I’m still not convinced that I properly thanked the Bangor police officer who took me to the hospital that summer night two years ago. The pounding on the door had awakened me, and the statement he relayed from my doctor removed any doubt that this night would be different from any preceding one.
“You have a potentially fatal medical condition.”
“Call your doctor immediately.”
It was just after midnight.
“Get in the cruiser and I’ll take you to the emergency room.”
Each statement seemed to create its own beat in my chest and I later thought that if my damaged heart survived this, I’d have a good chance with what was to come.
Soon, details emerged.
1. Blood work had revealed that I had infective endocarditis, a disease I had never heard of but which apparently had a high mortality rate.
2. I’d be on antibiotics for a long time — operating on an infected heart was not recommended.
3. When the infection cleared, I’d have open heart surgery to repair a severely damaged mitral valve.
4. I probably shouldn’t have turned off the ringer on the bedroom phone before my nap that afternoon.
Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital describes bacterial endocarditis as “an infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers and valves. This infection can occur in any person … it can cause serious heart damage.”
Lucky me. That heart murmur diagnosed years ago had apparently made me a more likely target than most. And a dental cleaning without antibiotics seemed the likely start to it all.
All of this was more than two years ago, but the experience has stuck with me, along with lessons learned. These lessons applied to my heart then, but today, they seem like tips that are applicable to life in general.
Tip 1: Try to grasp the magnitude of a serious situation, but don’t freak out about it
My early question, before my ride to the ER in the police cruiser, was to my wife, “Should I shave?”
Her reply: “Just get going!”
I realized that my own delay could cause others great stress.
Tip 2: Listen to your body and use your head
My diagnosis came after a long summer of weight loss, breathlessness and feeling crummy, weak and considerably older than I was. If you don’t feel well, stay on top of it and find out why. I learned that sometimes things don’t just “go away.” I had thought my illness would, and what nearly went away was me.
Tip 3: Listen to others
When my sister-in-law told my wife, “He looks awful!” I tried to look on the bright side. It could be that early, but free, diagnosis that you avoided in Tip 2. When dealing with sisters-in-law, however, don’t rule out a second opinion.
Tip 4: Do your research
While being treated with IV antibiotics for a month, I had a lot of time to research my condition and possible remedies. As one friend told me, “the decision you make will affect the rest of your life.”
For me, it was all about heart valve replacement or repair. I wanted repair, and fortunately had a local surgeon who helped me find a specialist and hospital where I would be most likely to get the desired results. Because websites may scare one to death, I turned to health.usnews.com/best-hospitals and researched the recommended hospitals. I assembled a huge binder of information — one that soon became too taxing to lift.
Tip 5: Be your own advocate, or have someone advocate for you
Approaching open heart surgery isn’t like choosing a paint color for the hallway. Be informed as you express what you want to achieve with your doctor. Health care workers enjoy talking with people who have done a little homework. Treat the staff nicely and they’ll reward you many times over.
The white board in one of my hospital rooms issued the good-natured warning to staffers caring for me: “Asks lots of questions.” I did. And I received lots of answers. And remember, you don’t always need to be polite.
One afternoon, as family members on the other end of the line passed the phone from one to another to say hello, I went into atrial fibrillation (no connection, I assure you), but a fine excuse to end any phone call. Next time, I’ll take it.
Tip 6: Don’t take anything for granted and appreciate what you have
I’ll never forget asking my daughter to leave the hospital room when the doctor related the mortality rates of my surgical options to my wife and me. Would my heart hold out until the antibiotics had cleared the infection? Was there a risk of stroke if the “vegetation” (not the most appealing use of the word), growing on my mitral valve broke free? I valued the words of encouragement my roommate offered as they wheeled me away to the ICU.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s just so they can keep a closer eye on you.”
It was our last exchange. He died following his surgery.
Tip 7: Don’t ignore the power of prayer
Regardless of your religious persuasion, knowing that there is a Greater Power out there can be of great comfort. There were plenty of nights that I truly felt the prayers of my Catholic, Jewish, Latter Day Saints, Congregational, Episcopal and more friends pulling for me. All those prayers were a drug-free relaxant that always delivered incredible comfort. I just better live up to them all now that I’m well.
Tip 8: Be a patient patient
Let’s face it. Heart surgery, and many other invasive surgeries, are not for the weak of heart … well, maybe heart surgery is. They force you to get outside yourself and look for strength wherever you can find it. This, and recovery, all take time.
Establish new routines. I found new friends, both real and virtual, as I endured the seemingly endless flow of antibiotics. I carefully pronounced and described the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars” to family and friends as a good time passer.
I set a goal: stay healthy for my heart surgery. I convinced myself to look forward to it — a big step in just a few weeks. When it was over, I would be well again.
Tip 9: Be open to advice, tips and the value of what may seem simply off-hand remarks
While waiting for one test and chatting with an attending physician, he suggested that I might want to go online and check out the innovative techniques of another, much larger hospital. That little comment changed my direction entirely, and helped me clarify my goals. I went from thinking only of surviving, to choosing the best options for surgery and quality of life afterward.
Tip 10: Relax … you’re going to be fine
Just before surgery, as I lay on the table about to be anesthetized, I had the nicest chat with the anesthesiologist about hiking in Acadia, something we both loved and the last active thing I had done before my diagnosis. It was like coming full circle and a nice way to be put out, temporarily, I hoped.
Recovery was easier than I thought and I was sitting up drinking tea 24 hours after my Acadia chat. And although I didn’t quite belong to the same demographic of the gentleman in the pre-release video that highlighted a post-surgery life of slippers, grandchildren and Bingo for the first few weeks, I learned a lot about myself, especially getting over any subsequent obstacle that may be thrown in my way.
Afterall, it’s not like it’s heart surgery.
Eric Zelz is the Bangor Daily News director of graphics and design.