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0500 12 May 2010

The ER doctor looked down at me with a look of half-doubt. He double-checked the piece of paper in his hands.

“Mr. Markel, your quick test came back positive for a heart attack; we need to prep you for the cath lab now.”

What followed was a flurry of activity and words as the nurses reclined my stretcher back until I was looking up at the ceiling.

“Did you give him aspirin yet?”

“Did you call your family? Are they on the way?”

“We’re going to shave you so the doctor can do the heart cath.”

“Can you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten for me, please?”

“Put this under your tongue; it’s going to dissolve and feel tingly.”

“His pulse is getting low.”

“Everything’s going to be OK, Mr. Markel; we’ll take care of you.”

“Time is muscle.”

I laid there, passive and helpless, while the ER techs shaved my pelvis and administered medications. A tech yanked the twelve wires that had been attached to my body and wheeled the EKG machine out of the room. They added an IV tube to both arms and worked at a rapid pace while I tried to make sense of everything. I’d been given painkillers, but my chest still ached.

Before they completed everything and began moving me through the hospital, my family arrived. My wife looked more worried than I’d ever seen before. The kids didn’t know what to make of all the activity. I remember holding their hands and giving them hugs, telling them everything was going to be all right. I remember giving my wife a kiss before they sent her into the waiting room to stand by while the procedure was administered.

And I remember my thoughts.

I’m only 30. I can’t be having a heart attack.

I’m not ready to leave yet.

She needs me.

I just taught Joshua how to play catch yesterday.

We’re just getting started.

I should have come to the hospital earlier.

Who’s going to take care of them if this is serious?

It wasn’t long after they left that I was being wheeled through the hospital, flat on my back, desperately trying to see what was going on. The destination was a very white room, with monitors on one side and lots of steel machinery overhead. Nurses picked me up using a cold backboard and deposited me on an even colder table while they reassured me that I was going to be OK.

They applied a sterile drape and warned me not to touch my own body so I wouldn’t contaminate myself. My arms dropped below the table into metal sleeves while the nurses sterilized my lower half. The doctor entered the room and began pushing on my right leg, trying to find the right entry point, and then inserted a guide wire into my artery and up my body, right to my heart.

I even saw it on one of the monitors.

NINETY MINUTES EARLIER

I rolled over in bed, waking with a start. Groggily, I looked over at the clock on my nightstand to see that it was only three in the morning. I hadn’t felt very well for the previous few days, but wondered wearily why I wasn’t getting good sleep—I’d felt better before going to bed.

Swinging my legs over the side of the bed, I sat up slowly. It felt like I’d slept with too much weight on one arm. I coughed and realized that my chest was sore. It felt like muscle soreness, but it didn’t go away when I stretched or rubbed at it. After some time and some concern from my wife, I got up and began walking back and forth to see if it would relieve the pain, but had no luck, so I sat back down on the bed again.

A large thunderclap earlier in the night had sent my two girls running for cover into our room, so I had to maneuver around the older one to find a spot. It was still storming rather fiercely.

Many minutes later, and after some questioning from my wife, I realized that the pain wasn’t going away – and it wasn’t a sore muscle. Something was wrong. I was breaking out into sweats and didn’t know what to do about it. I finally told Amanda that we should drive to the hospital to have it checked out. She roused the children and herded them into the van, still in their pajamas, while I dumped myself into the passenger seat and tried to stay calm on the way there.

I walked into the ER and told the desk nurse that I’d been having chest pains for the last ninety minutes.

NINETY MINUTES LATER

I laid in the cath recovery area, groggy from the sedative they’d had to administer before completing the catheterization. I was waiting for a hospital room to become available in the intermediate ICU so the doctors could keep me on a heart monitor and watch for more trouble. I had to keep my right leg perfectly straight and my head down for two hours after the procedure.

My family had been in to see me again. The children were still worried, but my wife looked much less concerned than the last time I’d seen her. My pastor was in with them and we prayed for healing and for comfort. I’d never been visited by one of my pastors in the hospital before.

I’d never been in the hospital before at all.

I still didn’t know what to think about what had happened. The cardiologist had assured me while in the cath lab that I had definitely not had a heart attack; the blood vessels serving my heart were completely clear. What had happened was an inflammation of the area surrounding my heart, making it more difficult for my heart to do its job properly. It presented exactly the same as a heart attack would have.

There were obviously some remaining concerns. I was still being hooked up to an EKG on a regular basis to capture my heart rhythms. There were still nurses paying constant attention to me, and it was clear I was going to be in the hospital for at least a short while. It wasn’t much longer that I was wheeled into my room and hooked up to my portable heart monitor.

I was also served a rather unpleasant breakfast.

ONE WEEK LATER

I was released from the hospital after three days of heart monitoring and blood tests. The doctors told me that my heart function was affected during the event, down to less than fifty per cent of normal. I’m home now and settling back into my regular routine as much as I can. I take a couple of heart medications and a couple of antibiotics to keep everything running smoothly. The word is that my recovery is going to take a few months to be complete; I won’t know more until I see the doctors again in a couple of weeks.

They say it was a combination of inflammation of the sac around the heart and of the heart muscle itself. Pericarditis and myocarditis. I looked those up and realized that people can die from these things. I’m supposed to be on guard for any chest pains or trouble breathing – next time, I won’t wait as long to go to the ER.

I get out and walk with my family for at least twenty minutes each day, and tomorrow I try to get back to practicing fielding grounders with my son. My wife and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary on Tuesday, perhaps more thankful than in previous years that we’re still together.

I consciously eat less and hope that within a few weeks I’ll see the scale read less than 300 pounds for the first time in far too many months. I’m acutely aware that what I experienced a week ago could have killed me and have no desire to repeat the experience again any time soon. My weight didn’t have anything to do with this particular problem, but it’s something I can control in the future.

The kids don’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation, but they are definitely happy to have me back home and on my feet again. It’s a good feeling.

I’m happy to be up and about again – and to have friends and family such as mine. I find that I did not understand terror or helplessness until that night, but afterwards I learned of the depths of my relationships with others. It was, above all, a humbling experience.

Here’s to a swift recovery.

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