Like most monumental, cataclysmic, life-altering events, I never saw this one coming.
I was in Florida visiting family. My great-nephews were keen to get up a game of touch football. I jumped at the chance. But three plays in, I had to bench myself.
My woefully out-of-shape condition, coupled with the Florida heat, had me gasping for air. I was relegated to doing silly color commentary from the sidelines.
Two days later, while walking through Newark airport to the pickup area, my shortness of breath returned, only this time with pains in my chest. I had to stop every few feet to catch my breath and let the pain subside.
Truth be told, this was not the first time I experienced these symptoms, though never as severe.
Like most late-middle aged, faux-macho men in denial, I was easily able to rationalize my symptoms as my being out of shape, or the lingering long-term effects of COVID, or simply just “something I ate.”
The severity told me this was different. I went home and called a cardiologist, who immediately scheduled me for a nuclear stress test.
The following day, the cardiologist called with the results. He didn’t like what he was seeing and wanted me to undergo cardiac catheterization, the test where a thin tube and some contrast liquid is injected into your vein so they can have a better sense of how blood is flowing in the arteries to your heart.
“Are we talking stents?” I asked him.
“Stents or bypass, we’ll have to see what we find.”
I hung up, but the word “bypass” lingered in my mind. That wasn’t something I had even remotely contemplated. Bypasses are for old men. I’m a spry 68-year-old who has never been sick a day in his life.
Exactly two weeks after the airport incident, I found myself lying on a table in the cardiac catheterization lab.
“You’ll be awake but in la-la land,” the doctor said.
The next thing I remember was being awakened by the doctor.
“How’d I do?” I asked.
“Not too good,” he replied. “You have four blocked arteries. Two at 100 percent, one at 90 percent and one at 80 percent. You need bypass surgery.”
His words barely had a chance to sink in before another white coat appeared at the foot of my bed.
“Hello, I’m the heart surgeon.”
He immediately began to run down what was involved in coronary artery bypass surgery, but at that moment it was all just too much information. I cut him off.
“When can you do it?” I asked.
“6 a.m. tomorrow morning.”
“Okay,” I said.
I wasn’t being brave. I just knew myself. The more time I had to sit around and Google the operation, and the many things that could go wrong, the more time I would lay awake at 2 a.m. and obsess about what was ahead.
The rest of the day flew as I underwent a myriad of pre-op procedures. When the call came early the next morning that the surgical team was ready, I cockily walked the 150 or so feet from my room into the operating room and hopped on the table.
I came to, briefly, about seven hours later. I was back in my room and I could hear my girlfriend and my daughter calling out my name. I couldn’t respond, mainly because of the rusty ’57 Chevy exhaust pipe—medically referred to as “the ventilator”—which was lodged down my throat and triggering my gag reflex.
I motioned for a pen and scribbled the word “gag” on the back of a tissue box. Someone said: “We want to make sure you can breathe on your own before removing it.”
I went out again and when I awoke several hours later, mercifully, it was gone, but I remained tethered to a multitude of other tubes and sensors.
Later that night I awoke to the sound of the machine monitoring me going off like a penny slot machine in Las Vegas. Calie, an angel from heaven dressed in a nurse’s uniform, was injecting something into the large port the doctors had installed in my jugular.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Your pressure is skyrocketing and your O2 level is dropping. We need to stabilize you.”
“Should I call home?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “You’ll be okay.”
I fell back to sleep, but not for long. Once again, the monitor was beeping loudly. Calie was still in my room, but now she was joined by two other nurses and the on-call cardiac doctor. I looked up at her.
“I want to call home and say goodbye to my daughter,” I said.
We made eye contact. “You would tell me, right?”
“I would tell you,” she said.
Then, Calie reached down and gently took my index finger in her hand. It was an instinctive gesture, filled with kindness and empathy, probably something she’s done with hundreds of patients and I doubt she even remembers.
But it is something I will never forget. It gave me a human connection at a time when I was in desperate need of one. In its own way, it was as powerful as the fentanyl she had given me earlier for pain from three drainage tubes in my chest.
I laid back in bed and drifted off. Calie had signaled that: “We got you.”
The doctors had promised that I would be sitting up in a chair the day after my surgery and walking the halls, albeit slowly and with the help of a walker, soon after. They were true to their word. They also told me I could go home when I could walk a flight of stairs and get my internal plumbing in working order.
On day six, one day for each bypass I ultimately received, I was discharged.
I arrived home weak, both physically—I dropped 15 pounds in the hospital, all muscle—and, especially, emotionally. Just the sight of my daughter or the voice of a friend calling to check in on me could trigger uncontrollable sobbing.
My doctors told me it was a normal reaction and can last up to three months. They even had a name for it—”cardiac blues.” Fortunately, mine only lasted two weeks.
I’m now in week fourteen of recovery. The nine-inch scar on my left arm, from my wrist up to my elbow, where doctors harvested one of the bypass arteries, is healing nicely, though I am very self-conscious about it and opt for a long-sleeved shirt even in the summer heat.
The six-inch scar on my chest is also healing but remains sensitive to the slightest touch. I attend cardiac rehab at the hospital three times a week, which has worked wonders at restoring my overall stamina, though end-of-day fatigue continues to be a problem.
I rarely make it through an episode of Jeopardy, usually dozing off just as Ken Jennings is introducing the categories for the Double Jeopardy round.
There isn’t much about my story that is unique. Surgeons now perform hundreds of thousands of bypass surgeries each year. Once a medical marvel, they’ve become routine. Well, routine for everyone except the person whose chest they are cutting open.
Some patients who undergo major medical procedures like mine often say it has a profound effect on them, their lifestyle, and their outlook on life. The trees look greener, the chirping birds sound sweeter, they leap out of bed every morning with a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm.
That hasn’t been my experience. The changes in me have been more subtle and practical. Where once I flew down the steps in my home, I now take my time with my hand on the banister. If I can pay someone to do a chore around the house that I used to do, I’m happily reaching for my wallet. I’ve become aware of my age.
My diet, which wasn’t terrible, has gotten better, but I still eat too much butter and ice cream. On the plus side, I don’t smoke or drink so I consider it a wash.
When I was 14 my grandfather took me to a wrestling match in Manhattan. Coming up the stairs of the subway station he suddenly stopped and leaned against a building.
“Wait,” he said, clutching his chest. “I need a minute to catch my breath.”
After resting we continued but had to stop several more times on the way to the arena. Little did I know the scene was a prelude to the one at Newark airport 55 years later, only now it was my turn to be the one gasping for air.
About a month after the wrestling match my grandfather went into the hospital with chest pains. He never came home. He was 72, a few years older than my current age.
Cause of death: Coronary artery disease. Years later, both my parents required cardiac stents for the same problem. Even if I spent my entire adult life eating tofu salads and jogging every morning, I could never run away from my bad genes.
The other day in rehab the nurse told me she’s had many patients who lived 20 years or more after undergoing bypass surgery. She meant well, but it brought me up short.
When you’re in your late sixties, 20 years is a very knowable amount of time. It’s finite and can fly by. I have shirts in my closet that are 20 years old. It’s not really much time at all.
I need to get busy making the most of what remains.
John Ficarra is a writer and editor. He was the longtime editor of MAD Magazine and is a frequent contributor to the digital weekly Air Mail.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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