Wednesday, June 23, 2004

I’m notorious for procrastinating. I frequently rely on deadlines to force me to complete projects. Without a due date, I would have never finished college essays. Without the newspaper deadline, I may still be ironing out thoughts for my opinion columns. And sadly, without the threat of death, I would never address issues with my health.

A week and a half ago I felt numbness in my left arm. A short time later the numbness descended down my hand. It was followed by tightness in my chest. Then it all faded, only to appear the next day. I thought I may have slept on my arm wrong and the circulation was poor. It continued. Perhaps it was poor ergonomics at work. I changed chairs and setups. It continued. The tightness in the left side of my chest sidled my left arm numbness. Could it be due to stress? I reflected on my life and realized that the only anxiety inducing element to my life was my guitar being out of tune. It didn't seem like stress was the cause.

It continued for a few more days until last Tuesday when the pain grew intense. The muscles on the left side of my chest clamped down like an old lady on her bingo cards. It felt like my heart was being crushed and rebar driven through it. Despite my condition, I felt the need to drive home first and grab my health insurance card before continuing onto my doctor. I loathe melodrama. With that being said, sitting at a traffic light, I genuinely thought I was going to die. I wouldn't have time to see my doctor. I needed to visit the hospital. Somehow, I still retrieved my insurance card thinking that having to deal with the hospital without this card would be worse than actual death. At my home, I pondered calling an ambulance, but not wanting to make a spectacle, I drove myself to Scripps Hospital in La Jolla.

I walked into the reception area and upon telling the receptionist about my chest pains he instantly directed me to an adjacent room where two nurses waited. I told them about my condition and they took my vitals. The nurse asked me questions about my history. Do you smoke? No. Are you diabetic? No. Are you allergic to anything? No. Have you ever freebased with Motley Crue? Once.

After this initial examination the nurse walked me over to a curtain separated bay with a bed and told me to change into a hospital gown. She returned a few minutes later and stuck electrodes all over my body and hooked the many strands of wire to a machine on the wall. Another nurse entered and placed an IV into my arm. She took four vials of blood and then attached a solution bag suspended from the ceiling. I was now tethered. The final touch was a glycerine patch placed on my chest.

A series of technicians entered my bay with equipment and took an EKG reading. Later, two guys wheeled in a machine, propped me up, and took a chest x-ray. The doctor came in and asked what I was feeling. I always hate this moment. Regardless of my condition, I always feel like it's my job to convince the doctor that I'm feeling what I'm feeling and be able to articulate this pain into terms that generate an immediate diagnosis from him. I could enter the hospital impaled with a spear, have both ends of it sticking out of me, and still feel this innate vulnerability that he'll think I'm faking it.

I've described all of this in staccato fashion, but the elapsed time at this point is about three hours. And I need to pee. I inform a passing nurse of my predicament and she returns with what is dubbed, "a urinal." It's a water bottle with the opening tilted at a forty-five degree angle. As simple as it looked, I didn't quite understand the subtlety of how to use it. In the spirit of the NBA finals, should I sit it at the edge of the bed and just aim for the rim? Do I stand it upright and mount it like zebras mating in the Serengeti? I had limited mobility due to the combination of electrodes and IV. In addition, when the nurse exited my bay, she didn't fully close the curtain, and therefore left a foot wide gap of open space where busy, sullen, sad, and sometimes crying people passed continuously. Somehow I managed with grace and what I'll admit to be a bit of style. You're probably asking, what could enhance my hospital experience?

How about an earthquake?

A magnitude 5.2 earthquake shook the hospital. Laying in the wobbly bed, I was in an optimal position to experience it. I felt the bed shake and saw lights, equipment, and the IV bag swing recklessly. A nurse stopped by to make sure I was okay.

Around 3:30pm a technician came down to my bed and brought my chest x-ray. She tucked it into the side of my bed and told me that I'd need it for my transfer. She vanished before I could ask her what she meant. The doctor returned to see me. He told me that my tests had come back negative for a heart-attack. My EKG had shown that there was stress to the left side of my heart but it wasn't an alarming reading -- no person's EKG looked textbook perfect he explained. But due to various factors, he thought that I should spend the night in the hospital. Although since my health insurance preferred a different locale, I wouldn't be spending the night in this particular hospital. He informed me that an ambulance would pick me up at 4:20pm to transfer me to Sharp Memorial. If one is fortunate, they get to experience both an ambulance ride and an earthquake over a lifetime. I combined it all into one day.

