Matters of the Heart, Part 30

As I said in Part 29, I didn’t expect to have a Part 29 of this series, let alone a Part 30. But here we are.

Looking back, Ben and I have been dealing with his heart issues for 36 years. We’ve been married for 37 years. What does that tell you?

Deciding on having the Watchman procedure done was easier than the steps involved to actually get the procedure itself approved. And it certainly wasn’t his doctor’s fault.

There were several tests he had to have first, including a new EKG, and echocardiogram. Those were simple and of course showed he was a good candidate for the procedure. 

Then he needed a second opinion from another cardiologist in his group. Time was ticking until the end of the year, and we were getting a bit antsy. 

But that appointment was finally scheduled and the doctor confirmed that with his history he was definitely a good candidate for the procedure 

Now to get it approved and scheduled before the end of the year. With Thanksgiving and Christmas affecting schedules as well.

But our doctor assured us we’d get it done by the end of the year, and we’d get a call from the office as soon as it could be scheduled.

We just didn’t realize we’d get the call just five days before the surgery date, with two of those days being a weekend. It was scheduled for TWO DAYS before Thanksgiving! And we found out on Thursday which was the Thursday before Thanksgiving Day!

He’d be the first surgery of the day, which meant we had to be at the hospital at 5:30. In the morning! And I am NOT a morning person, which meant we’d have to get up at 4 am to get ready and be there that early. Ugh.

Well, we’d take what was available. Which meant frantically rearranging both his and my work schedules, as well as finishing putting up all the Christmas decorations! Fortunately we’d started early, and if you followed the stories about our 8+ Christmas trees, plus the Christmas ledge in our two story foyer, well you can imagine how much we needed to get done since we were having Thanksgiving dinner at our house.

I finished all the big trees, and he finished the ledge. Boxes for the decorations were still sitting around which needed to be put away, but I figured our daughter and son-in-law could do that since Ben wouldn’t be able to lift anything for several days after the procedure. Talk about rushing around…!

But plans don’t always go as planned, shall we say. The night before his surgery he got a call from his doctor around 6:30 PM. From his doctor’s personal cell phone. (Yes, we have that number.) That’s a call you don’t ignore.

And you guessed it. Surgery was postponed. The insurance company still hadn’t approved it. We weren’t happy at all. However, as Ben told the doctor, “my wife will be happy she doesn’t have to get up at 4:00 in the morning.” He said the doctor laughed himself silly over that comment! After apologizing profusely, the docotr promised they would reschedule as soon as they got the word from the insurance company, and it would definitely be before the end of the year.

Things did work out for the best, though, because not only did I not have to get up before the crack of dawn, we were able to put all the decoration boxes away, and I didn’t have to beg for extra help from our daughter to get Thanksgiving dinner ready. And Ben was able to play with the grandkids on Thanksgiving without being concerned about his incisions. 

But how was this going to affect our Christmas plans? Would we have to scramble to change other things?

Fortunately, the next week we got a call rescheduling the procedure, for the following week. Our doctor must’ve remembered Ben’s comment about early mornings, though, because the new surgery time was 1:00 in the afternoon and we didn’t have to be at the hospital until 11:00 am. That worked really well, at least for me.

Then we found out the insurance company had actually approved the procedure at 4:30 pm the day before the original surgery date. They just didn’t notify the doctors in time.

Go figure. But it did all work out for the best, since Ben had a week’s vacation already scheduled for the following week after the surgery to make recuperation easier.

Surgery went perfectly. In fact our doctor told him he’d done hundreds of these procedures and usually he had to do a little maneuvering to get the device precisely where it needed to be, but this one went in perfectly the first time! Thank goodness!

Ben will now be on blood thinners for 45 days after the surgery while the tissue grows over the device to seal it in. He will then have a CT scan to be sure everything is going well, which we’re sure it will. Then he will be on a different blood thinner plus baby aspirin until 180 days after the procedure and then no more blood thinners; just a daily baby aspirin.

Naturally we’re all pleased with the results, and so glad he made the decision to do it.

What’s ahead in this saga now? Hopefully only 6 month follow up visits that will show everything is still doing well.

After three heart valve replacements, two pacemakers, and now the Watchman, I think he’s had enough.

We are so thankful for all the great doctors and nurses he’s been fortunate enough to have over the years, and I do have to say that the last two cardiologists that have been caring for him have been the absolute best!

If any of you reading this have any heart issues, or have loved ones with these issues, please be encouraged. It’s not always as bad as it seems. Yes, it’s scary, but look what we’ve been though over the years. And if you have questions please feel free to message me with questions.

And Ben is still going strong after all of this!

Matters of the Heart, Part 29

I really didn’t expect to be writing another installment of this series. After all there’ve been 28 installments so far, the last one being in September of 2019. A little more than two years ago.

Certainly enough stories, right?

Well, you would think so.

But after the last heart valve procedure, which is still doing very well, thank goodness, both of Ben’s doctors determined that he was a very good candidate for a device called the Watchman. This device is implanted in an area of the heart called the left atrial appendage. It permanently closes off that area of the heart in which blood clots can form for patients like Ben who have a history of atrial fibrillation or AFib (which can lead to a stroke).

