Sunday, August 28, 2005

Ain't Nuthin' Goin' On But The 'Rents

Okay, so enough about my surgery and all the gross stuff that goes with it. Let’s get back to the fun stuff and the weirdness that, as you are aware, is my life.

So I am living with my parents for the next three weeks or so recuperating. In truth, someone needed to take care of me after the fact, so Mom and Dad are as good as anyone else.

It’s been 20 years since I have actually LIVED with my folks. I have stayed with them occasionally over the years, usually just two nights on a weekend. The most I have stayed at one time might have been 4 nights, but probably more like 3 nights, but usually it’s just two. My parents have been married for 44 years – their anniversary was just this past Friday. They have been living without children in the house for about 12 or 13 years now. The occasional grandchild (of which they have 8) will stay now and then, but mostly its just the folks.

I kinda feel like I am a zoologist living in a primate society and documenting ritualistic behavior (I kinda get the feeling of what Dian Fossey must have gone through). My parents have their routine down and it varies little from day to day.

Dad is set to retire January 1. He turned 66 two months ago. He has wanted to retire for the last two years but my Mom, who retired about 6 years ago, wouldn’t let him. She was afraid he would end up just sitting around the house and doing nothing. Dad still puts in 14 hour days sometimes. Mom told him to cut back his hours first and then retire. But Dad is simply too nosey to stay away from work. Even after he retires, he will probably go back to his office a few times a week to make sure everything is being done properly without him.

They get up together every morning at 5:30 AM. Every freaking morning! It wasn’t so bad when I was sleeping in a bedroom, but for this go around I am in a hospital bed that is set up in the living room. So I have been getting up at 5:30 AM every morning since I arrived last Tuesday. Of course my folks don’t realize that I have been waiting for them to go to bed so I can cruise bigmuscle.com without fear of Mom walking in behind me and innocently asking, “Wha’cha looking at?”

Dad goes off to work around 7:30 AM and Mom heads to Curves. She is back by 9 or so and then begins her housework. I am not sure how much dust two short people can create, but Mom feels the need to vacuum everyday. Two people in a house and Mom is doing laundry every day. All this is done by 11:00 AM or so. She shoots up her insulin (Mom is diabetic – yet another flotation device in my gene pool to look forward to), eats lunch and then, since I am here, spends quality time with me.

Mom preps the house each day just in case she gets company. While she is doing her housework, there is always something baking. My mother is the ultimate hostess. She likes to be prepared in the event that someone will just drop in. With me staying here, the chances of that happening are more likely. So Mom stays a step ahead of the world. And if no one shows up during the day, one of my brothers will visit in the evening and devour whatever she has put in the cake tin.

Mom eats dinner alone around 5:00 – she has to eat on a schedule. And then she sits with Dad while he eats, around 6:30 or so. My parents communicate extremely well. They laugh a lot and call each other their best friend. They have no secrets from each other. And as close as they are – they have separate living rooms.

Mom’s room has pale blue walls, fluffy sofas, a country-kitsch/shabby chic kinda feel. Dad’s room is paneled (yes, I said paneled) with brown carpeting and walls full of his beer stein collection. Their living rooms are separated by a foyer. And they will sit in their separate rooms each night, and talk across the foyer to each other. Sometimes they are even watching the same thing on their televisions. And both begin to fall asleep in their rooms around 9:30 or so. Dad stretches out the recliner and embraces his early slumber. But Mom refuses to even admit she was sleeping when you wake her. Eventually, one will wake the other and they both go off to their bedroom around 11:30 PM.

And then I get online.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Hospital Recovery

On the outset, let me just say that you get absolutely no rest when you are a patient in a hospital. My blood was drawn every six hours; drainage tubes were emptied every four hours in the beginning; I would go for x-rays at 3AM, so the cardiac surgeon could see them when he comes in at 4AM; I was awaken for breakfast at 8, lunch at 1, dinner at 5; I was given medication to swallow two times a day and my IVs were checked once very two hours. I know its all necessary, but HELLO - I AM SICK!

Saturday, August 20th – the day following my surgery – is still kind of a blur. I know I was sitting up in bed at 12 noon, because that’s when visiting hours began and my room became inundated with family.

It must have been very difficult for my parents and family to see me in this state. I have always been a pillar of strength and always looked to be the healthiest person in the room. And here I lay, practically as helpless as an infant. Not able to sit up, turn my head, even move at all (of course all of the IVs and catheters assisted in limiting my mobility).

