When we began this journey five years ago, we saw an end goal… chemo, stem cell transplant, recovery. Three simple stages. We didn’t fool ourselves that the process day to day would be simple or that we wouldn’t have down days, but we could tick off the cycles of chemo, the days in the stem cell unit, the milestones of recovery.
After our experience with cancer in 2004, we figured, as before, it would take five years to recover to pre-cancer life… or as close as we could get.
Our blogs to keep our friends and families informed of our progress began with the title “The Waiting is the Worst.” And it is…. we seem to work better when we’re moving forward, towards a goal, towards a treatment, towards recovery. We’ve had those moments when we seem to live in a fog of despair when we push to find the light. And we work to get through them by finding the pinpricks of light like faraway stars that can guide us until the sun shines through. A light at the end of a long tunnel. But lately it feels like that light at the end of that proverbial tunnel may just be an oncoming train!
As we near that five year goal we find ourselves waiting once more for an implantation. Instead of a port for the administration of chemo and blood products, we were waiting for Rich to become Borg once more with a Heart Loop Recorder placed near his sternum. We were excited for the information this little medical marvel would collect and store… answers would be forthcoming!
For the first time outside of a hospital, he will be monitored 24/7 via this small paperclip sized data gathering device. It’s slipped under the skin in an outpatient, local anesthesia setting. The procedure is fairly quick and requires no more than one stitch and a little medical glue. The incision itself is no wider than a pinky fingernail.
We’re given a box little larger than what our cell phones came in. Inside is a monitoring unit that bluetooths to Rich’s recording implant. This unit now lives next to our bed and, somewhere between midnight and 5am, it connects to the implant and checks the data for any abnormalities. If it finds any, they are sent to the doctor’s office. Our Borg just needs to be within ten feet to connect.
Usually, and this is the scary part, Rich feels no indication of any heart incidents. If he did, the unit also comes with a small pocket-sized wand. That wand, in case of felt palpitations, syncope, racing heartbeats, or any oddities, is placed over the implant after pushing a button to activate it. The implant goes back six minutes, records forward to one minute past the point where the button on the wand is pushed and sets that data aside to send that night through the monitoring unit. This will tell the doctors if what he felt was indeed a heart episode or not.
In so many ways, we’re told, this monitoring will not intrude on our lives. When Rich is away camping with our grandson, the data will send when he gets back. Other than when he feels he needs to record an incident; he has no other action than to sleep near his monitoring unit. Each time we visit the doctor, they will download ALL the data and the implant will continue to record for three years. At the end of the time, Rich will be once more dis-assimilated from the Borg Continuum.
But we’ve had complications and find ourselves once again at the office of the cardio electrophysiologists well before anticipated. The site is tender; more than it should be at this point post-surgery. And then there are the night sweats. They start with chills; Rich is cold to the core. Then he wakes up drenched. Little fevers come and go. All the bedding and his t-shirt are wet and need to be changed. Initially, days after the surgery, he’s examined, and we’re asked to wait and watch as there is no evidence of infection. The incision site is healing beautifully. So, we watch, and we wait.
A week after surgery, he’s still experiencing the sweats and those odd little fevers. As the doctor and the nurse practitioner palpate the area, Rich jumps when they hit a particular spot. It’s decided to start antibiotics in a very Dr House way. If he doesn’t respond to the antibiotics after a few days, then it’s something else.
The aches, the fevers, the night sweats all continue at ten days post-op. But the site of the implantation is more comfortable. We decide to give it one more day before bringing it again to the attention of our gurus given that increased comfort. We’re not ready to stop the antibiotics yet if we’re seeing a better result. And perhaps this will be the night when the sweats will not come.
Watch and Wait.
And praying the train whistle doesn’t blow while we’re still in the tunnel… much better to be in the station and ready to hop on the train and move forward again!
When we were about the age that our grandchildren are now, our upbringing was of the free-range kind. Basically, we were sent out to play and admonished to come in when the six o’clock siren went off. Usually Saturday mornings were spent watching cartoons while we ate breakfast and doing our chores before we were free to set off on our adventures. Wildly different than anything we had ever seen before were the early anime offerings of Speed Racer, Astro Boy and Gigantor in the mid 1960’s. No Looney Tunes these! Wide eyed kids with an almost James Bond arsenal at their fingertips. Their theme songs were simple earworms that would not give up.