AFib patients, even those with pacemakers, like Ben, are on blood thinners daily to prevent blood clots from forming. This particular device prevents such clots from forming, thus eliminating the need for patients to take blood thinners daily, which in Ben’s case have also caused a number of blood vessel ruptures in his left eye, which has had numerous recurrences of iritis, which is another story altogher.

Naturally we had a lot of discussions on this procedure, as it’s only been around a little over ten years, and we’d never heard of it. But we did a lot of reading about it, and after several talks with his doctor, we decided that it was the right thing for him to do. Particularly since it was a non-invasive procedure in which the device was inserted into his heart through an artery in the groin, much like his last heart valve replacement. An overnight stay would be required, which was no big deal.

There were several tests that had to be done prior to getting final approval by the cardiology team (not to mention his health insurance, but that’s another matter entirely).

But before we could start the process, Covid hit, and although we’ve been extremely fortunate and neither of us or his medical professionals have contracted it, all elective surgeries were put on hold until further notice.

Of course the Watchman is an elective procedure. So we were on hold. For quite awhile. About 18 months or more.

We kept checking with the hospital and his doctors and finally the restrictions on elective surgeries were lifted. We made an appointment as soon as we could with his doctor to discuss the next steps.

When we were finally able to get the appointment  with his doctor we all quickly decided this was the best way for him to go, and proceeded to schedule the testing involved to be able to apply for approval not only within the cardiology group, but also with his insurance company for their approval.

Nothing is ever simple, though. And we also needed to do the surgery by the end of 2021 to avoid a huge out of pocket expense, since he’d already met his deductible for that year. And it was already early in October 2021.

So the process began…but not without a few complications along the way. Of course.

Read the next installment of “Matters of the Heart, Part 30″, to be published on January 24.

Matters of the Heart, Part 7

By now you’ve determined that once a heart begins having problems, it’s likely to continue as you get older. Especially if that heart was damaged by illness or other problems.

But these heart issues also affect our emotions, as well as our physical bodies. It’s stressful, not only on the person actually experiencing the problems, but family and friends. It can change the course of your entire lives. It certainly has ours.

And it’s continuing to do so, and most likely will continue to do so for some time.

After the ablation procedure Ben had to take it easy for several days. He couldn’t pick up our yorkies, or our granddaughter. He couldn’t go back to work until the following week. He was told he’d probably be tired, and some of the new meds could have side effects such as making him tired, upsetting his stomach, severe headaches, dizziness, etc. But he had to keep taking them to prevent infection, and to help his heart heal from the surgery had been done.

And he experienced every one of those side effects. Of course. Which truly made him discouraged. “I went from one problem to another!”

The procedure had taken place on a Tuesday, with him coming home Wednesday morning. He stayed home taking it easy until Saturday, when he just felt like he needed to get out for awhile.

So we went to one of our favorite little artisan pizza restaurants which is only about 10 minutes from the house. We always sit at the bar so we can talk to their employees, plus we also get quicker service as well.

We had just gotten our drinks when it happened.

Ben suddenly got quiet, and his face went from a smile to grimace of pain. I asked him if he was all right, expecting his usual? “I’m fine.” Instead, he said no, as he held his right arm with excruciating pain shooting thru it. And slowly starting leaning to his right……

Not again….!!!

“Do you need to go to the hospital?!”

When he quickly agreed I knew this was worse than serious.

He didn’t want to wait for an ambulance, and since the hospital was almost just across the street, I hurriedly helped him out and got him in the car. We’d been happy when we’d parked that we actually found a space directly in front of the restaurant; now I was more than grateful for that, because we didn’t have to go far to get him to the car, and I didn’t have time to ask for help!

I drove as quickly as I could to get him to the ER, telling him the whole time “Stay with me! Stay with me! We’re almost there!” And if a police officer had tried to stop me, well we’d have just had a police escort to the ER and I’d deal with it later! And fortunately I hit no red lights and traffic was light.

In five minutes I’d pulled up to the hospital, hit the flashers, and ran into the ER like a crazy person yelling my husband was having a heart attack and pointed to where my car was. I’m sure the staff is used to such things, and they had him in a wheelchair and in a room quicker than I could imagine. Thankfully. And yes, I did have enough presence of mind to move the car.

When I got back inside it was a flashback of those several years previously with all the wires and machines being quickly hooked up to him, just in case. His heart rhythms looked good, at least to me, and I’d seen a lot of them over the years!

He said his pain was starting to go away, and the nurse said his EKG was normal. Thank goodness! After a lot of tests, which of course took forever to come back, they couldn’t really find anything wrong. Speculations included a TIA, or mini-stroke, angina attack (which he’s never had, or at least not yet), a pinched nerve in his neck, etc.

But the main thing they attributed it to was possibly an after-effect of the ablation procedure. Yes we knew there could be after-effects, but this one hadn’t been mentioned.

Suggested follow up visits to his primary care doctor, his cardiologist, and later a neurologist, didn’t really shed any more light on the incident, so quite possibly it could have been a result of the ablation. As the surgeon reminded us at that follow up visit, his heart had been traumatized with the procedure and was still in the initial stages of healing. That was why he would be on several antibiotics and anti-inflammatory meds to prevent infections. And it would be about 6 months before we’d really know how successful the procedure was.

