Electra heading to Ford Cove under electric power -Will Thomas photo
MY EXCELLENT HEART ATTACK
by William Thomas
Six weeks after my death, I don warm clothes, pocket a water bottle and essential provisions, and set out to summit Ford Cove trail. Pacing Lambert Channel for three-and-a-half klicks, this well-travelled woodland path includes four uphill sections just long and steep enough to keep the ol' ticker ticking.
Especially, if it's already busted.
In olden times before last December, when my former life abruptly ended and my unexpected “afterlife” began, this Beginner-rated trek provided a mildly exerting yet meditatively soothing 45-minute shortcut to the ferry. With one artery now propped open like a shored-up cave-in, and a pharmaceutical “speed governor” turning extra exertion into laboured gasping until the rest of me catches up, I've been preparing for this attempt with slightly longer walks every day for the past month. Yesterday, I made it to the base of the final long incline. Today is the day.
It nearly wasn't...
... That first un-rainy Saturday in December dawned crisp and clear. Strolling down to the cove, I realized that being on the water would feel even better than walking beside it. So I headed to the dock, broke out the lifejackets, snugged up my parka, tilted the electric trolling motor into the water, and cast off Electra. As the shore slid past in its usual conjuring trick, the outrigged Grumman and I settled contentedly on Mom's slow-heaving bosom. Home is the sailor. Home on the sea.
Less than 10 minutes into this relaxing silken glide an invisible boa constrictor dropped out of the sky, coiled around my upper chest and squeezed hard. Compounding my amazement, this unheralded pain rotated to the middle of my upper back. And stabbed deep.
Ouch! I sagged back, feeling astonishingly weak. Despite the below freezing temperature, my t-shirt was wringing wet. Must be my mono coming back. Or maybe a reprise of that Hong Kong bronchitis.
This could not be a heart attack because: 1. I don't get heart attacks 2. My arm didn't hurt. 3. I was not grabbing my chest and keeling over. And 4. I was still alive. (Always a good sign.)
Of course, the first symptom of a heart attack is denial.
I burst out laughing. Smooth move, ace. You never guessed you were building an electric outrigger canoe to carry you across the River Styx. And save the ferry fare.
Just for luck, I turned back toward the dock. By the time I finished tying up my 17-footer, low tide had transformed the ramp into the Hillary Step on Everest. At the top I had to sit down. Lying down on that wooden bench felt even better. Just for a minute.
To catch my breath.
This new flu going around was a doozy! I would have asked Nick to drive me to the clinic, but it's closed on weekends. And I was reluctant to bother the doctor on-call. I just needed a little rest. Inside my hideout, I took two aspirin – just in case – and went to bed. But no matter how I emulated a rotisserie, I could not find relief from the nagging pain and nausea.
As Yogi Berra would say, I kept making wrong mistakes. Deferring medical attention turns out to be a common trait among cardio survivors. And I was used to tending my own wounds. Alone in pain, nausea, darkness and my thoughts, I toughed it out as I'd done so many times before. It's what sailors learn to do. And people living alone.
The night was nearly eternal. By 3 a.m. I figured if this is the flu, Ebola is a hiccup. I consider dialing 911. But all that commotion in my driveway, a two-ferries call-out and the long trip to town felt more appalling than appealing. Besides, whoever heard of a heart attack lasting 12 hours?
By the time I realized I really was about to check right off the planet, I barely had time to freak out. So I didn't. Whatever comes next, I figured I was about to find out.
What came next was my morning call to Dr. Chapman's pager. Nausea was the reddest flag. “Get up here right now,” demanded this former heart surgeon. I groggily packed a bag. King drove me to the clinic.
Next thing I knew, I was flat on my back in Hornby's new clinic with a fancy machine tasting my blood. “Heart attack” pronounced the enzyme readout.
“How bad's your pain?” Dr. Chapman kept asking. “On a scale of one to 10.”
“Maybe a five,” I answered. No biggie.
I got major points for taking blood-thinning aspirin. But waiting 19 hours before seeking professional palliatives... not so much. Still, the morphine was nice.
It was not a crowd of angels, but a jet-turbine Sikorsky that bore me heavenward. After nearly four decades' on the activist/journalist front-lines, it seemed fitting to be medevaced from a grass strip. Touching down at Royal Jubilee, my gurney was wheeled inside with MASH-like alacrity. A cardiologist examined my readouts.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I replied.
“Do you smoke?”
“You shouldn't be here,” he insisted in a tone that said, you are not a a high risk
Stress, I guessed. Volunteering does not pay real well. And year after relentless year, with a seemingly endless supply of crazies trying to wreck the place, too many simultaneous alarms keep going off. The result, of course, has too many pizza slices, cookie monsters and prepackaged meals while tap-tap-tapping the keyboard like Jack Phillips keying those last frantic Maydays onboard Titanic. Even though Royal Jubilee is a top-notch cardio facility, my request for a cold beer was denied.
Was that really my heart pumping like a bellows on the big monitor overhead? In a day filled with wonders, a mouse was crawling up the inside of my arm. With some kind of tube fully inserted at the juncture of cardiovascular calamity, a miniature balloon was inflated, re-opening the collapsed artery. That felt nice! Then a miniature synthetic viaduct was expertly nudged into place to hold that tunnel open. Amazing! I was now an official member of the Stent Club.
No one could explain why my other arteries were okay. But since deterioration of the downstream heart muscles begins within minutes of shut-off blood flow, being a tough guy had not been the cleverest response. “It looks like you have major heart damage,” the angioplasty pilot pronounced.
“Okay,” I said. Fine. I was thrilled to be alive. When the probe was retracted, so was this diagnosis.
“Mmmm. Looks like you have very little heart damage,” he amended. Handing me a printout of my ticker, he pointed to a pair of squiggly lines that would have denoted rivers on a topographical map. “See those? Your heart has been trying to grow new veins to compensate for that collapsed artery.”
How cool was this? But what could you expect from an organ crammed with neurons – exactly like the brain cells they connect with up top...
... Breathing deeply, evenly, gratefully, I gear down for that last uphill slog. Don't look at the distance left to go. Just watch my steps... Wooden steps! Then I am standing on the footbridge leading down – down! – to Vance's place. I did it! I made it! Having embraced my death, I am astonished to be alive.
William Thomas 2 years later with Electra -King Anderson photo