I recently spent the night in what many people would consider to be an expensive hotel room. The room was large and airy, with an east-facing window for the morning sun. There was a sizeable, bright bathroom with the usual amenities such as soap, shampoo, a shower cap, a pocket comb, a robe, and plenty of fresh towels. There was even a toothbrush and toothpaste. There was a nice bed and some chairs (including a recliner) and a desk, along with a large flat screen on the wall. The room also smelled new, like fresh paint. The staff was, of course, friendly and helpful, and the room service was punctual, so by all accounts, one would think this was a four-star hotel, but here’s the thing. I was in a hospital.
It all started on what looked to be an otherwise pleasant Sunday …
Saturday night into Sunday morning was unseasonably warm for February in New York, so we cracked a window in the bedroom before turning out the lights. I love the smell of fresh air, and my wife likes that the furnace is off and that the house temperature cools to about sixty degrees. About an hour before sunrise, I heard an owl outside, the sound likely coming from the woods behind our house. Sound travels better at night, so it was hard to tell how close it was, but the low-pitched wail of hoo h’hoo hoo hoo left no doubt that it was a great horned owl.
I listened to it for a while, and then got up to let the dog out into the front yard. While Milo was preoccupied, I went out back and tried to spot the owl, but it was still dark. Milo and I both went back inside, he heading back to bed while I made coffee.
By the time Mrs. G. got up, the sun was shining and it looked as if it was going to be a nice day. I had a full breakfast earlier, my wife had hers shortly after she got up, and we both settled into our routines.
As the morning passed, she got dressed for her walk, while I wandered around the house trying to figure out my day, and just like that, with an immediacy that caught me off guard, I felt a little off. It was hard to put a finger on why but where was obvious. My heart was beating fast and I felt a little light-headed. Too much coffee, maybe. I really didn’t know.
“I feel a little weird,” I said as Mrs. G. was heading out the door. She asked if I was OK, I said yes, and I then went and lied down on the bed. An hour went by, and Mrs. G. was back and she asked how I was feeling. “The same,” I said, describing my symptoms. We ran through a litany of scenarios, but when the symptoms were matched with the options, only one kept coming back. Heart attack. Holy crap.
“You should call your doctor,” she said.
Now here’s the thing with men. We need to be prompted to call our doctors or to seek any kind of medical attention. We are beings that, if left to ourselves, would croak face first into our oatmeal because we are either too stubborn or too stupid to ask for help. I once shattered my ankle in a nasty work accident, yet worked the rest of the day while hobbling around so yeah—this stuff really happens.
Being that is was a Sunday, I knew I’d get some kind of answering service, so I called and waited while my wife took a shower. When I got through to someone, I asked that my primary care doctor call me back, knowing what he would say but needing to hear it from him. It’s much the same as asking a waiter if the fried clams with onions, beets, and chocolate fudge sauce would be a good entrée choice. Of course he’ll say it’s good. Order two.
A doctor (not mine) called me back, asked for the symptoms, and said to go to emergency. Not one of those urgent care places. Emergency. The real hospital. So I told my wife, and set out to get my shoes and coat. When I walked back to see what was taking Mrs. G. so long, she was still in the bathroom getting ready.
“OK, not to rush you or anything, but I could be having a heart attack out here and you’re putting on mascara,” I said, dripping enough sarcasm to stick the statement to the wall. Truth be told, I didn’t think I was having a heart attack, but something was still off, so as long as we’ve pulled the trigger on this, let’s get the train in gear. It should be noted that an ambulance call to 911 wasn’t even in the picture. I’d have to be holding my own head in a bag for that to happen.
The drive to the hospital from our house is a short one, and once we got there, we parked and went inside. There was a line of four people, now five, cycling through one check-in hostess and one symptom taker. I waited restlessly as the people before me told of their ailments, each one of them likely wishing that they were anyplace else. The lady with the swollen foot and no ID or health care card clogged things up for a long time as she told her entire life story from birth to five minutes ago, but when I eventually made my way up and described my symptoms, I was told that if this ever happens again, cut the line. Will do.
I was in the emergency department for a few hours while they ran some blood tests and checked my vitals. It was all very polite and efficient. The on-call ER doctor came in later and explained the factors they use to admit heart patients, which are based on a one to ten scale of severity. I was a four, given my age (sixty-one, dammit), my family history (my father was only a few years older than I am now when he died from a heart attack), my disease (rheumatoid arthritis, which can affect the heart lining) and medication (a short run on methylprednisolone until my long term RA med kicks in). A four means more testing, which meant an overnight stay for observation.
Mrs. G. went home to let the dog out, and to pick up my Kindle and a pair of sweatpants, while I waited a bit in the ER until they carted me up to the aforementioned room, which with no exaggeration whatsoever was truly as nice as a hotel room.
