Health & Medical Senior Stories

Pitfalls of Passionate Caregiving: Heart Attack

CLEARWATER – I’m a stubborn old coot.

So when I had a heart attack last Saturday, I wasn’t about to go to the hospital.

With my wife, Carolyn, home for the weekend after months of chemo and an entire week tethered to a machine harvesting her blood stem cells, I’d tough it till Monday.

That’s when I had to drive Carolyn “home” to Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center for two days of high-dose melphalan injections – a powerful chemical that kills her cancerous myeloma cells (as well as her normal blood cells) – leaving her without an immune system to fight infection for months until her harvested stem cells, transplanted back into her system, take hold and begin producing new, non-diseased blood.

So much for the biology lesson.

I’d had similar events before – sweats, chest and left-arm pain, shortness of breath – but stubbornly practiced medicine without a license, taking aspirin and beta-blockers until the symptoms disappeared.

I take my role as Carolyn’s caregiver passionately. She’s the love of my life. My miracle. Besides, we can’t both be sick. It’s unacceptable. So I lied to her when she asked what was wrong.

Honest to God, it’s the first time I’ve ever lied to Carolyn. Ever! (And that’s a wonder by itself.)

I told myself that I’d straighten it out Monday after I got her to the hospital and me to my doctor.

Then, Sunday morning, I found myself bouncing along in an ambulance for the first time ever as a paying customer. (Boy, those trucks have hard rides!) Running red lights, siren screaming, I looked up from the gurney and saw Carolyn in our ’94 Oldsmobile right behind us all the way. Grimfaced in her new role as caregiver, she now wanted to kill me for lying to her.

“BP 220 over 160!” the paramedic yelled over the radio. He was having a devil of a time getting an IV into my wrist with the ambulance ricocheting from pothole to pothole. Nitroglycerin had dulled my pain to the point where I was actually enjoying the entire drama.

At the hospital, they had already called the cardiologist on duty. The catheter lab was ready. Three genial young men attached electrodes, installed yet another IV and, as one of them gave me a bikini shave in preparation for a catheter through my groin to detect heart blockages, he looked up and asked, “You had a heart attack yesterday and you didn’t call 911?”

Oh God, I hate being foolish. (And it happens all the time.) I tried to explain that I had to take care of Carolyn, that I didn’t want to worry her… The kid rolled his eyes acutely aware that I was just another delusional old fart trying to be heroic in his dotage.

Balloons and Stents

The cardiologist cleared a large blockage in my right coronary artery, tiny balloons and stents shoving the plaque aside (all those years of egg yokes and aged cheese and fatty steaks) to allow blood to once again flow to feed my heart.

Monday the doctors returned, this time to clear my left coronary artery of three more occlusions. (I use fancy words like “occlusion” because, you see, through the mid-‘90s I was in Miami writing and producing all of Cordis Corporation’s angioplasty and stent print advertising. Turns out Cordis made the drug-eluding stents that most likely saved my life.)

That night, my sorry butt hanging out of the gown and black and blue from crotch halfway to both knees, I called my still-angry wife who informed me that if the heart attack didn’t get me, she would.

I considered. Life without salt, eggs, bacon, and McDonald’s Double-Bacon Cheese Burgers might not be worth living anyway.

Lessons. Lessons. Lessons.

Today Carolyn got her healthy stem cells back. They call it “Day Zero.” From now on, every day has a plus sign attached to it.

By Day Plus 15 or so, a bald Carolyn will move from Moffitt next door to Hope Lodge, a safe and antiseptic place where I’ll be taking care of her 24/7 until she’s well enough to come home.

By July, God willing, we’ll have our life back again, at least for awhile. We know this is considered incurable cancer.

We also believe in miracles.

There is a lesson here. (When do they ever end?) Life is a great and precious gift. Enjoy it; luxuriate in it every single day.

Thank you, everyone, for your kind thoughts and prayers. They mean so much to us.

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