come to dominate my consciousness. Hospitals like to use a pain scale of zero to ten, with zero being no pain and ten being agony. Those scales are highly subjective of course, and for me skinning my right foot and plunging the raw flesh into salt would be about a three. By noon I was at five or six. I sat up in my chair and tried to eat, and the pain seemed to subside a bit, but I was not able to eat much and soon returned to my bed.

The pain began again to cresendo and soon I was begging for more of the pain medications with the result that I became even more stoned but not one bit less in pain. I had maxed out my Dilauded dose and still I was crawling up to an eight-and-a-half. My nurse was truly sorry for my pain and tried anything she could think of to bring it down, including exchanging morphine for Dilaudid a couple of times, but nothing worked.

The nurse’s instructions were to get me up in a chair as much as possible so that the changed position would keep fluids moving and allow me to inhale as deeply as I could on a device designed to help me gain greater expansion of my lungs. I groused about having to move in my pain but complied. It slowly began to register with me that I really did feel somewhat pain-diminished when I was sitting up. Not pain free by any stretch of the imagination, but pain-tolerable. My nurse noticed this as well, and I stayed in my chair until it was time for visitors to go home and for me to try to get some sleep.

“There’s no way that I will be able to sleep if I lay down” I told my nurse. “I know” she replied. “That’s why I’m going to turn your bed into more of a chair.” With that she began to fiddle with buttons and my bed began to move like a Transformer. The head began to raise up almost like the back of a chair and the foot of the bed dropped down towards the floor, leaving me a shelf to be seated on with feet dependent and head upright, then she tilted the whole thing back so that I was reasonably in a kick-back mode. In that bed I passed through the night. The pain level stayed down at a four or so and sleep, with the help of the Dilauded and a benedryl capsule, stole over me and I enjoyed something which approached acceptable comfort the rest of the night.

That second day was one of the worst of my life. I have suffered physical and emotional pain before and this day stands out from all of the others by a long shot. The pain in my belly felt like the larval stage of “The Alien” was eating his way up from my intestines through my liver and diaphragn and into my chest. It was hard to breathe and I performed very poorly on the device through which I inhaled in order to expand my lungs. The pain was almost like a physical entity; a beaked, taloned and tentacled monster from one of the ‘B’ sci fi movies of the 19650’s that I loved so much as a kid

Only there was no love here on this day. The tentacles embraced me with a power which refused my lungs the ability to inflate. The talons dug into my flesh and denied me the opportunity to shake my monster off in any way. The beak ripped and tore through bone and cartilage and muscle to feast on the crying organs at my core. This monster came to stay, and none of the tricks and devices which became available at the end of the ‘B’ movies to enable the humans threatened with destruction to escape the final victory of the monster was becoming available to me. I was the captive of PAIN. I would remain that way. Tough luck, Kiddo.

The pain meds, which no doubt prevented me from shrieking at the top of my under inflated lungs even if they seemed to not be working at all, also kept my mind in the fog that I mentioned earlier. It was a humorous side note to the day when I would prattle on to my family and then stop, both of us knowing that I was not speaking of anything real at all. But there were those times when I was not speaking, when I stared vacantly at the television or at the ceiling or simply into the pain which gnawed at my belly, and they were not humorous. They were dead, or at least deadening. They robbed me of what is peculiarly me and replaced my me-ness with a stoned, mentally wandering imitation of me.

I am not a narcissist by any measure, but I have grown over the years to like myself. I am glad to know that I have some good points and I can clearly see the bad ones and work towards their correction without self-loathing. I have managed with the help of God to be a blessing – a mixed one to be sure – to a wife of thirty seven years, two children whom I adore and three grandchildren. I short, as the saying goes, I’m ‘comfortable being in my skin’. The drugs blurred my self awareness and I became ever so slightly not me. The sensation lasted most of a day and a half and never came to wholly dominate the real me. It tried however and it was not pleasant, and I was eager to cut down on the narcotics as quickly as the pain would let me, which I am told was a great deal more quickly than most people who have undergone my surgery have done. That process would become easier by the events of the next day, which will have to wait for my next post.

