Heart sculpture at Kaiser Permanente – San Francisco
(Originally published Nov. 8, 2013)
I just returned home after three days and two nights in the hospital. It started with a Halloween doctor’s appointment for a treadmill EKG test. I had asked my doctor about feeling discomfort in my chest when I carried equipment up stairs. After a few minutes on the treadmill, the discomfort returned. The heart specialist stopped the test. He told me that my symptoms and the results of the test showed I have heart disease – angina – which means my heart is not getting enough oxygen. He insisted on a heart catheterization (angiogram) the following Monday. He told me I would probably need a stent or more as my blood flow was restricted and I was in danger of a heart attack. He prescribed drugs to lower my risk of heart attack.
I was hoping the doctor would assure me I had a chest cold – nothing to worry about. Instead, he confirmed my worst fear. I have heart disease. And this at the young age of 57! It seemed unfair. I’ve lived a safe lifestyle in every area. I don’t smoke cigarettes. I seldom drink alcohol and I don’t abuse my body. I have been accused of having a Type A personality, but I’ve learned to deal with stress through prayer and meditation. I have been blessed with good health throughout my life. I’ve only broken one bone – a toe. The only stitches I’ve received were dental. I’ve never spent a night in the hospital. My name is David, which means “beloved.” God smiles on me. This can’t happen to me.
That was my Halloween 2013 – a day of despair and catastrophizing. I soon pulled myself together. I prayed. I meditated on scripture. I ate some fatty foods and welcomed a dollop of denial. Over the weekend I had the appointment pushed back to Friday. But, when symptoms increased, my new heart doctor insisted that I go to the ER immediately. That was Tuesday. My son, Daniel, drove me to Kaiser Hospital – San Rafael.
I felt God’s hand of protection throughout the process. Prayer was my constant companion. I brought my Bible but didn’t open it. I didn’t need anything long or complex. The Shepherd’s Psalm – as much as I remember it – was enough. The words often scrolled through my mind.
“The Lord is my shepherd…He maketh me lie down…”
For three days and two nights I laid down. It was my greatest exercise in trust. I had to let go of control. I had no choice but to trust my son to take care of customers without me. I had to trust nurses, technicians and doctors with my life. I appreciated constant re-assurances, asking if I had questions, checking to be sure they knew my name and what they were doing for me.
I had to trust God to take care of me and those who depended on me. I wasn’t worried about my future. Just the needle pricks.
“…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
When you’re in the hospital, they let you adjust your own bed and you have a remote control for the TV. Aside from that, you’re not running the show. I was reminded of the old movie, “the Doctor,” where the arrogant doctor, played spectacularly by William Hurt, became the patient and developed a new appreciation for healthcare professionals, especially those who listened and truly cared. He found it’s not enough to be incredibly smart and talented. Healing requires the personal touch.
I was familiar with every place they took me. I had visited patients in those facilities as a pastor. I had reminded patients of God’s promises and prayed with families around the beds of patients. Now I was the one in the bed. There were a few times when I wanted to tell the medical professionals, who wore name tags boasting their credentials, that I am a doctor myself (Doctor of Ministry). But I was treated with dignity at every turn. I didn’t need to prove my worth.
I was given an insider’s view of the healthcare pros at Kaiser Permanente in three locations. Without exception, they were personable, thoughtful, thorough and communicative. They kept asking whether I had any questions.
The ambulance personnel who transported me from Kaiser Hospital in San Rafael to Kaiser – San Francisco were also thoughtful and communicative. They explained the process, warned me that the trip would be bumpy and assured me that they were triple-strapping me in for my safety. They were chatty, friendly and positive. Their conversation was focused on me and they were quiet when I showed that I was not feeling chatty.