My chest tubes were removed after lunch. The thing is, you are asleep when all of this stuff I had mentioned is put into you, but you are more than awake when they take it out. To watch tubes being pulled out of your body is about as surreal as it gets. I lay flat on the bed, Jessica, the PA (Physician’s Assistant), snipped the suchers that held the tubes in place, then placed a hand on my stomach and yanked two foot-long tubes out of me, near my sternum. I actually felt them move through me and clear my body. No stitches or anything afterwards – she just slapped some gauze and tape over the holes (this way the wounds will heal from the inside out, rather than just on the outside).

The blood pressure catheter in the right side of my groin and the femoral artery catheter in the left side of my groin (which I forgot to mention in my last blog post) were also removed on Saturday. Same procedure: grab, yank, gauze, tape. Except I had to lay with a sandbag on my femoral artery wound that was strapped on me with a belt for about thirty minutes (applied pressure to stop bleeding).

It was also on Saturday that I became introduced to my new best friend – a heart shaped thick pillow that would be my constant companion for at least the next 48 hours. I would need to hug the pillow to sit up, sit down, eventually get out of bed, walk, everything.

Flowers arrived, first from Kevin, then from Kelly, then from my company’s Board of Directors. All flowers had to be sent home though, as they robbed the room of the oxygen I was still in need of.

The next day, Sunday, the bladder catheter was removed – certainly the most painful one but the one that I needed removed to allow me to start moving around independently. As soon as it was removed, they got me out of bed, with the assistance of my pillow, and started walking me around. By late Sunday night, I was walking unassisted, and the IV access line in my neck – which was used to distribute antibiotics directly to my heart – was removed too.

On Monday morning, Jessica visited me, removed me from oxygen-assist, and told me that I could actually be discharged that day – three days after my surgery. However, I thought it was a little too soon for my family to handle. Even though I knew I was ready and able to handle it, I got the feeling that my parents were uneasy. So I stayed another night.

I ended up developing post nasal drip because the air in the unit was so dry. I couldn’t recline my bed at any degree because the back of my throat would dry out and I would end up coughing. Coughing, which is a preferred hobby in this situation to rid your lungs of stagnate fluid, basically hurts more than anything else. I was given a sleeping pill which didn’t work, and two Percocets which only made me itch. This was by far my most miserable night.

Tuesday morning, I said good-bye to the Pace wires and the drainage tube in my sternum – the last foreign items that were sticking out of me. My brother came to pick me up and I was discharged to the care of my parents for the next 4 weeks – which seemed only slightly less scary than heart surgery.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Post-Operation

I remember before surgery began that I was being wheeled from pre-op to the operating room. They had given me anesthesia in order to insert a Swan Ganz catheter (IV) into my neck and several IVs and catheters in other places. Apparently I was supposed to stay asleep, but I woke up and actually got to see the operating room. I was struck by the fact that it looked exactly like it does on TV: very bright lights, everyone wearing surgical greens, and it was freezing cold.


I must have surprised the anesthesiologist, who looked down at me once I was in place and said, “Oh, hello there!” He asked how I felt and I told him that I felt ok. He said, “Well we will see you later.” The last thing I saw was a mask coming to my mouth and maybe in two seconds, I was out.

I don’t remember if I dreamed anything during the time or not. Perhaps I did. Perhaps I dreamed of my family and the other 19 people (consisting of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends of my parents) who had come to sit the 6-hour vigil in the waiting room. Perhaps I dreamed of my new life in Chicago when all this would be over. Perhaps I dreamed of good times with Kelly, Jeff, Jon, Poodle, Jug, Ash, Aaron, and all my other friends whom I love and enjoy. Or perhaps I dreamed of Kevin, a man who inspires me to rise above, challenge myself, eschew materialism, and do it all with a warm smile and loving heart. I hope I dreamed of one or all of these things. But I can’t remember.

I was taken to pre-op at 12:30pm. It took the team three hours to sedate me, insert all the necessary IVs and catheters, and hook me up to the appropriate monitors, crack my chest open and separate my breastbone. At 3:30pm, the cardiac surgeon entered the operating room to begin removing veins from my leg, and an artery from my chest wall to give me the four bypasses that I needed. During this time, blood was being pumped through my body by a machine, and two tubes each inserted into a lung through my mouth did my breathing.

