Anatomy of a heart attack – feeling the love

by Bruce A. Smith 

Part 3, in a series.

When I had my heart attack in February, 2012, I received “Cadillac” treatment at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, WA.  Within minutes of arriving in their emergency room with severe chest pains, I received a stent to fix a 95% blockage in my circumflex coronary artery.  Good Sam saved my life, and they did it with grace and a solid, well-honed professionalism.

 However, when I left my aftercare was more akin to a Yugo.

 I knew I was headed for rough waters when I was wheeled out the front doors of the hospital and I didn’t have a business card from my social worker.  Worse, I didn’t have her phone number.  Heck, I didn’t even know her last name.

 As a guy without any insurance or money I knew I’d be on my own after discharge, but I was scared and I sensed I was courting trouble.  I wished I had the name of at least someone – anyone – a volunteer or a former heart patient – that I could call with all the questions I was sure to have.

 At the least, I worried about my medications.  I begged my social worker and nurses for a week’s worth of meds to go home on.

 “Oh, don’t worry,” said my social worker while I was preparing to leave, “it’s all taken care of.  I called the prescription in to Walmart and all you have to do is stop by on your way home and pick them up.  It’ll be on the discount list, so they’ll only cost $4 per prescription.”

 I had the money – four bucks per script for about five different kinds of pills, totalling twenty dollars or so, but that wasn’t the point.  I didn’t want to shop at a Walmart on my way home from having a heart attack – it was too crowded, noisy and exhausting.  I had asked some friends to drive me home and all I wanted to do was negotiate the thirty mile drive back to Eatonville, get something to eat and go to bed.

 Getting nowhere with my social worker I appealed to the day nurse on the unit.

 “Yeah, we give out a week’s worth of meds to lots of patients,” said the nurse.

 “But only to indigent patients,” replied my social worker.  “You’re not indigent.  You have money.”

 Yeah, I had $75 bucks in my checking account and that was it.

 As intuited, Walmart did not go smoothly.  The wrong meds were called in, and to expedite matters, since it was now after business hours and difficult to get a script change, I paid the full price for some of the medications Walmart was packing.

 In addition, the pharmacy counter was swamped with dozens of folks needing their cheap meds.  After waiting two hours I was ready to pass out, and with a pounding, aching chest I approached the pharmacy clerk.

 After an anguished exchange, I got my prescriptions and left with one dollar in the bank.

 The next day, things got worse as a wave of side effects began to kick in.  I was extremely light-headed and dizzy.  Specifically, no one had told me that men have a propensity during their cardiac recovery to pass out if they urinate standing up.  Predictably, I passed out while peeing in my garden, and after falling over the barbeque grill I crawled back indoors and called 9-1-1. 

 I was panicked. 

 I didn’t know what was happening to me.  I even began hallucinating, and when the paramedics from South Pierce Fire arrived I told them that “my head is not attached to my shoulders.”

 Nevertheless, when they ascertained that I had a BP of 185 over 140 we immediately headed back to the emergency room at Good Sam.  So much for discharge planning on the cheap.

 The ER doc was reassuring, though, and all my tests proved I was okay.  After a refreshing nap, the doc gave me a pat on the back and said I was ready to go home.

 This is when things really turned around for me, and my recovery became a beautiful bouquet of community support.  Word got around pretty quick that I was back in the hospital, even if for just a few hours, and I got a call from Carol Wright, the Executive Director of the Graham-Kapowsin Community Council.

 Carol told me that she had just received a phone call from Bruce Lachney, a community activist from Eatonville, saying that he wanted to donate a $100 to a transportation fund to assist guys like me in getting to their doctor appointments.

 “That’s wonderful Carol, particularly since I need a ride home from the hospital tonight,” I replied.

 Carol then called one of her volunteers, Lisa Cool, who came quickly to pick me up from the ER.  On the way home I explained to Lisa what Carol had just told me, and from those conversations Lisa then became the new transportation coordinator for the G-KCC.  Ultimately, Lisa, using money from Mr. Lachney and others in the G-KCC for gas, drove me to cardiac rehab three times a week for the next six weeks.  What a blessing, for not only do I not own a car, I wasn’t strong enough to drive safely, especially after my rehab sessions when my head would be spinning.

