Monday, April 26, 2010

Heart Attack Cruise

“This is not a Death Certificate”

That’s what it said at the top of the Guest Removal Form I was filling out in the infirmary of the cruise ship the Independence of the Sea. The nurse gave me the sheet and asked me to sign it. I was about to when I suddenly saw that statement about how the form wasn’t a Death Certificate. That gave me pause.

I started reading through the form more carefully at that point. On the first side, there wasn’t much that you wouldn’t expect. The infirmary and the cruise line wanted my name and address and such, and I was prepared to fill that in. I had agreed to leave the ship to see a cardiologist in Lisbon, and that was the kind of information I knew the cruise line would need.

I needed to see a cardiologist because just the day before after walking on the ship's jogging track for about 30 minutes something weird happened. When I got down to my cabin to take a shower, I suddenly started sweating. I didn't know where that was coming from. The walking I did on the jogging track was pretty mild, and I hadn’t been sweating earlier when I was walking on the track. There was a pretty strong wind the ship was moving into and it whisked the sweat off me. Plus I was wearing my new micro-fiber hat and t-shirt and shorts and they all promised me that if I bought them I wouldn’t sweat and if I did I wouldn’t feel it.

But there I was in my cabin sweating.

I was waiting for Linda to get back from the fitness center, and I knew I had to stop sweating before she got back and we went off for breakfast. So I figured I would walk onto the balcony and cool off. It was always cool there, getting plenty of that wind that the ship was heading into, and I stepped outside and tried to dry myself off, but I just started sweating more and more, and I realized I was having trouble breathing so I sat down, but that just made my breathing harder and the sweat pour out of me faster.

Then I went into the shower and turned on the cold water, but that didn’t do any good. I was still sweating like an Arkansas hog.

I’d been sweating and having trouble breathing for ten minutes, and suddenly I noticed that my heart was beating at a clip. I jumped out of the shower and grabbed my wristwatch and tried to time my pulse.

But I couldn’t keep track of the beats because I couldn’t count that fast.

Listen, you know you’re in trouble when you can’t time your pulse because the beats are coming too fast. As soon as you try to count 100 beats, you know you're missing dozens of other beats. Nobody can count that fast.

I knew I couldn’t get to the infirmary on the first deck without Linda, so I sat down naked in the middle of our cabin and waited.

Thank God, she didn’t stop to gamble in the casino.

She saw me there sitting on the chair, sweating, naked, and she said, “What’s wrong.”

I said, “I think I’m sick.”

She called the infirmary and told them we were coming down.

I threw on my t-shirt and shorts and started walking down the corridor to the elevators. Linda said, “You don’t have your shoes.”

I didn’t go back to get them. I just kept walking.

We got to the infirmary and the place was packed, but the nurse looked at me and told me to sit down and took my pulse and then helped me to the emergency room. The doctor came in, and she took my pulse too and couldn’t believe it.

It was 207.

They gave me a shot of something to regulate my heart because it was – according to the doctor who was making these motions with her hand – contracting like a crazy octopus when it should be contracting like a languid jellyfish.

The injection was amazing. As soon as the doctor shot it in my vein, she asked me how I felt, and I paused my shaking and beating and sweating to see how I felt, and it was like I could feel whatever it was that she gave me moving through my body like a slow stream, up from the vein in my arm, across my chest to my heart and up my shoulder, and up and over my neck to my lips and eyes and brain. A slow steady rising stream of ease that calmed down all that bounding my heart was doing.

After that, for the next 6 hours they ran tests and had me resting between them, and what they found was that I had had a cardiac arrhythmia with an atrial fibrillation and elevated levels of cardiac enzymes.

After the tests, they told me that I had had a heart attack and that I should definitely see a cardiologist at the next port, Lisbon.

As you can imagine, I thought that was a good idea, and the next morning, Linda and I were in the infirmary, and I was filling out the necessary paperwork for leaving the ship so I could see the cardiologist.