I came out of surgery at 6:30pm. I was taken to recovery where I ended up coming out of anesthesia too early and had to be sedated again. After surgery, normal time for extubation (being taken off of the ventilator) is 6-8 hours. I was removed in 4 hours and 15 minutes (I am an overachiever, what can I tell you?). I woke up long enough to have the two breathing tubes removed from down my throat. I was told to breathe in, breathe out, breathe in and cough. With that, and an accompanied gagging noise, they pulled the tubes out of my mouth. My family then finally got a chance to see and talk to me.

I remember seeing my mom and dad. I remember asking what happened – as in how many bypasses (because we originally thought it would be five but it turned out to be four), I asked how long it had taken, and I asked what time it was. When my mom said, “It’s 11 PM”, I remember responding, “Go home.” I passed out and awoke in the room that would be my new home for the next 4 days.

I heard a woman’s voice and recall it being soft and soothing. She said her name was Rhonda and that she would be with me throughout the night. She fed me ice chips and gave me water. I don’t remember if I felt any pain or not, but I do remember wondering why I was awake and not sleeping. I took a moment and acknowledged that since I woke up, there must be more for me in this life. And I was certain I knew what that was. Eventually I passed out again.

I lay there for the rest of the night, drifting in and out of conciousness, listening to a sweet voice in the dark room, with the following accessories:

1. Oxygen tube up my nose;
2. An IV access line in my neck that went directly to my heart;
3. An IV access line in my left arm;
4. An IV line in my left wrist to drain blood;
5. Two chest tubes, one on either side, that were inserted into my chest to drain excess fluid from my lungs that ran down my legs and into a container on the floor;
6. A drainage tubes, between the chest tubes that drained excess fluid from around the heart. This tube was about 6 inches long with a ball cup on the end that would be emptied every 6 hours;
7. Six “pace wires” that were just below the chest tubes that would be used to hook me up to a pace maker should my heart stop;
8. An IV tube in my right arm;
9. A catheter in my upper right leg that monitored my blood pressure during surgery;
10. A catheter into my bladder that emptied into a container on the floor;
11. Three incisions down the inside of my right calf from where the veins were harvested;
12. And, of course, a 9” incision down the center of my chest.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Pre-Operation

So on the morning of Thursday, August 18th, an ambulance service from my parents’ hometown was dispatched to DC to transport me the three-hour ride to Sacred Heart Hospital. When I arrived, my mom was waiting for me outside. She was so happy to finally see me after several days of phone calls, that she kissed the first part of me she saw – the bottom of my foot.

I was placed in a nice, large hospital room and over the course of an hour, my father, sister and both brothers showed up, as well as a core staff of nurses to start the process of admitting me and prepping me for surgery that would be held the next afternoon.

The first of many needle insertions began with an IV line placed in my left arm. These are large gauge needles placed into you that have an access to hook you up to an IV if necessary. They are “innies”, not “outties” which meant liquids could only go in them, not withdrawn. So all my subsequent bloodwork still resulted in being stuck in many places all over my body. Two IV access lines, two blood withdrawals (one from the back of my left hand and the other from the middle of my right arm) and a test for blood gas (a needle going into the right wrist which has to be executed three times because the nurse just graduated), I washed up, brushed my teeth, and prepped for the next day. My family left me in the room alone and I had my talk with God.


I am not a deeply religious person, but I do have my faith. As I lay in the dark, I said exactly these words allowed:

“God, thank you for the life I have had. If this is my time to go, then I am ready. My life has been full and I have been happy. But I think there are still people here who need me. If I wake up tomorrow evening, then I will know that there is still purpose in my life. But if not, I am ready.”

And miraculously, I fell asleep.

The next morning, my family arrived bright and early. My spirits were actually very good. I had full faith that Dr. Nelson would do his best to get me through the process. After a complete body shave (which may still be slightly more traumatic than my actual surgery), I said goodbye to my family and, with a lipstick print still on the bottom of my foot, I was wheeled away.

Laying in Pre-Op alone, I shed the first tear of this entire situation. A nurse approached me and said I was going to be put under so that they could begin prepping me for surgery. When she asked if I was okay, I said with a smile, “Let’s do it!” I doubt I was being brave - I was just ready. It would be what it would be. Whatever happened from here out was in the hands of a very capable physician and his team. And of course a power greater than all of us.

Friday, August 19, 2005

My Heart Attack

Let’s just say that August has not been my month.