It was a waiting game. Some days he’d feel good, others not so much. But his regular checkups with his cardiologist were good, and six months later we thought we’d finally passed the finish line, and things would be good. No more a-fib, no more flutter. His pacemaker was working fine, and his last echocardiogram in October showed no problems.

We thought we were home free for awhile….

More to come in Matters of the Heart, Part 8, to be published March 25.

Don’t miss the previous stories in this series:
Matters of the Heart, Part 1
Matters of the Heart, Part 2
Matters of the Heart, Part 3
Matters of the Heart, Part 4
Matters of the Heart, Part 5
Matters of the Heart, Part 6

Matters of the Heart, Part 6

Matters of the Heart, Part 6

As I wrote previously in Matters of the Heart, Parts 1-5, 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 we learned a lot more than we ever wanted to.

Because of the recurring bouts of A-fib I talked about in Part 5, we decided he needed to go ahead and have the ablation surgery the doctor had recommended.

Ablation entails inserting a tiny catheter in a vein in the groin, and threading it up into the heart, so that the procedure can be done with minimal invasion to both his body and his heart. After the procedure, he would be in the hospital for several hours to be certain there were no complications, such as bleeding or a recurrence of the irregular heartbeat, and then most likely go home.

So on a hot summer day last July we arrived at the hospital at 6:30 in the morning, overnight bag packed just in case, and prepared for a long day.

As confident as I was with the doctor, and the hospital (which is owned by the healthcare organization I work for), I couldn’t help but be a bit nervous. After all, this was a procedure he hadn’t had before, and we really didn’t know what to expect.

Fortunately our daughter and one of my best friends were there to sit with me, which helped pass the time. But hours pass very slowly in this situation, and when it was past the two hour time estimate for the procedure, and we hadn’t heard anything I was getting anxious. Normally the doctor comes out and talks with you, but after three hours with no news, needless to say I was more than worried, and quite anxious.

I knew something wasn’t right. The receptionist at the front desk in the waiting room couldn’t tell me anything except they’d call as soon as he was ready to have us come back to the recovery area, and that the doctor would be out shortly.

When you’re dealing with cardiac issues, no matter how confident you are, how much faith you have, you still get worried when a procedure takes longer than it should. All kinds of things go through your mind; things you don’t want to think about, but there they are, and they just won’t go away.

It still took another 20 minutes or so before the doctor came out. I’m sure he knew how worried I’d been, and after telling me Ben was all right, he quickly apologized for taking so long.

And then he explained what had actually taken so long. Ben had not only been in A-fib when he came in that morning; he was also experiencing something called flutter, which we’d never heard of. Atrial flutter is a condition in which the electrical circuits in the right atrium of the heart cause the heart to beat extra fast, between 250-400 beats per minute, causing the upper and lower chambers of the heart to be beating out of sync.

Well that was something else I’d never heard of, and neither had Ben. But I was sure having both A-fib and flutter wasn’t a good combination, causing dizziness, shortness of breath, and also an increased risk of blood clots or stroke.

The good thing in all this, if there was one, was that the doctor was able to do a double ablation, cauterizing two areas of tissue in my husband’s heart which were causing the conditions. As the doctor said, he got a “twofer”, otherwise he would’ve had to come back several weeks later to undergo a second ablation surgery.

Well, I guess that was a good thing.

However, because of the blood thinners he’d been on for years, and even though he’d stopped taking them the day before as instructed, when the catheters were removed, it took over 20 minutes and intense pressure on the insertion points to stop the bleeding.

But at least his heart valve, the one that had been replaced twice, appeared to be fine, with no signs of leakage. At least that worry could be put to rest!

When we finally got to see him he looked good, although understandably tired. The nurses still came in every 15-20 minutes to check on the insertion sites to be sure there was no more bleeding.

I have to say, one thing thoroughly impressed all of us that day, and that was the story he told about going into the operating room that morning, where he was greeted by a line of people as he was wheeled in on the gurney. He said it actually reminded him of a reception line at a wedding. Every person there introduced him/herself with a “Good morning, Mr. Newell. My name is _______, and I’m going to be doing _______ for this procedure. They even had a “Welcome Ben Newell” sign on the huge monitor in the OR on which his procedure would be displayed and most likely videotaped for his electronic medical records. He was so impressed with that, and so were we when we heard about it, and he’s told everyone he runs into how it made him feel so important, and how such a personal display from the OR team would make anyone feel more comfortable and relaxed about going through such a major procedure. (Thank you, Sentara Heart Hospital in Norfolk!) These are the little touches that are so important in dealing with these major medical procedures.

The nurses kept checking on him the rest of the afternoon, but by 5:00 I knew he wasn’t going home that night. There was just too much to be concerned about, including bleeding from the sites as well as episodes of possible A-fib, and neither one of us had a problem with him staying there overnight. By the time I got home, all I wanted to do was cry or sleep, or both.

The next day he was released a little before noon, and we really thought things were going to get better and stay that way! Even though the doctor had said it would be a good 6 months before we could be assured it was all OK, we were believing this would be the end of his heart problems.

More to follow, in Matters of the Heart, Part 7, to be published March 21.

Don’t miss the previous stories in this series:
Matters of the Heart, Part 1
Matters of the Heart, Part 2
Matters of the Heart, Part 3
Matters of the Heart, Part 4
Matters of the Heart, Part 5

Matters of the Heart, Part 5

As I wrote previously in Matters of the Heart, Parts 1 through 4, 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 we’ve learned a lot more than we ever wanted to.