As Rich had limitations while his meds were being optimized, we figured a Roomba would help take care of what are still, in our adult lives, Saturday chores. So it was fitting, that, given the option, our little self-propelled vacuum would be named after one of those anime characters: “Gigantor the space aged robot, He’s at your command….” Yes, please vacuum.
My phone could and did set him on his path around the house, sucking up debris and dust. If I was at work and Rich activated him, I would get messages when my space aged robot got into trouble and these would make me laugh, “Gigantor needs your help” or better yet, “Gigantor is stuck near a cliff!”
Lately, it has been feeling like our household is stuck near a cliff; a precipice that may or may not be the way we want to go.
A couple of weeks ago, Rich had another episode of syncope; he blacked out without warning while walking through the house; no cliff dive this… he was walking on a flat surface without obstructions. He has taken care when getting up from sitting to center himself before moving to avoid any dizziness or lightheadedness. But there are times when a quick drop in blood pressure will manifest and hit unexpectedly. Or was it an irregular heartbeat?
This time, his fall landed the bulk of him relatively safely on the dining room rug. His shoulder wasn’t so lucky. A huge open scrape went down his arm, his shirt having ripped. From what we can tell, he hit the outer corner of the baseboard molding of the bookcases. Sharp. Mom heard the fall and sat with him and did her best to help him, bringing a chair to his side for him to push himself up on. When I got home, we cleaned the sizeable wound and did what we could to get him comfortable. Bruises began to blossom.
We meet with an orthopedic and he tells us that the floating calcification he sees on the x-ray may have been in his shoulder before; we have no slides to tell us when this occurred. His take is that we just need to allow the inflammation to go down and see how Rich’s shoulder feels from there. A well placed cortisone shot helps in the days to come and Rich is advised to do mild exercises as home physical therapy to avoid frozen shoulder syndrome.
We had a follow-up with our Heart Failure guru regarding the fall as well as to discuss the results of the CPET testing to see if a pacemaker may be of benefit to him. She spouted numbers and statistics as I frantically jotted down notes. Then she went into the down and dirty bottom line:
The overall test results indicate something called oscillatory breathing… almost a type of apnea… while exercising. This ties in well with her previous decision to have Rich evaluated at a sleep clinic. Oscillatory breathing is very much associated not only with CHF but also with the centralized sleep apnea she suspected. The guru offers to see if she can get us an earlier appointment than the July one we currently have. Then she’d like to have another CPET done after to see if there is improvement with whatever suggested therapy the sleep group has. CPAP or BPAP therapy in the overnight are generally the solution. And this helps the heart to rest and heal. The option of a pacemaker for support that we discussed in our last post is now a stronger contender given the results and Rich’s fall …and we’re getting closer to yes!
To add to the data and to perhaps help find a definitive cause to the syncope episodes, we discuss heart monitoring options. The best choice seems to be a loop monitor which would be implanted below the skin (Borg once more!) and will provide downloadable information on heart rhythms. After her discussion with our cardiologist, it’s decided to go forward with this. In two weeks, our One of Ten (formerly of Nine) will get this procedure done and another level of data will be added to the pacemaker decision. We will now be welcoming a cardiac electrophysiologist to our list of experts. There is a measure of relief with this; to have the support of some monitoring and get some real-time information as issues occur. If needed, again, a pacemaker will add to the ongoing support.
We also find we should revisit one of our meds that had been with us since we began prednisone at the beginning of this journey but was dropped two years ago. Zoloft had helped with the depression that prednisone brought upon the adrenals. When the pain management group gave Rich Cymbalta to help with neuropathy pain, they kept the Zoloft active as well. For a year he took both. And then we slowly weaned off, keeping only the Cymbalta for the neuropathy. But Rich has felt the difference.
Now that we’re coming to a year of continual med changes and tweaks, non-stop testing to optimize energy and healing, and a whole lotta everchanging rules, we think it’s time to consider Zoloft again. The cortisone shot Rich received in his shoulder could not have helped; steroids always depress his adrenals. And it is well known that chronic illnesses of all kinds can bring a discombobulation that is tough on the patient and that is detrimental on this path. Again, we welcome this available support.
