So I’m going to make this as short and sweet as possible because it’s all behind me now and it’s way too self-centered, but there are some kudos to be given and thanks to be shared that I cannot ignore, however much they may require me to get personal, so here is the story.
It was about a dozen years ago, now, that I first suggested to my doctor that I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly gaining weight without any clear reason or change in habits (I even suggested, following some recent cat therapy, that perhaps I had contracted a (eww) tapeworm, which made him chuckle). He ran a few tests, but since everything turned out negative, I just chalked up my expanding waist and decreasing energy to aging, though I could never quite get over the idea that something just wasn’t right.
And so it remained until a couple of years ago. I had only recently put down the keyboard as a blogger in frustration because my brain just didn’t seem to be as clear, as crisp, as fertile as usual. It was like it wasn’t getting enough oxygen, I thought, so on my next regular checkup I once again brought up my concerning lack of energy. “I just don’t understand,” I said, “Why I am out of breath every time I climb the two flights of stairs to our apartment.”
“Oh,” he said, it was a question, “you have shortness of breath?” as little lights came on behind his eyes.
“Well, yes,” I replied, realizing that I must have said some magic words I had previously omitted.
“Okay,” said Dr. B. “You need to have a stress test. I’m sending you to a cardiologist, Dr. Marc Nolan. He’s very good.” (Dr. B stands for Dr. Jose Barbazan-Silva, my primary care physician who has now saved my life twice in the last 19 months.)
And so, a few days later I was off to Dr. Nolan, who conducted a reassuringly thorough stress test, though I began to be a little trepidatious during the part at the end when the technician asked me to lay down on a table where he and Dr. Nolan could watch my heart on a screen in bright living color while I could only watch their faces.
“Did you see that?” whispered the tech to Dr. Nolan.
“Yes,” said the doctor as he pointed to another area. “And there,” he whispered back.
Finally, disconnected from the spider’s web of wires, Dr. Nolan came in: “We see some blockages in the blood vessels surrounding your heart so I’m sending you to Dr. Varinder Singh who is the chief cardiologist at Lenox Hill [Hospital],” he said. “I think he will want to do an angiogram to get up in there and see what’s going on. The procedure is not very invasive. They just send a catheter up the artery in your arm and take a look around.”
So, only a few days later, on April 5 of 2018, I found myself splayed out upon a technological marvel of a table that Bones would have welcomed on the Enterprise as they explored my heart. Dr. Singh had told me beforehand that we could expect one of three outcomes: 1) he would find no appreciable damage and he would just look around and that would be that, or 2) he would find some blockage but something minor enough that he could clear it out right then and there, or 3) he would find issues so serious that they would require a return visit to his high-tech chamber to correct them.
As it happened, it was option 3, and even as I lay upon the table coming out of my semi-conscious state he said, “We found two 100% blockages in your LAD [the central artery that flows from your aorta right down between the left and right chambers of your heart], one at the top and one at the bottom, so even a by-pass wouldn’t work because we could only do the top or the bottom, so we’re going to do a special double angioplasty taking one stent up through an artery in your groin and the second one up your arm like we did today.”
He added, “You should be glad you have me for your doctor because this is a very rare procedure but I’ve done it a couple of hundred times, while most doctors have only done it a few, if any, times.”
When I told this to Dr. B once the whole thing was over with, he chortled and said, “If he’d told me he had only done it a couple of hundred times I would have been out the door!” Fortunately, by then, the deed was done.
That happened on May the 4th and Dr. Singh was as good as his reputation and he and a second interventional cardiologist whose name I actually never knew did a marvelous dance up my arteries where they first expanded balloons to open up my LAD, bottom and top, then inserted little chrome-plated platinum stents to keep it that way. The operation went well and at some point, through the sedation, I heard Dr. Singh say to his associate, “That stent is perfectly placed!” and I drifted back into my stupor, comforted.
It was 9 months later, after a few follow-up visits to Dr. Nolan that my heart was declared to have the clear flow of a newborn, and I was told I needn’t return for six months. My heart was done.
And yet, my shortness of breath, as Dr. B had called it, had not abated. Oh, my energy levels were improved and I could tell my brain was getting more oxygen – a welcome change – but I was still out of breath when I got to the top of the stairs.
“Well, then,” said Dr. B when I saw him again about a year ago,” I think you should go see the pulmonologist. I have a really good one, Dr. Barry Weinberg.”
So, I went and was tested and x-rayed and it turned out that – left over from 38 years of smoking though I stopped a decade ago – I have a slight case of residual COPD. “Don’t worry. We can fix this,” Dr. Weinberg said as he prescribed two puffs a day on my first inhaler. And, once again I realized some incremental improvement, but in all honesty, it was still not the ‘fix’ I had anticipated and over time another inhaler was added to the mix.
And then, the week before Thanksgiving – two and a half months ago – the inevitable happened and the unseen, unfelt, unrealized disease that had been at the bottom of all my physical troubles all this time finally asserted itself – subtly but unmistakably. Now that my circulatory system was 100% and my pulmonary system greatly improved, I would at last discover that my digestive system had been the culprit all along!
It began late on Friday night, November 15, with what I can only call mild discomfort as if I was, in my Sainted Aunt Mary Belle’s classic words, “bound up” and so for a full weekend I tossed and turned in the bed, unable to function and unable to find any comfortable position, though it really never rose to the level of painful, only very uncomfortable. And, given this mildness, I was somewhat surprised when I spoke to Dr. B that Monday afternoon and he rather insisted that I should go to the emergency room at Lenox Hill “since they have all the history of your heart surgery.”