And unfortunately we’re still learning.

After Ben was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, I thought “what else can happen to him?” Don’t ever ask yourself that question, because you’re going to find out!

Although he’d had a few bouts of A-fib, in which the heart starts beating totally out of a normal rhythm sequence, making him exhausted and unable to do much after a shortened day’s work, it had usually been corrected either with medication or a simple procedure called cardio version which stops the heart and restarts it heart back into its normal rhythm. The doctor called it a simple procedure, and to him, it was.

For the patient and the patient’s family, it’s scary to know your loved one’s heart is going to be stopped for a second or two and then restarted. Yes, it’s been done hundreds of thousands of times, but not on your loved one. He’d had one years before and I remember how nervous we both were before having it done. Yes, it took probably 15 minutes from putting him under to bringing him out of the sedation, but still…

We certainly hadn’t thought he’d have to go through it again, but over the past years since being diagnosed with CHF (read Matters of the Heart, Part 4), we really didn’t think about that coming back. And, he already had the pacemaker so we though we were ok on that particular issue.

But since then we’ve learned that a pacemaker doesn’t keep the heart from going into A-fib. It will shock the heart when it’s too slow, and try to bring it in rhythm when it’s going into A-fib, but basically, at least in my husband’s case, a defibrillator is needed to correct A-fib.

Last spring, he started getting very tired, and would complain it felt like his heart was racing. He had to take a nap when he came home from work, even though he’s only working 30 hours a week. He couldn’t walk a lot without getting tired, and picking up our granddaughter or one of our Yorkies was difficult, because he got so short of breath it took him a few minutes to start breathing correctly again.

Back to the doctor….

Where we discovered the A-fib had reared its ugly head again. And found out the pacemaker wasn’t enough to prevent this.

So now what?

More medication changes. Drugs to hopefully control the A-fib; a different blood thinner to decrease stroke risk. And a list of side effects that didn’t sound like fun either. Which of course he developed, which meant changing meds again. And by the way, even with insurance these medications are NOT inexpensive, and a few had to be ruled out because of the cost!

We were also fortunate enough to get an appointment with one of the specialists in his cardiology group who deals only with cases involving electrical issues of the heart. A cancellation in his schedule enabled us to get an appointment within a week; otherwise there is usually a three month wait.

This doctor was very good, very professional, and very reassuring. He explained there are basically four treatment protocols for A-fib. Most common is medication, which unfortunately wasn’t taking care of it. The next was to do a cardioversion (again!).

The next was a procedure called cardiac ablation in which the areas of the heart causing the A-fib are cauterized (burned out) so that it can’t (or shouldn’t) happen again. That sounded scary to both of us. It’s more invasive than the other procedures, but still, it isn’t open heart surgery. And there are risks of complications, including pericarditis or other infections of the heart, small blood clots, etc. so he would be on several additional medications for 3-6 months to hopefully avoid those problems.

The last alternative would be to either add another wire to his existing pacemaker or change it out altogether. And with everything we went though with getting the pacemaker, that didn’t sound too good either.

So back we went for him to have another cardioversion procedure, which the doctor hoped would take care of it. Again, as with the other such procedures, it was quick, with no side effects or complications. We even went out for lunch afterwards.

And three weeks later, he was back in A-fib. His doctor wasn’t totally surprised, because he’d told us this could happen. But so quickly?

Six weeks later we were back at the hospital for the ablation procedure. To say I was nervous is an understatement. When your husband has gone through so many cardiac procedures, part of you feels like it’s, “Here we go again.”

But there’s another part that says, “What if it doesn’t work? What then? Where are we headed?” All sorts of scenarios go through your head at this point, and no matter how strong your faith is, you’re scared. You’re anxious. And you can’t help but wonder what’s next.

We are fortunate enough to live in an area which is home to one of the top
heart hospitals on the east coast, Sentara Heart Hospital. Which, of course, is where we went. But that didn’t prevent us from having a really long day…

Which has now gone into several long
months. And it’s not over yet. Unfortunately.

And it continues, in Matters of the Heart, Part 6, to be published March 14.

Don’t miss the previous stories in this series:
Matters of the Heart, Part 1
Matters of the Heart, Part 2
Matters of the Heart, Part 3
Matters of the Heart, Part 4

Matters of the Heart, Part 4

When we speak about matters of the heart, our heart skipping a beat, being heartsick about something, being broken hearted, etc., we’re talking emotions, not our physical hearts.

As you know now, this series is about physical heart. The muscle that sustains our very life. The type of heart issues which can be life threatening.

As you read previously in Matters of the Heart, Parts 1, 2, and 3, 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 we’ve learned a lot more we you ever wanted to about heart problems.

After the pacemaker episode in the summer of 2013, I really thought things were stable; that we wouldn’t have any more issues. That all we’d need to do was keep up with regular doctor appointments, and everything would be fine.

Well, it was a nice thought.

And over the past several years I have learned there is no assurance that the problems are ever totally solved; that there will be many other times that his heart decides it’s moving out of regularity and into a whole other area of problems.

