When we speak about matters of the heart, our heart skipping a beat, being heartsick about about something, being broken hearted, etc., we’re talking emotions, not our physical hearts.
But this is not about emotions, although as you will see, emotions were very much a part of this particular episode.
This is about the heart. The physical heart. The muscle that sustains our very life. The type of heart issues which can be life threatening.
As I wrote previously in Matters of the Heart, Parts 1 and 2, my husband has experienced heart issues since we were married a little over 34 years ago, thanks to a bout of rheumatic fever at the age of two. He’s had two open heart surgeries and numerous other cardiac procedures that we didn’t really know existed until he had to have them. And you learn a lot more than you ever wanted to.
After the cardioversion I wrote about last, we thought everything was going to be smooth sailing. That our worries were over.
That’s what we thought.
Until a few years later when the A-fib returned. The doctors tried several medications which stopped it for awhile, but once again he had to undergo another cardioversion procedure. We weren’t quite as scared that time, but any time your heart is undergoing a surgical procedure, you’re nervous. Who wouldn’t be?!
Fortunately this one was successful as well, and we went a few more years without any issues.
Until he unexpectedly passed out at his office one morning. And called me from the ambulance complaining that everyone at work had forced him to go! (I was later told when he passed out he hit his head so hard on the floor those who heard it thought he’d cracked his skull!)
Doctors found nothing wrong; they said it could be a low blood sugar episode, or a quick drop in blood pressure, but nothing really concrete. His heart rhythm was fine. So he went back to work the next day. When he almost passed out the following week, he went to his primary care doctor, who couldn’t find anything wrong either.
Then came the early morning at home when he passed out while getting ready for work. Three times in a row. I didn’t hear him since the bedroom door was closed, and I was still asleep. I always keep my cell phone beside the bed, and he texted me to come help him. Fortunately I heard the phone….
When I got to his bathroom he was on the floor, lying in the doorway, dizzy, and breathing hard. I was terrified. I called 911, and I’m sure I sounded hysterical. Our daughter still lived at home, and I yelled at her to come help me with her dad so I could put my contacts in and throw on clothes to follow him to the hospital. And she was as scared as I was.
Fortunately the EMT’s got there quickly, made sure he was stable, and got him down the stairs and in the ambulance, telling me he was going to be ok. The hospital is only 5 minutes away from our house, and for some reason when they told me, “if we pass Princess Anne Hospital we’re taking him to Beach General. Just come there, but don’t follow us through the red lights,” I didn’t really think about what it could mean.
And that ambulance didn’t take their time, that I will tell you! I was relieved when they pulled in to the emergency room at the closer hospital. Both Ashley and I jumped out of our cars and ran in, bypassing security, and met everyone in the room they already had set up for him, where about 6 ER staff members were waiting for him. I should’ve known then how serious it was.
We watched as they hooked him up to more machines then I could imagine, working quickly, as if his life depended on it.
I had no idea how true that was.
And as they hooked up the last wires to the electric paddle machine, it happened. As my husband was talking to everyone, suddenly his eyes rolled back in his head, he fell back on the pillow, and began making a horrendous rattling, gurgling sound. And the heart rhythms weren’t registering on the monitor.
Fortunately the team in the room didn’t. I have never witnessed such a display of coordination, everyone working together at the same time doing different jobs without having to be told how to react. Obviously this team knew what they were doing, and had most likely done this many times before.
And in what seemed like hours, but was most probably seconds, they began the life saving procedures that very literally saved my husband’s life.
There was no time for them to ask Ashley and me to leave, as the paddles were quickly turned on to restart his heart. A lot of it is still a blur, but we do remember the doctor apologizing to him for the pain he was going through, as the electric impulses traveled through his body, causing him to jump and flop around on the gurney. There was no choice. At one point Ashley grabbed his ankles to try to stabilize him somewhat, while he continued to jump around on the gurney, almost like a frog being electrocuted in a testing lab.
It seemed to last forever, and all I could do was sit and watch and pray that he’d be ok; that he had to be all right to be able to walk our daughter, who’d just gotten engaged, down the aisle. I couldn’t even move off the chair.
At one point, the doctor came over to him, and apologized for what he was going through, but added, “Mr. Newell, you are not going to die on my watch!” That’s the only thing, aside from the pain, that he remembers.
A few minutes later his cardiologist arrived along with his partner, and told him he needed to have a pacemaker, and they were trying to get a time scheduled as quickly as possible, for that day. Ben immediately told him he wanted a second opinion. I can still very vividly remember the doctor telling him, “Ben you already have two second opinions. My partner’s and your wife’s!”
Fortunately he came through that ordeal. And so did Ashley and I. One of my best friends arrived shortly thereafter, who’d been an EMT for a number of years. She happened to see the EKG strip the ambulance attendants had left in the room, and when she read it, she told me we’d been extremely lucky, because he was in very bad shape when he’d been brought in.
Thank goodness he hadn’t coded at home, because I truly don’t know if I could have remembered my CPR training. I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.
The rest of the morning he was drugged to the gills on morphine, and hooked up to an external pacemaker until his doctor could get the OR scheduled to implant the pacemaker which has literally saved his life.
But God certainly has a sense of humor, and after the surgery was scheduled, and he was sent to the ICU to wait for the procedure, we all laughed ourselves silly at the things he said (from the morphine, of course) about seeing a woman in his room eating a sandwich, watching huge bugs crawling all over the walls, searching for his glasses that were right beside him, wanting to make phone calls to clients to talk about their mortgage applications (he couldn’t even remember their names), continuing to argue that he wanted a second opinion before he’d consent to the surgery, and at the same time jumping and asking us, “did you feel that?” as the external pacemaker kept shocking his heart back into normal rhythm every few minutes and literally keeping him alive.
How could we laugh after that ordeal? I can only say, it was our reaction to the stress and adrenaline rush of those first hours. A way of calming all of us down, including Ben, from a very frightening and traumatic episode. Yes, we were still worried; very much so. And we tried to distract each other in order not to think about it.
The pacemaker surgery took place early afternoon. It was a short procedure, and he did quite well, although the meds still were making him say crazy things, and telling visitors he was going to have the pacemaker taken out the next day because he wanted a second opinion…
That was a day I never want to repeat. Nor does he. After the pacemaker was implanted and working properly, he went home the next morning, resuming his normal activities in a few days.
Unfortunately that still wasn’t the end of my husband’s cardiac adventures. When rheumatic fever sets out to harm the heart, its aftereffects last for a lifetime. As we continued to discover.
And it wasn’t that much later that his heart issues reared their ugly heads once more….
More to come on Matters of the Heart, Part 4, to be published February 28.