The Grim Reaper may or may not get an undeserved bad rap, but when a cardiologist reads an EKG and sees the telltale “tombstones” on the EKG paper he/she knows that a myocardial infarction has occurred, and that coronary heart disease is the likely culprit; someone has joined the ranks of the approximate one million per year experiencing MIs in the United States alone.
All of this Grim Reaper, heart attack, and tombstone tracing is mere talk until it describes something that has happened to someone you love. Or . . . to you. Twice as likely in men as in women, this event can have catastrophic impact, especially when it is the type of MI referred to as the “Widow Maker.”
This came crashing home to me on Tuesday morning at 2:30 AM, when after going to the bathroom I returned to bed only to find myself completely uncomfortable. Quickly I was aware that my left bicep felt like there was a band around it, squeezing relentlessly. I could not escape the pain. Soon I began to sweat, and became light headed.
I woke up my wife, and asked for a cool washcloth on my head. I said something like, “I don’t know for sure, but . . . I might be having a heart attack!”
This was unbelievable to me! I have always taken exercise quite seriously, and although there have been times when I was somewhat overweight, in general I have maintained above average health and strength for my age. Just months ago the doctor told me to get serious about my pre diabetic numbers, and so I did. I quickly attended a class my neighbor was teaching on avoiding diabetes, learned a great deal, and took it to heart.
Not to brag, but . . . I was “the model student.” Pounds began to be shed, a semblance of a six-pack gave hints of emerging. I had been a bit tired over the past few months, but I just relegated that to aging and let it go at that.
But early Tuesday morning none of that was any consolation. The Fire Department arrived in minutes, ran a quick EKG, noted by 100/50 blood pressure, put me on a stretcher, loaded me into the ambulance and began to work their magic. I was given baby aspirin to chew up, and nitroglycerin to dissolve under my tongue. I was shaking like a leaf, and miserable.
It is beyond interesting to be transported at high speed, siren blaring, lying flat on your back; equally fascinating to experience the view provided as you are rolled into a hospital on a stretcher, and wheeled into an OR, doctors and nurses awaiting your arrival. The ceiling doesn’t provide a vantage point with which I am familiar.
And I didn’t know it at the time, but they were probably hoping I’d still be alive by the time I got there; my STEMI was a potential killer. When the doctor started the cardiac cath procedure (radial, BTW) it was clear that he was dealing with a 100% blockage in the LAD, the left anterior descending artery. This supplies blood to the front and main wall of the heart.
This proximal LAD lesion is commonly referred to as “the Widow Maker.”
The cardiologist was able to use a minimally invasive procedure, inserting a stent (wire mesh with an uninflated balloon inside), then inflating the balloon to push out the walls of the wire mesh to match the size of the artery, then deflating and extracting the balloon.
The doctor saved my life that early morning. Interestingly enough, he is the same cardiologist who told me 18 months ago (when referred to him by my GP doctor) to “go home, quit wasting my time, and come back when you have some real symptoms!” This time, I think I qualified.
Now I am at home . . . recovering. My blood pressure and pulse are too low for beta blockers (used to help control arrhythmia) due to a very low ejection fraction rate (caused by the damage to the heart). With healing of the heart muscle this should improve.
I am in the classic 40 day period after an MI, trying to rest, trying to avoid illness (since my heart is too weak to handle it), trying to adjust to what several friends have referred to as “the new normal.”
The Grim Reaper arrived that morning and stood nearby, leaving the smell of death in the air (the same smell we discussed when my mother was nearing death), but it was not my time, I suppose. It was like Garrison Keillor described some years ago when he talked about “just pulling the hearse up close enough so you could smell the flowers.”
I smelled them. The whole family did.
My wife was not made a widow this time. But she felt the shadow of the reaper in a very real way. One day we will all cross that proverbial river.
It is more real to me now than ever before.