You have no idea how important writing this post is to me. Oh, not because of the content or style. But because for the last 5+months I didn’t know if I would ever be able to write as I had in past ever again. I am rehabbing from a heart stoppage, a bad fall, an insertion of a Pacemaker, and brain surgery. Rough if I had been forty. Really rough because I am twice that age.
It was just a routine predawn bladder call. I went to walk out of the toilet when I felt a flush of buoyancy rushing through my body.
I heard someone hollering for help, and I thought if that damn fool doesn’t shut up, he’s going to wake up my wife, Gina.
I tried to get my bearings. I was no longer erect. I was prone. My body hurt. My face was wet. I focused on what were white tiles in the distance and brownish tiles beneath my face. I determined that I was face down on the bathroom floor and lying in blood that was streaming from my nose. Oh, I was hurting.
I swear off in the distance Sinatra was singing
‘Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race.
Yeah, easy for him to say!
I tried to get up. I called for help again. I managed to get on my knees and pull myself to my feet using the bathroom vanity. I splashed my face with cold water. I was on blood thinner and stopping a nose bleed was not easy – but a must.
The door opened. My wife screamed. I don’t know if it was the cold water or the scream, but my nose stopped bleeding.
‘What happened?’ she asked.
After the initial scream and question that I had no answer for, my wife did as always, she took charge. She wiped off the blood from my face and hair. She led me to the bed, ordered me to get some rest, and said she would make a doctor’s appointment as soon as the office opened.
Naturally, I argued. If lost, I refuse to ask directions. If sick, I refuse to go to the doctor. I was okay, a little fall. I lied. Oh, I hurt. All over! I knew that you should not go to sleep right after a blow on the head, but the heck with it. I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
My regular doctor told my wife not to bother coming to him. He would make arraignments at the Emergency Ward of the hospital. When I cleaned up to go, I had to look into the mirror. Wow! What a sight. Two of the blackest eyes I have ever seen outside of a raccoon, and my nose was squashed up pretty good. I looked like I got the wrong end of a TKO. No wonder my wife screamed!
‘What happened? What happened? What happened?’ Every doctor, nurse and their helpers kept asking me as they got me to a room and changed into hospital garb.
Tired of retelling the same old story, I told one of the young nurses, ‘Well, you would think after 57 years of marriage, I would know enough not to piss her off.’ You should have seen the look on that young lady’s face. I laughed and she realized I was just kidding. Good thing my wife didn’t hear what I said.
Oh, they poked me with needles, stuck me with IV’s. Taped electrodes all over my body. Blew oxygen up my nose.‘Checked my ‘vitals’, over and over. Brought in machines and monitors. Checked my ‘vitals’. Shook their heads and whispered to each other.
Loaded me on a gurney and took me to several rooms where they had the BIG machines. Stuck my head in one and ran my whole body through another.
‘Take a deep breath and hold it.’
Since I didn’t have my hearing aids in, I never heard when I could breathe again. I think I was turning blue when the tech realized I hadn’t heard him, and he signaled me to breathe.
Then a ride back to the room. It was April but it was cold out and the hallways were cold; and although I was being pushed as fast as possible, my teeth were chattering which hurt my sore jaw. A nurse asked if I wanted a warm blanket, as if she had to ask.
They huddled in three different groups as they checked the results from various tests. They did a lot of comparing and shaking their heads. My wife explained later, one group were the heart specialists, another brain specialists, and another were the hospital staff who were in charge of the needles and IV’s and ordering this test and that machine, and checking my ‘vitals’, and hooking the oxygen hose back on my nose. Nobody used real words, a lot of initials and part words, for these tests and machines. C scan. EKG. I figured the only test they didn’t give me was an HCG – test for pregnancy.
And nobody seemed to be in charge of feeding me. They were big on giving me glasses of water, but I hadn’t anything to eat since supper the night before.
Believe me, I was having a lot of second thoughts about my coming to the hospital. I gave a little moan and a nurse asked if I was hurting. I told her just hungry. She went and got a sandwich from the break room. A turkey club. Turkey! She told me ‘everybody likes turkey’. I really was having second thoughts about coming to the hospital. But pretty soon they would let me get a good night’s sleep. As you can tell I was not too familiar with hospitals.