It started a few blogs back about my nipple ring being yanked out of my chest while doing, for all intents and purposes, a nice deed for someone – buying a porch swing for my parents.

The night that happened, I never really fully felt right again. I kept thinking it was possibly the shock of having something ripped out of my body. That same Saturday night, I attended a birthday party for my niece, and played a pretty active game of Frisbee with three of my nephews. I think that is where the problem all started.

On Sunday I returned home and went about my life as usual – even writing a blog on the 10th about a cab ride that restored my faith in man. What I DID NOT write about was that same day as the cab ride, I developed this severe – and I mean SEVERE – pain in my very center of my chest that lasted about 10 minutes. I was at work when it happened and I joked to my colleagues that I was having a heart attack. Never having one before – how would I really know what one feels like? The pain went away – even long enough for me to attend a birthday party for my friend Kelly. Two days later, I traveled with some friends on our annual sissy sojourn to Provincetown. From the time I arrived, things just didn’t go well.

A simple walk down Commercial Street left me winded with chest pains and dull ache under my right armpit. Had it been my left arm, I might have reacted differently. But the doctors had given me Keflex when the nipple ring came out and I just figured I was having an allergic reaction. After two days, I realized that this was not going to be a very good vacation, so I returned home early and decided to have things checked out.

I went to George Washington University Hospital in DC, complaining of chest tightness, a sore arm and lack of breath (hello, could I be any MORE clueless?) After a few tests, they told me that I had a heart attack and that I may need surgery. Tough words to hear when you are laying on a gurney in a hospital all alone. GWU admitted me and I underwent a stress test (which I failed miserably) and a heart catheterization, which is when a small camera is inserted into an artery in your groin and fished up through your body to take pictures of your heart. Amazingly, you are awake for the whole process, and you can even watch it on a monitor (I am actually looking into getting a copy of the CD that went to my heart surgeon … you know, to show at parties and stuff)

When the “cath” was completed, I was told that I had 100% blockage in the main artery to my heart, 90% blockage in two other arteries, and 65% blockage in two others. In short, I was a time bomb. And a good game of Frisbee lit the fuse.

I decided not to have the surgery at GWU, but to be transferred to a smaller hospital in Cumberland, MD – a few miles from my family. It would end up being easier on them, and Sacred Heart has one of the top cardio vascular units in the country. And the sixth-ranked national cardiac surgeon in the US is my cousin, Dr. Mark Nelson. I figured with all that going for me, back home was the place to be. I think I bruised a few egos at GWU, who could not understand why I was leaving their facility to go to a small hospital in a town they had never heard of.

I will write about my surgery in a later blog, once I fully understand everything that happened. So check back . . .

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A Cab Ride I Enjoyed

The weirdest thing happened to me tonight (alas, weirder than being squirted with a water gun at a bus stop). Well, maybe not completely weird, but it was kinda odd.

Around 10:30 tonight, I walked out of the house and caught a cab to Tom-Tom, a club in Adams Morgan, to celebrate the birthday of my friend
Kelly. I remembered the cab driver because he had a major ear piece for his phone hooked around his head. He drove me to Tom-Tom and I got out.

About two hours later (nice party, by the way), I walked out of the bar and hailed a cab to go back home. A cab pulled over, I got in and it was THE SAME CAB DRIVER! I got in and said hello and then looked at him and said, "Hey wait, didn't you bring me over here??" He turned around and said, "Oh my god, this has never happened to me before!" Me either!

We became immediate friends and talked the entire drive home. He was a really nice man. On the drive over, he was just a person, shuttling me from one place to another. But two hours later, without talking to him between times, we connected and he became a real person.

And I realize that this happens to me every day, all day. I meet people without meeting them. People help me out all the time, make my life easier in some way, and I have no idea who they are. And I do the same for them - and we don't know a thing about each other.

This doesn't mean I am going to start striking up deep, meaningful conversations with the dry cleaner, or the Metro cop, or the CVS cashier. But I hope that I remember that these are people going through their lives - just as I am - trying to get by and, hopefully, striving to do the right thing, helping other people to get through their lives too.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Nip/F*ck!!!!!

This past weekend I bought a new porch swing for my parents. As I was loading it onto the back of the truck, I felt a tug on my left nipple ring. And then I heard something metal land on the concrete below me. I look down, still balancing the swing, and see my 10-gauge nipple ring, with the nipple still attached, lying on the ground below me.

