Feeling well: a cautionary tale

Well, well . . . wellness! Here I thought I knew what wellness was. It was how you felt unless you felt unwell. Wrong! At age 77, I finally learned that you can be unwell even if you feel fine.

Of course, I knew I was obese, but not badly so. Only 257 pounds when I arrived in Asheville back in May of 2013. I thought I was “Santa Claus” fat, as I admitted in my blog of that time (see up2pee.com) and since then had trimmed down to 227. I was proud of that loss as I aimed for 200 by Christmas. I guess I needn’t tell you that I didn’t attain that goal, but it wasn’t because I felt unwell. Just too ambitious, that’s all.

And of course I was diabetic, the legacy of poor eating habits for fifty years. But I felt good, hale and hearty, in spite of taking 1000 mg of glucophage twice a day and 40 units of injectable insulin morning and night. It was just the cost of doing business. I had learned a lot about diabetes over the years, and I praised medical science for finding ways to cope with diabetes even with a dead or dying pancreas. The point is (or was), day by day, I didn’t feel unwell.

And I sort of dismissed the history of that “heart attack” I had in Phoenix in 2011. I wasn’t even sure it really was a heart attack. No elephant sitting on my chest — just an uncomfortable tightness in my back. But it was true. My primary care physician took an EKG and confirmed it. He sent me to the hospital in my own car, and I reluctantly told the staff I was “having a heart attack,” but by then I wasn’t feeling unwell any more.

Nevertheless, they treated me like I was a heart-attack patient, put me on a gurney, wheeled me into the ER, wired me up, took blood, all of that. Finally, I met the man who was to become my cardiologist until I moved here, and I protested that I didn’t need to be there — it had to be a false alarm. Well, he wasn’t sure. They would keep me overnight anyway, until they could check my blood for enzymes that would prove conclusively whether or not I had a heart attack.

Well, I suppose you know the verdict on that one. Yes, I had had a heart attack, but it was just a mild one. Maybe no damage, or not much, but still, I felt fine and was ready to go home. But no, not quite, my cardiologist said. He wanted to take a look at my heart by putting a wire up from my groin, and squirting dye up there, to identify any blockages. Another overnight in the hospital. 

The catheterization showed a blockage, so he put a stent in, three of them actually, to hold the blood vessel open for blood flow. All in all, I was there about a week, although I felt fine all the while.

Sure, I had to see my cardiologist now and then, but even that was a pleasure because I liked him, and I fancied myself a junior heart specialist as we monitored my warfarin load week to week. Again, I felt fine, even though I was accumulating medications at a rapid clip. Cardioman said my damage was minimal, but still, he wanted me to do exercises, cardio-rehab in a gym for a month (or as long as Medicare would pay for it).

So, I did that, still feeling fine, and as though all this folderol was unnecessary. Then I had to change my Medicare plan, and got linked up with a diabetes specialist in my neighborhood who wanted me to see a number of other doctors: an ophthalmologist (who said my retinas looked healthy), and a nephrologist (who said my kidneys didn’t) but he didn’t treat me either when he heard I was headed for North Carolina, where he had gone to medical school.  He was sure I’d be well-served in Asheville; as in fact I have been.

I got a new team of specialists here, and puttered along feeling well, until I began to feel a recurrence of that old tightness in my back — which the docs were agreed was a form of angina — and probably called for a new catheterization. I did that, still feeling well, even when the results called for a complete heart bypass operation. I hardly knew what I was facing before I was shaved and prepped by green-clad medical types and briefed by my surgeon about what lay ahead. 

Yes, I understood. Serious operation. Well, I was ready to go, if that should be my fate. I had lived a better life than I deserved, and was living on borrowed time anyway. I think I was told that I wouldn’t likely die – not on the operating table. They don’t allow that, if it can at all be prevented.

The next thing I know, I do not feel well! I’m waking up in the ICU, and I’m experiencing pain like I’ve never known before.  Surgical pain. Yes, I suppose I was on pain-killing drugs, but still, the enormity of what had happened was just coming home to me.

This is what it means to have a quadruple bypass: They break into your rib gage and pry it apart so they can work on the still-beating heart.  They sew in lengths of my own blood vessels (harvested from my leg) to take over the job of my failing arteries. When satisfied that the job is done correctly, they sew you back up again, especially wiring together that protective ribcage, that hurts so damn much now. 

This is the rough part, getting well. The first 24 hours, mainly on Percoset, were the toughest. They gave me a heart-shaped pillow to clutch to my chest when I coughed, and I have to admit that it really did work. That pillow was my best friend for almost a week. Slowly, I improved and soon was discharged from Mission Hospital. I still hurt like hell from the surgery, and am glad I didn’t have to go home directly, as many folks do, it seems, if they can’t afford further hospitalization. That would mean more pain, both for the patient and the caregiver at home, who must become nurse for a week or two, as the patient heals.

I was lucky. Medicare accepts the notion of further hospitalization, and paid for me to go to Care Partners’ Rehab Hospital, where professional workers give the care and training needed to recover from this great trauma.

Now I’m about one-month post-op, as they say, and improving nicely. I feel like a human being again, but am still aware of the tenderness in my chest. I can even work on my computer a bit, as this article shows, but I want to advise anyone and everyone: you don’t have to go through this misery.  The blockages in my arteries are purely due to the foods I ate, and if you have eaten like I did – for God’s sake STOP.  It is never too late to eat better.

I ate the great American diet; fast food and gut stuffers, sweets included. And I loved it, in spite of the weight I put on, and the damage I did to my body. If I had died on schedule — around 65 — I’d have gotten away with it, too. But we don’t die as young as we used to, at least from natural causes. We last up into our eighties and nineties, and as the wag has recently reminded us: If I’d known I would live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.

He’s right. Eat better. You owe it to yourself.

Dewitt Robbeloth is a writer and retiree living in Asheville. Read more of his writings on his blog at up2pee.com

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