David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Ventilator Blues

July 29 and July 25, 2017

[Note to those who read the original 7/25 post, now that I have been released I decided to add some material near the end (see italicized paragraphs). I also fixed a few errors.]

For those who don't know I suffered a heart attack on July 1. After spending the morning working in the yard, I had the only moment I am sure I would ever share with Elvis Presley: heart attack in the bathroom.  My wife heard me fall, my son's friend did CPR; multiple EMTs and fire fighters performed CPR.  Multiple cracked ribs later, my heart had started and stopped six times as I was admitted to Elkhart General Hospital.

I say right here that I know none of this is funny and probably deserves more reverence, especially in capturing those initial days when family, friends and colleagues worried endlessly about me.  However, I have to capture this in the only way I know how. 

For about ten days, I was kept alive by machines.  (When my one sister, nurse background, called my other sister, nurse background, to say "get here as soon as you can; I have never seen one person hooked to so many machines", that tells you something.) I can honestly say I never saw white lights, never had cherished conversations with my deceased parents, never had epiphanies about God.  From my perspective, "I was a real nowhere man/sitting in [my] nowhere land."

There were teams fighting for me.  Most didn't know me from Adam.  The critical care team at Elkhart General Hospital quickly got dozens of lines in me, a pacemaker in my left leg (still can't quite understand that one), and feeding tubes down my throat.

My family and friends amazingly rallied together, as much to support my wife and son as much as me, but still I am touched.  My brother in law came and chopped up the rest of the damn wood that had been the source of my over-exertion.  My friends Gary, Maureen and Emily came down and helped buy some essentials for the house. My sisters with their nursing backgrounds, brother in law with nurse anaesthesist background were all there to help clarify how my care was being handled.  At work, everyone had already decided on a short-term plan to handle my duties, even though I am sure no one had any confidence in defining "short-term."

And then I came around. I know I can't explain it, and even some of the hospital staff say they can't always explain why one person seems to recover while another one doesn't.  "Miracle of miracles," I am not sure I have any quality that stands out.  I am not particularly a man of faith, so it is hard to see grace aligning with me much more than another person.  At best, I would say my heart wasn't done being used yet.

Of course, to the idiot who "awakes" after almost two weeks in a ventilated state, life seems barely different.  Within days I couldn't understand why I couldn't just bounce out of bed and go home. In fact for me there was a strange sense of Deja Vu about my hospital stay.  I guess if it seemed like I had been here before, it was because I had--The last two weeks!

Initially my "celebrity" status helped me cope with the fact that I wasn't going anywhere soon.  On the one hand, almost every hospital member who had a chance, stopped in to say that while I wouldn't know them, they had seen me in those initial days and couldn't believe how good I looked.  Add to that the fact that my wife was keeping a copy of "It's All Academic" in the room for good mojo, and I got a lot of "I have never worked on a famous writer before," and I felt pretty special.  (My favorite image is of two x-Ray technicians riding their portable x-Ray machine into my room in the middle of the night, looking like some fierce nazgul, saying that one had ordered the book while the other was getting it from the library!)

However,  even as I write the bulk of this while still admitted in the hospital, I am not a patient patient.  From the outset of my "return," my dreams are filled with thoughts of paranoia and frustration at my progress.  Right or wrong, from the beginning I couldn't understand the unwillingness to give me water ("isn't it the basis of life?" I thought).  There was a sink tantalizingly close in my room and I frequently fascinated making a break for it.  I contemplated getting to and turning over one of the first vases of flowers I got just for the water. Even in the last few days in the hospital, my hallucinatory thoughts are that I have figured out a way to beat the hospital system, although this is hardly poker at Vegas.

Getting five or six breathing treatments a day also don't help my psyche.  Since I have a trachea tube, these treatments are meant to help minimize secretions, primarily by keeping them from drying out.  So I wear a mask around my trachea and listen to my tortured breathing combine with air flow to create the chatter of 100s of little gremlins.  I am supposed to wear these treatments through the night, and yet no one wonders why I can't get a good night's sleep.

I have had to learn how to eat with a trachea tube.  Teaching a guy whose eating habits took him to death door how to eat seems akin to teaching a smoker how to smoke after lung disease.  Or at least that's the thought I have after seeing an x-Ray of my mouth and throat as I ate.  Certainly reminded me of Warren Zevon's old Velvet Nose.