That’s when I was stopped by that phrase “This is not a Death Certificate” on the top of the page, and I started to read the form carefully.

The second page made it clear that if I filled out the form and left the ship it was possible that I might never be able to get back on it. The cardiologist in Lisbon could declare me unfit to travel if he thought I was too weak. In which case, I was stuck in Lisbon.

I didn’t want to be stuck in Lisbon, and I didn’t want to hassle with the rigmarole of trying to find a way out of Lisbon when most of the flights in Europe had been cancelled because of that volcano erupting in Iceland, and ultimately I didn’t want to die in Lisbon.

For that matter, I didn’t want to die anywhere. Death was not something I wanted to be seeing in my future. Three of my friends had died in the previous month, and I didn’t want to die. I had this crazy idea that if I could stay on the cruise ship I would be healthy and swell and the atrial fibrillations would never come back.

I figured that not filling out the form that said “This is not a Death Certificate” and not leaving the ship to see the cardiologist was the best way to go, and I told the nurse that. She was a very nice person, from the Philippines, and had been with me throughout my tests, and when I told her that I wasn’t going to see the cardiologist she said in her Spanish accent, “You must see the cardiologist. I know how you were when you came in. It was bad. You weren’t like this, standing and breathing like a living man. I see you now and you think you are better, but when I saw you then you were very bad, and I feel you still are.”

I said, “I don’t want to leave the ship.”

“I can’t tell you what do to, but if I were you and had been that sick, I would leave this ship, see the cardiologist.”

I said it again. “I don’t want to leave the ship.”

She said, “I see.”

I smiled and shook her hand and said, “I hope I don’t see you again.”

She shook her head and said, “And so do I.”


PS--Linda took all three photos. The last two are of sculptures in Vigo, Spain, two days after my heart attack.

In the last one, I'm sitting next to a statue of one of my boyhood idols Jules Verne.
Like me, he visited Vigo once.

PPS--I'm seeing my doctor tomorrow and the cardiologist on Thursday.


Paul said...

Dear John,
First a bout with Shingles and now a heart attack. Spare us an encore!


Angelina said...

Oh, I'm so glad to hear that you have made it back safely from your wild adventure. I have had some heart concerns and it can be really alarming and exhausting. Keep us posted. We need to keep great professors like you around for many years to come! The world needs you.

Cheri Paris Edwards said...

John - I'm glad your heart attack was a minor one and that you are back on shore and will be seeing a cardiologist soon. Love the photos Linda took too! You and the statue make a fine pair. As soon as your cleared, remember to try YOGA again John and maybe you should toss in 5 minutes of "WooSah-ing" 2-3 times daily!

:-) Cheri

richard said...

That must have been a scary and sobering (not that you ever need sobering) experience. Sounds like you made a wise decision -- Not sure I would have had the presence of mind to weigh the consequences of that form.
Hope to hear that it was indeed very minor and you are feeling fine.
Bruce K.

Fern said...

wow. we'll be watching this space for more news--and reading everything carefully before we sign.

Jared Carter said...

John --

Do be careful. You and your writings are important to so many people!


Kristi said...

I'm very glad you got through your heart attack and you're feeling better John! I hope all goes well at the doctor tomorrow and the cardiologist. Take it easy for awhile.


daiva markelis said...

Glad to hear you're okay. Yes, yoga is good, and you're already exercising. You've stopped smoking, yes? But don't ditch the red wine. And keep writing the poetry, the blog, the Facebook entries, the novel. Listen to your doctor, but not always.

Joe Manfredini said...

Cruises are such fun, aren't they? If you HAD disembarked in Lisbon, you can be certain the ship would have been glad you had and sailed without you. No liability that way. Sorry, but true. I had angina a few years back… scared the poop out of me—needed an arterial stint to get better. You referenced your recently departed friends, Jay B. is one of those, I'm sure. Wow, how the "good die young." Don't be good, John. Joe

Urkat said...

John, I'm glad you are OK. I have heart issues too and they can be managed. You'll be with us for a long while yet. Matt

Anonymous said...