After the pacemaker episode, things began to normalize to a degree. We had our daughter’s wedding to plan, along with all the festivities involved. We were so thankful Ben was healthy and able to host their engagement party just a few short months after we’d almost lost him. After all, the Father of the Bride is a very important participant in the wedding! And Ashley and her dad are very close.

But Ben being Ben, I later learned there were things going on with him as the big day grew closer that he elected not to tell me. Or Ashley. Or anyone, for that matter, including his cardiologist!

Nor did he voluntarily tell me until a few weeks after Ashley and Chris’ wedding (which was beautiful and perfect!) when he was noticeably having trouble walking a couple of blocks to an auditorium for a graduation event. I questioned him about it, and his answer shocked me. “It’s like the nurse said; all the fluid buildup is causing me to have breathing problems, and I can’t walk that quickly.”

Nurse? What nurse?

Oh, the doctor appointment you forgot to tell me about!?? What else did she say??!! Oh, that if it gets worse you need to get to the hospital….??

That was on a Friday afternoon. He insisted on going to our daughter’s best friend’s pre-graduation dinner after the white coat ceremony we attended for her (a very important part of the graduation process for medical professionals), but the next morning when his breathing was so much worse we ended up in the hospital emergency room instead of attending her actual graduation ceremony.

Imagine how we felt when they rushed Ben through a series of tests…chest X-rays, blood work, EKG, etc., and were told he had congestive heart failure. And that very combination of words sounded to me like a death sentence. I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it couldn’t be good. We were both scared.

Simply put, congestive heart failure, or CHF, is a condition in which the heart is working harder then it should be, but still isn’t pumping at its full capacity. Because of this, fluid builds up around the heart and in the lungs, which makes breathing more difficult, and the heart work harder. Ankles, legs, and abdomen swell. Lightheadedness, dizziness, and exhaustion are also common. And yes, he had all of those symptoms as well.
Without treatment, the prognosis isn’t good.

CHF is not curable. Once you have it, you can only manage it. You’ll always have it, although you can control it by diet, exercise, and medication.

Because of the huge amount of fluid already built up in his body, he was immediately put on IV medication to cause him to eliminate the fluid, which meant several bathroom visits per hour. During the first two days in the hospital he lost probably 6 pounds of fluid, and a total of 14 pounds before he was released after almost a week.

Fortunately, at least so far, he’s been able to manage it. He’s on fluid pills twice a day, religiously counts the sodium in each meal to avoid going over 2,000 mg per day, weighs himself almost daily to be sure his weight remains stable, and tries to walk as much as possible each day. He sees his doctor every three months as well.

But there are still times the fluid starts to build up again, even with the pills, and the dosage has to be increased. It’s a never ending cycle. And yes, I always worry when he has problems starting to develop again. I can’t help it.

However, CHF isn’t the only issue we’ve recently been dealing with. And when it involves the heart, it’s not minor in any way.

And it continues in Matters of the Heart, Part 5, to be published March 6.

Matters of the Heart, Part 3

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.

I froze.

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.

Matters of the Heart, Part 2

When we speak about matters of the heart, our heart skipping a beat, being heartsick about something, being broken hearted, etc., we’re talking emotions, not our physical hearts.

But this is not about emotions, although they do play a huge part in it, but….

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, Part 1, 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. His first open heart surgery experience was frightening for both of us, but after 16 or 17 years with perfect checkups, we’d all but stopped thinking about the possibility of a second such operation.

Even his chest scar had faded to the point we almost didn’t even notice it anymore.

Until the day he walked up the stairs as usual and suddenly became exhausted and out of breath. At first we figured it was just because he was tired.

Until it continued for several days, worsening a little each day. Then came the morning he asked me to go up with him for prayer at church and started the conversation with the prayer counselors with, “Deborah doesn’t know this yet but I’ve been having pains in my chest for several days….”

Not again! I guess he figured I couldn’t get mad at him by telling me like that! Well I certainly did, but that was beside the point right then.

And once again we were on the roller coaster ride of facing another open heart surgery. This time, at least, we knew mostly what to expect. Sort of, anyway. Except for our 14 year old daughter who was immediately scared to death that she’d lose her dad. We did our best to reassure her, but at that age, there were so many emotions she had to deal with, and I’m sure her dad and I didn’t deal with them as well as we should have, because we were dealing with our own!

This time we were told they didn’t use the pig valves any more so he chose the bovine (cow) valve rather than the mechanical one. He did joke around that he’d had a craving for pork for a lot of years, and he guessed now he’d switch that craving to steak! At least he kept his sense of humor.


The second surgery was somewhat easier on him though, if open heart surgery can ever be easy. Techniques had improved, and the stay in the hospital was a few days shorter. He was out of ICU and in a regular room much quicker, less than 24 hours, and was up and walking around a little the next day. Our daughter was very relieved, and so were we! Since it was the middle of the summer she was out of school and was a big help taking care of him those first few weeks. And the doctors were delighted at how quickly he recovered and went back to his daily routine.

We thought we were out of the woods and that all his cardiac problems were behind us, at least for another 15 years or so.

And they were. For awhile. But a few years later the problems started coming back. Unexpectedly.
It began with three separate episodes of him going into A-fib. I had no idea what it was, or what it meant. We always thought we’d have to face another valve replacement eventually but this was something different.
A-fib, or atrial fibrillation, is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, or other cardiac complications. The heart races erratically, because of the erratic firing of the electrical impulses in the heart, which causes the blood to not circulate properly, resulting in fatigue, fluid retention, and other conditions.