They delivered me to Kaiser Hospital – San Francisco, where the angiogram would take place. The heart doctor there, Dr. Mahrer, clearly explained the three possible outcomes of the angiogram. If the angiogram showed that my arteries were open, I would be prescribed medication to lower the chances of plaque clogging my arteries. That was not likely. Another unlikely outcome would be by-pass surgery. I had been praying fervently to avoid that path. Most likely, I would need one or more stents, which they could place immediately after the angiogram. I remember something he said about one other possibility – that the angiogram itself could cause a heart attack. He spoke quickly, like he had given the speech hundreds of times before, but he slowed down to ask if I had questions.
An orderly wheeled me downstairs to the room where I would be prepped for the procedure. A friend had warned me they would “shave my balls.” I had some concern that the process might be arousing. Some of the nurses and doctors were attractive. In my need, I wanted to hold them tight.
There was no need for worry. The older woman who approached me with electric razor in hand was all business. And rough! She vigorously raked through my groin hair until there wasn’t any (not my scrotum, Dan). No anesthesia. It was worse than the every-two-hour needle pricks.
“Thy rod and thy staff. They comfort me.”
The adjectives, cold and sterile, best describe the room in which they conduct heart catheterizations. As I gazed up at the massive camera machine with its large screen TV, I wondered if they’d let me choose the channel. No, but they did ask what type of music I’d like. I replied, “anything but country.” Classical music seemed right. Not the marches and not the kind in movies where the sopranos sing in the midst of bloody battles. The soft, soothing kind that makes you feel like everything is going to be all right. I was sedated, but aware of what was going on. I remember seeing pictures of blood vessels on the screen and the camera – a large white cube mounted on a mechanical arm moving around my chest and very close to my face. I drifted into sleep but was awakened to hear the doctor calling for consultations with my Petaluma heart doctor and another who came into the room to discuss my situation. Dr. Mahrer told me there was one area of blockage. I think he said it was 90% blocked. He was concerned that it was near a junction, so placing a stent would have to be precise but he wanted to attempt it. I asked if it doesn’t fit, can he pull it back out. I don’t remember his answer.
Later, when Dr. Mahrer visited my room, he gave me pictures of the artery, which he said is nicknamed the “widow-maker.” I remember him saying it had been 90% blocked. Maybe he said, 95%*. He said he was delighted with the placement of the stent and showed me how the artery was now completely open.
The picture on the left shows the blocked artery. The picture on the right shows the artery with the stent. Yeah! It worked.
“Thou art with me…surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
In each facility I was asked about my religious preference and whether I would appreciate a visit from a chaplain. I said I would appreciate that. But in my short stay, no chaplain visited. If one came while I was sleeping, they didn’t leave a business card. I guess that’s the only area in which I was disappointed. That, and the burly Kaiser staff person who came to my bed early Wednesday and told me I have a $2,000 co-payment. “How would you like to take care of that?” she inquired. I might have had a heart attack if they weren’t pumping me full of drugs.
Now I’m home. I am feeling very blessed and grateful. I did not have a heart attack. There is no heart damage. I’m alive. I have more time to enjoy life on earth with family, friends and church.
Now comes the hard part – and this part is within my control. Lifestyle. I don’t have to quit smoking, since I don’t. I could probably drink more wine, not less. But, I do want to cut back on the donuts, fast food, the quickie meals that fill but don’t nourish. And I have to take pills. I hate that I now have one of those plastic containers with a little pill box for each day of the week. I feel like I’m officially “OLD.” I won’t just rely on my work to provide my exercise. I’ll get regular about walking and biking. I need to trust people more and give up control. I’m going to live more healthy.
“And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Were the pictures not dramatic? Okay, here’s a before and after shot:
Before the Stent 🙁 | After the Stent 🙂
I’d love to read and share your comments.
* Update November 26
2 1/2 weeks later, I’m feeling great. A few days ago, I met with my doctor in Petaluma. We read the written report of the angiogram procedure. I was surprised to see that the artery blockage was “95-99%.” That was sobering. I didn’t accomplish much the rest of the day.
I am grateful for life. I’m not taking it for granted.