Hello again, Ricochet. Sorry I haven’t written for so long. I do have a good excuse. It’s been a busy Spring. Also, I almost died.
I write the above not as hyperbole nor the start of some clever device. (Those come later, hopefully.) It’s fact. It is the first time I’ve written it as fact. I’m trying it on for size, like the tuxedo my daughter will no doubt someday force me to wear at her wedding. It will never seem to fit and I’ll never be ready to wear it. But there it is, hanging across my shoulders, staring back at me in the mirror. It’s also worth mentioning that I’m writing this from my MacBook in my hospital bed, watching CNN (sorry, it was that or MSNBC and seriously, CNN, what’s with you?) catching up on the story of a far worse fight for life than mine – although mine was no small potatoes. I have an IV still in my left arm, six bandages from previous blood tests, three bee sting sensations from Lovenox stomach injections and a heart monitor strapped to my chest for proof of that.
I’m 45 years old. Today. I kid you not, people. It’s my birthday.
What landed me here has a number of medical explanations: genetics, pharmaceutical interactions, stress-induced episodes. I’ve settled on a simpler cause: stubbornness.
Let’s start with the treadmill. Such a great machine for metaphors, right? There are treadmills and there are treadmills. The garden-variety gym models to which some of us voluntarily subject ourselves, and the others onto which the invisible hand of life drops us.
I specialize in both. For several years, the belt of my life’s treadmill has stretched across two Maryland counties: Harford, where I live in its northeastern corner, and Baltimore, whose northwest part holds my office. Most months have a regular cadence: west for morning coffee and Program Management work on the sixth floor, east again for family time with my wife, teenage daughter and son. Forty miles each way in mid-Atlantic state traffic. Ten hours in the office. Fourteen-hour days, with the occasional graduate class tossed in. It’s a busy life, but a good one, and there are busier.
Then comes the Spring. Anybody reading this have teenage children in that sweet spot of life where they’re too young to independently drive, yet old enough to have activity levels that rival adults? Are you out there? Raise your hand. Now why the hell did we not invent Uber? We’re volunteer Uber drivers. What’s your route? My route is travel baseball practices-to-voice lessons-to-orthodontists-to-musical rehearsals. Of course I don’t do these by myself; except for the baseball practices (I’m the coach) my wife helps a great deal. Except when she doesn’t. No fault of her own — her consulting practice involves travel, and considering her field is education Spring is her peak traveling season.
In the midst of all of this, I do my best to stay in shape. What I lack in performance I make up for in consistency; I’ve lifted weights and run middle distances in a varied but weekly routine dating back to my early 20s. A staple in my running diet is the interval training session: light warm-up, followed by five-minute periods where, in 60-second increments, I run at a slowly increasing pace. Finish one “interval,” then drop back to a slow speed and do it again.
A typical interval for my 25-year-old self involved a warm-up at five miles per hour and involved increasing speeds until, at peak, I reached a full-out sprint before finishing.
Me at almost 45? Folks, I’m an athlete. I’ve been doing this for years. I know my limits and how to push them. That it’s the busiest time of year’s a factor, but nothing I haven’t handled. Allergy season making me take more medication than normal? No worries, I’ll drink extra water.
And now we come to the very literal treadmill that, one Spring Tuesday, fueled by stubbornness, quite literally almost killed me.
At about 6 PM, I was finishing minute 18 — the top of an interval — and began reducing the speed to a walking pace to cool down and get ready to stretch my aging hamstrings. My heart didn’t get the message we were done, and began its own race without my permission. I stepped off of the machine to grab more water from the nearby cooler. I never made it, sinking first to my knees, then to an all-fours position. My chest began to hammer — not rhythmically, but with middle-school drummer nonsense.
It is only now, trying to recount this for the first time, that something I had yet to consider comes to mind. This wasn’t a commercial gym; it was a fitness center on the lower level of my office tower. My phone was in a locker. I could have been alone. There were times exercising on that very treadmill that I was alone. I’m only typing on this computer and reclining in this bed and going home to hug my wife and children because right then, I was not.