At first he was treated with medication, which for most people, usually controls it. Of course, in his case, it didn’t. He was continually tired with occasional shortness of breath. And it just wasn’t getting any better.

What to do next? We figured there’d be another switch of medications again or maybe a combination of different drugs.

But hearing the doctor tell you that your husband has to have his heart stopped and then shocked to begin beating again in order to get the rhythm back to normal doesn’t give you a good feeling. He wasn’t wild about it either, but since the medication they were giving him wasn’t helping, he had to do something, and once again we headed back to the hospital.

Fortunately cardioversion is a simple procedure, at least for the doctors who do it regularly, but not to those of us who are the patient or the family! The process sends an electrical shock to the heart through electrodes placed on the chest to stop the heart and then re-start it to a natural rhythm. The very thought of what is going to happen is frightening to those of us who are not in the medical field, and Ben was certainly apprehensive as we waited for it to be done at the hospital with a number of our friends and our daughter and her boyfriend (now husband) waiting along with us.

Yes, we were nervous. And yes, scared as well. After all, would you want to have your heart stopped and then re-started? What if it didn’t work properly? What if…what if??

Thankfully the procedure was over almost before we knew it, and he was fine. His heart was once again beating at a normal rhythm. We all breathed a big sigh of relief! We were sure all of his heart problems were finally over.

And they were. Until a few years later….as the saga continues on Matters of the Heart, Part 3 to be published on February 21.

Matters of the Heart, Part 1

Since this is American Heart Month I believe it’s time to begin sharing the journey my husband and I have been on for a number of years, as well as what we are being faced with again. Maybe, quite possibly, our story can serve to help others, or even to save someone’s life.

The last eight months have been very stressful ones in our family, as we have been dealing with some serious heart issues concerning my husband Ben. And I have to admit, it has put me into a strange place, one in which I couldn’t even concentrate on writing for months, or much of anything else except worrying about my husband.

Heart problems affect not only the person having the problems, but the entire family. Depending on the type of issues, you can find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, just to check to be sure he’s still breathing. (A friend of my mom’s said she used to do that many years ago with her husband. I didn’t understand it then, but I sure do now.) You call or text him several times a day while he’s working to make sure he’s ok and not overdoing it or experiencing any symptoms that could indicate more problems.

An unfamiliar number comes up on your cell phone and you’re not sure whether it’s a solicitation call or someone calling to tell you your husband was taken to the hospital.

Now you may associate heart problems with the elderly. I’m here to tell you that is very, very far from the truth. Heart problems can occur at any age, and at any time.

Ben’s started at age 35, not quite a year after our marriage. We were at a concert when he started having chest pains. Typical man; he didn’t tell me. Even though it went on throughout the entire concert. When we got home, he finally told me, and I promptly gave him two choices. Go to the hospital then, or agree to go first thing in the morning.

Needless to say, he took option #2 and I worried all night that I should’ve just called an ambulance then and there!

The next day we went to the ER and he ended up in the hospital being cared for by a cardiologist, who discovered he had a leaking aortic valve. I remember sitting in the room while they did an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart, and I could actually see the valve leaking blood every time his heart beat. Mind you, this was 34 years ago, and those echos have advanced dramatically, so for me to be able to see the leak then, you know it was serious!

I was terrified. I could picture myself a young widow before our first wedding anniversary. Ben was visibly shaken as well, and we were suddenly faced with a lot of decisions.

Open heart surgery. Heart valve replacement. Choose the kind of valve we want. Mechanical vs. pig valve. Chances of rejection. How long we could safely wait to decide…

This was 34 years ago. We were young and nervous. Ben was braver than I was, and he was the one who had to go through the ordeal. I was the one who had to wait outside the OR for news while he slept through the whole procedure.

What started all of this? A very healthy young man, who played tennis 3-4 times a week, went bike riding almost weekly, seldom ate junk food, suddenly finds himself in this situation. Why? A bout of rheumatic fever at the age of two set this in motion. And it continues to plague him even today.

At that time we decided on the natural (pig) valve which, if or when it failed again, it would be a gradual process, with time to have another replacement, vs. a mechanical valve which if it failed, well…there’d be no second chances.

At the age of 35 that’s a tough decision to make. But what choice did we have?

I remember checking him in at the hospital the day before the surgery, going through an orientation about what to expect for both the patient and the family. He really wasn’t that scared, so he said, until we went though the cardiac ICU and saw the post-op patients full of tubes and surrounded by monitors. It was a scary sight.

What were we getting ready to go through? But more importantly, what was my husband getting ready to go through??!!

Fortunately one of our neighbors was a nurse at the hospital where the surgery was being performed. Although a labor and delivery nurse, she asked to be assigned that day to the cardiac OR because she knew the doctor as well as the patient.

We arrived at the hospital at 6:00 am that morning, and they were already in the process of taking him down for surgery earlier than planned. We did get to see him, but he’d been given medication to calm him, and wasn’t making a lot of sense, until a nurse came by with a bucket of fried chicken she’d brought in for an early lunch. And he started a conversation with her about how he liked fried chicken and wanted to share it with her, while starting to slur his words a bit.

