I’m Still Here
An odd thing happened to me Feb. 24; I nearly died.
The day started like any other: morning tea, a walk on the beach, a car ride to my son’s tennis match and then … I woke up four days later in a Queen’s Medical Center ward. Surrounding my bed were doctors wearing green scrubs looking down on me with folded arms, my wife and children, worried friends.
“Do you mind if I rub your head for luck?” asked Dr. Lee Guertler, the cardiologist on duty that Saturday afternoon, who saved my life by putting a stent in my right artery as I lay prostrate without a heartbeat on the operating table. I would later learn that he and his team shocked me eight times with paddles before my heart began to beat again. I thanked him for trying one more time, after seven tries. I also thanked God, my family and Hawaiian Electric.
Each year, 1.5 million people in the United States have heart attacks. Approximately 450,000 of them die within 24 hours. It had never occurred to me that I might be one of them. I was reasonably fit, played tennis three or four times a week, had not eaten red meat for years and was reasonably careful about everything in my diet. Maybe not everything. I did like cheese and Coca-Cola, but did not think these were fatal. My business was not substantially more stressful than I was used to. I worried about money and work. Life wasn’t perfect, but I never thought that it could almost end so abruptly.
My father had died of a heart attack at age 50. But he had had rheumatic fever as a child. I thought that because I had never had it, and because my grandfather and aunts had lived till their 80s and 90s, I was somehow immune. But all the excuses and thoughts and worries and rationales in the world did not prevent me from waking up in Queen’s Medical Center.
Four days of my life had disappeared. I thought, “ I have meetings to go to. I have places to go and presentations to make. What about my projects? Was it the cream-filled Japanese pastry I had for lunch? What could have done this to me?”
Guertler told me it was unlikely that it was any of these things. Something had jogged loose a bit of cholesterol in my artery. When it broke apart it blocked the bloodstream and created a 100 percent occlusion. Go figure. As they say, s—t happens. You can’t account for it.
Vaguely I remembered complaining about a stomachache the night before. I had thought of heartburn, a vague discomfort in the center of my chest that seemed not to go away. Raised on 50 years of Maalox and Alka Seltzer ads, I thought immediately of acid reflux, and the TV diagram showing arrows going in and out of my stomach. I had only to take a pill, I thought, and the problem would go away.
Only later when I came home and looked at the information on heart attacks on the Internet, did I see that when you feel a vague persistent pain in your stomach you shouldn’t head for Longs to get something over the counter. You need to call 911. Once the reaction starts there isn’t much time left. Most people die from heart attacks, because they never make it to the hospital.
I barely made it. Afterwards I learned that I had become sick, sweated and thrown up. I don’t remember the ride to the hospital, or of my friend’s urgent request that perhaps we should stop at Castle Hospital. When we got to Queen’s, I stepped out of the car, took a few steps and went into cardiac arrest.
From there I was wheeled on a gurney into the Queen’s emergency room, where Guertler was on duty in the catheter lab. While they were struggling to revive me, he told my wife and children not to have great expectations, but he also told my wife “I hate to lose.” He put a stent up my right artery and then began shocking me with electric paddles.
I don’t remember any of this. I only recall four days later, staring at the big bruises and scars on my right thigh looking at all the scars where the stent had gone in. I was a tangle of wires and clear plastic tubes. The nurses were kind and attentive. They poked me with needles to take blood samples, gave me pills and released me.
When I came home my neighbors asked me if I had seen a white light or had an afterlife experience with a famous person. I was sorry to disappointment them. I didn’t understand at all what had happened to me, except that somehow I was still here.
The first week I lay in bed wondering about my life. I knew it was important to get back into things, so I began to type the reports I was working on. I finished my projects one by one. I started writing again on the novel I have been working on for years.
At first I couldn’t walk very far without feeling a vague pressure on my chest and huffing and puffing as if I had just run a 50-yard dash. Over time, the five-minute walks become 10-minute walks. The 15-minute walks extend to 30 minutes. I soon realize that I have presentations to make. I have things to do. The treadmill of making a living beckons me.
I am given substantial medication. My diet becomes a combination of pills and lettuce and green vegetables in various forms. Gradually I am able to play tennis again, to walk 30 minutes down the beach. The doctors tell me to eat what I like. The people I know who have had heart attacks tell me to push food away.
Each day I am aware of what a close call I had. I remember Feb. 24 the way I remember other life-altering dates in my life: the day John F. Kennedy was shot. The day I was married. The days my children were born. I also look at everything a little more clearly. The sea is a little more green and blue than I remember. The mountains a little more beautiful. My wife a little more wonderful. As I walk down the beach, the sleeping bags, tents and plastic bags in the bushes of the homeless that have become a regular part of the beach landscape are more visible, too. I may have been gone for four days, but the world has not changed. I am sad that more can’t be done for them. I am lucky to be alive and wonder how I can be a little more useful.
Mike Markrich was the associate editor of Hawaii Business from 1993 to 1994.
Heart Attack Warning Signs
Some heart attacks are sudden and intense – the “movie heart attack,” where no one doubts what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help. Here are signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:
Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.