Lastly, our doctor admonishes us to keep to the clean way of eating we did when we first met last year. With all the changes in the last six months, we’ve gotten a little off track. It’s time to pull back from that cliff we, like our Gigantor, were stuck near. If we need to send out a distress signal, we have a whole bunch on our team to respond, but ultimately, we are responsible for doing everything we can on our end… like our vacuum, we need to be reset onto firm ground, set the big button to GO and start anew.
Maria R. Conklin, writer of the blog Journey of a Tired Heart, writes of exhaustion beautifully and gets to the crux of what it is like to experience a fatigue that only those with a chronic illness or going through devastating treatment for a disease can understand. Those of us whose hearts are with our loved ones on these journeys can only nod and think “Yes, this is what I see. Here is truth.”
What resonates most, as Rich and I inhabit this place where living is a world of bright spots interspersed into a continual fog, are the closing paragraphs:
“Is exhaustion an emotion? I don’t think so, but is there a state of being more intense than exhaustion? I can’t think of an appropriate word to describe it, but it’s the state of physical exhaustion to the degree of leaky emotions. You know what I mean: when your eyes are tightly closed and you finally fully exhale, relaxing every muscle in your body and a warm teardrop slides down your cheek. Then another, and another. Just a few though – and it cannot even be defined as crying.
It’s not crying. It’s all that determination and courage you had to employ to get through the past four hours – at least what is left of them anyway. You let them flow, take in a deep breath and then let it out slowly. Just as quickly as they began, they end. No more tears. Just a sweet, wonderful, lifeless kind of surrender that can only be understood by those who have walked the tightrope between life and death.”
Since Rich’s hospitalization in August for that exercise related tachycardia, we’ve been traveling a very fine line between medication and wellness. As we’ve discussed before, the triumvirate of the main heart meds introduced over the summer are problematic for Rich when all three live in our world. Less so than when taken together at the same time during the day, but even the staggered dosing we follow now brings more fatigue than we’ve had to deal with for a while. After months of his energy failing more each day, we wonder for the first time if we’re with the right heart doctors. We try not to despair.
Unlike all our previous journeys, our goals are now ambiguous. We know that we’re not optimized on heart failure medications. But what is optimized? We’re told we’re on the lowest dose of entresto. So where do we ultimately want to be on doses? We know that there are variables that make this question tough to answer. How Rich’s blood pressure, kidney function and ejection fraction respond all need to be taken into consideration.
Even well aware of these variables, at this point, the frustration we feel makes us want to shake our doctors and scream “For fuck’s sake! How long are going to continue on the lowest dose of everything and feel like shit?”
Apparently, no shaking and screaming is necessary. Sometimes it’s finding the right time and the right person. We meet, as we do every two to three weeks, with the nurse-practitioner at the heart failure doctor’s office. We discuss wellness and issues. We discuss blood pressure and blood work. We discuss holidays and everydays. The conversation alone heartens us and happens organically when the nurse practitioner casually mentions a dosage goal. This gives us an opening to enquire about the other cardiac meds and get the answers we were so looking for.
We have a plan. We have a goal… or a set of goals. As per the heart failure guru, we want to max out on entresto and metoprolol. We want to adjust up/down/sideways any of the others to optimize heart function. When we hear that those other meds may be, can be, eliminated, we rejoice. If we can stick to two, Rich can once again feel that rush of energy as he did this summer. That feeling of “before cancer” that makes all the difference. We now hope for that goal.
Blood work is taken. EKG recorded. We wait for the news… can the meds be tweaked this week? And with blessed relief comes the phone call we waited for… raise the entresto. Finally, we’re moving in the right direction. The nurse gives us hope. She tells us perhaps when we see them again at the start of the new year, we can raise it to the next… the last… dose. Other meds have been halved giving rise to more rejoicing. This lifts our spirits and we’re ready to face the holidays. Glad tidings indeed.
Of course, we also brace ourselves. Each dosage change of the heart and heart related medications has an adjustment period that is brutal. It isn’t so much the water weight gain from the changes, it’s more an emotional roller coaster.
