Wednesday, February 11, 2009


For the last two days I have been convalescing; that is, while confined to my bed I am completing crossword and Sudoku puzzles that I wouldn’t ordinarily have had the time for. On Monday morning I experienced those dreaded symptoms — the enormous weight on my chest and inability to breathe — that frequently get dramatized on TV and strike a particular fear into men. Yes, I thought I was having a heart-attack. It all began while I was asleep, dreaming that I had a pipe in my throat; I was restless and tossed and turned a number of times to try and dislodge it, but to no avail. I then got up and stumbled to the bathroom. On my return, my chest caved-in and upon reaching the bed I fell into a fetal position. Any attempt to move resulted in more pain, so I stayed still. After summoning the strength for a few pathetic screams I got my wife’s attention. She then phoned 8–1–1, the number for HealthLink BC (an excellent medical consulting service) and I whispered answers to a nurse in between convulsions. She advised me that I may be experiencing cardiac arrest and that I should phone 9–1–1. My wife did so and I spent an eternity, in reality a few minutes, wishing for the ambulance to arrive so I could gain some relief.

The firefighters, as per their union agreement, arrived first and were followed shortly by the ALS (advanced life support). They asked me a lot of questions and put a number of sensors on me. The trainee made a first attempt, but no reading appeared on the ECG screen, so the supervisor with sub-zero hands gave it a shot. Yes, if I was worrying about how cold his hands were, I probably wasn’t having a heart attack. This turned out to be the case, but they weren’t taking any chances. A second ambulance crew got me on the stretcher and into an ambulance. After some oxygen I began to feel marginally better but still had a heavy weight on my chest, so another trainee attempted to insert an IV. He was unsuccessful and so was his supervisor, it even took the emergency room nurse a few times (apparently I have numerous valves in my veins, which prevent the reverse flow of my blood).

As you can tell I ran across quite a few trainees, however, this was something I began to appreciate: the medical student, who was training to be a doctor, was very sensitive and thorough; and the blood technician, though his fingers were trembling, gained some valuable experience. Apart from the glee in the paramedics’ eyes at the number of veins in my arm, I was glad that so many were training to enter this essential field. The day passed with many pokes and prods, but in the end the excellent doctor could only tell me what it was not. I had not suffered a heart attack, a blood clot, disease, or physical trauma, such as a broken bone or collapsed lung; the most likely candidates were a muscle spasm or pinched nerve. In the end, I felt a little ridiculous for coming in, but the pain still in my chest made me think otherwise.

The paramedics were nice enough to check on me as they came and went through the day. One told me that no matter what had happened I was correct to call the ambulance given my level of distress; that made me feel much better. Another, later on, had described the harsh conditions of their job and lower pay compared to firefighters and the police. At first I enquired whether this was a result of danger pay, but was assured that paramedics face equal dangers on the job. It turns out that paramedics are considering striking to get pay equity and it makes sense they get it due to the danger of riding in the back of the ambulance, hauling the portly, and proximity to deadly diseases.

The experience was traumatic for my children as well: the picture above is Evelyn’s result of natural art therapy. (I refer to it as natural because no counsellor induced her to draw it and she correctly drew my feet hanging over the edge of the stretcher.) The next morning she came into my bed and watched over me while I slept. My son chose not to share my experience with his buddies, but came to visit me in the hospital. In the end I am left with the adhesive of countless sensors and Band-Aids, relief, and a deep hope that I never experience the real thing. Although if I ever do, I know my family and the medical system will be there for me.

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