When you near that sixtieth decade and you have worked double time to misspend your life, you have a much enhanced awareness of time. You know the Old Timekeeper can ring your chimes at any minute. This is my awakening story. This is when I thought I was hearing the bona fide pealing of the final bell.
I had lived in Southeast Georgia a couple of years when my heart started doing those little tap dance routines that leave you so breathless you have to flop down in a chair, take a huge gulp of air, get your lungs pumped up and pray your heart will go back to slow dancing. One afternoon I even drove over toward Swainsboro, Georgia from Stillmore, the little town where I worked, hoping to get a doctor to explain the soft shoe routines going on in my chest that made me gasp with fear and wonder. Strange erratic heartbeats would get my undivided attention in the mornings, so like the true idiot I am, I started out for the Swainsboro hospital in the afternoon. It dawned on me that my heart just wanted to dance in the mornings. I turned around and went back to work. In the morning, two days later, my heart told me to go to the hospital in Swainsboro and I followed its advice. I signed myself into the emergency room. If you live in a small town with a small town hospital, you know all about the trials and tribulations I encountered at the Swainsboro hospital. The personnel at a hospital like this one are great They are some of the world’s nicest people. Unfortunately their facilities are terribly lacking for the multiple, strange needs of old guys like me and usually their brightest and best young people waste no time heading for the big city and the big money. Fortunately they did have a young emergency room doctor who was out of the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and he worked the ER in Swainsboro part time. They immediately strapped me to an EKG machine and shot painless diagnostical electrical impulses through any muscle and all the flab tacked around my torso.
Then they snatched off the electrodes and what little chest hair I had, tossed my clothes back on me and the doctor smiling professionally said, “You’ve got what we call bigeminy. It’s hard to track it because it is not occurring in a consistent pattern but you should have your cardiologist take a look at it. You have a problem there.” Bigeminy, I learned was a pulse with two beats that are close together and then a pause followed by two more fast beats. My heart was doing the old fashioned two-step. I knew it had something to do with dancing. Naturally I let all this worry slide when the bigeminy went into a bashful, dormant state and did not dance in my heart again for a couple of months. The only follow up I had with the hospital was to allow them to strap a Holter Monitor to me with more dance seeking electrodes taped all over me. I wore it for two days during which time I could not take a good bath. Not only did this screw up my love life for a couple of days but the hospital promptly lost the results from the Holter Monitor test. I never heard from them again. By now I had lost all seven of my chest hairs and any dignity I might have dreamed of. A little later on my Swainsboro doctor had an ultrasound technologist put cold gunk on my hairless chest and run an ice-cube cold wand all up and down my upper body, front and back, in an effort to ferret out the errant dancer inside me. It was so cold that my jaws locked and my cheeks were still purple thirty minutes later. Once again, test results were lost. I never heard a report on the ultrasound until an alert, intelligent and persistent emergency room doctor at Phoebe Putney Hospital in Albany, Georgia retrieved them by phone from the Swainsboro doctor. He must have asked for the results more politely than I did but the test revealed no abnormalities.
A few weeks later, Katie Mae and I attended a Georgia Motor Trucking Association convention at beautiful Amelia Island, Florida and shortly after we arrived in Florida I discovered my old pal Bigeminy had been in the car with us the whole time. Every time I thought I might have a little sip of an alcoholic beverage, the bigeminy bounce began. It is terribly disconcerting to have your heart dancing jigs when you are trying to do just the little things that normally get you through the day. Little things like walking, talking and, most of all breathing steadily.
As soon as the convention ended I told Katie Mae, “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die in Albany, Georgia with people I know and love around me and with medical care I feel comfortable with in attendance. We headed for Albany. Bigeminy was not invited along but he was in the car the whole time.
I went straight to the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital emergency room. Good old Phoebe. She’s gotten so big it’s hard to see where she started and I don’t think there will ever be an end to her. It is now a huge conglomerate spread all over the place in Southwest Georgia but you can bet your fanny you can find the help you need in a larger town like Albany with the doctors and facilities that will save you. However, it was here at dear old Phoebe that on my first visit I actually slipped through the cracks and was almost lost and carted off to that big casino in the sky where old, ne’er do well boys eventually wind up.
As I said the emergency room doctor obtained the ultrasound record from the Swainsboro doctor but it revealed little or nothing wrong with my heart. I was kept there a couple of days as they ran tests on me. The test they rely so heavily on is the nuclear stress test. At that point in my life, I had already had at least a dozen stress tests (over a span of about ten years) and the results always showed me to be in excellent shape. Once again, they slapped the tiny electrodes reinforced with duct tape on my tortured old torso. Then they stood me up on a treadmill. Keep in mind that this is not your standard, run-of-the-mill, for home-use-only treadmill. This bad boy will run up to forty miles per hour and they can jack it up to a 60 degree elevation so by the time you finish, you are sure you have been running forty miles per hour up a hill somewhere in the steeper part of the Rockies. They start you off just like you’re walking on flat land at a leisurely pace. Usually you have four, three minute intervals of this misery. After the end of each three minute session, they increase the speed of the treadmill and they elevate it a little more. They only stop if you fall down or step on your tongue.