At least he still had a sense of humor, although with the help of a lot of meds, but I was still nervous and anxious to get this over with.

A four hour open heart surgery makes for a long morning for everyone. I was nervous, as were my mother and my aunt, who had come to the Washington, DC area where we lived at the time to be my support system. Our neighbor came out several times during the procedure to tell us things were going well, and that they’d cooled his chest down by throwing a bucket of ice in there. Yes, 34 years ago that’s what they did! Then she finally came out and told us everything went fine, he didn’t even need a transfusion, and he’d be in recovery/ICU soon. I actually saw him for a second as they wheeled him past the waiting area, with tubes and a monitor, but at least I saw him for a brief second.

What a relief!

Until I saw him several hours later up close in that UCU with tubes and lines everywhere, monitors softly beeping, imagining what he was feeling, and realizing he was asleep and had no idea. We’d been told it was harder on the family at this time, and I think they were right!

The next few days are a blur. He was in ICU for 24 hours before being transferred to a regular so could begin trying to get enough strength back so he could finally walk a few steps and go home. Which was an effort in itself. Seven days after surgery he was released. I was scared to have him home because I had no idea what to do or how to take care of him. But we managed.

It was an experience, and one I didn’t ever want us to repeat. Six weeks for recuperation, and get his strength back. Not to mention the huge medical bills and lost income. And the stress on both of us. After-surgery recuperation not only involves the physical recovery, but emotional recovery as well. Both are difficult.

Looking back, we had no idea what other issues would face us in the future. Fortunately after this first surgery, we went about 15 years before a recurrence. Even though Ben followed up with regular check ups with his cardiologist, a heart damaged by rheumatic fever never totally recovers. It just slowly gets worse.

And 15 years later when he suddenly started having difficulty going up the stairs without becoming short of breath, and extremely tired, we were faced with him undergoing the same surgery again…

The saga continues in Matters of the Heart, Part 2, to be published February 13, 2018.

Healing a Tiny Heart – Part 15

It’s now been a couple of weeks. A lifetime for two young parents. Long days and longer nights in the hospital…praying, crying, holding each other, and begging their two month old son to be strong and fight. To prove he is truly a heart warrior.

And he did just that.

For those if you who’ve followed this story, you already know how serious the situation was. A two month old baby suddenly diagnosed with not one, but we all later discovered, THREE, separate heart problems which required life-saving emergency open heart surgery. A baby who was already experiencing life-threatening heart failure.

Baby Cash had his surgery just two weeks ago. He was supposed to stay in the hospital at least a week, if not longer.

That did not happen. He was released and went back home in just five days.

He continues to improve on a daily basis. Some of his scars are already fading. The one in his chest looks so much better already. And we are betting by next summer we will hardly notice it.

He is back to his regular sleep schedule, or just about, depending on what time he needs his medications. He’s eating normally, and his appetite is increasing, and his personality is developing more every day. Although he has to be picked up and held differently than most infants until his breastbone heals from where it was cut open, he is just the same Cash as he was before the surgery…except healthier and happier. Because now he breathes easier, and his little heart is working just like it’s supposed to.

His mom put it beautifully into perspective just a few days ago.

“It’s so hard to believe just two weeks ago I felt as if my whole world was crashing down. I was watching strangers take my baby, my perfect little baby boy, to be operated on. And not knowing the end result.

I was praying to God like I never had before.

It was a whole new feeling. I was sick to my stomach. We were waiting almost 8 hours to be able to see him. And when we did, he looked nothing like how I had last seen him. He just laid there very still, pale, almost like a wax figure. He looked nothing like my baby.

The only movement was his chest moving up and down, all from a machine that was breathing for him. There were tubes everywhere. Just thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes. I couldn’t imagine life without my baby boy.

Looking back on everything, it’s crazy to see how far he has come in just two short weeks. I know that he will have no memory of this, and the scar will fade, but I will be sure to let him know that his scar is proof that God heals; that God answers prayers.

I have always looked at my scar from my c -section in the mirror and wished his birth went as we’d planned, but without that scar I wouldn’t have him.

We both will rock our scars with pride!”

Cash is doing beautifully. Although he’s not allowed a lot of visitors right now until he has his next round of vaccines, he’s had a few times to go out with his parents and enjoy the fresh air and the beauty of the world around him.

Just see how wonderful this little man is looking! Would you have known he’d had such a serious surgery just a few weeks previous?

It’s stories like this that reminds us how important life is, and reminds us not to take anything for granted. It also reminds us that we have a Lord who is ever faithful, and who hears our prayers, and acts upon them.

God is good, and all the time. Baby Cash is a reminder of just how good He is.

Thanks to all of the staff at CHKD for taking care of this little miracle. And for the other work they do with so many thousands of other children.

Previous posts in this series can be found in the “Healing a Tiny Heart” Category on this blog.

Healing a Tiny Heart – Part 14

This story could have had a number of different endings. When Ashley B and Coleman found out that their two month old son had a huge hole in his heart which needed open heart surgery to repair, they began a journey that, although they prayed would have a happy ending, they really didn’t know.

They uncertainty and fear was tremendous. Although they had faith in the doctors, faith in God’s healing power, this was their baby. Their firstborn child. They were just adjusting to being new parents, to a new way of life which now included three of them instead of just two.