The ambulance arrived. They took my vitals and whisked me away. Driving south on Highway 163 the ambulence driver slammed on the brakes, tossing both EMTs and their loose equipment forward. I lifted my head enough to see out the back window. Cars skidded to either side to avoid hitting us. My ambulance almost needed to be rescued by another.

At Sharp Memorial I was placed in a staging room. My blood was taken every eight hours and my heart was constantly monitored by machine. When I was transferred to my room in the evening I was given a battery powered machine that I could take with me.

The nurses and doctors I encountered during my twenty-four hour stay were wonderful. Although all of the nurses commented on my hairy chest when they hopelessly applied the electrodes, wanting them to stick.

I tried to get to sleep but the IV in my arm kept me from bending it and was very uncomfortable. A man born in 1908 lied in the bed across from me, and caddy-corner was a man whose large and noisy family visited him until 1am. At 3am a nurse woke me up to take blood.

The next morning a woman looked at my heart with an ultrasound machine. Later, a man injected me with radioactive isotopes and placed me in a cat-scan like machine. I would repeat the isotope/machine process a short time later after having run on a treadmill for ten minutes (it's a heart-stress test).

Before being discharged the doctor told me that all of my heart-related tests came back negative. My heart looked in good shape. He believed that my episode was stomach related -- that I had bad problems that needed to be addressed (he said that it looked like acid reflux -- if John Elway has that problem it puts me in cool company). He added that if someone came to him with my symptoms, that he couldn't determine whether it's heart related or stomach related. The symptoms are so similar that they mask each other. He gave me some stomach medication and I was discharged.

While my hospital stay lasted twenty-six hours, it genuinely felt like weeks. Hospitals aren't fun. The hard part is the waiting. There's a lot of it, and while the doctors and nurses did a wonderful job of informing me what came next, it's still tough to wait. On the other side, it's an interesting place to be a voyeur. I have a belief that the only two places where everyone has a story are hospitals and airports.

I haven't been to a hospital since I had my tonsils taken out eighteen years ago. I hope it's another eighteen until I return. I'm glad that my heart is okay.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

I returned late last night from a Memorial Day weekend spent in Colorado. I kept busy.

Kim and I journeyed into the mountains on Saturday and had an adventurous day. We passed through Boulder and Estes Park to venture into Rocky Mountain National Park and across Trail Ridge Road -- the highest continuous highway in North America. As we ascended the pass, hovering near the edge of the mountain, snow blanketed everything as it fell. Kim would point in a direction and say, "Usually there's a huge mountain right there," where we could only see a white wall. Upon nearing the top, we were turned around by the state patrol who said that it was white-out conditions past that point.

We retreated and drove through Rocky Mountain National Park, and in a short span we encountered a wide array of wildlife. A herd of elk chewed grass near the side of the road, and located at an address further along, a group of bighorn sheep played along the mountain side. They were beautiful to watch as they glided across rocks, and occasionally one would stand mightily on his hind legs. One of the coolest sights came unexpectedly. I was looking out onto a flood plain area when I saw movement. I told Kim to stop the car. We pulled over onto the side of the road and watched a coyote approach us. It strolled in front of our car, and upon nearing the road, it looked both ways before crossing.

Exiting RMNP, we descended into Estes Park to grab some grub at the Estes Park Brewery. After eating way too much stuff that had been deep fried, we eyed the nearby Estes Park Aerial Tram with curious apprehension. It rose from Estes Park to the summit of Mount Prospect. The wind had been gusting all day, a scary element when suspended from a cable, but curiosity won over apprehension, and we took the tram to the top. It offered spectacular views including the city of Estes Park and its infamous Stanley Hotel.

Kim and I spent other days dipping down into Colorado Springs to see my family and attending the Colorado Arts Festival in downtown Denver.