My slipping through the cracks was not the fault of the hospital or the doctors. My undoing was the fact that I have always done so well on a stress test. I could skip, leap, talk, sing and jump rope the whole time I was doing a stress test. I had three technicians in there with me. They assured me a person who could carry on like I was performing on the treadmill had little or no heart problems. Later, a doctor came by my room and assured me once again that I was in good shape. He said I had a little blockage in the arteries of my heart but I could effectively work on that with regular exercise and the Mediterranean Diet. They checked me out and I went home.
Three or four weeks later, Katie Mae and I came back to Albany. We still owned a house at my old home place and we were having repairs made to it so we could sell it. I was alone at the house for a couple of days doing some of the work myself. Bigeminy was no longer with me but when he left, he took all my energy with him. I noticed that I could only work for a few minutes before I had to sit down and rest. I also noticed that Katie Mae was making frequent visits by the house to check on me. She later told me I looked terrible and I was lifeless and gray. I had a doctor’s appointment in a couple of days. Katie Mae took charge and moved my appointment up to the next day.
My doctor is a true lady. I think she is wonderful. When my old doctor retired, I asked specifically for a woman doctor. I had read that women actually listen to you and they are much more attentive than male doctors. I believed that then and I still believe it. The only problem is there are not enough female doctors out there and the ones practicing have no patient openings because they are so good.
I told her that I was in the emergency room only three or four weeks back and a member of her firm had told me I would be fine with an exercise program and the Mediterranean Diet and then I said, “Do you know what I think I am experiencing now?” When she answered, “What?”, I said, “Classic heart attack symptoms.” She responds with, “Oh my God, you are going straight upstairs to the cardiologist, right now!”
This is where you have just got to love a big old town and a big old hospital and a big old staff of people who can save your big old fanny in a pinch. Her office was in the hospital building. The cardiologist was only two floors up. They threw me on the elevator on the third floor and snatched me off the elevator on the fifth floor so fast I was still too dizzy in the cardiologist’s patient’s room to understood what he was saying. I do remember the word catheterization and I said, “When”, and he said, “Right now!”.
This was about five o’clock in the afternoon and I was by myself (meaning no loved ones were near). I said, “I am going to call my wife.” When I got her on the phone, all I could say was , “You had better get up here. They’re going to do something to me and I’m not sure what it is. I did hear him mention a gal named Cathy Rization and I don’t know her but he spoke her name with such reverence she must do heart transplants!”
They shaved my groin and pumped me full of some of the best drugs you can imagine. There were two of them and we told jokes and lies while we waited on Katie Mae. When she arrived I gave her my most sincere “Good-bye” kiss and I started back on the joke telling routine until she tightened up on my collar which literally took my breath. At that point she said, “If you’ll carefully notice, these two gentlemen have already scrubbed down and have their gloves on and they are holding their hands high in the air. They were just waiting on me to get here before they begin to work on you so shut up and let them begin!” Since I was doped to the gills and strapped to a gurney I decided to let them start the show.
It gets really interesting at this point. It is especially intriguing if you are tied to a bed and there are a couple of guys beside you who are threading a miniscule tube through a freshly opened artery in your groin . How in the hell do they know how to to get that miniature camera all the way from your lower abdomen to your heart? I should still know their names. Anybody who is messing around inside you body and taking tiny pictures of your heart, from the inside, should be your best friend and a life long buddy. How much closer can you get to another person? Of course Katie Mae has always held the strings to my heart in her delicate little hands but she has never actually poked around inside it and taken snapshots of it! I’m embarrassed. I don’t even remember their names.
Amazingly I was not asleep. I continued to babble to these fine young gentleman and they did a remarkable job of totally ignoring me. They had a twenty inch screen or monitor suspended from the nearest wall .The screen was over eight feet above the floor and we could all watch the action going on in my bewildered heart as they probed and clicked away with their pygmy camera. The moment of truth came to the bed-bound boy (that was me) when one of the fellows said, “There’s your problem!” As I uncrossed my drunken eyes and finally focused on the monitor I could see the blood flowing freely through the vessels of my heart. I could see it going uphill and downhill and through passages to the sides but I could also see a point that it reached where it flowed no more. It looked like it had run into a stone wall. It just stopped. It is a chilling and eerie thing to see your own heart on a monitor while it is refusing to function like a good heart should.
