How I dodged a bullet, and got a second chance at everything
At the onset, I have to tell you exactly what this blog article is about, since it is long and self-indulgent. In short, I had an acute myocardial infarction on the first day of my trip to Italy, July 21st. I spent 8 days in the hospital (ICU and general ward of the cardio wing), and then flew back home on July 31st. The cardiologist said I will bounce back from this, relatively unscathed. I dodged a bullet!
Hopefully the story is told with some humor and with enough narrative appeal to be of interest to everyone. Oh, and at the end of this, I give myself and any other photographer who is neglectful of their health, an urgent lecture to take better care of diet and exercise. Be ready for that.
This heart attack was self-inflicted through lack of exercise, and less-than-diligent care of my diet. In my opinion, this was mostly lack of exercise – that sedentary lifestyle that we photographers tend to have, stuck in front of the computer with deadlines that have to be met. Add a touch of laziness, and some stress eating, and you have a recipe for health issues – including a heart attack. There were markers along the way that I should have heeded with greater attention.
The photo above shows part of one of the two large noticeboards in the cardio wing of the hospital I stayed in – Ospedale Sant’Anna – filled with notes from patients and family members, thanking the staff of the hospital for saving their lives. They most certainly saved mine, and gave me a second chance at life.
That’s the summary. Here are the details …
A really tight margin
We were in Italy for 10 days for a vacation by invitation of a friend, Lilia. We were in the the scenic area north of Milan – the Lake Como district. Just beautiful. That Friday, the first day on vacation, was very eventful with me ending up in the cardiac unit of a hospital. The photo above was my view of Italy for 80% of the time there – the ceiling of a hospital room.
First I have to the explain the intricate route we took to get to the hospital. It started with me feeling the symptoms of the myocardial infarction two nights before, while still back home. A burning pain behind my sternum which somewhat felt like bad indigestion. It didn’t strike me as “hey, this is a heart attack happening”, because I was struggling with some side-effects of other medication I was taking a week earlier, and I thought this was more of the same. The pain subsided, and I felt normal and pain-free on the Wednesday and Thursday before we flew out. That Friday in Italy I felt fine too … until the evening.
Then, crouched on the bathroom floor of the apartment, vomiting, and in serious pain, I told Sara we need to get to the hospital. The pain was intense and out of control. But somehow I never quite realized that these are symptoms of a heart attack!
This is where the odds of survival become even tighter. Sara pulled the car around for me, and while she drove, I texted Lilia that I needed the address of a hospital local to Como. Since she didn’t immediately respond, I Googled hospitals in the area. I picked one, and had to enter the address into the Italian-language GPS. The syntax of the GPS (a TomTom), was also something I wasn’t used to. Sara followed the GPS directions I had typed in. The roads were even more twisty in a spaghetti-bowl way than the roads in New Jersey … and that’s saying something! We made a wrong turn somewhere and even hit the Switzerland border, and then had to turn around and pick up the route again to the unknown hospital … and then Lilia texted me the address of the hospital we should go to – Ospedale Sant’Anna. Now keep in mind that I am texting and entering addresses on the GPS while literally slowly dying of a heart attack. We also had to stop several so that I could vomit. All of these things add up to delay after delay, making my eventual survival an even tighter margin. It took us at least an hour to get to the emergency room!
I walked into the Emergency Room at the hospital and went up to the window. There was someone ahead of me. So I waited … but then turned to everyone sitting there, and asked if anyone spoke English. Blank looks. Nothing. I turned around and went back to the window. But then someone brought a young girl to me, and she said she spoke some English. I simply asked if I was in the right place, and she said yes. I would hate to have waited at the wrong window at the wrong place.
The guy behind the window must have seen I was in distress, and called me around. I sat in the wheelchair while he took my details and quickly checked me over … and then a minute or two later, they wheeled me away into the hospital for a cardiogram and a more through checkup.
So many delays, but I was still here!
As funny as a heart attack
Perhaps it is just my dark sense of humor, but some of this was humorous, even while I was in great pain. The funny stuff: it was really-funny to watch the two nurses flip my balls from one side to the other, to shave my groin in preparation for surgery. (In the end they went through a radial artery in my wrist.) It was maybe-funny that they put an adult diaper on me.
It was perhaps only slightly-funny that I used a Translator app on my iPhone to communicate with the Italian doctors and nurses. But it was distinctly not-funny when I read the cardiologist’s message that I’m having a myocardial infarction. That’s when it actually hit me for the first time what was really happening to me. The burning pain behind my sternum, and the difficulty breathing – it all added up. A heart attack.
The cardiologist checked the printout of the cardiogram, tore it off, and nodded his head to the nurse to indicate they should wheel me away. They rushed me down the hallways to the operating room for a balloon & stent procedure. The pain was ever-increasing to an unbearable level.
