The coffee and company has been fun. It’s Thursday and I’m pedalling up the final hill of the ride with the guys. But there is a niggling problem in that the pain is has returned. It was fine during the ride, an easy short one because I haven’t been on the bike for three weeks, having spent a fortnight travelling around the Flinders Ranges. I’m not sure whether it’s a sore throat, chest or whatever. All I know it’s a burning sensation in my chest or lungs, which gets worse as I finally puff my way to the top. Then it subsides along the level track and I slowly pedal home.
I’m thinking it’s a good thing I am seeing my doctor tomorrow. The realisation is finally sinking in that something is wrong, but I don’t know exactly what.
Two months ago I had contacted a severe cold and bronchitis, which left me with massive coughing fits and croaky vocal cords. At that time, I got the chest pains on hilly rides, but I put that down to my sore throat. I also started to get the pain and started having breathing problems each fortnight walking up from Joliment Station to the top of the city to attend a meeting, again putting this down to my throat.
I thought that a fortnight in the dry air of the Flinders Ranges would clear up my throat and I would be back to normal. But walking one day up a lookout the symptoms appear and that’s when I get nervous, because my throat is getting better, I should be cleared out by now, but I’m not.
After we return home I make the appointment, trusting that Dr Cameron will prescribe some magic potion. He listens to my story, checks my chest and blood pressure which are normal. Then he starts writing pathology scripts and prescriptions.
“I’m not quite sure, it could still be your throat, chest or maybe a virus.”
He pauses, “It could be even something to do with your heart, don’t forget you have had Type I diabetes for thirty five years.”
I quickly protest. “But Cameron, I control it really well, look at my results, my blood tests, my chlorestoral tests, my blood pressure, all within normal ranges.”
The foreboding response comes back. “Often it doesn’t matter, even well controlled diabetics are prone to heart conditions, it unfortunately comes with the territory. But don’t worry overmuch, get all the tests done, we will discuss it next week.”
I am worrying a bit thought, especially as one script he gives me is for nitroglycerine spray for under my tongue if I get a sudden chest pain. This is the sort of thing I see in movies where people suddenly reach for their pill for under the tongue before falling to the floor with a heart attack. This is maybe my ‘oh,oh, moment.’
At home I start phoning, needing to make appointments for blood tests, an ECG, a chest Xray, an MRI for my lungs, and a heart stress test. The clinic is helpful over the next couple of days, ringing through the results which are all clear, which is kind of reassuring.
The big test is on Tuesday, when I do the heart stress test on the treadmill. As I step on the machine I’m confident that this will be an easy one, after all I regularly walk the dog, go cycling and do much heavy gardening, achieving my 15,000 steps daily. I’m super fit, aren’t I?
As the treadmill picks up speed I’m not so sure. The first minute is all right, a peaceful stroll. Then the speed picks up and I start puffing and panting, and after the five minutes is up, I am totally stuffed and collapse onto the table while the doctors take final blood pressure and heartrate readings. I suspect what they will say, because I have been looking sideways at them as they point to the screen and mutter seriously between themselves. ‘Look at his rising blood pressure, check out the curve of the graph.’
The doctor ushers me into his room, I suspect that this is when my life will change.
The verdict is pronounced. “You have a heart problem. We don’t know exactly what until we do an angiogram. An artery may just need widening, it may need a stent, if it’s bad it will need bypass surgery. I’m booking you in to Epworth in the morning.”
In a daze I wander out of the centre and adopt my usual behaviour in stressful times. Finding a coffee shop to mull over my suddenly altered situation over a mug of strong hot coffee. I urgently need to mentally process this unexpected and unwanted deluge of information, I need to think it through, I feel like an ancient computer trying to sort out this bucket of data into some sort of logical format. I’m in the middle of busy Box Hill Central, people shopping and socialising, but I’m alone with my thoughts.
My first thought is how to tell my wife, I know she has been worried. The same with my son and daughter. I will have to ring my sisters, they both have blood pressure problems, there is a family history of heart problems, they should be warned about me increasing their risk factor. I remember the last cycling group coffee break, where in the context of our friend Nick dying we agreed that we just don’t know what is around the corner, and hence the need to make the most of every day. This conversation was somewhat theoretical at that time, now it’s uncomfortably making sense. I make a mental note to get back to Buddhist meditation classes, this always helps me to think clearly. I need to talk to my GP, to make sure that the heart surgeon I am being referred to is competent.
