Grateful for a Thanksgiving Day miracle
In the past, I’ve always found it easy to be grateful for my life; however, after spending the four-day Thanksgiving weekend in the cardiac ward — my fourth stay in Stamford Hospital this year — it’s becoming increasingly difficult.
I suffer from ventricular tachycardia (V-tach), an arrhythmia similar to atrial fibrillation (A-fib), an ailment for which pharmaceutical ads run almost constantly on TV. Both carry the risk of heart attack and stroke, and both are potentially fatal.
Last spring, I began passing out from V-tach-related dizzy spells, so I went through heavy-duty drug therapy and was implanted with an ICD, which is a combination pacemaker/defibrillator. Since the procedure, I’d considered myself lucky to have gone five months without either device coming on, but that was before Thanksgiving.
One of my doctors explained that being shocked by my defibrillator would be “uncomfortable.” It was a strange word choice: A pebble in one’s shoe is “uncomfortable”; an electrical jolt to the heart from a defibrillator is excruciating. I was also told that, if it happened, the device was likely to shock me only two or three times, and, at worst, it might involve half a dozen jolts. If only that had been the case.
By my 10th shock, I’d begun to worry that the device would never stop firing. I was starting to hallucinate, imagining sparks spurting from my chest. The feeling of being kicked by a horse in the ribs from the inside is not improved by the sensation of crackling and burning around your heart. This felt less like a medical procedure than something that might take place in a medieval torture chamber.
After the 14th shock (yes, I was stupidly counting them), I called 911, which was harder to do than you might think, because the jolts kept making me lose my grip and bounce my phone on the carpet. After I’d given my address and explained my situation, the ambulance arrived mercifully quickly, along with two fire engines and a dozen firemen.
As I flopped around on my living room floor like a dying fish, the firemen tried to hold me down, so the paramedics could put monitors on me and an IV in me. Another “uncomfortable” aspect of this experience was the loud thud I heard each time the electricity zapped my heart, a sound that turned out to be inaudible to everyone but me. As a result, the paramedics and firemen had no indication I was still being shocked (other than my periodic, high-pitched screaming).
That was probably the worst aspect of this whole terrifying affair. Here I was, lying on the floor, bawling like a child, amid a roomful of tough-looking firemen — guys who rush into burning buildings for a living. The only thing that finally quieted me down was when the EMS techs managed to pump enough chemicals into me to stabilize my heart rate sufficiently for the defibrillator to shut down. Then I was loaded into the ambulance, and driven to the hospital.
The next morning, one of my doctors — I have nearly as many physicians as Donald Trump has criminal attorneys — “interrogated” my ICD (i.e., downloaded data from its ROM chip). When he asked me how many times I thought the defibrillator had gone off, I guessed “20 times,” which caused him to scoff that I was surely exaggerating. Unfortunately, his next comment was, “I stand corrected. It fired 25 times.”
I asked whether this might be a malfunction, but my doctors all assured me that it fired 25 times, because that’s how many times it needed to in order to keep me alive. Without it, I’d have died of cardiac arrest before the paramedics arrived. So, although my implant had tortured me, it had also saved my life, and I should be grateful for a Thanksgiving Day miracle.
I’ve heard a lot about “thankfulness” lately. Religious friends tell me I should thank God for allowing me to live, but that’s not how it feels. Throughout 2018, God has seemed to be doing his best to kill me off, while medical technology, paramedics and an army of cardiologists have struggled to keep me alive. Realistically, The Big Guy probably has more important things to do (like spinning galaxies and blowing up supernovas) than tormenting me. If the universe has a Creator, it’s doubtful He even knows who I am.
However, I do know three things I’m thankful for this holiday season. The most important is my wife, who, after 43 years, still stands by me, is truly my best friend and is a pit bull when it comes to taking care of me. Some say marriage is a dying institution, but no one will ever convince me of that. Secondly, there are the close friends who’ve listened patiently and sympathetically as I’ve whined endlessly about my condition.
Finally, after spending way too much time in the cardiac ward, I’m thankful for nurses. These are the people who do the most to make hospitals bearable and your time there tolerable. IMHO, nurses are saints — some of the kindest, most decent and hardworking people you’ll ever meet.
Whatever they’re being paid, it’s not enough. It would be great if more of the rest of us, especially our leaders, demonstrated similar dedication. Now, that would be something to be truly thankful for.
Greenwich native Mark Drought (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an editor at a Stamford IT firm and was an adjunct English professor at the University of Connecticut-Stamford.