This was 2001 and I was managing a truck line where one of our drivers had the same problem with his heart as I was now experiencing. The doctors in the Savannah hospital placed a couple of stints in his rebellious arteries and he was out of there and like brand new in two days. The same for Vice-President Dick Cheney who was up and on his way to helping save America in just a couple of days. I knew this was a simple fix so I told the guys, “Hey, I get a couple of stints and I’ll be like new in a few days, right?” They stopped for a minute, sadly shook their heads and one of them said, “That ain’t gonna work for you, podnah.” I’m thinking, “Oh hell! We’re starting to talk like cowboys. I instinctively knew we were about to cross Death Valley with no water and nothing wet around but my blood. John Wayne just warned me. It’s all joking aside when John Wayne calls you “Podnah.”
It was after five o’clock. One of the guys literally stopped what he was doing and left to catch the cardiologist before he left work. He found him and brought him back to the room we were in. The cardiologist took a look at the inside view of my heart and I was thinking how intimate this was getting. Three guys I just met are discussing the inner me. The doctor, not being that personable, looked sternly at me as if to say, “You have really screwed your heart up with all those years of eating chicken livers and washing them down with red liquor!” I felt like he knew everything about me by examining the innards of my foolish heart but what he finally said was, “We are going to perform a bypass operation on you!” I said, “When?” He said, “The first thing in the morning!” Then he went out and talked to Katie Mae and told her they were going to do a three-way bypass the next morning. He told her I had 100% blockage in one artery and 90% in two other arteries.
I used to manage night clubs, juke joints and honkey tonks and normally I am not surprised or shocked by anything but I can confess to you that this floored me. Luckily I was in a drug induced la la land and even more luckily, for me, they kept me slightly whacko through the entire ordeal. I have to rely on Katie Mae to tell me some of the things that happened to me because they kept me more than half knocked out the whole time. I have no idea why they operated on me so quickly. I have always thought that some unlucky soul was bumped from the operating schedule so they could work me in. I had been in no pain. I never had a heart attack. I was simply breathless and had zero energy but I had no pain in my arms, jaw or chest. I did tell my doctor that a member of her firm had screwed up in their diagnosis of my condition and maybe that scared her into getting me fixed in a hurry. I never gave that much thought. I had never considered suing someone. Suing people does not appeal to me.
This was the first time I heard somebody mention cabbage. I was pretty freaked out at this point. The guys had already addressed me as “Podnah” and now I could hear the doctor talking about cabbage. Maybe he was having cabbage for supper. I love cabbage. I could eat a number three washtub full of cabbage but pretty soon I forgot all about greens for supper.
They put me in a cardiac care unit for safe keeping. They put a bag of sand on my groin so the cut in the artery would clot properly. One neat thing they did was to give me some type of medication that kept me pretty well spaced out. This was especially helpful because I had no fearful thoughts through the night about a team of surgeons ripping up my chest with a Skill saw from Lowes. There was no cabbage served for supper.
In the morning they came for me. The orderlies were funny and we joked on the way down to the operating room. They made a stop so Katie Mae and I could kiss goodbye. They would not let her get on the gurney with me. I feared that would be my last disappointment.
I’m pretty much in the dark for the next eight hours. I think I hear snips of several conversations that contain something about cabbage. I am concerned that all these people are thinking only about their stomachs and not enough about my heart. The doctor looks like he is about twelve years old. For some reason, this doesn’t bother me. I feel like he is a brilliant young surgeon and that he will do a fine job patching my heart and as long as they continue to pump the good meds into my body, who cares?
The doctor has told us he is going to do a three-way bypass and he will harvest the needed veins from one of my arms and one from each leg. We choose the right arm because I’m a lefty. When we get in the operating room, he discovers he is going to be a vein short because it’s going to have to be a four-way instead of a three-way so he harvests a vein from my chest. Even that word for collecting the the veins has such a sense of finality to it. Harvest. You know it’s all over for the crop once it has been harvested.
They’re very kind. They call Katie Mae from the operating room to tell her that my means of survival are now dependent on the proficiency of a heart-lung machine. I am now all hooked up to a machine that is living for me while the doctors are playing catch and keep-away with an inanimate chunk of organ that has kept me in action for 59 years.
After working the miracles and wonders that these guys perform on a daily basis, the doctor again calls Katie Mae to tell her my heart had all the cables and tubes reconnected and it fired up like a new Chevy Corvette when they gave it that initial jump start. I am off the machine and on my on again.
I was moved back to a recovery room where Katie Mae and our son Paul came in to see me. Paul was at the University of Georgia when he was told of my dilemma. He arrived after I was rolled into the operating room and this is the first he has seen of me in a few months. He and Katie Mae were in a glum and depressed state of mind. They were staring down at me with such a forlorn look and such sadness I felt like I had to do something to uplift the spirits of my little family so I slowly reached up, pulled the oxygen mask down on my chin and signaled with my forefinger for them to come closer. As they bent down and came nearer to my face, I sang to them in a croak that sounded like a bullfrog with laryngitis, ” I love the night life, I got to boogie.”
