The last day of school for any kid is always a big one: the excitement of summer, the long school year over, the finality of another year. Many things can be exciting on those days, and this was certainly no exception. In 2011, my oldest son was finishing the 4th grade. He had a particularly bad year; his teacher was exactly like the witch in Miss Nelson is Missing!. He gathered up what little belongings he needed the night before, and was ready for the day.
At 6 am the following morning, he was awake with excitement. No one wanted this school year over more than him. He had one request: he wanted his my world famous French toast. How is a dad supposed to say no? I stayed later to make it for him, knowing I would get home late from work, but it would make his day better. He enjoyed his breakfast, and I wished him well on his last day, telling him “I love you” as I walked out the door.
The next 10 minutes changed my life.
My morning commute was an average drive: 20 min of time, give or take some traffic. Leaving later means more traffic, but it also means that there is additional traffic from people coming home after working midnights from the assembly plants and other jobs. About 10 min into my drive, I made the left at the light I always do, and accelerated at the rate I normally did. I was following a large SUV, and I drive a sedan. Suddenly, out of no where, the SUV swerved onto the shoulder, and I had no time…
That is all that I remember. That and my chest hurting. I don’t remember the man crossing the road to find out if I was ok, but I remember him tapping on the window. Through some effort, I was able to get my seatbelt off, push the door open, and get myself to my feet. Nothing felt broken, but I was clearly in shock.
My car sat on the side of the road totaled. My phone, which normally sits in my cup holder when driving, was wedged between the dash and the windshield. The officer said I was likely going about 40 mph. An judging from the pain in my chest, he was right. I didn’t take the ambulance ride that was offered, even though my blood pressure was over 190/130 at the time. My wife came and got me at the scene, and with her insistence, we went to the hospital to have me checked over. I was convinced nothing was wrong, that I was just shaken up from the impact.
We got to the hospital, get all checked in. All the blood tests & simple scans you can think of, then off to X-ray. My wife left to go get our son, who had a half day on the last day of school. It’s an X-ray: what could possibly go wrong? Turns out, a lot can actually go wrong.
As I was standing at the x-ray machine, I started feeling really off. I began feeling like I was going to pass out, everything going white, and grabbed on to what I could; I probably looked how an infant would as it was trying to maintain its balance. When I came back into consciousness, I had a team of people around me. I felt a warm feeling, which I then realized was the sensation of me pissing myself. They get me out of my clothes, get me back to my room, and start an IV. Probably just a response to the stress. After a few questions about me shaking when I was unconscious and me telling them everything went white as I faded, they were very concerned about the situation.
They hooked me up to heart monitors. After giving me some time to rest, they want to get me back to X-ray. They stand me up, make sure I’m ok. I asked to pee, just in case I pissed myself again. I felt good better, I was ready to go. Then, without warning, I feel awful. Nurse asks if I’m feeling ok. I’m not. Like I want to puke. Like my body was going to shut down. Everything started going white again…
I remember being in a peaceful dream, surrounded by warmth, feeling happiness and love; it felt like a good place. When I came to, I felt no pain, no stress, just calm. I looked up and saw 2 doctors intensely focused on my heartbeat in the monitors, about 10 nurses, and some aids frantically moving in the tiny room. Asking me questions, checking out everything they can. After a few minutes, the docs want send me off to get an emergency CT scan.
It is then they tell me what happened, about the events that had just transpired: my heart had stopped. Stopped, flatlined, no pulse for 30 seconds. The nurse who asked if I was ok was also the one who had thumped her fist on my chest to get the heart going again. The doctors were looking for something specific in the monitor: the p-wave that precedes the normal heart rhythm that wasn’t showing. It’s basically your internal pacemaker that sets off the normal sinus rhythm, and I didn’t have it. So there I sat, waiting for the machine in the hallway, with nothing but my thoughts and a lot of tears.
What do you do with that news? How do you even process that without knowing what is wrong? It seemed almost surreal, until I thought that I wouldn’t see my wife & son again. Even though the experience was peaceful for me, the thought of what it would do to family & friends was overwhelming. The technician was very understanding of my current state and started the scan when I wasn’t a crying mess. The scan wasn’t conclusive.
The absence of an answer bought me a few night’s stay in the Critical Care Unit. In the transfer to my room, I my pulse stopped one more time; I was at least thankful that I was in the cardiac unit of CCU, and they got me going again quickly. There were blood tests and scans to try and narrow this down.
A few days later at the end of the hospital stay, we only knew that I had low potassium, a vasovagal response, potassium supplements, and 5 daily pills of 3 medications for high blood pressure that was at 170/110 at rest. For now, somehow, this was just going to be normal.