Almost immediately upon reaching my room, groups of different people came through and introduced themselves, while explaining the various chores with which they were tasked. I was also told that I would have blood drawn every eight hours to check my troponin levels to see if there had been “an event.” The heart muscle releases troponin if there has been an episode that has caused damage, i.e. a myocardial infarction, better known as a heart attack. This differs greatly from a myogutial infartion, which is what happens after eating chili.
I was attached to a portable monitor roughly the size of an ice cream sandwich, and instructed to stay put. So I stayed put, watching an old episode of X-Files on my phone, via free Wi-Fi and Netflix, since they charged to use the TV. This kept me busy while I waited for Mrs. G. to return with my stuff and a bag of food. I was brought to my room several hours after the kitchen closed, and I was starving.
I was delightfully surprised when a thoughtful young man came in holding a tray with an odd assortment of comestibles—an egg salad sandwich, a bowl of mandarin oranges, a salad, vanilla pudding, one of those school-sized cartons of milk, and tea. Not having had anything since breakfast, I ate the entire collection in about forty-five seconds.
While I waited for my wife, I was amazed at how eerily quiet it was, right up until a pod of feral children started running up and down the hallway as if they were racing to the ball crawl at Chuck E. Cheese. Kids don’t know any better, but parents should. Corral your offspring in public places, people. They hit top speed on the third lap when a nurse/linebacker firmly told them to stop running and reunited them with their parents.
Mrs. G. arrived with my things around 8:00 p.m. (including a sandwich with a pickle, an orange, some snack bars, and a bag of pretzels) and we talked until about 8:45. She left, and I set about reading and snacking on pretzels, which I did up until they drew blood at 11:00 p.m. I was exhausted, and turned out the lights at that point and tried to get some sleep. Boy, did I try.
What the heck is that noise? That humming noise. Can’t everyone hear that? It sounded as if an air conditioner was having sex with a dishwasher. It was so quiet otherwise, that even small imperceptible sounds roared like a jet engine. I couldn’t sleep. Humming noises were coming from the ceiling HVAC fan and oddly enough, from the bed itself.
On a trip to the bathroom around 2:00 a.m., still wide-awake, I saw a glowing light switch at the foot of the bed and flicked it off. Come to find out that the bed blows cool air under the sheets, which is supposed to help one sleep better. Imagine that. Off it went, which cut the noise level in half. I started to drift to sleep just as the tech came in to take my vitals, which is something that is done roughly every three hours. By 5:00 a.m., I was asleep, if not soundly at least partially. At 6:45 a.m., the overhead fluorescent lights were flicked on and blood was drawn. The ceiling was peppered with LED puck lights that were on a dimmer, but apparently it takes the full luminescence of four long tubes of fluorescent lightbulbs to draw blood. I was awake now, may as well get settled in again.
An hour or so later, and three hundred pages into a four hundred page book, breakfast arrived and shortly after that, a doctor. One thing that can’t be stressed enough is how often one will have to repeat what it was that brought them to the hospital in the first place. I swear I told the story at least twelve times, adding bits of detail with each go-around. Don’t they write this information down in a chart or something? I was told I’d need an echocardiogram and a few more blood tests before I could be released. Almost six hours later, with only two short chapters left in my book, I was wheeled down for the echo.
So, what happened?
My heart is perfect. I have the heart function of a college athlete, with the blood work to match. I was low on potassium however, so they gave me two giant horse pills for that, and the overall consensus was that the steroid medication and/or the low potassium or perhaps the alignment of the planets caused the problem. Nobody could say definitively what caused my heart to amp up into overdrive, but their collective diagnoses assured me that my heart was running well, not just for someone my age, but for anyone. The monitor did show the occasional early heartbeat, but that’s fairly normal. My blood pressure was fine.
“You can go home now, follow up with your primary in a few days,” the PA said, which was terrific news. I went home feeling relieved and pretty good, but tired. I was awake for thirty-eight hours on about three hours of scattershot sleep. I felt jetlagged. We had a light dinner, and I watched a little TV before going to bed and sleeping the sleep of the dead for ten hours. I woke up the next morning to the call of a hoot owl outside of the open bedroom window, feeling both rested and grateful.
Here’s what I learned. I’m now old enough to see people named Brittaneigh with advanced medical degrees, and don’t screw around with anything related to the heart. I knew I had good heart health, but even so, one never knows what the vagaries of age, lifestyle or fate might bring. I was afraid to call the doctor or have it checked out because I thought that I would be embarrassed if nothing was wrong. Well, ultimately nothing was wrong, but lots of people have tanked thinking the same thing. I have too much left to do, too much left to see for that to happen, and besides, how often does one get a solid day to relax and read in quiet while lying in an adjustable bed?