Oh John, I am so sorry to hear you're going through this. Please know our thoughts and prayers and good wishes are with you from here in Valdosta. I hope all goes well with the docs and you are feeling absolutely one hundred percent soon. (My dad had a heart attack/bypass in 1985, and stents in 2006, he's fine and he walks three miles a day now.)
Sending healing wishes your way,
Christine James

Margie said...

Dear John,

I am so sorry to hear of your heart attack. I feel as though I know you through your book Lightning and Ashes although I have never met you in person. That is what supurb poetry will do!

Take good care of yourself.

----Margie Skelly

Tim said...

My God, I can only try to imagine what that kind of arrhythmia feels like...I know I am only a youngster, but I remember what it felt like when I was a kid and had a bad reaction to the Ritalin the doctor prescribed for me, and what panic attacks feel like, and I'm trying to multiply that by about 4 times and consider the feeling and it's making me queasy.

I know you will do your best to take good care of yourself, but I can't help but mention it anyway. I will hedge bets for you by contacting the Eastern Gods that I can. Buddha and co. may have some karmic pull that could be useful.

omaj said...

Geez, Dr. G . . . .I knew you were stubbon, but yikes! We'll keep you in our prayers for healing. Please keep us posted.

Nancy said...

It's good that Linda got back when she did. Lisbon is a wonderful city, but not to stay in forever. How shocking it is to learn that even if we are careful with our health, eat well, exercise, that our bodies will still misbehave badly. Stay well! (Also I am impressed with the doctor on your ship.)

Ania said...

Dear John, you are able to make a description of a heart attack sound poetic! But I am glad that your heart is under control and that it was minor. My dad had three heart attacks. I remember seeing him on the stretchers being carried out of our third floor appartment to the ambulance. He is 88 now. He was in Armia krajowa and then in Majdanek, a brutal concentration camp near Lublin, Poland. He sometimes woke up at night screaming about German camp guards and their dogs attacking him. We were never really surprised that he had all those heart attacks.

Lola said...

Dear John,

How terrifying that must have been. I agree with Jared, what you write is important and you need to be here to keep doing it. But it goes beyond that to what a fine person you are-- something all of us lucky enough to know you are intimate with. Take good care of yourself.

And keep us posted.


Karen J. Weyant said...

I'm glad to hear you are on the mend -- thinking of you.

Anonymous said...

John -- I am astounded that you kept your wits about you at such a time, validated your own experience, and I feel grateful, as well, that you're married to such a very smart woman. Thank goodness you're OK. I'm sure your wise self will make even more wisdomcake of this. I have only heard that sharp, sudden, radiating pain can signal heart attack. Now I know more! Peace,

Sharon Mesmer said...

Oh, good Lord, John!!!! I'm so glad you're okay! But didn't you always want to see Lisbon? Blessed be!

Leslie said...

Such a story...and I have to admire your ability to laugh, now, with the line about "I'm glad Linda didn't stop at the casino." Hugs to both of you!

Anonymous said...

John: Yikes! Whew! I'm so relieved that you are all right. Really, you and Jules Verne display equal aplomb. Thank you for letting your friends and fans know. Your post on this alarming misadventure is characteristically direct, precise, frightening, evocative, and funny. Ahoy! Keep us posted. XX, Beth K.

Jen said...

Wow, John, what a scary thing. And on a cruise, far away from home, at that. I hope you feel better!

Anonymous said...

Sto lat, John. I hope everything checks out OK for you and your heart. Christina Pacosz

Danusha Goska said...

John, I'm glad you are still here, and I wish you sto lat.

Anonymous said...

What can I add except you have my support--added to those who offered such lovely comments. Here's hoping you'll be healthy enough for Vegas. Jean is looking forward to seeing you, and I'm sending a hug with her for you, Linda, and your heart : )


eyeslikesugar said...

Scary; Intense! Please keep us updated, and take it easy.

All the best,


michael benages said...