The doctors wanted to figure this out. They run some tests, blood work, a stress test, and a tilt table test. I had a cardiologist and an endochronologist now. You’d figure with a couple of specialists, you’d find out more — and you would think wrong. No answer. Vasovagal response, low potassium, high blood pressure. Deal with it; here’s some pills, and some more pills. That was the answer, and this was something I would have to live with. And for a while, I learned to accept it…
Until I decided to get an elective surgery. I had a painful varicose vane in my lower abdomen. Almost like a hernia, but not the same. I needed to have a simple outpatient procedure, one done at an outpatient surgical center and not at the hospital. And I’m sure that for most people, it would be just fine, no problems, and things would be good for them. But not for me. While the surgery itself was a success and I haven’t had pain since, I had a different yet familiar problem. When they were waking me up with my wife and dad with me, I turned an ashen grey — and my heart stopped. Again.
So, I was rushed back to the hospital for another 3-day stay. One more flatline as I was getting settled in the hospital. More blood work. More tests. A new doctor - an electrophysiologist - would be a new addition to my team. As they said in the hospital, I was “famous”. However, this hospital stay was different. My wife is a registered nurse and she started putting things together. She talked with my mom about her medical history, and there was a big revelation: my symptoms had happened before - to my mom. Years ago, my mom suffered similar symptoms — high blood pressure, feeling lethargic, anger — and it got even worse with severe fatigue and depression. I was starting to fall into the severe depression. After they finally figured it out, a surgery would cure her. My mom had thought before that this could have been the case, but nothing confirmed the suspicion, even though we checked several times before.
So my new super-specialist ran tests. He ordered a new scan, this time going further down my body than when they did the CT for my accident. And sure enough, after all the tests, pills, and labs they could possibly do, they found something wrong:
There it was: a benign tumor on my right adrenal gland; my mom had hers on the left. After months and months of tests, no answers, and life continuing to feel miserable, all I would need is a surgery to remove it (not just the tumor, but the whole right adrenal gland). I remember crying when I read the report. As much as I was scared of having my heart stop during the surgery, I was relieved and overjoyed that there was an answer and a solution.
The laparoscopic surgery was scheduled 2 months after the scan. The day before my birthday. Happy birthday to me! I was told that it would be life changing. I was told that after the surgery and the recovery, I would be a new man. This would forever change my outlook on things. I guess I would just have to wait and see. The laparoscopic surgery went off without a hitch, and the surgery was a success. But what would that hold for me?
When I was told just how much life would change for me, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t think that a small 2 cm tumor meant anything physical or psychological would happen. I was hopeful that it would fix my health issues, but nothing more would change. I am so glad I was wrong. It changed me forever.
I can only try and give you a picture of what I was like before the surgery. I like to think that I’m generally a nice guy and easy to be around. But after having the surgery, I realized: I was an asshole. I had treated my friends and family like complete shit, especially my wife and son. How many times had I been demeaning or inconsiderate? How many times had my frustration lingered from the morning all the way until the evening, only to make those whom I love feel horrible? How was my exhaustion affecting those around me, especially my wife?
The day after my surgery, my birthday, was spent in the hospital. I attributed my newly-discovered good mood to that, and to the wonderful drugs the nurses would bring for pain. It wasn’t until two days after the surgery that I noticed it. I can only describe it as this:
Picture yourself walking into a dense wooded area, thick with fog and dimly lit. This was my life, from my perspective. Now picture a clear, grassy field with lush green grass and abundant sunshine. The day of my surgery I was in the fog. On my birthday, I was at the edge of the fog, looking at what life was like past the fog into the field with wonder. And the very next day, it was a new life in the field.
Within a few months, I was off all my medications. No more high blood pressure. Good potassium levels. No more anti-depressants. I felt happy. I didn’t know that this is what normal felt like. And a few weeks later, we found out we were pregnant with our youngest son. All of the waiting, the traumatic events, the car accident — all of it seemed worth it.
So now that it’s been more than 4 years later, I need to remind myself of where I’ve been. There’s been a lot that has happened since that time, and getting through this allowed me to help with everything after. I need to remember how close things came, how I might not have seen my loved ones again. I need to see that life has changed for the better. How thankful I am to be lucky enough to find the right doctor that would listen to my wife and mom, and order the scan that confirmed it.
I want to make sure that I’m living the fullest life that I can, for my wife and kids, so that I can be here to support them as long as I possibly can. I need to keep my health in check so that I can see both of my sons grow up. Life is so unbelievably short. You may wake up on a seemingly benign day, and just go off to work like you normally do. And most of the time, you’ll come home. But remember that you also might not. If you love someone, let them know - and let them know often. Be thankful and appreciative of the little moments that you get with them — they are all important.