A serious observation – I’m not afraid of death. I realized it again that night. I just don’t want the pain involved with it. The pain was so intense, that I would’ve been okay with flipping a switch, cutting it all short. But that didn’t happen.
The balloon & stent procedure brought immediate relief. It was really strange being awake through all of this. The team of doctors and nurses were efficient and calm. The surgeon who did the procedure, has a really nice bedside manner, talking to me throughout the operation.
That Saturday morning after the operation, the cardiologist told me that I will make a full recovery. (phew!)
Another one of the funnier moments was a few days later when a nurse patted me on my stomach and said “cicciotto”. I had to look it up … roly-poly. Apparently I was now well enough that she could make fun of me.
And about 7 years ago, I had my gall bladder removed through three tiny incisions in my stomach area – I went home the same day.
The anti-science, alt-health websites just piss me off most days. The medical technology we have now is incomprehensibly amazing … and will progress even further.
I mean, they fixed my heart through a tiny hole in my wrist! Wow!
With nothing more to do in the hospital bed than just breathe – that oxygen supply is subliminal but really nice – I had a lot of time to reflect. Where I am and where I want to be, on every level of my life. On the second day in ICU, when Sara left after visiting me in my hospital room, and I had just spoken to J9 (our daughter) on the phone, I finally felt emotionally exhausted as well.
Listening to music through my AirPods, the song that came up first was “This is the day”, by The The (Youtube) … and the lyrics hit me hard and the momentousness of the past few days kicked in. I was quietly in tears for the first time.
Well you didn’t wake up this morning ’cause you didn’t go to bed
You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red
The calendar on your wall was ticking the days off
You’ve been reading some old letters
You smile and think how much you’ve changed
All the money in the world couldn’t buy back those days
You pull back the curtain
And the sun burns into your eyes
You watch a plane flying
Across a clear blue sky
This is the day, your life will surely change
This is the day, when things fall into place
That feeling that my life had changed really struck me. I knew I had somehow been given a second chance. This truly is Part 2 of my life.
However there will have to be serious lifestyle changes when I got back home – better nutrition and more exercise.
This is quite inspiring: Men over the age of 50, proving age is just a number. New goals for when I get home again – work on the hard body and the beard. I can definitely achieve the legendary beardiness. The rest might take some effort.
I’ve been forbidden any Coke by both my wife and the cardiologist and some persistent friends. I’m not that fond of deep-fried or oily foods. So that won’t take much adjustment. But I have an addiction to sugary, fizzy sodas. Eliminating Coke will be a tough one.
For the rest, it’s all sensible stuff really: eat real food, not too much, mostly plants. And exercise. Cicciotto no more!
If you are locked into that slowly destructive cycle of sitting in front of the computer, editing, and working with deadlines … with all the stresses of running a small business … and the accompanying bad diet, I really want you to strongly reconsider your options. A heart attack and other health issues are mostly avoidable through exercise and proper nutrition – it’s all in your control.
Take care of yourself! The alternative is no fun at all. Literally. No fun.
I do have this bicycle on rollers in the basement. It gets some use, but clearly not enough … from here on, daily, as soon as I am strong enough again. New Jersey has 6+ months of shitty weather. With the rollers I can just ride. I do 30 minutes on it at a time. Does get the blood flowing, for sure.
What is awesome about this bike – Focus; German made – is that it doesn’t have a greasy chain and derailleur. It has a belt and internal gear hub. Very clean.
There’s also no being lazy on this thing. With it being free-standing on the set of rollers – if you don’t concentrate on your cadence and balance, you come off it.
Except I did come off the bike a few weeks ago. I watch TV series and movies on it – and while watching a scene where they escape by driving the wrong direction on the highway, swerving oncoming traffic … I instinctively also swerved with them … and came off the track. Fortunately there is no forward momentum, so if you come off the tracks, you just stop. There is no hitting your basement wall at 25 mph. That would hurt.
I’m done with dying, time to start living
Me, eight days later, walking out of the hospital. I’ve mentioned a few times here that I truly feel like I was given a second chance at this – life! With it being such a close call against so many odds, and with the prognosis of a full recovery, I’m not taking this lightly.
I want more.
I want to create.
I want to experience.
Time to start living.
I also want to reach out to you – if you’re in (or visiting) the New York / New Jersey area, let’s hang out. Let’s have lunch. Let’s collaborate. Let’s do something. Let’s have fun. It need not be right now, but sometime in the next few months or even years. An open invitation.
Let’s do brilliant things, for time is all too short.
Edited to add: Thank you everyone for the overwhelming support here and via emails and phone calls. I really do appreciate it all.