Saturday, August 21, 2010

Celebrating Life--Continued

While I was in the hospital, I had plenty of time to think about things. I took mental inventory; trying to decide what things to keep in my life and which things to toss out. Lucky for me, the nurses didn't allow me to feel sorry for myself. They were compassionate and caring about what I had been through and the pain I was in, but they didn't allow me to wallow in self-pity. I was told it was detrimental to my recovery. Of course, I knew I was lucky. I could have had a massive heart attack and been on life support. I also came to grips with the fact that what had happened to me had been mostly my own fault. I knew my diet was bad. I ate red meat, cheese, eggs and butter as much as I wanted to. I was basically a couch potato. Oh sure, I worked hard. And my jobs had all been pretty strenuous. But working hard isn't aerobic. It's not doing anything to help my cardiovascular health. Well, it got my heart rate up at times, but not in a good way. I also knew that I had smoked for more than 30 years before quitting in 2006. It was good that I had quit, but the damage was already done. I knew my weight had long been a problem, too. But I had always vowed I wasn't going to be a "slave" to my body. I wasn't going to be one of those "salad and a glass of water" women. I kidded myself that all the bad tickers in my family belonged to men. All the women were healthy as horses so I thought I had nothing to worry about. But I had to wake up to the fact that my lifestyle had put me where I was. It's hard to do that in this culture; where everything was someone else's fault. No one force fed me the diet I had been eating all of my adult life. When my dad had his heart attack in 1989, I saw how hard it was for him to make the adjustments necessary to live healthier. He had the added problem of being diabetic, something I don't have to worry about (and hopefully never will). At the time, I was 28 years old and wondered how I would respond to the order to eat healthier. I said "No doctor's gonna tell me I can't eat bacon if I want to!" Well, when it's your life, it's amazing the stuff you'll give up. I can give up bacon easy. I'm on a sodium restricted diet because I'm taking blood pressure medication. Who knows how long my BP was allowed to run rampant, damaging my arteries. I used to think that doctors made too big a deal out of things. Like if a slice of white bread passed your lips, you would explode from the inside. Or if I didn't live off lettuce and grapefruit I would sentence myself to an early grave. I don't remember the man's name, but he was the guy who started the jogging craze back in the 70's. This guy told people they could live longer and be healthier if they jogged everyday. This man dropped dead at 57 and when they autopsied him, he had four arteries that were completely blocked. So much for jogging. Now doctors and nutritionists know that jogging and exercising, while it's good for your heart, will not break up plaque in the arteries nor will it prevent it. Only diet and heredity does that. So now I have to live with what I did to myself. I shake my head now when I think of how arrogant I was. My friends, who were coming to grips with the fact that they were aging, were making changes like stopping smoking, cutting back on sweets and salt, and reducing their alcohol. I poo-poohed this, saying "I can eat anything I want. I'm healthy." I wish my friends had insisted that I see a doctor to be sure. I think the truth is that I didn't want to know. I was going to live my life on my terms and not obsess over things like my weight. If people didn't like my size, they could go to hell. I made the typical remarks that I would rather be the size I was than one of those walking coat hangers. "How could those skinny girls possibly be healthy?" I asked. I neglected to think "How could I be healthy at this weight?" But I was in denial. Well, no longer. All I had to do was look at the machine I was hooked up to and all denial was wiped away.
My room was right by the nurses' station. There was a lady in sterile clothes whose job was just to watch the monitors of all the patients. She had two screens to watch: ICU patients and the ones on the floor. She didn't have to see patients or fill out paperwork. Her sole job was watching those heart monitors. I felt very safe with her on the job. I began to think of her as a lifeline. I never said a word to her, but she was very important to me.
When they moved me back onto the floor, I was pushed in a recliner (more comfy than a wheelchair). As we rolled past the nurses' station, all the girls there clapped and cheered. It was, I was told, a tradition to do this for people who made it out of ICU. It was a special little "you go, girl!" after all I had been through. I knew a lot of patients probably didn't make it out of ICU, unless it was to go to the morgue. While I was on the floor, the nurse told me I would get Fentynal for only about 8 more hours. Then they were changing my pain medication to Percocet. I think, at first, they were afraid I was drug seeking. But I think it finally did dawn on them that I was an actual patient with actual pain. Before I left ICU, a nurse removed the Foley from my bladder. It hurt more coming out than it had going in. Of course, I was so out of it when it had been put in that I couldn't be sure about that. From now on, when I needed to use the bathroom, I would have to get up and walk to the bathroom. Of course, they wanted me to call them if I needed help. When I went into the bathroom for the first time, I saw that there was a little pan there to catch and measure my urine. Urine, I knew, was gold in hospitals. Every drop was caught, measured and studied. I guess you can learn a lot about a person's health by looking at their urine. Anyway, I filled that thing the first time. Funny, but it felt so good to pee on my own. It also felt good to finally have a bowel movement. Of course, with the tear, it hurt a little. But they didn't want me straining and maybe causing the tear to start bleeding again. I didn't see any blood so I figured everything was cool in that department. My stomach sure felt a lot less bloated and painful. I was healing fast and beginning to feel a bit anxious to get back home. "Not until you can do stairs" my doctor said when I asked when I would be going home. Right, I never thought of that. I had some hellacious stairs at my apartment. No way I would be able to tackle those in my present state. Just getting up and walking to the bathroom exhausted me. These folks were the experts. I would have to take their word for it.