That afternoon I see my GP , Dr Cam, who reassures me that Dr Chris the surgeon has indeed a competent pair of hands, and he would have referred me to him. We make an appointment for next week to sort out the vast array of paperwork, he also repeats the news that at age 70 I am one of the few few fortunate long suffering diabetics who only now has developed a heart issue. I don’t know if this makes me feel happier or not.
It’s the next morning and I’m walking into the Epworth admission area to undergo the angiogram to see exactly how my arteries are pumping. I’m worried because of the uncertainty, not knowing what will be found, how long I will be there. I’m somewhat rusty at this hospital stuff, my last admission being thirty five years ago at the old Diamond Valley Hospital when I was diagnosed with diabetes. Normally I’m the one visiting friends, standing by the bed not in it. I’m hungry, not being allowed food, hoping that the long acting insulin from the previous night will keep my sugar levels stable, not wanting a hypo on the operating table. I feel vulnerable being naked under the hospital gown, not looking forward to having my groin shaved.
Dr Chris comes in, a cheerful young guy. He explains the procedure, again stating we won’t know the next step until he sees the artery blood flow. Then I’m wheeled to the operating theatre, down long corridors, marvelling at how smoothly the trolley castors roll. The operating theatre is fascinating, I’m surprised at the number of staff there, I idly trace the power cords and connections, I marvel at the multi jointed framework holding the massive X’ray machine, trusting that the bolts are high tensile steel, I don’t fancy the thing coming down on me. I guess this is just to distract myself. Being a writer, and viewing life through a pen, I even start mentally drafting this story. The it’s game on and Dr Chris starts pumping dye into my veins, and I watch my arteries pumping away on the big screen next to the table.
Four hours later and I’m being driven home, feeling a lot happier. Dr Chris has discovered that my Left Anterior Descending artery , the one supplying most of the blood to the heart and cheerfully described by surgeons as the “widow maker” is 90% blocked. But it can be repaired with a stent, requiring only one overnight hospital stay. He will do this two days later on Saturday. I’m feeling happier now, because at least I know what is wrong and that it can be fixed. I’m keen to get home and fire up my coffee machine.
I spend the next two days taking it easy as directed, doing a lot a thinking about my new lifestyle, glad that I went to the doctor when I did, not leaving it until maybe too late. There is not a massive lifestyle change to make, I already exercise, eat healthily and control my weight. The inbuilt diabetes risk factor is an unwelcome fact of life, but one I just have to accept. I tell myself to make the most of every day, but not just think this principle, actually put it into practice.
It’s Saturday morning and I’m back at the hospital, actually looking forward to the operation as it will clear the way to get on with my life.
It all goes as planned. I’m prepped, wheeled on the smooth castors to the same operating theatre, even the same staff are attending me. Dr Chris inserts the cable containing the stent into my wrist and I watch on the screen as this wire gets poked up my arm artery, over my heart and down into the blocked part, a somewhat curious experience. But Dr Chris seems to know the way, deftly pushing the wire through my body, until he finally pops the stent in to place, withdraws the wire, and I am the dubiously proud owner of a 35 mm . I idly consider asking him could I keep the wire as a spare brake cable, it’s most likely high quality stainless steel, but I’m not sure if this request would be complied with.
Then it’s back to my room and I spend the time reading and late into the night I start to scribble my story, thinking again how all through this time, with all the procedures, I have been planning how this bit and that would fit.
But I also realise at the end, that I have no profound words of wisdom to pass on, no shattering revelations about how my life has changed, it’s just something that happened.
Maybe it’s best summed up by a piece of a poem I wrote a couple of years ago.
Is there a purpose, any rhyme or reason?
Who cares, all end at the final portal
None can escape, like it or not
The snuff man is nigh, gently beckoning
Patiently waiting, waiting, waiting
So start the race, begin the journey
It’s the only one that counts
Life’s a bitch and don’t we know it
Way too short and way too hard
The bad is bad, but the good is good
You gotta get in to get out