Sunday, May 20, 2012

Be Still My Beating Heart, Part 1

Through all my years of physicals I have always been blessed to hear that I’m in great health.  When it comes to my heart, the report was always that everything was solid…no rare ailments like Marfans Syndrome, which took my brother in his early thirties.  No bad cholesterol, or high blood sugar counts, or strange heartbeats.  In fact, my various doctors over the decades have always marveled at how low my blood pressure is (not sure how that correlates with my temper, which has been known to boil at times). 

Additionally, I’ve been fairly blessed with only a couple visits to the emergency room, and one outpatient surgery for a hernia last year.  In fact, I’ve never stayed at a hospital overnight in my lifetime.  So, imagine my surprise when I was cold-cocked by a major cardiac discombobulation that featured ten days in Nashville’s Baptist Hospital (half in the Intensive Care Unit) and subsequent heart surgery just a month ago.  Many have asked for a recap, so here it is:

I believe it all started a few days before I left for the Middle East.  A strange, bright red rash began forming in my armpits.  An odd occurrence, because I have used the same Mennen Speed Stick deodorant for at since the 80s.  I tried another brand for a day but that only seemed to make it worse, and by then there was no time to set up an appointment.  I just figured I would deal with it as best I could on the two-week excursion by just washing my underarms several times a day.  But the discoloration and sensitivity didn’t diminish.  In fact, it even spread to my chest.  Additionally, I somehow picked up an inner ear infection of some sort the final few days.

Once I got back to the States, I had less than a day at home before having to turn right around and fly to San Diego for Kurt and Anne Andress’ wedding.  This was none too helpful for the earache and adjoining fever.  To say I was feeling lousy would be putting it mildly.

I got in to see my doctor pretty quickly once I got home from the Left Coast.  He flushed my ear canal with some antibiotic fluid, and surmised that I had some sort of yeast infection on my skin.  He prescribed a medication that would help clear that up along with some eardrops.  I noticed on the instructions for the pills that they might “cause discoloration, pain, and odor during urination.”  Little did I know, but this was the really going to be the root of my later issues, because, alongside the ear infection, I picked up a urinary tract infection somewhere in the previous week. And unbeknownst to me, three of the primary symptoms of a U.T.I. are discoloration, pain, and odor during urination. 

But because the rash under my arms was disappearing with each passing day, I was willing to take those symptoms from what I thought was just the medicine in exchange for the annihilation of armpit aberration.   I also credited the low-grade fever I had to road weariness and the pills. I had no idea that a U.T.I. was growing worse with each passing day. 

A week later, just as that skin prescription was running out, I was awakened at one in the morning by horrific lower back pain. I rolled out off my mattress and hobbled around my bedroom complaining to no one in particular, “how the hell did I pull a muscle in my sleep?!”  You see, I have a history of lumbar issues tied-in to muscle spasms. We tall guys tend to have these, as we grow older. It can be quite painful and somewhat debilitating for three to five days, and then, usually, it fades along with some thorough stretching and appropriate rest.  Of course, some painkillers don’t hurt either.  So the next morning, I called my doc and asked if he could prescribe some Hydrocordone to help me deal with the knifing throb.  He’s quite familiar with my plight in that realm, and went ahead and sent the word to my pharmacy to get me set up.  This was strike number two in my unfortunate at bat with destiny, because Hydrocordone simply masks pain…covers it up completely, as well as deadening the side effects of a fever.  Most likely I hadn’t pulled a muscle in my lower back.  Rather, my kidneys and bladder were barking because of the undetected U.T.I., and it just felt very similar to a twisted back.

So, several more days passed with the U.T.I worsening, but I was oblivious to it other than a general sense that I just wasn’t feeling right.  But, as they say, the chickens finally came home to roost the evening of March 31st.  I went to watch an exciting Predators game vs. the hated Chicago Blackholes.  Somehow, the Preds managed to dig themselves into a 4-0 hole halfway into the game.  But they stormed back to tie the game midway into the third period.  I, along with the rest of the sellout crowd was in full throat urging the guys onward.  We “emptied our buckets” screaming and yelling our support (as well as disdain for the Chitown fans in attendance). Unfortunately, Nashville ended up losing on a goal late in the game, and as I was sulking along my normal six-block walk back to my car, I was feeling physically drained…even ill.  It was a tough loss, but I normally don’t get that vaklempt after a negative result. Several times I stopped and truly felt like I was going to keel over.  I noticed my heart was racing, and I was covered in clammy perspiration.