For about 4 seconds, I just froze there. Just froze. I oddly enough didn’t feel any real pain right away. But I still had to get this swing hoisted up into the truck. After which I went back into the store and asked for a paper towel, which I folded in quarters and shoved under my tee shirt without looking.

I drove the 40 miles to my parents place with my mind racing as to how deformed I actually now was. ("How much am I bleeding?", "Do I even have a nipple anymore"?, "Damn, I just bought this tee shirt!") I could feel myself sinking deeper and deeper into shock. I finally arrived at my folks' place, and they were a mixture of gratitude and concern: my dad walked out of the room - equating this to being kicked in the balls; my mother yelled at me for the first time in about 30 years; and true to form, my sister Kim jumped in and took over, washing me off, applying ointment and gauze.

For the rest of the day, I kinda joked about it. I was still amazed that I had not yet felt any pain or any real discomfort. I even ended up throwing a frisbee around with two of my nephews and a niece later on that night. Admittedly, I didn't sleep all that well, but then I never get a restful night of sleep at my parents' place (I am such a city boy that the sound of crickets was getting on my nerves.) The next day, Sunday, I slept in a little and got up, had breakfast, talked with my folks, then headed to the shower.

In the bathroom, I removed the (what was now a very dried and bloodied) gauze. And that’s when it all hit me…

The room began to spin and I got tunnel vision. Next thing I know, I am laying on the floor listening to the sound of my dad banging on the bathroom door. First time in my life I have actually fainted. I assured Dad everything was fine, and then suddenly my bowels pressurized and emptied themselves completely (good thing I was near the toilet!). My blood pressure, which is normally about 130/90 (runs high due to my heart condition) dropped to 100/68 – which is still normal for most people but not for someone on four heart medications. And then I vomited. In short, my body had finally come out of its shock – 21 hours after the fact (I have always been a bit of a late bloomer).

A trip to the emergency room, a tetanus shot and an antibiotic later, I sit here with my chest wrapped. Apparently, I didn't need stitches and I have already begun healing and should be completely healed in about three weeks. But until then, I wait to see how it will all turn out. I'm wondering if I should have my right nipple pierced, in order to match the size of what my left may actually turn into, which is slightly larger.

But what amazes me most is the body’s ability to heal itself like it does. When this first happened, I figured I would just have an areola with no nipple at all. But it’s there, thank God. And I have the ring too (sans nipple) which I will either use for the other side someday or shove in a scrapbook.

And today I tell myself that as bad as life gets … it could always be worse.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Tattoo! The Tattoo!

Ok, so my tattoo – “she eez a finito!” Only took me one year from start to finish, but this past Tuesday, tattoo artist extraordinaire, Leah Smith at Fatty’s Custom Tattooz on Connecticut Avenue put the finishing touches on my labour of love.

I had drawn my tattoo on a piece of paper and carried it in my wallet for about 8 years. Then one day last summer, I was riding my bike when I passed by Fatty’s, hit the brakes and said, “Today is the day!” I hadn’t planned on it and it was the last thing on my mind. But I summoned my courage, took a deep breath, and went for it.

About 98% of the work was done over a three month period last summer – from June ‘til the beginning of August 2004. It was four sessions of 4 hours each. I went back this week for a touch-up and to re-ink the areas where I had some difficulty healing. This week’s session only took about 15 minutes. And after the first 2 minutes, I was asking myself, “How in the world did I ever sit through 16 hours of this last summer??”

Getting tattooed must be a lot like giving birth: if we actually remembered how bad it feels, we would only go through it once. The first time Leah touched me with the needle last night, it stung like mad. Today, I don’t even remember the pain.

Speaking of which, the most painful part of getting the tattoo is the part that you don’t see in the picture above. The dragon’s tail wraps around the under part of my arm. Umm . . . ouch! Originally, when I designed this tattoo, I knew I wanted something that wrapped around my arm, but I didn’t want a traditional armband – which by now everyone has and it lacks originality. In 40 years, nursing homes are going to be full of old soggy men -- all with similar looking armband tattoos. (I want mine to stick out when I get wheeled into the cafeteria for my lunch of jello and creamed corn.)

So project complete – which as most tattooees will tell you signifies the beginning of the next project; one I designed about three years ago, a creative design of my first name. It will either go on my opposite arm, or perhaps between my shoulder blades. I am not sure which yet.

But one day, I will be out riding my bike, or driving the jeep, or even taking a walk – and after summoning some courage, it will start all over again.