I can’t say there weren’t warning signs. There was the Chinese Traditional Medicine doctor, who put her stethescope to my chest and let me hear my very irregular heartbeat back last June. ( She’s the only “alternative medicine” practitioner I’ve ever encountered who actually uses a stethoscope.) But she seemed content to give me some Chinese medicine and schedule my next appointment for December, by which time it would be much too late. Maybe a regular series of acupuncture appointments and some judicious supplements could have brought my heart into regularity before it plunged over the edge, but it’s too late to know now.
My wife, Cindy, had long complained about that irregular heartbeat, but she had had that problem when we met, and it seemed as if the steadiness and healing love of our relationship had cleared up her problem. My irregular heartbeat certainly didn’t produce any weakness in me. The twentysomething guys I hired to help me work on the new house I am building marveled at my vigor and agility. What, me worry?
One hot week in mid August, I went to see my dentist, had an infected tooth worked on, got a shot of novacaine, and felt…well, tired. I wondered if I was having an allergic reaction to the novacaine, but tried not to let it slow me down. I had a couple of people coming over to help me do some plaster, and we were by gawd gonna finish the plastering for the year. The helpers left, unexpectedly, at noon, but I was sure I could finish it by myself. It wouldn’t take long…well, it took until nearly dark, and I felt strung out and tired, but it was a Wednesday, my night to go out and play music with my buddies, and I was not going to let anything come between me and my weekly “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” as we like to call it–no creed, no catechism,no hymns, no vocalized prayers, just communion, pure and simple. People noticed I looked bad, and our hostess, a proficient alternative health care amateur, suggested that she could check out my blood pressure with a cuff she just happened to have…and I came up with a reading somewhere in the neighborhood of 160/120, which, the little manual that came with the cuff explained, meant I should get my ass to the emergency room immediately.
The prospect of hitting a hospital emergency room late at night seemed more stressful than going home and seeing if I could sleep it off…doubtless it was just heat stroke and overwork. So I went home and went to bed, and in the morning my wife and I did what married couples tend to do on a morning when nobody has to be up and at ‘em at any certain time…only, instead of feeling good all over, I broke out in a cold sweat right at the critical moment, and had a feeling like something essential had just been sucked out of me, instead of the sensation of fullness and completion I expected.
I recognized that I was sick with something, and stayed in bed that day, while I gradually noticed a nasty, raw sensation develop in my sinuses and, over the next few days, start creeping down the back of my throat towards my lungs. Meanwhile, I felt very weak; in fact, I felt weaker and weaker. It would take me half an hour to rouse myself sufficiently to take a drink of water from my bedside cup. It must be a really bad sinus infection, I decided, something ugly that got turned loose when my dentist had drilled into that rotten tooth. Bright and early Monday morning, I called him and told him my situation, and he phoned in an antibiotic prescription to our nearest pharmacy. By Monday afternoon, I was taking Amoxycillin or something like it, and the infection retreated back up my throat and quickly disappeared.
But I still felt very weak. I had a bad cough–it would double me over, bring me almost to the point of vomiting, and leave me weak and sore, producing nothing but a little foamy white spittle. But it gradually subsided, and I started trying to make up for lost time. As had been my habit for years, I would stay up until two or three in the morning, sleep five or six hours, and wake feeling rested and ready to go–but now, not quite so rested and ready to go as I had. Something was wrong.
I began asking friends if they had a doctor they trusted–somebody who was both a skilled body mechanic and a wholistic practitioner–but nobody I knew could help me. I knew a few people with MD’s that I thought were pretty nice people and that I felt I could have trusted, but I quickly found out that none of them were practicing–“too much hassle” they said.
I should explain at this point that, as you might suspect, I am one of those people who does not have health insurance. My reasons have as much to do with conscience as they do with finances. The reason of conscience is that, as I have said here before, I regard for-profit health insurance companies as financial vampires, seeking to grow fat off human misery. Practically speaking, they would take my money and spend some portion of it to oppose universal, non-profit, single-payer health care, so I would be putting my money completely at odds with my mouth. I try to do that as little as I possibly can, though I am not as radical in that regard as a number of people I know and admire.
Financially speaking, full-service health care would cost my wife and I nearly as much as we spend on the rest of our living expenses, and, absent qualified altnernatively/wholistically-minded health care professionals (which, as far as I can determine, is the situation here in Nashville), would buy us nothing we could use. High-deductible, emergency-only insurance proved to be not that much cheaper, and still supported organizations whose politics and world view we find reprehensible. So, we took lots of supplements, got plenty of fresh air, fresh fruits and vegetables, and exercise, and trusted that love and deep relaxation would keep our immune systems primed. Well, I guess I wasn’t relaxing enough, and anyway a good immune system is no defense against a heart attack.
Back to my narrative.
Toward the end of October, I started noticing that I was becoming winded more and more easily. Again there was a warning from an alternative health professional–a chiropractor trolling for business at a local health food supermarket ran some kind of machine over my spine and said my upper back indicated that I was having some kind of heart problem. I figured she was playing on my fears–and her own fears of losing her practice in a shrinking economy–and promised to see my regular chiropractor soon. He turned out to be taking the week off, and I made what I thought would be an appointment with a local naturopathic doctor instead, but it turned out to be an appointment with her chiropractor husband, whose adjustment of my upper back did nothing noticeable to cure my shortwindedness.
By midmonth, I was waking up at night short of breath, and my nighttime breathing sounded like Swamp Thang. I knew something was wrong with me. I theorized that I had Lyme disease, which has symptoms that can resemble heart disease; but I couldn’t really be having heart problems, no, no, no.
The week before Thanksgiving, I decided it was time to submit myself to mainstream medicine, and after calling around to a few local walk-in clinics, wound up with an appointment the day before Thanksgiving. And so, that Wednesday morning, I drove into one of Nashville’s grittier neighborhoods and sat in a waiting room in which, being white, I was in a distinct minority.
The doctor was a rotund Chinese chap. In an unguarded moment, I let slip the fact that I occasionally smoke marijuana, and he was immediately on me like a cop, wanting to know where I got it from. I told him I didn’t think that was relevant to my diagnosis, and he responded with some baloney about the study in England where they found that people who smoke phenomenal amounts of high-grade marijuana are more prone to heart attacks than the general population. I have too much to do to sit around and smoke grass all day, and when I can get some, believe me, it is rarely “high-end.” but I digress….he did tell me that, according to my heart rate and the electrocardiogram they gave me, I was in atrial fibrillation, meaning my heart was not pumping blood in an organized way, and he recommended that I go to Nashville General Hospital and get myself looked at in the emergency room. He was quite emphatic about this, and it seemed more genuine than his marijuana scare story, so that is what I did.
This is getting up there in length, and it seems like a natural break in the story, so here it, is, published as “part one”
more to come…
music: Jackson Browne, “Black and White“