 She also took me grocery shopping on the way home.  I am utterly grateful.

 Within days I discovered that I had received another gift – the above-mentioned cardiac rehabilitation.  Good Sam wrote to say that it had not only forgiven my hospital bill but had also authorized a free year’s worth of medical service, which included 8-10 weeks of the cardiac rehabilitation.  My recovery was quickly coming into place.

 After a dozen or so phone calls to Good Sam, I finally found my social worker on the phone and we strategized how I could get Medicaid, the Medicare-like insurance for impoverished guys like me.

 Through many weeks the DSHS bureaucracy churned forward in processing my application, accompanied by my many phone calls to them and to Paratransit in an effort to procure rides to rehab so that I didn’t burn-out Lisa’s altruism or Lachney’s gas fund.  After seven weeks it came into reality, and because of Lisa and others I was never left in the lurch.

 Rehab was a God-send.  Finally, I had people – staff and my fellow patients – that I could ask about all the unprecedented stuff happening to me.  Why was I so dizzy?  When would I feel like myself again?  What do these chest pains mean?  What should I eat so I don’t get another heart attack?  How come I have so little energy?

 Rehab is three days a week, and each day has at least one-hour session of physical exercise on a treadmill, rowing machine or stationary bicycle.  Plus, the nurses and techs took my blood pressure regularly throughout each session, and my heart was constantly monitored through a “telley,” a wireless telemetry device that recorded my EKG and heart rate.  It was reassuring that I could exercise my body – even push it at times – and I had trained medical staff nearby to coach me, and be available to catch me if and when I stumbled.

 They also conducted instructional classes weekly to discuss heart physiology, strategies for stress reduction, and developing nutritional plans.  Further, Kathleen Reid-Stowe, a nutritionist from Good Sam, came down for three sessions to coach us intensely in eating “heart-healthy” foods, which meant lowering sodium levels, eating meals low in fats, sugars and cholesterol, and how to lose weight.  She even took us on a field trip to a local Safeway, where she showed us how to read labels and analyze nutritional content, such as determining how many grams of fat are contained in a slice of bread or how many milligrams of salt are in a can of soup, and what healthy levels are for us.

 The rehab staff, ably led by a savvy, seasoned RN named Juddy Phillips, was also available to listen to my worries.

 “Why am I still so light-headed?” I asked constantly.  They reassured me, and cheered my slowly gathering strength.  Now, after twenty-four sessions, I am approaching “my old self” in terms of strength and stamina.

 The staff also exposed me to alternative notions of cardiac care, in particular the idea of reversing heart disease by eating a plant-based diet, which I have embraced and I will be discussing in separate essay.  In the meantime, I’m not eating any animal products because they all have cholesterol, and I want to lower my levels naturally so that I don’t have to take any medication for it, such as a statin.

 That means I’m not eating any fish or chicken, nor any dairy – no butter, yogurt or cheese.  Or eggs.  As a result I’m consuming lots of rice and beans, whole wheat, fruit and veggies, and fortunately I have a personal coach who is eating like this for himself, Lisa’s husband Ray.

 Outside of rehab, the love keeps flowing.  Without the usual prodding, my mother sent me $2,000 to pay for all the unexpected bills.  Part of that is going to purchase a beefed-up bicycle so I can peddle to Eatonville to do shopping and build up my heart.  My immediate goal is to lose 50 pounds and get down to 180, but my ultimate goal is to get back to the athleticism I had in high school so that I can once again play baseball.  I hear there is a senior league around here and I want to get ready to play second base.  If Jamie Moyer can pitch in the starting rotation of the Colorado Rockies at the age of 49, well, all I can say is – put me in coach, I’m ready  to play.

 My landlord took $75 off the rent so that I could buy a blood pressure machine.  But even before that my friends Pat and Herb gave me theirs so that I could keep track of all the ups and down that I was experiencing early on.  It was reassuring to see that my BP wasn’t streaking into the ethers when I got light-headed.  But eventually a glitch developed in the machine and I needed a new one.

