I'm a stubborn old coot. So when I had a heart attack a few Saturdays ago, I wasn't about to go to the hospital.
With my wife, Carolyn, home for the weekend after months of chemo and an entire week tethered to a machine harvesting her blood stem cells, I'd tough it out until Monday.
That's when I had to drive Carolyn "home" to Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center for two days of high-dose melphalan injections — a powerful chemical that kills her cancerous myeloma cells (as well as her normal blood cells).
That leaves her without an immune system to fight infection for months, until her harvested stem cells, transplanted back into her system, begin producing new blood.
So much for the biology lesson.
I'd had similar cardiac events before — sweats, chest and left-arm pain, shortness of breath — but I stubbornly practiced medicine on myself without a license, taking aspirin and beta blockers until the symptoms disappeared.
I take my role as Carolyn's caregiver passionately. She's the love of my life. My miracle. Besides, we can't both be sick. It's unacceptable.
So I lied to her when she asked what was wrong.
Honest to God, it's the first time I've ever lied to Carolyn. Ever! (And that's a wonder by itself.)
The best laid plans . . .
I told myself I'd straighten it out Monday after I got her to the hospital and then got me to my doctor.
Then, Sunday morning, I found myself bouncing along in an ambulance for the first time ever as a paying customer. (Boy, those trucks have hard rides!)
Its siren screaming, we were running red lights. I looked up from the gurney through the window and saw Carolyn in our '94 Oldsmobile right behind us. Grim faced in her new role as caregiver, I think she now wanted to kill me for lying to her.
"BP 220 over 160!" the paramedic yelled over the radio. He was having a devil of a time getting an IV into my wrist, with the ambulance ricocheting from pothole to pothole.
Nitroglycerin had dulled my pain to the point that I was actually enjoying the entire drama.
At the hospital the cardiologist on duty had already been alerted. The catheter lab was ready. Three genial young men attached electrodes, installed yet another IV.
As one of them gave me a bikini shave in preparation for threading a catheter through my groin to detect heart blockages, he looked up and asked, "You had a heart attack yesterday and you didn't call 911?"
Oh God, I hate being foolish. (And it happens all the time.)
I tried to explain that I had to take care of Carolyn, that I didn't want to worry her . . . The kid rolled his eyes, acutely aware that I was just another delusional old fool trying to be heroic in his dotage.
Balloons and stents
The cardiologist cleared a large blockage in my right coronary artery, tiny balloons and stents shoving the plaque aside, allowing blood to once again feed my heart.
Monday the doctors returned, this time to clear my left coronary artery of three more occlusions. I use fancy words like "occlusion" because, you see, through the mid '90s I was in Miami writing and producing all of Cordis Corp.'s angioplasty and stent print advertising. Turns out Cordis made the stents that most likely saved my life.
That night, my sorry butt hanging out of the gown and black and blue from crotch halfway to both knees, I called a still-angry Carolyn, who told me that if the heart attack didn't kill me, she would.
I considered. Life without salt, eggs, bacon and McDonald's double cheeseburgers might not be worth living anyway.
As I wrote this column earlier this month, Carolyn got her healthy stem cells back.
The medics call it "Day Zero." But for us, from now on, every day has a plus sign attached to it.
By Day Plus 15 or so, a bald Carolyn will have moved from Moffitt, next door to Hope Lodge, a safe and antiseptic place where I'll be taking care of her 24/7 until she's well enough to come home.
By July, God willing, we'll have our life back again, at least for a while.
We know this is considered an incurable cancer. We also believe in miracles.
There is a lesson here — when do they ever end? Life is a great and precious gift. Enjoy it; luxuriate in it every single day.
And thanks to you readers, who have sent your kind thoughts and prayers. They mean so much to us.
Frank Kaiser is a nationally syndicated columnist who lives in Clearwater. His Web site, www.suddenlysenior.com, includes nostalgia and links to senior-focused sites. Contact him at email@example.com or by writing to 2431 Canadian Way, Suite 21, Clearwater, FL 33763.