It doesn’t last long but seems an eternity when we’re in the middle of it all. Fatigue hits like a ton of bricks. The recliner is the only place Rich can be. And then comes the end of the first full new dosage day. We’re told that Rich’s reaction can be normal but it surprises us each time. He runs through what seem to be drunken manic-depressive episodes every five minutes. On the one hand, he’s laughing, way too much, about nothing and everything in such a way that it becomes a concern. It feels forced and indeed it is, but not in a way that Rich can help. Seconds later, he’s in the depths of despair, apologizing for all this trouble while he tries to maintain composure. And it generally is less than successful.
During these times, his blood pressure drops… crashing to numbers like 81/41. His gait is troubled and unsteady. The meds are playing and playing hard. Pickles help. They balance his electrolytes and bring up his blood pressure gently. We monitor his BP continually. The night is long and we’re both exhausted by the time we fall asleep. The one saving grace, we agree, is that the morning will have brought better balance.
A week ago, we woke to the stone edged green patchwork that is the hills of Ireland. We were towards the end of our fifteen day stay; travelling with friends and filled to the brim with life, laughter and love.
That we are on this trip is miraculous in and of itself. Since Rich’s hospitalizations this year, there has been a big question mark on whether we would be boarding the plane at all.
We began the entresto in earnest while in the hospital. It had been hammered into us that this was THE drug for heart failure. We’ve had difficulties with it but were ready to be on board and do what we could to tolerate and embrace this medication. The positive results by others were giving us strength. The goal was to have Rich on three heart medications to keep his kidneys happy and to help heal his heart. Entresto, Hydralazine and Isordil started slow and easy. Half doses, spaced timing of meds and the slow introduction of each of the super three. We found any two, in any combination, dose or timing was fine. When a third, again, of any of the combo, was introduced, we found the low blood pressure numbers returned, the fatigue beyond bearing. With our heart failure doctor texting and calling, we tried and re-tried the combinations. Finally, we had to come to a stop. Each modification had brought days of unbalance in all its forms. We had one week before we boarded our plane… we had to allow two meds to settle in and hold off on the third. There was no other choice if we were to travel.
Rich was advised to stop his cardiac PT until after our return. And as for our travels, he was told to avoid hiking. Avoid the very thing we went to do! How to not plod through rock strewn fields, along windswept cliffs, by Guinness-colored churning rivers and streams, through changing autumn woodlands? To walk the city streets of the Troubles and in the paths of writers, musicians and artists? We’d have to find balance as we have all along this journey. As we continue to try to find with medications. To temper the eagerness of travel with the realities of the physical heart.
As with all things, Rich welcomes our travels with gladness and intentions to experience it all. We prepare with the trekking poles that saw good use in Iceland… the 2016 trip we took to successfully test our post-transplant travel waters. We laugh that just one letter changes the names of these two countries… as if a simple typo took us from one instead of the other. We continue to pack as wisely as we can. Wind and weather provided for. Plans for keeping to our way of eating as much as possible to maximize heart health. We look for all the variables that may trip us up and discuss modifications that we may need to use.
The itinerary that Arlene and I work through is a wonderful mix of history, food, landscape, food, music, food, architecture and, yes, more food. We try to find an equilibrium between forts, castles, abbeys, tombs, hills, cliffs, stone circles and waterfalls… although we do seem too excited by food! We dissect travel times and try to figure how long we’ll spend where. We wildly miscalculate our interests but even that ultimately becomes part of our adventure.
With Kevin steering on the wrong side of the car, and the car on the wrong side of the road, we make our way around Ireland. We lay our heads mostly in country-side B&B’s and castles at night. We meet and chat with fellow travelers. We enjoy the music of the pubs, share experiences with strangers and find we keep the memories of all we’ve met with us on our trip. Songs follow us in our travels. We embrace the Céad Míle Fáilte… the hundred thousand welcomes we experience. The lilting cadence of the Irish speech offers us surcease like a lullaby.