Every 4 hours they would descend on me with their needles and IV’s and blood pressure cuffs, check the monitors, prick my finger to make sure I hadn’t contracted diabetes in the 4 hours since they took it last time. Just checking your vitals was their excuse for not letting me sleep.
A little after two AM, they loaded me on a gurney and took me through the cold, very cold hallways to the ultra sound room. Here’s the pregnancy test I thought but it was for my heart. The reason it was being done at this ungodly hour scared me until the technician explained she had just gotten over a shift at a different hospital and had a message from the heart specialist to come and administer a test on me.
I suggested she must be tired and she agreed. So was I. I closed my eyes and fell asleep. Next thing I knew I was back in ‘my’ bed. And then it was ‘check your vitals’ time.
Then pretty soon it was breakfast and I was brought what I had ordered the night before. No turkey. Green jello though. No coffee. My chart said no coffee. I never tried to eat while I was having my ‘vitals’ checked before, but I was so hungry though it didn’t deter from eating.
My wife walked in the room. I asked how she got to the hospital so early. She said she just came from the cafeteria and had spent all night sleeping on the sofa in the room. I was so wrapped up with myself I hadn’t even noticed she spent the night at the hospital.
The doctors came and left. Nothing! The test showed nothing. Two of the heart doctors explained that they thought my fall had something to do with my heart; but the tests all showed my heart was strong and healthy. And my blood pressure was just a little bit high.
‘Well,’ I said, trying to be helpful, ‘I know it has nothing to do with booze since I have been on the wagon for 40 years.’ One doctor smiled. The other frowned.
The frown got me. It is one thing to have something wrong with you; but when they can’t find out what it is …..
(Well, Mr. Ostertag, we don’t know what is wrong with you so we will just say you have Ostertag’s Syndrome. Now here’s a prescription for a football helmet with full face-guard. See you in two weeks.) Just kidding.
It dawned on me how lucky I was to be where I was when this black-out occurred, even if the floor hit me awful hard. I could have been standing at the head of the stairs. Or, Oh No!, I could have been driving a car. I had a hell of a lot more to worry about than the Minnesota Twins games being called off because of snow and cold.
And then it happened!
I tried to turn a little in bed and…
WHOA! That old feeling! The flush of buoyancy!!
When I regained my senses people, even some I never seen before, were in action. Back on the gurney being pushed down the cold hallways. Got to an elevator and when the door opened, a woman stood there screaming we couldn’t use this kind of elevator. She almost got herself run over. As the door closed we could hear her screaming that she didn’t appreciate that kind of language. I hollered out a few more she could not appreciate.
More tests, only this time they seemed to tell the doctors what they wanted to know. Along with the checking the monitors , the doctors felt they knew the problem.
And more important, the solution – a Pacemaker.
‘But I thought my heart was healthy.’
‘It is with just a minor flaw. The upper chamber and the lower chamber don’t communicate at times.’
‘Kind of like Congress,’ I threw in for a joke. It bombed.
‘Nine seconds!, the doctor said. ‘Your heart stopped for nine whole seconds. That doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but when your heart stops for that long, bad things can happen.’
(Nine seconds! In the paratroopers, you jumped, (that first step is a doozey), counted off five seconds and checked to see your chute had deployed correctly. If it didn’t, you had three seconds to decide if you should shake it to make it fill out, or pull your reserve. Make the wrong decision and you might get hurt – bad. Take longer and it will be too late to do anything but ride it out. And hope. Eight seconds!) I had an idea of just how long nine seconds was.
Not to sound too dramatic, but I figured I was staring Death in the face during that short time. I know the time before I ended up staring the bathroom floor in the face.
‘We will put in a Pacemaker. It won’t be on all the time. Just when it has to. When your heart beat drops to a certain point it kicks in. We don’t perform that procedure here at St. John’s. First thing in the morning you will be brought over to St. Joe’s and I will do it there. Takes a couple hours. Just a local anesthesia. Doesn’t knock you out. Just puts you in La La Land. We cover your face with veil to prevent a cough or sneeze from infecting the wound.
‘You could go home the same day, but we’ll keep you at least overnight, what with your fall and everything. Get a good night’s sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.’
Before he went out the door, he stopped and came back to my bedside. ‘Do you have a living will, Mr. Ostertag?’ After I told him I didn’t, he asked what did I want him to do if things go haywire.