 Further, Pat even did my laundry – not once but twice – because I just didn’t have the strength to endure the strain of a Laundromat.

 After a couple of months of recovery, an old friend from Graham, Wayne Cook, called me to see if I could use his van for a week or two.  Wayne and his wife had become very involved in managing a family chemotherapy regimen and they weren’t using their second vehicle.

 “Sure, Wayne, that would be great,” I said, so I was able to do some shopping at my own speed, such as selecting my new BP machine.  But after driving to South Hill for rehab and a side trip to Fred Meyer and Walgreens for food and price comparisons, I was exhausted.

 So much for going to the movies tonight, I thought.  However, still craving some social company, I called my old girl friend Francesca in Yelm and she graciously took me out to the Grand Cinema in Tacoma for a night on the town.  We went out to dinner at Red Robins and I learned there is not too much to eat that is heart healthy in mainstream America. Alas.

 I even felt the love from my cardiologist.  Dr. Peter Chen at the Cardiac Study Center has me on a special anti-platelet medication called Effient.  The concern is that no one wants my stent plugging up with platelets thinking that the foreign metal tube needs to be defended against biochemically.  Apparently a month’s worth of Effient is about $500, and even at the cheap med counter at Walmart it is $235 per month, which is beyond my capacities.  As a result, he’s given me free samples of Effient for the duration, which should change soon, as an affordable generic drug becomes available in the near future.

 In addition, I have received innumerable phone calls and emails.  A woman from my distant past, whom I had a serious crush on, called to see how I was doing.

 I never knew….

 People are praying and sending me healing energies.  A local gal I know from the Graham Business Association, Nancy Hinschberger comes by with frequency to go walking with me, even in the rain, and has been a valuable asset as she motivates me to keep moving even when I am so fatigued I want to lean against a tree for an hour.  Our conversations ease the effort, and the strolls pass quickly. Nancy and her son Nathan even came by with chicken soup and some delicious burritos before I went vegan.

 My step-daughter Debra, a chiropractor in Pennsylvania, has called a couple times to consult with me and has sent me her special vitamin concoction.  Her mother, my Peachy in New York, calls often at midnight her time for a “sleepy catch-up conversation” and a lie-la tov.

But perhaps the best part of my recovery is that I am finding a way to be integrated into my community.  Never have I been more dependent on others – free medical care, neighbors driving me all over town, doing my laundry – all on top of collecting my Social Security.  Yet, I am returning something of value, too, namely my experiences – and a warning

Half the people who will die in America this year will die of heart disease.  That’s one out of two.  It’s an unmitigated epidemic, and the sad truth is that it can be prevented.  We need to eat healthier, exercise much more – vigorously every day – and love more.  Along those lines, I’m becoming the storyteller I always wanted to be, and boy, do I have a  story to tell.

 We don’t have to let the machinations of corporatized agri-business and the resulting American Micky D lifestyle plug our arteries with junk. 

 I’m loving being a voice in opposition to this, and helping plot a new course to a healthier future.

The love that you make is equal to the love that you take….

 ©  2012  Mountain News – WA

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5 Responses to Anatomy of a heart attack – feeling the love

  1. Cele Noble says:

    Bruce, this is a fantastic, informative article. some of it is familiar to me–the vegan diet part–and you know the rest of my story (which obviously I haven’t gotten to writing for you) so now the question is:–when will you be ready (or is the phrase–when would you like to ?)start participating in Edwin’s Taichi classes???As you know that is what revived me from severe adrenal fatigue. I’ll volunteer Tony for transportation~

  2. Paula Morris says:

    Yes Bruce: In the final analysis, giving and receiving love, mutual aid, cooperation with community, turns out to be the key to a happy life. It’s really very simple isn’t it?

  3. Bruce, well done. Love is the key. Bettye

  4. Nancy Mays says:

    Oh, Bruce…what a wonderful accounting of your experience. I don’t like the idea of you riding a bike on the cut off road, though! Call me when you need a ride…I often have to be at Mark’s office, but if able I will be glad to give you a ride! Do you still have my cell phone #. Be careful! I continue to really enjoy your writing.

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