We have a few reminders of health issues along the way. Despite our best intentions, it is not easy to keep carbs low in a country where root vegetables reign and salads are not the norm. Where time differences can be felt, where landscapes are rugged underfoot and where excitement overcomes caution. The northern Wild Atlantic Way tests Rich and with a few exceptions, he comes through unscathed. Our pace is more measured, and I keep an eye on the small cues of distress. A few unexpected hillside trails cause us to take a thing or two off our itinerary and offer us instead time to relax or enjoy some views we otherwise may not have found. A bit of weather meets up with us as two storms, Hurricane Helene and Storm Ali clash above us and buffet us around the Slieve League Cliffs. The sea was swept up the 1,972’ high mountain cliffs in a flume of spray and holding a camera still in the 100mph+ winds is near to impossible. As Arlene says “we could have come on a beautifully sunny day and had a wonderful time and taken great photos. Now we have a story!”
A story. Our story. Stories intertwined with friends, family and those unknown that spread like a web and embrace us.
Two weeks yet also too soon we’re back home. Time changes once again. Congestion begins. Rich’s chest is heavy.
Is this a bug that Rich’s still-compromised immune system has picked up? Is it a response to the too-many carbolicious meals? Is it too much fluid from a tired, and so less efficient heart? Lasix is boosted, rest is sought. We’ve been too long without an infection. We’re not ready to travel that road again.
Tonight we plan, for the first time in the week since our return, to enjoy the photos we took and relive the goal reached. A magical respite. Years in the making, we’ve now, with a little help from our friends, sailed the clear blue waters, walked the high cliffs, strolled the country lanes, and sang the old songs of a welcoming land. Always will these days be in our hearts.
Postscript By Seamus Heaney
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
So begins Pride and Prejudice. In the BBC mini-series Lost in Austen, the female lead begins the story with the same phrase…. It is a truth, universally acknowledged…
But, being obsessed with all things P&P, finds herself in what she calls a post-modern moment and in many ways, it disturbs her. She is to try to keep the story going as Austen wrote despite the fact that she seems to have switched places in time with Elizabeth but as herself and her very modern presence sends the various story lines spinning off in unforeseen and unwritten directions. New truths develop.
We’re finding unforeseen circumstances and truths following us on our current journey.
And the last few days, truths have been coming at us a little more strongly than one would like. As Rich and I walk the halls between specialist visits, we overhear the PCA telling a nurse “… but you aren’t going through what SHE is going through. That’s the difference.”
When we’re in these rooms in these halls in this hospital, it’s very easy to forget, or ignore, the journey that others are on. And that their outcomes may be very different from what we are experiencing. Or they are your possible future. The remarks of this one PCA strike home. None of us knows what the other is going through. There are similarities, there are strengths and weaknesses that affect outcomes. There is the way each situation is approached that can impact one’s stay. Or one’s leaving.
The reminder of compassion and patience is one that is needed right now as well.
This is a hospitalization of waiting. While the leads taped to Rich’s chest are gathering data, Rich himself has little to do. As the v-tach leaves no blips of pain, no stumble of the feet, no dizziness in its wake, the wait seems pointless. But it’s necessary. It is a truth. We must have patience. As Rich feels nothing during the v-tach, there is a truth to his health that we have not, til now, acknowledged. There is a danger there. We have to recognize that it exists. Waiting. Lurking.
Day two and our Heart Failure doctor brings us more truths. Entresto, a medication that did not sit well with Rich and stopped after a few days, is to be started again. We’re hesitant. We’re not convinced. And then she hits us with a solid truth. Humor has left her eyes. Those eyes bore into Rich’s. They will not be ignored.
“People DIE from the heart condition you have. They DIE. Not YOU. Not on my watch. We will find a way for this medication and we will find it NOW. Waiting until you return from Ireland is not an option. We can’t wait that long. This is your LIFE.”
She is not to be denied! Her truth, our truth, cannot be denied.
Having had issues with this drug, we uncharacteristically agree to stay overnight so that Rich can be monitored and his reaction gauged so that dosage intervals and the timing of other parts of his CHF cocktails can be modified to bring the best possible optimization of all meds. That is our goal. Once we reach that optimization, Rich will need to be on these doses, yet to be reached, for three months. At that point, more tests, measuring heart function and ejection fraction, will determine if the internal cardiac defibrillator will be needed. For now it is too soon. Despite the v-tach, it is too soon in the process.
