Second, Second Chance

I’ve lost count of how many stents have been inserted in my body over the years, 7 or 8? I still get chest pains, even when I’m following the rules, exercising and eating right. I figure I must have slipped up somewhere, the brownies and ice cream, or a little too much red wine. Oh well, back to angiogram land and the yearly photo essay of my arteries, and to decide whether to go with another stent or something else.

I’ve always said; just keep me out of the clutches of the Doctor with the hand-saw.

My first stents were inserted in 2004 when I had my heart attack. Over the next ten years I had chest pain several times, my doctors called it stable angina. Angina is due to poor blood flow through the blood vessels in the heart. It’s discomfort that most often occurs with activity or stress.

When I had chest pain my doctors chose to perform an angiogram; an X-ray test that uses a camera to take pictures of the blood flow in an artery or a vein. An angiogram can be used to look at the arteries or veins in the head, arms, legs, chest, back, or belly.

When a serious blockage is discovered either the plaque causing the blockage will be blown out by a balloon: or a stent is inserted. I’ve had so many doctors poking around my inner bosom that I’ve thought of a new TV reality series called “Inside Joe Don Barnes– no really — inside Joe Don Barnes.”

There are two ways to get the camera where it needs to be: insert the camera up the femoral artery.  It leaves a potentially dangerous wound in the Femoral artery on the upper thigh that requires a high level of attention. I remember once after a procedure a nurse came in around 2am, lifted my gown and exclaimed, “That’s a beautiful groin.” I said, “Thank you no one has ever said that to me before.

The other and more widely used procedure is to insert the camera in your right arm.

Over the last few months I began to have chest pains again. Even though I was run-walking two miles a day and working out with weights three times a week. We were still on a Mediterranean diet as recommended by my cardiologist. The doc and I decided to have another angiogram.

So I’m in the cath lab already to go. I feel a needle prick on my right arm. They are numbing the bottom of my wrist where they will insert the camera. I receive drugs to make me comfortable but not put under complexly.

Having been through this many times before this time it seemed different, something I sensed but can’t explain.  I didn’t feel the effects of the happy juice. I could hear the doctors muffled talking throughout the procedure but couldn’t understand what they were saying. But I could tell they weren’t preparing for a stent or an angioplasty. They were moving pretty fast.

Suddenly, the doctor appears at my right side inches from my face, jerks up his mask and says, “You need a triple bypass.”

Great, and just in time for Christmas.

Actually it turned out to be a quadruple bypass, but who’s counting. Or in other words:

Coronary Bypass & graft X 4; Lima to Lad; SVG to Ramus; SVG to OM1; Right leg Endoscopic Saphenous Vein Harvest 0803-0853-0915; Transesophageal Echo Cardiogram.

Ladies and gentlemen allow me to introduce the fabulous Dr. Kathleen Petro, the heart surgeon who performed the above procedure.

Sue and I met with her two days before the surgery. Dr. Petro inspired immediate confidence, with her demeanor and knowledge. Dr. Petro was never in a hurry, answered all of our questions and went over the surgery in great detail. I learned a number of things, like your heart receives a nice cold bath in potassium, while you’re on the heart pump. The surgery itself is only an hour. But they will work on me for several hours more before and after.

Her hand shake was firm and assured. I couldn’t help staring at her fingers. They were long and delicate, and to my eye amazing, wise and fast.

On the day of the procedure the anesthesiologist talked me through his role, and said he was going to give me several drugs. Then he said he was injecting something to help me relax. Soon I was unconscious, in a soundless formless black abyss.

The next thing I knew I was in the ICU and they were calling my name and asking for my help to remove the breathing tube.

– – –

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD my chest hurts like a bitch!


Sue will be in charge of getting me back to normal.  She assures me there will be no coddling. We’ve been together a long time; she has a keen bullshit meter. I’m not going to be doing much the next five to six weeks. I’m already walking around the house, and doing other small things, and movements. And taking drugs, when I don’t get the timing down, I get a brief visit from Mr. Chest Twister.

I was home in time to spend Christmas with Sue and Jeremy. My sister Jeffra, her daughter Jaime and boyfriend Matt were here, our first family Christmas in a long time. Feels good, feeling good as Robert Earl puts it.

I’m looking forward to being able to exercise aggressively, an end to angina, and feeling normal again. When I had my heart attack ten years ago I felt better immediately, and was given a long list of what I had to do stay healthy.

This will sound odd but from the beginning I didn’t fully understand that cardiac artery disease is incurable. All you can do is manage the pain and deal with artery blockages as they arise, with stents or a bypass. I had gotten through so many events over the years that only required a stent, being an optimist I figured; OK this is the way it goes. I can do that standing on my head.

This is my second, second chance. Ten years ago the doctor told that my heart problems were to be expected: “50 + years of greasing the pipes take its toll, that and your genetics. Now you start clean.

Before the surgery Doctor Petro said I could make lifestyle changes if I want, but must take the right medicines, have a proper heart diet and continue to exercise. However she told me to prepare for future stents and even by-pass surgery.  She reminded me we all have to accept the power of genetics.

Sober advice indeed. I will keep exercising, and stick with our sound diet.  I’ve been told alcohol is not a problem if consumed in the right amounts. OK maybe I do need to work on that “consumed in the right amounts deal.”

But the first doctor gave me the best advice of all. She said I need more humor in my life,” Go home and watch a Marx Brother’s movie.”

That’s the best heart healthy advice I’ve ever received. So I’m going to laugh every day. You should too.

A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says why the long face.

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