When I arrived at home, I went directly to my room and collapsed into my bed, where within minutes I started shaking uncontrollably.  The chills overtook me, and my teeth were chattering like one of those wind-up false chopper toys, and my entire body was vibrating beyond my will to stop.  I somehow got my clothes off and crawled under the covers, but the quaking continued unabated for nearly an hour. Eventually it faded, but within minutes a sever fever swept over me.  I was burning up.  I had a baking headache, and started making the first of many runs to the bathroom as the heaves started.  Hardly anything chucked-upward, which is never helpful…I find the dry heaves to be much more difficult that full release of a Technicolor rainbow.  This oven-like existence persisted for another hour, and then segued into voluminous sweats…perspiration flowing out of my pores as if I were running a marathon in thru the Okeechobee Swamp in July. My hair was soaking wet, my t-shirt was sopped, and the sheets of the bed were moist.  It was unlike anything I could ever recall.  This element was about a few hours in length, and then it began to fade. I started feeling remarkably better, even normal about four in the morning, and actually slept for a few hours. 

I awoke fairly refreshed at daybreak, and thought I had just suffered through some intense food poisoning of some sort. I thought it might be good to get cleaned up and go to church and give thanks for that being over with.  But just as I began shaving, the shakes started again.  I tried to work through it, but was afraid I was going to cut myself.  I went to the kitchen to try and take my temperature, but my jaw was flapping so wildly that I feared I would bite the thermometer in half. I lay down, and the entire sequence of chills for an hour, fever for an hour, and profuse sweats for an hour began again. 

In fact, this vicious cycle happened four more times that day.  During the fourth one, I was doing some research online, because I had ruled out food poisoning by this time. It also wasn’t the same cycle that I would get with severe migraine headaches.  This was a different animal.  After scrolling through several possible ailments, I came to the conclusion that I had contracted malaria.  Now this isn’t far-fetched in that I have traveled to fifty-four countries, and malaria can take up to twelve months sometimes to manifest itself.  I had, in fact, been to several regions where malaria can be passed on by mosquitoes, so, there was a decent chance I could be right in my self- analysis.  Even though I take anti-malarial drugs, something might’ve gotten lodged into my liver and was finally hatching. I had nine of the ten symptoms listed on the malaria sites going for me…so it seemed as plausible as anything.

By this time it was evening, and I thought, I’ll just try to slog through the night and see my doctor tomorrow, and we’ll get this figured out.  I know, I know…I should’ve gone to an emergency room.  But by this time, the cycles were so predictable, and, even though I felt lousy, it didn’t seem to be getting any worse.

I did not sleep very well, and what down time I did find was influenced by some rather hallucinatory dreams.  9 AM came much too slowly, but that is when I was able to get through to my physician’s office and set up an appointment for early afternoon.  I was greeted with yet another dreaded cycle of chills, fever, dry heaves, and sweats. In the midst of that, I got a call from good friend, Carla.  She’s a very sunny sort, and was bubbling away in her invitation for me to join her for the annual Easter feast she was hosting at her home the upcoming Sunday.   I was sort of grunting responses to her when she stopped and asked, “Are you feeling alright?”

“Honestly,” I groaned, “I feel pretty bad.”  I then proceeded to give her the litany of what had gone on in the previous twelve hours.  She asked if I would like her to drive me to the doctor?  At that moment, it dawned on me that I probably wasn’t in very good shape to be steering a 3,000-pound vehicle, so I gladly accepted her offer.

A few hours later she picked me up and took me in for the predetermined time to meet.  Within minutes, my doctor knew I was quite sick.  I told him I thought it might be malaria, and he certainly didn’t discount that.  But after an hour, several blood and urine tests came back with the results of an U.T.I.  “The good news is that it isn’t malaria,” he explained, “but you are one very sick dude, Mark.  We are going to put you in a wheel chair right now and get you across the street to Baptist Hospital where they are going to try and get this infection and fever under control.”

To Carla’s credit, she stuck right by my side through this whole ordeal.  As matter of fact, she spent over ten hours making sure I was properly taken care of.  I was borderline delirious at this point, my fever spiking at 104, and was severely dehydrated.  It was a bit of a comedy of errors and C.Y.A. (Cover Your Ass) finger pointing with some of the admitting nurses once I arrived at the hospital.  I was in severe need of hydrating saline, and even though I was prepped to receive it, none was actually being administered.  Carla got in several peoples’ faces about it, and finally the head nurse on the floor came in along with the attending physician and they quickly surmised that I needed to be taken to the Intensive Care Unit.

Within minutes of arriving at I.C.U. there was a flurry of attendants and docs buzzing around me trying to figure out why my heart rate was at 170 beats per minute.  From what I could figure, it had been that way since the hockey game nearly two days before. But before that could be fully addressed, they needed to work on getting the infection and fever out.  They had two saline machines running into each arm at the highest flow rate possible within minutes. I joked that I was “a two fisted drinker” at that point (and would be for the next four days).  In fact, they pumped over four gallons of various saline blends into me during that stretch, which I’m told, is a lot of fluid.  I could’ve floated a battleship with the amount of peeing I did the next several days to compensate for the intake.

As I mentioned earlier, I had never spent an overnight in a hospital before, and wasn’t even sure if this would just be a day or two stay.  I certainly hadn’t planned on anything…I was just going in to see my doctor initially.  So, once it looked like the I.C.U. was fully on top of my needs, Carla raced home to get some supplies for me.  I was exhausted, but there was no way of getting sleep as I was continually poked, prodded, and examined in one way or another through the night. 

The word started to get out that I was in this state, and so calls started coming in from family and friends, which I felt I needed to take care of.  I think it was finally around 3:00 AM that I got a bit of restful sleep, and then again around 10:00 AM on Tuesday.  Later that afternoon, the visitors started coming by, which was terrific.  And I was also able to hook-up my laptop and begin communicating online.  Despite being all wired up in both arms and my chest  (I believe there were normally about seven devices pumping me with something-or-other or monitoring me at any given moment), and looking rather disheveled from lack of a shower for a few days, I was feeling increasingly better as the fever was dropping, the headache dissipating, and the nausea fading. My hydration was improving.  Indeed, the infection was beginning to fade.

But my heart rate was of continued concern.  Honestly, it was a mystery to the doctors and other staff as to what was happening.  It stayed frenetic at 170 b.p.m. (Which is just about max capacity for human survival) for a third straight day under their surveillance (and probably at least five straight including the days before my arrival).  It was also erratic in that it was fluttering wildly instead of keeping a steady 4/4 beat.  I cracked that my love of progressive rock and all the odd time signatures had made my heart “go all Gentle Giant” with the 6/8, 9/8, 11/8, 7/8, and 5/8 beats per measure.

But I could tell it was not a laughing matter for the cardiologists who were observing me.  My room had two large sliding glass doors and curtains that separated it from the primary nurses’ station out in the hallway.  Usually after staff would tend to me, they would close the curtains and then the doors to give me some respite from the outside noise and activity.  However, after one visit with three of the doctors, they closed the doors but forgot to pull the curtains. I could see them looking at my graphs and charts outside pointing at me and making gestures with their hands, shrugging their shoulders, and pointing to the sides of their heads. I couldn‘t read lips, but it sure looked like they were expressing the sentiments of “I have no idea what’s going on with him, I’m seriously befuddled.” 

Strangely, though, this didn’t panic me.  The physical improvements were helping me sleep, and even though I had this galloping heart rate, my appetite, thirst, and bodily functions were good.  It’s just that my blood pressure was quite high, and the heart speed was out of control.  Once the fever and infection were relatively stable, they began pumping various things into me to see if they could harness the heart.  At one point on the third day in I.C.U. it nose-dived suddenly from 170 down to 38 (which, as you might imagine, is not good in the other direction).  The head nurse came sprinting into the room when her outside monitor picked up on the nosedive.  “Are you alright?!” she gasped.

I looked up at my heart monitor and started to laugh.  “You know, I feel exactly the same as I did when it was at 170.”  She did not find it funny, but it was true.  I believe God was helping me keep a sense of humor and an even keel about everything throughout my stay.  And, truly, I did feel the same. It was not lost on me that thousands of people were praying for me at my church, and amongst listeners from radio stations where I had a relationship through my work with Compassion.  I was receiving hundreds of encouraging messages via Facebook, e-mail, and phone calls.  Flowers and cards were coming, and dozens of friends were visiting…all boosting my spirits and keeping me smiling.

I was kidding with one of the cardiologists that they might need to name a new disease after me since they were so stumped.  He was only partially amused as he responded, “Well, we have to find a cure first.” 

Stay tuned for  Part Two of this saga coming soon…

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