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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Beldar gets lucky

It started with a burrito and a jalapeño last Sunday night that turned out not to have caused indigestion.

Long story short: I had a wee little heart attack this week, but I'm amazingly okay amazingly soon afterwards, and I'm very glad to be home after a short hospitalization.


The modest pain — a dull ache located not under my sternum, but high on my chest wall, almost over to my left shoulder joint — was not at all the "classical presentation" for heart trouble. I had some sweating, but no nausea or referred/radiated pain elsewhere, and no shortness of breath. However, I've got a strong confluence of pretty much all of the risk factors for coronary artery disease, and I had been promising myself for at least the last 15 of my 47 years that "pretty soon" I was actually going to develop some better habits to reduce some of my risks. I expected that when and if it came time to pay the piper, I'd know it without any doubts, because a heart attack is supposed to feel like an elephant is sitting on the middle of one's chest. And this pain didn't feel like that, and didn't appear to be related to exertion, and went away overnight. So I blamed the burrito.

Driving back to work during lunch hour on the following day, though, the pain was back again for about the third time, and it had gotten noticeably worse. So instead I drove to the emergency room at The Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center.

It wasn't by accident that I went to The Methodist. My ex had done some of her training there while she was at Baylor Medical School, and all four of our kids were born there. And that statue in the lobby of Michael DeBakey in surgical scrubs correctly suggests that this place (like the offshoot Cooley/UT/St. Luke's rival practice a couple of doors over) has trained and maintained a couple or three full generations of some of the very best cardio health professionals in the world.

In contrast to the sirens and paramedics routine, walk-in patients aren't very dramatic. And I didn't want to be dramatic. "I'm having some chest pains, and I'd like you to reassure me that I'm not having a heart attack," I said.

About two hours later, I was still waiting for that reassurance. They couldn't give me it, and instead I found myself looking up at the sign on the right from a prone position on a moving gurney.

My electrocardiogram looked normal, but my blood tests weren't — in particular, the test for something called troponin, one type of which is released only from damaged heart muscle. My first result was at 0.11, just barely over the 0.10 considered to be the top end of "normal." They admitted me to the cardiac care unit for at least an overnight observation stay and more tests, but when the second blood test came back with a 0.16 troponin level, I couldn't tell myself any longer that it was probably just a lab testing error. And then the next test came back with a 0.57, at which point I wasn't there just for "observation" anymore.

About 5:00 a.m. on Tuesday, the elephant did indeed sit on the center of my chest. I had a whole lot of confidence in the professionals around me. But even all-stars don't bat 1.000, and I was very intensely aware that this situation was — what's that phrase? — just as serious as a heart attack.

But then things started looking better. Mid-morning, a doppler echocardiogram failed to reveal any specific areas of heart damage; some damage had been done, but apparently not very much, or at least not in any concentrated area. And before the afternoon was over, I had some new heart hardware — a couple of stents implanted during a cardiac catheterization, basically some re-plumbing of my heart conducted through a remote-control puppet show.

Here's the sort of catheter that they threaded through an incision my groin and up through my femoral artery to reach my heart, along with diagrams and examples of the stents that were left behind to keep my most troublesome coronary arteries open:

And here's an exciting video clip about the specific hardware of which I'm the proud new owner/wearer. (This may be a first in the blogosphere: "Weekend stent blogging.")

By Wednesday morning, I was moved out of the cardiac care unit to a regular room on the 7th floor of the Alkek Tower. By that afternoon, I was beginning to get up and around, and by Thursday, I was racking up some pretty good yardage up and down and around the corridors. On Friday morning, with the blessing of my docs, I very happily drove myself home.

Fifty years ago, this might have been a fatal incident. Twenty years ago, if I were lucky, I'd at least have spent some serious time on the operating table with my ribs pried apart, and I'd be looking at many weeks of recovery. Today, I just have a bruise about the size of Rhode Island on my right thigh and groin from the catheter insertion; it looks much worse than it feels. And my heart's actually working better than it has for years.

I could still screw things up if I don't make some serious changes in my ways, and I'm vastly more conscious of the fragility of life and health in general. But I'm a very lucky man.


I can't say enough good things about the professionals at The Methodist. From my cardiologists all the way through to the food service and housekeeping crews, these folks are competent, efficient, pleasant, and compassionate. Here are just a couple of them — two of the nurses from the cardiac care unit who posed for my camera during one of my Thursday afternoon intrahospital hikes:

I'm not going to enable comments on this post, and I'm not trolling for sympathy emails or tip-jar contributions. Send Beldar no flowers, and certainly shed no tears!

I did want to tell the tale here, though, and publicly thank the folks at The Methodist. (I also owe thanks to my family and co-workers, and to my creator, but I'll address them through means other than my blog.)

One of the things that really tickled me this past week were a series of photographic prints that hang in The Methodist's hallways, three of which I've reproduced in this post. They're intended as gentle and humorous reminders to hold the noise levels down, I guess. But they seemed to be saying to me: "Shut up and count your blessings, Beldar."

So I will.

Posted by Beldar at 06:04 AM in Family | Permalink


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