One last lament from the lousy patient: hospital beds are the perfect vessels for a potentially recuperative patient.  They stand like the Spanish Armada, high above the churning sea below, bemasted by i.v. poles, each captain feeling the master of his or her domain.  When all is said and done, however, takeovers of foreign lands require smaller more agile boats that can get to the promised land much more easily.

Still, don't doubt my respect for a huge team of health professionals that attend my every need.  Both the insertion and the removal of the leg pacemaker required a single nurse to press incessantly and constantly with fingers and hands into the flesh in my legs. I was not conscious of who did it when the pacemaker was installed, but my sisters describe a woman with resolute determination, matched probably only by nurse Tim whom I watched perform the same pressing action for 45 minutes straight after the pacemaker was removed.

Almost every prick, prod, stab, squeeze, rip, and removal was accompanied by the friendliest attitude. Sure, I wanted all the nurses to be SMC grads, but it didn't matter if they were Bethel, IU, IUSB, Andrews, Glen Oaks, they represented their professions beautifully.  I forget which was the first one to suggest a cup of ice chips when I wasn't allowed water, but the happiness in my face must have made people think I had been granted parole. Later Tim got me Popsicles, necessitating that I rename my first (and only) born.

So I ended up in a major waiting game. I get upgraded to parts of the hospital where I am less critical (pretty good, given that 3 weeks earlier, a doctor had told family, "he's the sickest guy in the unit").  I end up in rehab with a private room and bathroom, the freedom to eat with other rehab patients, and a pretty aggressive occupational, physical, and recreational therapy schedule.  Much like the rest of the Elkhart General staff, the rehab specialists are great to work with, even David, who admits to being Satan himself when he makes me manage inclines in my wheelchair all by myself. 

Meanwhile, the rehab nurses patiently go through the litany of reciting my drugs daily (sometimes it seems like twice a day) as they give them to me.  Ryan and Carrissa patiently wait me out as I go into a major hacking fit while they are trying to work around my trachea.  Greg puts up with multiple nighttime calls to help me get to the bathroom (even before I get the dang drug that will make me pee more).  These people's dedication to their jobs and me is all the more remarkable when the news hits that a doctor that occasionally works with their unit is shot and killed by a man who is upset the doctor wouldn't prescribe opioids for his sick wife.  I had met Dr. Graham over the weekend and even just over the course of 5 minutes, I could tell what a gentle man he was. Even in the face of senseless violence, the rehab nursing staff never lose sight of me or my care.

It stays like this for about 5 days as I go through rehab, building my strength and wait to get the o.k. to go home. The major factor is my trachea tube, which I guess first has to be downsized; if that is like some places I know, I will find out on a Friday around 5. I do stress about breathing, something I have known how to do since I was about two minutes old.  When I took my first shower, I almost freaked out from breathing under the stream of water.  Small steps, I guess.

Finally, late in the day on Thursday, July 27, Dr. Halloran strolls in, says, "no need to downsize.  Let's take that tube out."  5 seconds later (there is no hyperbole here), the tube is out and a bandage is on my neck. Immediately I feel like I can breathe again, the hacking diminishes tremendously, and the discharge date is set for the following day. 

And now I am home, moving around the house relatively easily, including stepping over two stupid dogs who are even more desperate not to leave my side.  There are lots of medications to still take, doctors' appointments to still attend, PT and OT therapy sessions to endure. Movement is slow and endurance is limited but I take solace in the Cowboy Junkies' line, "shut it all out/just let the notes fall slow."

Meanwhile, I have missed out on the 4th of July, Wimbledon, whatever the hell President Trump has been doing, and most of a Pirate winning streak.  I come to to find O.J. free on parole.  It's a bizarre life.  I find myself loved more and more than I realized, ranging in evidence from a bunch of flowers, cards, video tributes (thanks, Gary, Sherri, Amy, Char, Bonnie, Mike, Maria [and dog], Keith, Julie, Sharon, Mark, and Tammy) to the far reaches of best wishes from folks I rarely hear from. Not to mention a (s)care package from my 'oldest friends' in the world, Steve and Tim.

Thank you all.  I am glad I have been able to pull off this trick to justify your love, care, prayers, and thoughts.  For my next trick, though, I'll prefer a volunteer.