Paul was hysterical. People were staring at him and wondering why this crazy kid was laughing at the side of his freshly dissected Father. Kay was not so entertained. She bent closer and said, “There is a special ward here on the second floor where I can get you the serious help you need, you fruitcake!”
Recovery is great! I was there for a week. Many old friends and young and old relatives showed up. I had a small red pillow that is shaped like a heart and everyone autographed it. Sometimes I had to snatch it away from the signer when I had to laugh or cough. Laughing and coughing hurt like hell and the red pillow is still here at home somewhere. I hate to toss out such an old and dear friend. There is also a strange looking plastic contraption that you had to breath into each day. It helped you rebuild and increase the strength and power in your lungs. It really hurt to breath deeply. My chest had been split open right straight through the sternum and the two halves of my sternum spread wide enough for forty couples to do some ballroom dancing inside. When the doctors finish they then rewire the halves of your sternum together to keep people from dancing in there.
The physical therapy couple came by the very first day. I took a short walk with them. We made that short walk a bit longer each day. Toward the end of my stay I’m pretty sure that the nurses doubled up on my pain killer by accident. I was really snockered. I told Katie Mae that I thought they overdosed me. The physical therapy couple arrived but I’m was so drunk that I couldn’t get out of bed. They were perplexed and confused. They kept saying, “But he was doing so good and now he can’t walk!”. They didn’t understand drunk. They finally left and the nurse came in to pull all those tubes from my chest and stomach.
I remember Lewis Grizzard’s book “They Tore Out My Heart And Stomped That Sucker Flat” in which he described the horrible pain he suffered when they pulled the tubes out of him. I felt no pain. The nurses had inadvertently double-doped me. I’m pretty sure this tube-pulling nurse was so short she had to get up in the bed with me and put her foot on my chest so she could get enough leverage to snatch the tubes out, still, I felt no pain.
Something I did feel that will remain with me as long as I live is the bizarre sensation that occurred when the nurse pulled the wires from my heart. Two wires that ran from my heart to the outside of my chest were left there to jump start the heart in case it decided to take a break. When the nurse pulled those wires out, I could actually feel them unwind inside my chest. It felt to me like the wires had been wound inside my heart in the same fashion as a coil spring mounted on top of a push mower that retracts the pull rope after you start the mower..
Before she left the room, I had to ask the nurse about the cabbage. “Where is the cabbage,” I queried. “What cabbage?” She replied. I told her how I kept hearing conversations all during my stay here about the cabbage but all I had seen on my plate since I had been here was red jello! “Where is the cabbage? I love cabbage. I could eat a ton of it. Do they ever serve cabbage around here or do they just talk a lot about it?” She seemed dumbstruck. She stared at me for a long time and then she said very slowly, ” C-A-B-G is an acronym for Coronary Artery Bypass Graft and is referred to in medical terminology as Cabbage. You just had your cabbage, do you want some more?”! I said, “Oh, no, no, no, I think I’ll take a pass!”
After I was released we did not return to Swainsboro for a week. We stayed with Katie Mae’s nephew, Ken, and his lovely wife, Kim. We love them as if they are our children and we stayed there with them as I recuperated. Their hospitality was never ending and we still owe them endless thanks and our undying gratitude. Their beautiful and intelligent young teenage daughter Kensley was only three years old at the time. She checked on the condition of my ravaged limbs every day and since I still had bloody scars from the knee to the ankle on each leg and from the elbow to the wrist on my right arm she was very concerned about my condition. One day she declared, “Your legs have crapped open!” I thought that was an apt expression for the odd looking cracks on my legs.
One morning everyone left for a memorial service for a much loved aunt. I sat there by myself in a big easy chair and watched the most unbelievable and horrible scene ever witnessed on live television as, not once but twice, airplanes commandeered by terroristic mad men flew into the twin towers of The World Trade Center.
I sat there for two more days and cried with thousands of other good Americans. I told Katie Mae to take me back to Swainsboro. I told her there was no way to get well when watching the incredible sadness created in the aftermath of this tragedy.
When we reached Swainsboro I called my young friend and co-worker, Tim Rich, and I told him I was not supposed to return to work or drive for a couple of weeks but I wanted him to pick me up each every morning and take me home at the end of each work day and that’s what we did and that’s how I recovered from my operation.
Eleven years later, a new cardiologist in Savannah says the bypass still looks good. I don’t think about it much any more. I don’t think about cabbage much either. I do think about what matters most. I think about the people who died on September 11, 2001. I still think about them. I think about the people who killed our citizens that day. I think a lot about cultures that support terrorism and approve the murder of people who differ in their religious beliefs.