None of this occurred to me on the floor. I was trying to breathe slowly to see if my heart would settle. When that failed, I remembered what happened to Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, why she was on the cover of Time and promoting her book Plan B.
I thought of my brother-in-law and daughter and her wedding dress, tears in their eyes, getting ready to walk her down the aisle. My son not listening to his new coach while not looking at the game he’s playing.
I did something that I, an admitted agnostic and recovering Roman Catholic, had not done since my Father passed away in 2003: I started to pray. To my surprise, I received a response.
It was in my own voice and as simple as simple gets: if you want to live, ask for help. Right. Now.
So I did. And the gears of emergencies started turning, without a single slip and even with some extra torque. One of my fellow exercisers was also a security guard for my building, who also just happened to be studying to be an EMT, who helped me to a seated position and began pouring ice water down my spine. Less than fifteen minutes later, 911 was called and I was on my way to a Baltimore City hospital specializing in cardiac care. Scott, the EMT for my ride, kept me calm and helped me stay conscious. For the first time in my life, I was a priority one Emergency Room case.
No ER lines for cardiac emergencies. Find your silver linings where you can, folks.
As I write this, the final analysis of what happened is still not fully complete. Data’s still rolling in, doctors and nurses keep filing in and out. Here’s what I know: I suffered an episode of Severe Ventricular Tachycardia, or SVT. As one of the five (!) cardiologists who has seen me explained, the combination of cardiovascular stress and new medications caused my heart’s electrical system to short-circuit. Following the most acute phase of the attack, once prompted by emergency medication my heart settled into atrial fibrillation, or a-fib, where it remained for almost a day before spontaneously converting back into a normal “sinus” rhythm. Stubborn as always, but eventually it found its way back on the road.
Later now. I’m home on my couch after being discharged. My children are playing a game outside my window where one bounces on a trampoline while the other takes shots at the moving target with bursts from a garden hose. The chosen game of the young Summer. I watch them having a ball, and I’m having a ball watching. My wife is folding laundry, and I’m having a ball watching that too.
Don’t judge. I get to enjoy that today.
Before my official release, the morning nurse surprised me by bringing in her staff, clapping and singing me a birthday song. She apologized for the lack of candle in my cupcake, it being a hospital with oxygen tanks and all. Good idea, I said.
My wife arrived moments later to hear the good news that I would be coming home, then settled in with me to wait the customary two hours for paperwork to be finished. No high priority discharges, alas. She asked how I am, and I told her I was … processing. As a way of explanation, I show her the first part of this post.
She closes the door to my room and we hold one another on the bed, sobbing, thankful.
So. What to learn? I’ve lived and read enough in my life to have encountered my share of stories involving those who emerge from their own stops on the reaper’s doorstep with their own life lessons. I’m not there. Three hours home and I’m vulnerable. The stairs make me tired. A deep breath makes my chest feel sore, and it takes me a moment of panic to remind myself that it’s only soreness – no tightness, no arm pain.
Some big changes are a-comin’. My site handle here, CoffeeDogHouse, is officially ironic. We won’t be on a first-name basis with the owners of the local pizza joint anymore — we’ll likely barely be acquaintances. I’ll start rehabilitating soon. My baseball coaching and playing aren’t stopped, I hope. Merely paused. These are all superficial concerns, and I try not to be hard on myself for knowing I’ll miss things. Aging gracefully is its own game, and needs its own practices.
As for the not-so-superficial: I have two nagging questions.
The first is how I can leave both of my treadmills behind. Being slower, more careful, is a skill I’m going to need help learning. My body is what it is now. I’m embarrassed by this, but I’m reminded of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, which is to say I’m reminded of Judi Dench reciting it in Skyfall: “We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are.” I’ll work on it. I have good reasons.
The other question concerns the voice in my head that told me I needed help, right then, right there. It could have simply been common sense. Or survival. Just like it could have been coincidence that the gym wasn’t empty. And that another person running was a security guard studying to be an EMT.
I’ve had a hard time believing in God. I have a much harder time believing in so many coincidences.