I protested that it really didn’t seem all that severe and with several things on my plate that day, “Could I put it off till Wednesday?” I asked.
“ONLY IF YOU’RE NOT DEAD!” he responded. So, I took the hint and the next day at 9 am headed over to the emergency room across town, still thinking it was most likely just a temporary blockage.
Well, how wrong I was. By noon, after a CT Scan and abdominal x-ray, my gallbladder had been diagnosed as acutely inflamed and I received my first visit from a surgical resident to tell me they would probably be taking it out that afternoon, but then I called Dr. B to tell him of my diagnosis and thank him for insisting on my visit to the ER, and he fairly leapt into action.
“I don’t want you being a Guinea pig,” he said, “Dr. Greenberg. You need Dr. Marc Greenberg. Don’t let them do anything till he sees you. I’m calling him now. Also, expect to hear from Dr. Racconelli, my colleague who has Lenox Hill privileges.”
And so, by 3 pm I had been sent upstairs for an sonogram of my gallbladder (during which the technician, a marvelous Ukrainian immigrant, let me see a clear image of a huge gallstone blocking the entrance to my bile duct – clearly a cause of my discomfort) and returned to the ER to begin what turned into 4 days of serious IV antibiotics to begin to quell the infection.
“The CT scan of your gallbladder is scary!” were Dr. Greenberg’s opening words to me when he arrived later in the afternoon to let me know that because of the severity of my condition, they had decided a wiser course was to cool off the inflammation with heavy antibiotics for several weeks before going in to take it out arthroscopically. “Four little tiny incisions,” one of the residents said.
And so, for the entire week before Thanksgiving, “9 Wollman” (the floor) of Lenox Hill was my home where I was regularly visited by Drs. Greenberg, Weinburg, Racconelli and, once, even Dr. B as they checked in to make sure I was being carefully tended. And, given what I now know to be a stellar line up of highly-respected New York City all-star physicians, the nursing and other support care I received that week was top-notch, as well. Somebody had flagged my file, and the consequent and constant attention to my needs was clear enough.
Finally, after a bedridden week and feeling immeasurably better as the huge infection was quelled by the medicines, I was sent home to take three more week-long courses of antibiotic pills, seven pills a day, to further decrease the danger. I had come as close to having a burst and septic gallbladder as one can come without it actually happening, and for those weeks, the primary goal was to quiet that infection to the greatest degree possible so that, when Dr. Greenberg finally went in to take it out, there would not be as much chance of any residual or rogue spin-off infection to follow.
On January 23, the time had come, and I checked into the hospital that morning as fully at ease and confident as one can be in that situation that my fate was in excellent hands. Richard was there to provide his uplifting and entertaining support through the long hours leading up to the surgery, and even in the recovery room when I emerged from the grog not a little grouchy, if memory serves.
And, I have to tell you, now, two weeks and a few days later, I am already so much better, healthier, more energetic and sharp than I have been in years, that it’s a revelation. “I just feel all bubbly inside,” I said to Richard the other day, and that continues even as I write this. My voice is so loud from my exuberance that I have to consciously diminish the volume both on the phone and even just sitting and talking. To paraphrase what the psalmist said so fittingly in this situation, “Yea, though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death… my cup runneth over.”
There’s a song by Rogers and Hammerstein that was debuted on Broadway by Danny Kaye as Noah in “Two-by-Two”, an ill-fated musical about the great flood and the ark, called “I Feel Like I’m 90 Again!” The song comes at that point in the story when Noah, having complained to God that he is an old man (150, or so at the time) and just doesn’t have enough strength left to build such a huge boat, is zapped by a miraculous bolt of energy from God. Well, I may only be 69 rather than 150, but I completely know how Noah felt.
I reminded Dr. B on my last visit – after the surgery – of my concern so many years ago, poopooed by him at the time, that I might have contracted a tapeworm, and expressed my growing belief that my gallbladder issue must have been the source of my concerns even then and had been dogging me all the years since – exacerbating both the cardiac and respiratory maladies along the way. And I was very pleased when he agreed.
I must take this opportunity, now that it is all behind me, to extend my sincere gratitude to Doctor Barbazan-Silva, Dr. Nolan, Dr. Singh, Dr. Weinberg, Dr. Greenberg and Dr. Racconelli along with about a dozen additional doctors and an equal number of nurses who served on my behalf during these last 19 months. I could not have been in better hands and, chances are, without them I would not be here at all.
I also want to convey my most heartfelt and sincere thank you to our good friend Sarah Lazarus, who was there with me daily during that touch-and-go week before Thanksgiving and has continued to be a huge support to me in my recovery. And, of course, to Richard, whose extraordinary spirit and obvious love is ever and always my most secure and relied upon human source of strength. When I first arrived in the pre-op room before the gall bladder surgery, there were four very dour and visibly unhappy nurses complaining to each other about various concerns and job issues, but within five minutes of Richard’s arrival to give me support, he had them all doing the Bossa Nova and singing! The Lord ever and always works in mysterious ways Her wonders to perform.
Finally, a quick word to all those friends who found a way to feed me during the two months between Thanksgiving and last week when I was completely forbidden to ingest any fat whatever, people who went above and beyond to accommodate my situation: Richard, of course, plus sister Miriam; KB and Hunter; Sara Beth, James and Isaac; Stephen and Mark; and Noah. You guys were spectacular and I love you all so very much!
© 2020 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.