That we have chosen to stay rather than self-monitor at home, is unusual for us. The truth is, this medication scares us. The side effects hit Rich hard. They don’t afford good quality of life as they were taken before. Our ability to take this home and travel through it on our own doesn’t sit well with us, though it is offered to us as an option. Our doctors know us well. But we feel this truth that they have so eloquently urged on us… We need to be here now. The timing of when this medication is to be taken and when the others should be dispensed is modified. We need to follow this protocol as much as possible. No longer will Rich be able to tip a handful of meds into his palm and take them en masse. Patience. Your truth now guides this new process… we need to stagger meds and avoid overlap for optimization.
We give in to the sleep that is so needed. But as in all hospitals, the time to wake will come soon. And repeatedly. There is a price to allowing others to carry your burden. It is a price we gladly pay this night. The truth, our truth, is that we gladly hand this burden to those who do have our best interests in mind, although their plan isn’t always what we wished. They don’t know what we are going through, but take on the responsibility so that we can rest. For now.
The morning’s tests and data will give us a new truth. We hope it is one we can swallow!
On Facebook there is a group of scouters that have wonderful memories of a special Boy Scout camp called Treasure Island. Truly a set of two small islands, situated on the Delaware River, it is indeed a treasure that lives in the hearts of anyone who has camped there. As the home of the Order of the Arrow and amongst the oldest of the scout camps, it was always well steeped in the traditions of summer camps. The dining hall the most quintessential we’ve ever been in. On the wall there was a brass marker showing the height of the water level during a flood. We first went there as leaders from Carle Place Troop 305 in the summer of 2004. Rich had just completed six cycles of RCHOP…. our experience with cancer our first time around. He had mourned during that time the trips and events he was unable as Scoutmaster to attend. We were thrilled to once again be sleeping out of doors. This camp revitalized Rich and confirmed the healing taking place.
TI abandoned. Too many times has the Delaware risen to flood the buildings and grounds. The financial decision by the council was to close it down. Also found on this fb page if you search back, are photos of times past… a camp filled with boys from all over the country, counselors from all over the world. But lately and sadly, the true present. Abandoned.
This past weekend, a group of scouters made their way to TI. The new series of photos being posted are now of the result of a weekend of what the OA calls “Cheerful Service.” One by one, the buildings are being cleaned of the detritus of what was left behind and what nature brought in. Trails are being cleared. A rebirth.
His numbers are all improving, and like TI, Rich is once again being reborn. The swan catheter in his neck is removed. IV fluids are stopped. All meds are by mouth. We’re moved to the step-down unit. We walk the halls, each lap trying for better speed.
Like TI, we’re ready to be what we once were; perhaps with a few slight changes. There is always a time in the hospital when everything is done that can be done. You’re too well to be there any longer. Everyone admits you look great. Your numbers are great. But always doctors prefer that one more day to make sure, to be certain. You fight against it. An internal switch is flipped and it’s time to go home. You’re no longer content to be here. The next few hours will confirm for us which way the doctors will decide.
We have been walking the halls, proving our fitness. We find that may have become a problem. Rich challenges himself to walk a quick pace. He does well and his breathing keeps up with him. The walking does raise his heart rate… will this be problematic for our release? The ups and downs and questions continue. A new med was added last night. We hope the monitoring this morning will be enough. Before we can get ourselves nervous, the nurse stops to ask about inhalers and nebulizers. They still appear in the computer but the truth is, Rich hasn’t used them since his first full day in the hospital. These are now in our past. We need to remember how many answers we’ve gotten and much improvement has been had since we were admitted here… in truth since this past March. The final piece of the four-year puzzle of continued health issues seems to be in place now. And that is something to celebrate. Adventures await!
To get to TI itself was an adventure. Along a roadside was a small clearing with a sign announcing the camp. All our gear would need to be humped down the embankment’s steps. There we’d load it, and ourselves, into the waiting flat bottom barge boats that would take us to the island. Once across, we would hump ourselves and our gear up to our home for the next week. Magical from start to finish.
In 2007, after another flood, our troop spent a week again at TI. Then it was a mere shell of its former self. The following year was the final summer camp season. The property has now been sold and will be turned into a family camp. Scout volunteers work to keep the buildings in a condition that may allow them to be used once again. One day we hope to cross that river in those flat bottom barges as we did before and enjoy its new incarnation.
Of the TI camp song, our favorite verse was the second:
We have known the woods that grace thee, Trace thy meadows o’er. Learned the flowers that bloom upon thee, Watched the birds that soar. Often have thy waters blessed us, Off the sun’s bright smile, Brought the touch of health and gladness, Dear Ole Treasure Isle
But for now, in a little more than a month, we expect Rich to pack light and pack smart and travel upstate to spend a few days Cub Scout camping with our oldest grandson. There won’t be the uniqueness of a camp straddling two states in the middle of a river, but it will still be magical.
When we were pregnant with our third child, we were told to attend a refresher Lamaze class as ten years had passed since our last pregnancy. Figuring a free tote bag and some diaper coupons would be worth it, we dutifully went. In the middle of the class, the nurse leading the group told us about a new doctor in the practice. Fresh off the obstetrics assembly line, no one wanted to give birth on his watch. They encouraged us, however, to make at least one appointment with him as we neared our respective due dates. Meet the man in case he is on duty when your water breaks.
We did and as we walked out of the office, we said to each other, if this was our first pregnancy, we’d be scared shitless! This guy gave us every worst-case scenario, told us to get every test in the book. He had new knowledge and he wanted to share it…he couldn’t help but share it. By the time we left, there was the potential for a real freak-out. He led with disaster.
As fate would have it, he was the doctor in the practice that was on call and ultimately, the guy we were glad to have by our side when an emergency c-section was needed. His gentle yet sure manner was a perfect counterpoint to this new development.
Today we have seen more specialists and had more procedures than one would think possible in one day.
After a full afternoon of waiting for the angiogram to be done Wednesday, it was finally our turn. The expectation the doctors (and we) had was that the pesky left bundle branch blockage would show to be a pesky nuisance, the root of all discomfort. They’d clear up the blockage, pop a stent in place, and voila! Our ejection fraction would adjust itself from its normal 40-45% from the early chemo days to a healthy and normal 65% and we’d be running marathons in no time, despite the fact that we don’t run marathons.
We do, however, have one of Rich’s original goals in place… we’ve booked a trip to Ireland in September. In three short months we’d be, with friends, experiencing the often wild and awe-inspiring island country from top to bottom and round again. Waterfalls, rivers, mountains, ocean cliffs, ancient ruins, pubs, villages… the stuff of literature and dreams. With Arlene and Kevin doing the driving and, as before, our support and companions, we’d see our goal come to life. We find we’re telling everyone so they understand our personal goals… This little tune up of ours, is merely a tune up to complete our preparations before we’re flying off to the land of my fore-father’s birth. And one of Rich’s dreams. Will the results of this hospitalization affect those plans?
Rich came out of that operating room and, test not quite complete, we’re admitted for a stay in the cardiac unit. Our tune up is not so quickly done. Rich’s heart has had since March a mere 15-20% ejection fraction. Time has not improved it. There is fluid in the pericardium which is the congestive heart failure that was suspected. But not only the left side of his heart is weakened. The doctors are dismayed to find the right side is weakened as well. The low blood pressures he has been experiencing, this angiogram and the tests that are to come will show that heart failure is the right description of what he has been experiencing. His blood hasn’t got the oomph to make the circulation effective… the pump is broken. Our own cardio doctor is recommending that we be seen here by the cardiomyopathy group.
Rich has been given a double dose of Lasix and admitted to the cardiac ICU floor; the CCU. Once more, he in a hospital bed, me in the standard vinyl recliner, and we settle in for the night, looking forward to the morning rounds where we’ll get some answers. As always when in crisis, we’re glad to be where we are.
One of our first doctors to stop in is from the cardiomyopathy group. She gives us a brief rundown on Rich’s condition and how it applies to her specialty. She applauds and approves the ketogenic way of eating we do. She will stop in later in the day.
When we do see her again, her demeanor has changed. She begins discussing what our options for treatment will be for the heart failure Rich is experiencing. Her opening is about heart transplants. Wait, what?! We went from expecting a quick stent procedure to ripping out his heart? She discusses the benefits of having the transplant assessment done in conjunction with the other evaluative testing Rich is undergoing in order to have that all in place.