Serious As A Heart Attack, Part III

“Good morning, time to get up.” Sandra, my nurse for the Big Morning, had actually let me sleep for a half hour longer than the plan had called for, but now it was time to get the ball rolling and she was all business. My surgery was the first case of the day and if anything delayed me, the whole rest of the day would be thrown off as well. “Let’s get you unplugged and into the shower.”

Sandra removed my IV lines and covered both sites with plastic to keep them dry, and snatched off a half dozen EKG patches, removing a little bit more of what hair I had left. She then led me to a large shower where I scrubbed down from head to toe with some kind of special soap. After toweling off and re-gowning I was led back to my bed where more blood was drawn, more pinpricks were made in my fingertips to assess glucose, and both IV sites were declared to be too old to risk going to surgery with. I did not realize that IV sites had a useful lifespan, but it turnes out that they do and mine had outlived theirs thanks to my prolonged wait through the Forth of July holiday. In a flash both of those sites were removed and a new plastic needle, but thankfully only one of them, was inserted into one of the few veins on my arms that remained at that point untouched.

That accomplished, my new site was again covered with plastic and once again I was in the shower scrubbing myself down with the anti-microbial soap. And once again I was toweled off and re-gowned and led back to my room to await the transporters who would move me to the Operating Room. The wait wasn’t long. After double and triple checking of my name and surgical procedure I slid sideways from my bed onto the gurney.

I can’t really tell you what I thought as I rolled through those unfamiliar halls. Wait a minute: Unfamiliar? How could that be? For 26 years I had passed through those halls, looking at the linoleum or carpet, the artwork on the walls, the co-workers whom I would pass and acknowledge. This time however it was very different. This time I was looking up at the sound-deadening ceiling tiles interspersed with banks of florescent lights that passed monotonously by my vision. I probably thought of the life that I had lived up to this point, the highs and the lows, and I probably thought about what life would be like afterward, although I had no way of knowing what life would be like afterward and I knew it. One thing was clear. I have assisted with open heart surgery before and I knew exactly what that would be like, and therefore made the choice to not think about that at all.

We entered the O.R. and I did a repeat of what I had done in the cath lab four days earlier. Same freezing room, same process of identification of patient and procedure, same slide onto a hard table and same wraith-like gowned, masked, and hatted doctors and nurses and techs puttering around the room preparing their instruments and equipment for the surgery that was imminent. Soon the anesthesiologist was injecting some fluid into my IV and soon I was once again somewhere out in deep space. Somebody else was occupying that space between Alpha and Proxima Centauri so I sped by them to take a gander at what was happening out near Sirius.

My next twelve hours are pretty much lost. Surgery lasted about three hours and at some point I was rolled into my new room with my breathing still controlled by a respirator and with more tubes and hoses sticking out of me than an automobile engine. I remember very little of the rest of that day, but two events stand out. With a big, fat tube running into my lungs communication became a challenge, but I still wanted to express myself to my wife and there were several instances when I successfully did that. Two occasions which I actually remember of accomplishing that feat went this way. By engaging in creative hand signs I asked my wife not to cry, and later asked her to pray for me which she did. Shortly after that event my body remembered how to breath on its own and that really nasty tube was removed from down my throat.

The rest of the evening I can barely remember. My wife was there the whole time and my daughter arrived at near 7 PM. I don’t remember the daughter’s visit more than as a shadow but I do remember the visit by her husband which followed. He had been reading about the early Christian Church leaders and their relationship with the Roman Empire. He rattled on about Ambrose of Milan in the West and John Chrysostom in the East, and their beef with the Emperor Theodocius and so on. This is the stuff we both like to talk about, but my participation this evening was sketchy at best. I was later told that I would drift off, then return with a comment which was actually pertinent to the topic, and then drift off again. The presence of my son in law and wife, and their familiar chatter, were immensely comforting and it was around 11 PM that they left and I finally lapsed into an exhaustion and drug assisted sleep.

This concludes Part III of my story. It is a short segment because there was so little that I was consciously aware of. There has been much told to me which would flesh out my story but my interest here is to record my own sensations and perceptions. I did not live the other stuff, even if I was involved in it. My true recovery did not begin until the next day, and that tale deserves a Part IV all by itself.