Of course, later that first day on the floor, I got my last dose of Fentynal. I savored the floaty feeling it gave me, knowing I was going to get Percocet next time. I remembered Percocet. My mother took it for her back and sometimes, when my cramps were especially bad, I would take one. Yes, I know. Very foolish. I could have ended up addicted to it. Unfortunately, the first time I needed something for pain (after the Fentynal was stopped) was during the night when the 3rd shift nurse was there. When she finally got to my room and I told her my pain was about an 8, she offered me a Tylenol. "Tylenol?" I said. "For a peritoneal tear? You're kidding, right?" She looked put out. Yes, I know it's harder to get narcotics; there's more procedure involved and she probably didn't want to go to the trouble. But I was in pain here. I couldn't have cared less that she didn't want to go through the procedure of getting me a narcotic pain reliever. I needed something for my pain NOW. When she finally did go to get it, she left me waiting (sweating and crying) for over half an hour. By the time she brought the pill, I was ready to tear it out of her hand. But I had to wait until she put it into a plastic medicine cup. There's some kind of federal law about taking medication directly from someone else's hand, even a nurse. She shoved it at me and gratefully swallowed it without checking to see if my water pitcher was full. It wasn't. The nurse got me a glass of water from the bathroom faucet. What a sweetheart she was. I would have washed that beautiful pill down with my own pee if I'd been forced to. It made me think of James Caans' character in "Misery": a poor person in pain at the mercy of someone who didn't care if they were in pain. I probably interrupted her break or something. Well, I'm sorry but my pain isn't on a time clock. Needless to say, I was glad when she left and another nurse replaced her. She was really great. Yes, I sometimes had to wait for her after I'd hit my call button, but she always apologized for the delay. I wasn't under any illusion that I was the only patient on the floor. I'm pretty sure most of the beds were full. I knew that I would have to wait for things.
There's only so much recuperating a person can do in a hospital. Sooner or later, it's time to leave and get on with your life. The first time I tried to do the stairs, I got dizzy. I attributed this to the fact that the stairwell was very hot. I was only dizzy for a couple seconds, but five people came running. I really was embarrassed. One of the nurses who was helping me said it would be better for me to wait until I can do the stairs alone than risk ending up back in the hospital, maybe with a broken neck this time. So it was determined that I should stay in the hospital for one more day. I was discouraged, but my sweet, understanding nurse told me that I would have setbacks. Come to expect them, she told me. You'll have times where you're discouraged, where you're frustrated. But you'll also have victories. But those will be hard won. She told me I would get well. The peritoneal tear was just going to make it take a little longer. She had me out walking the halls twice that night. Since I would be going home the next day, I would need to be as strong on my feet as possible. And there was still those pesky stairs. I wasn't going anywhere until I could master them. So I called forth my grit and made up my mind that I was going to whup those stairs. After the disappointment of failing the Stair Test, my nurse tucked me back into my bed with a Percocet. I was so disappointed. I was sure I would do well. I'm a very competitive person. I like to win. But not even being able to do a flight of stairs was such a stark wake-up call for me; a tangible reminder what my body had been through. "You'll do it tomorrow" my nurse said rubbing my shoulder and giving it a squeeze.
The next morning, my doctor came in. He was dressed in a suit this time and he looked gorgeous. He announced that I was being discharged today. He said if I had lived in a ranch-style house I would've gone home the day before. He asked me if I'd had any chest pain or if the pain was just in my tummy. Yeah, just there. No chest pain at all. He was happy to hear this. However, my tummy was still extremely tender and I reacted appropriately (something doctors call "guarding"). I asked him how long it would be that sore and he shrugged. It was all up to how fast my body healed the tear and how fast it reabsorbed the hematoma. He said until then, expect pain. But it would decrease as I healed. Pretty soon, he assured me, Tylenol will take care of any pain I was having. Just to be safe, when he gave my nurse my discharge papers, there was a prescription for Oxycodone. It was the small ones but it would work, he assured me. Cigi had had the big ones and had a Fentynal patch on top of that. Now I had some kind of perspective on how bad her pain must have been. Yet, I never once heard her complain or feel sorry for herself. I found myself admonishing myself when I felt like pitying myself.
I had to watch a movie called "Going Home Following A Heart Attack". All of the people in it were in their 60's. There was no one my age in the film. When I thought about it, there was no one my age on the floor. My nurse told me it was rare to see someone under 50 who didn't have a congenital heart disorder; unless they were drug addicts. One nurse told me everything about my case was atypical. Hey, what can I say? I was never one to do anything by the book. An internist was also seeing me regularly in order to track my overall health; his job was to make sure none of my new meds were interacting, that I was eating and "voiding" the way I should have been. He listened to my bowel sounds and continued to watch the area where the bruising was. The bruising, where the blood just pooled up under the surface of my skin, was horrific. It still stuns me to look at it. To think I lost that much blood just floors me. But the doctor told me that, as my body absorbs it, the bruising would fade. It would just take a long time. The trick now was to limit my physical activity so as not to tear it again. This is in direct opposition to what they want you to do after a heart attack. Most cardiologists want their patients up and moving as soon as possible. So my cardiologist knew not to expect any cartwheels from me just yet.
When the lady from physical therapy arrived to take me on the steps, I knew it was the moment of truth. My nurse went with me "just in case". I went up the stairs slowly but steadily. It had been coming down that had proved my undoing the day before. So I took it a little more slowly going up than I had before. Coming down, I felt good. I was wearing a device called a grab belt that the physical therapist could use to help me balance. When I hit the bottom of the staircase, I knew I'd aced it. I knew I would be going home that day. I was excited but scared, too. I'd been in the hospital for five days. It was time to continue my recovery at home.
So I say to all of my friends out there: don't ignore your health. Don't think it can't happen to you just because you eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise and your weight is normal. It can happen to anyone. Heart disease, I learned, is the Number One cause of death among women, beating out all cancers combined (even breast cancer). It's the Number Three killer of women in my age bracket (45-55) in the world. You only have one heart. Take care of it better than I did mine.

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