While it makes a certain sense, it reminds us of that obstetrician 26 years ago who felt the need to give us all the doomsday possibilities, so eager was he to impart his new-found knowledge. Instead here we are listening to grant money, no cost to us thanks to a grant and adding to the growing prestige of the heart program in this hospital. Wow, we hit the jackpot! She ends with “but of course, our goal is to leave you with the heart you were born with and find other solutions first.” Alrighty then. Better. Because a groupon for a transplant is just too bizarre.
We listen to the rest of the options including a heart pump which would entail another four week hospital stay or simple medications… the last being the treatment of choice. Visions of Ireland begin to fade.
In between that first and second conversation are the tests, procedures and consults. His ejection fraction still at 15% is confirmed. Next, they stop his current heart meds and begin with Milrinone which is to help the contractions of his heart so the flow of blood will be stronger. After a few hours to let the meds begin to do their work, they feed a swan catheter into the artery in his neck. They will use this, while it is all hooked up to a monitor, to measure his heart output or how well the pumping action is improving. Improvement being our person preference! Twice they try and fail. His room, set up as a sterile operating room, looks like a crime scene. It’s decided that they will go to the cath lab to use some radiography to guide them along. Turns out some scar tissue from his chemo port needed to be cleaned up and then they were set. We thought what he was getting would look similar to the triple lumen that was used in the stem cell unit. Discreet. What he now sports looks like an array of medals on epaulets; his shoulders dripping with access points off a slew of IV tubing. And the catheter’s end, coming out of his neck, forms a swan neck type curve and connects to all these medals of honor.
There are x-rays, sonograms, attempts to insert an A (arterial) line in Rich’s arms for additional monitoring. His veins are too compromised due to his condition. The odds are they will plump up when the pulses are improved. It’s decided to wait 24 hours and try again.
With all the invasive procedures and contrasts used for helping us to find answers, as well as mentally processing the unexpected diagnoses and possible treatments, the night is uncomfortable on a number of levels. Sleep eludes us. But there are signs that these new meds are working. Belly bloat way down and breathing eased. It’s a busy night and we hope we’ll have time for rest in the coming day.
The good news comes early in the cardiac care unit. An x-ray is needed daily to check the placement of the catheter. The readings that are coming from the monitor hooked up to the swan catheter are more than we could have hoped for. The Milrinone is helping Rich’s heart and besides the expected changes that will bring, we’re thrilled that his oxygen levels, which had been anywhere from 80 to 100 are found to be a full on 100% O2 saturation without any supplemental oxygen. This truly proves that so much of what our pulmo doctors have suspected.
Finally, the daily weigh-in. In 48 hours, Rich has lost twenty pounds of water weight. The fluid around the heart in the pericardium and in his belly is lessened. Hydralazine is added to help open the veins to let the improved output flow.
The downside to these meds are that they give his creatinine levels a slight rise. All tests have shown that his kidneys are clear of any issues other than damage that is also chemo induced. Our nephrologist feels that the steady elevated numbers have been stable since his cancer treatment so our patient’s higher than the norm numbers is something we’ll monitor but will not interfere with. This added blip from the new meds is explained by her in a way that proves her compassion. “Our main concern is Rich’s cardiac health and his personal well-being. If his comfort and daily life as well as his cardiac health needs these medications, we can be comfortable with this new number for his kidneys.”
It’s also felt that, like his pulmo function, his kidney function will ultimately head in a healing direction and thus better numbers as his cardiac function improves. That this doctor is looking at the whole picture of living life confirms so much for us. This team of caring health professionals have blessed us with their knowledge and persistence.
The plan now is to tweak medications to optimum levels, currently adding in and create the balance Rich needs. Once those are set up using IV infusions, we’ll then transition to oral meds for home use. Making sure heart and lung function maintain improvement and reach the goals we need to go home is the next step. Monitoring and less and less invasively through the weekend, we expect optimistically to be here til mid-week.
Lastly, our cardiomyopathy doctor, the one with the heart transplant conversation stops by again. She’s thrilled with the turn-around that has occurred. Before she leaves, she enthusiastically said “Remember that horror we talked about yesterday? Forget it. Forget it all. Those needs are good and gone!”