On Sunday, April 3rd, my husband and I drove to South Florida (from the Orlando area, 2 hours away) to visit with our oldest daughter to celebrate her birthday which was the month before. We spent the day together putzing around Jupiter and Palm Beach Gardens, our old stomping grounds, and ended up at the restaurant where our daughter is the assistant manager. We were waiting for her to get off work so we could go to dinner with her and her boyfriend, and had been chatting with her at the bar.
Around 7:30 or so, my husband got up to go to the men’s room and returned a few minutes later saying it had been locked. Within 30 seconds of his return to the table, he “froze”… That’s the best way I can describe it. He locked up sitting up in his chair and was unresponsive. I jumped up, yelled at our daughter across the room to call 911 and pulled him from the chair to the floor where I (vainly) attempted to remember my CPR training of years ago. Less than a minute after that, a diner (we later learned he was a dentist who, along with his wife, almost didn’t stay for dinner because the restaurant was closing shortly after their arrival) joined me and took over, instructing me to breathe for him while he did compressions. The ambulance arrived within 5 minutes of the 911 call, he was “shocked” and intubated in the field, and brought to the #1 cardiac facility in the state. He had lost oxygen for an unspecified amount of time and was later diagnosed with “severe anoxic encephalopathy”, causing the neurologist to eventually give him a prognosis of “very poor chance of meaningful recovery”.
They rushed my husband through the ER to the “Cath Lab” where they found a main artery (left ventricle, as I recall, but that conversation seems a lifetime ago) 95% blocked. They put a balloon through it and put in a stent. There was another, smaller vessel that the doctor also tried to clear, but it was 100% blocked, and he said “after an hour of trying, I said ‘screw it’ and decided to forget the dead one to save the dying one”. We have since learned that the dead vessel supplied blood to the bottom of the heart, but it would not affected his heart functioning. (We also learned that my husband does indeed have a “big heart”, roughly the size of a fist-and-a-half. Not enlarged, just big. “The heart of an NBA player” was how the doctor described it, a fact my husband would have surely bragged about for years to come.)
Following surgery, they brought him to ICU and turned him into an “ice cube” (that’s literally what they call them) for 24 hours to preserve brain functioning while they let the heart rest. His temperature was lowered to 93 degrees and closely monitored. He was in a collar / brace like the ones that are put on accident victims, as there was a question of whether or not he hit his head too hard on the restaurant floor when I hefted him out of the chair – another time of great guilt for me wondering if I “broke” him. Apparently his skull really was quite thick.
The only warning he had was a flutter for a few weeks, which he attributed to stress / anxiety. If he had any other symptoms, he certainly didn’t tell me about them. And he didn’t complain about anything at all that day. In fact, he had told me that he had a good feeling that day that “something good” was going to happen, and likened his mood to the feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster. (It most certainly was a roller coaster of emotions, but I was the one on the ride!)
My son, the statistician, calculated the odds of my husband surviving the type of heart attack he had, combined with the odds of him coming out of his coma without significant neurological impairment and determined that he had only a .72% chance of having the recovery he did for a short time. (Less than 1%… Just let that sink in.). He told his father that he “had a better chance of winning the Hunger Games twice than surviving this heart attack”.
Because we were so far from home, I stayed with our oldest daughter, sleeping on a slowly leaking air mattress (or her couch depending upon how many others were also there), with a few nights spent in the hospital when I was afraid to leave, and a few nights in my cousin’s hotel room when she flew down to check on me and dragged me away from his bedside. My husband temporarily turned a corner, and I had gotten my first significant sleep then; it was the first time that I didn’t feel guilty leaving.
During his temporary recovery, my husband’s s cognitive functioning was assessed by “Dr. G” (our son). He had been researching anoxia and performing assessments on his father whenever he could. From what we could tell, and what he communicated to us, he seemed to remember a great deal except the day of the actual event (the day I have mentally been referring to as The Day the World Stopped, Along with My Husband’s Heart). Anything outside the hospital almost ceased to exist for me. At the time, I likened the feeling to emerging from a cave, blinking into the light and slowly reorienting myself to a new existence. I remember thinking that as long as my big lug of a husband was by my side, it was a reality I could and would handle. As I said to him at his bedside while I begged him to return to me, “We haven’t had an easy life, but it has been a good one.”
When all was said and done, he survived about 14 days following his heart attack, and even had a couple of good days thrown in where the kids and I were able to interact and communicate with him. He was unable to speak due to the ventilator, but through hand gestures and expressions, he was able to let us know that he was not in pain, that he (eventually) remembered us all, and he even gave a thumbs-up of approval for my daughter’s choice of boyfriends (much to her relief – although he had previously told her he liked the young man, knowing he still approved when he was in no shape to spare her feelings was very reassuring). We (thankfully) were able to take a few short videos with our phones which highlight his (all too brief) return to us; one of him waving when my daughter said “Hi, Daddy!” is especially bittersweet. I have been unable to watch them since he died; I’m just too raw emotionally right now. But I’m guessing that somewhere in the future, those videos may bring me great comfort to see how he unselfishly gave us those moments of joy to treasure. I believe that even until the very end, he wanted to protect us and save us from as much pain as possible. Because that’s what a husband and father should do, right? Yeah… I think so, too.
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