Love makes overcoming medical adversity easier

On May 25, my marimba band Shamwari played for the opening day of the Homer Farmers’ Market. One of the tunes I play is Warigamukono, a traditional Zimbabwean song. The title means “pulling the bull to the ground” and is about overcoming adversity. As I played, I thought of my mother, who had been medevaced from Summit Lake Lodge in July 2012 and almost died from respiratory arrest. Mom’s doing much better, but she faces continual challenges. She’s in my thoughts constantly.

What I didn’t know then was that a day later, I’d be the one overcoming adversity. I could have been playing for myself.

Early Memorial Day morning, I woke up nauseous. Standing before the bathroom sink, I suddenly found myself flat out on the floor. Then I threw up. A few hours later, I woke up and again felt sick. I passed out again. My wife found me on the floor with a few cuts on my face.

“I think we need to go to the ER,” she said.

So began My Big Cardiac Adventure.

I passed out again on the drive down the hill. At South Peninsula Hospital, I got wheeled into the ER, put up on a table, wired and tubed and pushed forward into the great tunnel of the American emergency medical system. 

Here’s the first thing I learned about my medical adventure: we Alaskans have an awesome, smoothly oiled machine run by well trained, compassionate people. A lot of them are your friends and neighbors and you should pause now to think of them and thank them for their work.

Other than a) I had gotten violently ill and b) passed out, no one knew quite what was wrong with me. I also had gone into atrial fibrillation, a condition where the atrial valve starts fluttering. It’s not fatal but also is not good. I got a CAT scan and then was wheeled back to the ER table. I sat up to take a sip of Mylanta, and then, bam, fourth time, I passed out.

This time, I flatlined — just like in the movies when the line on the heart monitor goes flat and starts beeping.

I woke up to see Dr. Hal Smith staring down at me with that expression I don’t think doctors like to have, the one that says, Uh-oh, a healthy 57-year-old guy has just passed out on my table, and damned if I am going to let him die on my watch. Jenny said Dr. Smith had his hands raised ready to start heart compressions.

“Cancel the code,” he said when I came to.

Those are good words to hear from your doctor. But I knew then that I was in serious doo-doo and I didn’t have your normal garden-variety stomach bug. 

“Michael,” Dr. Smith said to me, “You just bought yourself a helicopter ride.”

There was a dark moment there where I did not know if I would live. I laid on my side sobbing, Jenny rubbing my back and a nurse with a long blonde braid — Linda, I think her name was — holding my hand and saying, “Michael, it’s going to be OK.” How did she know that? I didn’t know that. But then I thought to myself, I can’t die. I’m too young. I can’t leave my wife and family behind. I have books to write.

Dr. Smith’s diagnosis, later backed by a cardiologist in Anchorage, was that the part of the heart that keeps all four chambers beating in sync had gotten screwed up. Under certain conditions I would pass out. This is not a good thing if you want to live a life of adventure, excitement, and walking outside the house without falling down and bonking your head.

Fortunately, there’s an easy cure, a pacemaker. Dr. Smith said I’d probably need one, but more important, I would need to go to Anchorage and see a cardiologist. A little while later, a flight nurse and a paramedic from LifeMed arrived with the helicopter and pilot. They got me bundled up, wired, tubed and on oxygen. Away I went up to the roof of SPH. 

Waiting to get loaded into the helo, the sun on my face, I heard two fox sparrows chirping, and for some reason in hearing those sparrows I knew it would be OK. I would pull through. Warigamukono. I would pull the bull to the ground.

Ten minutes out of Anchorage, my heart went back into a normal rhythm. I got handed off to the Providence Hospital Alaska nurses and doctors. My sister Helen found me and I saw a familiar face. Jenny arrived a while later on the Era flight. Dr. Gunnar Strobel, a cardiologist, assessed me and agreed that I should get a pacemaker. Within a few hours a cardio team got set up, and by 3 p.m. Monday afternoon, I had a slit in my chest and a little pacemaker under my skin by the left shoulder. 

Sometime about 5 p.m. as I came off the fun drugs that kept me doped up during surgery, I read my email on my iPad. My friends Sue Post and Jim Levine had taken over care of our dog Leia, and they’d gone to the beach. On my Facebook page they posted a photo of Jim and the dogs standing before a message in the sand, a big heart with the words “Hugs, Michael.” Word got out that I was in the hospital, and dozens of friends sent their best wishes.

That’s the big lesson here: I am surrounded by love and friends. We are surrounded by love and friends. Our town takes care of its own, and if you’re in a medical crisis, we will reach out to each other. Reading those emails I found myself softly weeping, but it was a good cry, the type that brings joy and healing.

I found joy throughout my short ordeal. There was the tender mercy of every nurse and doctor and technician, and I mean everyone. Janet, Linda, Ulla, another Janet, Michael, Claudia, Brian, Alfredo, Jenn, Marlene with the purple hair … I can’t remember all their names. They treated me with kindness and compassion.

I am home now, back to light duty at work. My pacemaker stands ready to zap me if my heart beats too slowly. I feel stronger, not as in faster and more powerful, but in that I can go longer. I think that’s the idea.

I have ascended from the roof of a hospital into the big blue Alaska sky, and like my mother, I have come back to earth, more damaged but also more healed. It is a trip too many of us take, but our travel is made easier by the care we receive and, most of all, by the love that guides us along the way — a love for which I am forever grateful.

Michael Armstrong is a reporter for the Homer News. He can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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