OH!That question was a real confidence builder.
‘Pull the plug,’ I answered. I knew he heard me but he asked me again. And again I gave him the same answer, only louder. He thanked me and left.
I realized that I had not only answered his question, I had just made a Living Will – orally. And I found out my heart wasn’t as strong as I thought. And I had stared Death in the Face.
I hadn’t seen the long dark tunnel with a glint of light at the far end, nor did I hear a chorus of heavenly voices to usher me to the Pearly Gates. And I certainly never experienced what Irish Jack said happened when he had his heart attack.
(Jack, Kewley, and myself walked to the our cars after a long day at the Guthrie. We said, ‘See you in the morning’ and left. But we never saw Irish Jack in the morning. He disappeared for several months. Never called the theater or the union to be replaced. We heard rumors after a couple of months that he was working off the Hiring Hall in St. Paul.
The first week of the Guthrie dark season, that Kewley and I took a call out the St. Paul Local. We walked into the theater and there was Jack sitting across stage. At first we wanted to really tell him off for walking off like he did, but we decided instead to just ignore him. But Jack wasn’t easy to ignore and come noon the three of us went to the nearest bar to have a three-beer lunch.
‘You know, guys,’ Jack said as soon as we sat on the stools and he ordered the first round, ‘I owe you an explanation…’
Kewley and I agreed, and Kewley pointed out Jack was also going to owe the bartender for the next two rounds.
‘Got home. Sat in the chair to take off my shoes and it hit me. I had heart attack,’ Jack said, grabbing his chest and bending over, ‘A massive heart attack!’
‘Massive, no less,’ I said. Jack was known to stretch the truth at times.
‘Yup, massive,’ he repeated. ‘And you know, guys,’ he raised his head and looked at us, ‘It’s just like they say when you are staring at Death in the Face, every bad thing you ever did in your life passes before your eyes.’
‘Wow,’ Kewley said. ‘Every bad thing you ever did in your life!’ And then Kewley, who never let a good straight line pass him by, observed, ‘Gee, Jack, with a show that long, you must have taken an intermission.’)
I didn’t have to take an intermission, because every bad thing I ever did did not pass before my eyes.
After a bit, one of our sons came and took my wife home. She would be at the other hospital waiting for me in the morning. They brought me supper just like I ordered earlier. No turkey. But still no coffee.
I watched the Twins play on TV, at home, in April. Criminal! It was so cold out there. The fans came with their Viking-watching clothes on; but the poor players, especially the Latin Americans… It was ridiculous to start the season that early and then play in the cold cities on top of it. The Twins won though and there seemed to be speculation that they might not get the rest of the games in during the home stand. Cold and snow in the forecast.
Two EMTs showed up bright and early to bring me to the other hospital. A mixed team. One male, one female. He was either the boss or a bully, maybe both. He had the clipboard and she did the heavy lifting, even the driving.
The forecast was right about the cold. That ambulance ride was something else. The paramedic put a hot blanket on me, but it didn’t do much good.
My wife was there waiting, like I knew she would be, when I got up to the prep room. I think I got more sleep than she did. I imagine she thought back to the procedure about ten years when I was going to have a knee replacement. The procedure that never happened.
(I was on the gurney being pushed the operating room for the knee transplant. [Maybe they call it procedure room now days. Use to be you were ‘operated on’. Now they ‘perform a procedure’ on you.] I was feeling no pain. La La Land. Then I heard someone calling a halt and I got wheeled back to the pre-op room. A new blood test had to be taken. They were talking about white cells and red cells. I knew they were talking leukemia but I was feeling no pain, no fear.
They were right. A form of leukemia. No elective surgery because of infection called the whole thing off.
The cancer has been in remission for several years now, and the knee transplant has been forgotten about. I am too old to go through the rehab after a knee transplant. Besides, I got me a great cane.)
This time nobody stopped the procedure from happening.
La La Land. Not completely asleep. Mellowed out. Sort of like dozing off watching TV and waking a bit when a loud commercial comes on. First time since the my fall that I felt no pain. The doctor had told me that I would know what is going on, but I wouldn’t feel any pain; well, maybe a little bit, at times. La La Land.
End of Act I. Curtain closes to the track of Sinatra singing: