February 25, 2013

A Canuck in Kantuck: Change in a heartbeat

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — It’s been three weeks and a lifetime since my last column and I’m feeling more than a little bit wobbly writing again. In part, I’m fighting tears because I can’t believe how much my life has changed since I last sat down and typed, in part I’m looking outside and rejoicing in the fact that I see pink stubs on our cherry tree. After three weeks of dark winter, we’re on the cusp of spring — a delicate place on the brink of new life, new colors, a fresh start.

On Jan. 27, my husband William, my very best friend, was admitted to hospital after an EKG showed his heart was beating at 168 beats a minute. Shortly after medicine did not work to get it to slow down, the cardiologist led me to an ICU waiting room so he could shock William’s heart.

“His heart is beating in a disorganized way,” he explained to me. “We’re going to shock him to get it beating correctly and hopefully figure out what’s going on.”

As I sat in the tiny room, I called my little brother Matthew and bawled into the phone, feeling this need to keep opening my eyes wider and then wider so I could just wake up.

Twenty minutes later, the cardiologist told me I could see him. And when I walked into room 179, I saw my best friend stuck with tubes, wearing a polka dot gown, surrounded by nurses wearing scrubs. It’s amazing how small people look in a hospital bed.

William was in atrial fibrillation — which is when the heart’s two upper chambers contract very fast and irregularly. The inefficient way his heart was pumping had caused fluid to collect in his lungs. That pulmonary edema was causing him to cough and be short of breath.

Earlier that morning, he thought he just had a bad case of bronchitis.

Over the next six hours, I watched the lightning bolts of his heart’s rhythm on a monitor. I learned that the white number showed how much oxygen he was able to breath in. The purple number was his blood pressure. The green number meant how many breaths he was taking each minute.

That night, we slept, he in his constantly inflating bed, me in the recliner beside him. I woke up somehow feeling light and refreshed. William looked a lot better — he’d managed to sleep, the first time in several days since his cough had been keeping him up. I was sure that when the cardiologist came into the room, rather than an avalanche of medical jargon, I would only be reassured with:  “He’s OK,” “He’s going to be fine,” “Everything is going to go back to normal.”

But that didn’t happen. We spent another night in the hospital and during that night William started coughing again.

“I feel wet,” he told the nurse, referring to fluid in his lungs. She called the cardiologist and he ordered her to give William another shot of medicine to get the fluid to drain. That morning an echocardiogram showed William’s heart was still badly compromised.

I write this now and, it’s funny, it still doesn’t feel real. Especially sitting at this dining room table where I write day after day with no change in routine, it seems oddly amazing that a giant hammer has slammed down and interrupted our lives and yet this dining room table is still standing and my computer still works and the trees are preparing to bloom. Almost as if nothing has happened.

But it has. The doctors have diagnosed William with viral cardiomyopathy. Basically a virus — which one we will likely never know — has attacked his heart and is holding it hostage until it decides to let go. Whether that will happen and he can recover, we don’t know — but we’re very hopeful.

Not knowing what will happen is a scary and exhausting thing. I have spent a lot of minutes standing at the bedroom door watching him sleep, watching that chest rise and fall, wanting to dive in and heal his heart or trade his with mine.

But when things get out of hand, I’ve learned that I need to carve our time into the tiniest of fractions, mince it like garlic if I have to, so I can observe progress. He is home. He is eating and sleeping. His cough is mostly gone. He walked farther today than he did yesterday. He doesn’t yawn as much. He is young. He is healthy. And spring is coming.


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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
B. Going to the beach!
C. Kentucky has a lot of wonderful state parks, and we plan to visit a few and enjoy quality family time.
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