Now this.

But this has been an incredible journey. A journey of faith, and a journey of miracles. This journey has brought many people together who didn’t even know each other before. But they were brought together because of being asked to pray for one little baby boy. And they did.

Cash’s heart surgery was successful. “Almost textbook” to quote the surgeons. But for his parents and grandparents, “textbook” was not a word they would have chosen.

But he continues to do well, and his mom continues to update us on his progress. Hopefully he will be able to come home in another week or so, and they can begin to resume their “new normal” life, loving and caring for their son, and doing the things new parents want to do with their baby.

Until then, Ashley B continues to share her story with us. And we continue to lift this family up in our prayers.

“This morning [October 14] was the first time I saw Cash’s scar. It was really a whirlwind of emotions. I started to cry, but then the tears went away. Why was I crying? My boy is a true fighter. Look at him and all he has been through. My little Rockstar. God is so good.

Our boy has had an eventful morning. In 4 hours he has had 2 x-rays, an EKG, an echocardiogram, (ultrasound of his heart), his drainage tubes taken out, and the pacemaker wires removed.

This is my baby. My baby who was born at 7lbs 8 oz, 21 1/2 inches long. Pure perfection. He came out perfect. He had a head full of hair, big bright eyes, perfect skin, ten toes and ten fingers.

Fast forward just two months, and this is my baby now.

As a mother, it kills me to look at my baby with these scars, not because his skin isn’t perfect anymore, but because I know the hell he went through to get them. I know the heartache it caused to watch him go through all of this and get those scars, and I feel completely helpless.

Cash will have two scars in his stomach from the drainage tubes and a scar on his chest forever. I will tell him every day that he is mommy’s little hero. Our strong boy. A fighter. A heart warrior.

He is now breathing completely on his own, the wires and tubes are gone. It’s horrible watching your baby being in pain while the nurses are working on him. It’s even more horrible that you can’t pick him up and comfort him.

I knew the moment I felt Cash kick in my stomach I had one tough cookie, but I had no idea how truly strong he would make his Daddy and I become.

We love you so much Cash. You are our whole world, and we thank God every day for giving you to us.”

Ashley B
October 14, 2016

Cash’s scars will fade, Mommy. But he will forever wear them as his badge of courage. As a reminder of his strength and determination. Mommy and Daddy will have their scars as well, but they will never be seen on the outside. They will live forever inside of your hearts, in your spirits, and in your memories.

And today, October 15, they finally got to once again hold their son!

Cash is not the only one who has proven himself to be a tough fighter. You two have as well. That’s what parents do when their children are hurting, when they are sick.

We are so proud of all of you.

Thanks to all of the staff at CHKD for taking care of this little miracle. And for the other work they do with so many thousands of other children.

Previous posts in this series can be found in the “Healing a Tiny Heart” Category on this blog.

Healing a Tiny Heart – Part 13

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that it was only last Monday, October 3, that Ashley B and Coleman’s world was rocked with the news that their two month old son had a huge hole in his heart that would require surgery to repair. They have been through more in the past ten days than many more young parents could ever imagine.

Their initial reaction was shock, and then, of course, fear! Fear of the unknown. Fear of what lay ahead. Fear of losing their firstborn child.

But Ashley B and Coleman have persevered; they have been strong, even in their moments of weakness. They have relied on each other, and on the Lord. They have relied on the doctors and nurses at CHKD, and they have prayed. Their family and friends have surrounded them with love and support.

Just one long week after baby Cash was diagnosed with the hole in his heart, they found themselves sitting in a surgical waiting room, waiting for the surgeons to repair his baby heart. Waiting for the news they both dreaded and anticipated. And they were so relieved when the news was good!

This series has been mostly written by his mom and dad. Their own words are for more powerful than any I could write.

Here is the latest update:

“With so many medical terms and so many things going on, we have heard things a hundred times over, and then sometimes not really hear them at all.

Apparently our little guy had one more thing repaired that I just caught while hearing the medical team making their report last night. He had both an ASD and VSD repair apparently. ASD is more common. One in twenty people have one and never know. [ASD stands for Atrial Septal Defect which causes a hole in the wall between the heart’s upper chambers. VSD is Ventricular Septal Defect which is a hole between the lower chambers of the heart. ] Cash’s was a small flap in between the two upper chambers, while the VSD repair was the very large hole in between the two bottom chambers.

The good news is that Cash finally got to eat ate last night [Wednesday night] for the first time since Monday night. And this morning his catheter was removed. The drainage tubes are having more fluid/blood draining than they originally anticipated, so he may have that in for another day.
His blood pressure is still high. Last night they had to increase the meds; this morning they are lowering them. His blood pressure needs to be down before the IV can come out of his neck.
He will still have the other two IV’s in for a while.

Our poor baby was very restless all last night, but seems to be feeling much better with the catheter out. Who wouldn’t?! The doctors also said the pacemaker wires on his heart will most likely be removed today. Things are moving forward, and as the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. Please keep the prayers coming. God is listening. And acting on them!”

Ashley B
October 13, 2016

Thank you all for taking the time to read about this sweet little boy. Thank you for your prayers.

Previous posts in this series can be found in the “Healing a Tiny Heart” Category on this blog.