Moving But Not Heart-Stopping

June 21, 2018

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From the Molt Honorable President de Catalunya, via Twitter


Wednesday June 6 was the anniversary of the Normandy Invasion and day of an enormous storm in Sitges, where I live. Streets became rivers, carrying large garbage dumpsters and even motor vehicles in their rush toward the sea. My electricity was off all day until 4 p.m., at which point I decided that I didn’t have to cancel the dinner party scheduled for that evening but did have to get cracking on shopping and other preparations. My kitchen has no windows and is thus more than usually dependent on electricity for its usefulness. The first couple arrived a little before 9, and the other arrived about half an hour later.

While all four guests were having aperitifs (one couple on their second and the other on their first) I went into the kitchen for something or other and bent over from severe pain in my chest and one arm. While I’ve never seriously thought about having heart trouble, I remembered something that I had read about a suspected heart attack, closed myself in the nearest bathroom and coughed heavily, as I had read that one should do. This didn’t seem to have any effect, and I decided that whatever this was would pass and that I’d conceal it from the guests. This was a meal that was almost entirely prepared when they arrived, so I could devote myself to waiting for my pain to pass and on being as good a host as possible.

This plan fell though, simply because I couldn’t even stand up properly. I thus told my guests that, while it was undoubtedly no serious problem, I needed to lie down for a moment, while pain in my chest and right arm passed. One kind guest relieved me greatly by telling me that it couldn’t be my heart, since the pain would be in my left arm. This cost precious minutes in dealing with the situation at hand, and I will always try to remember that fact before offering pseudo-medical advice in an emergency, however kindly meant.

I lay down on the bed in a room just off the saló, where my friends were drinking and conversing amusingly and where I could hear and talk to them, but the pain, if anything, became worse. After what I now realize was far too long a space of time, I agreed to let them call for emergency help, whereupon another kind of delay ensued. The person on the other end of the phone naturally wanted address and so forth, but he or she also demanded the identification number that is required for all residents of the Spanish state. This consists of a long series of digits and letters that I have by no means memorized and probably never will. So I had to get up off the bed and go retrieve the number. After all those items of information were conveyed, the emergency person then required that they be repeated! (I was not too enveloped in pain to cry out jokingly, “If you were calling about a death, the body would be in rigor mortis by now!”)

My friends soon told me that help was on the way. It occurred to me that I needed to move into a larger room, the better to accommodate the expected help, so I betook myself to a larger room and a double bed. In what seemed only a few minutes, six men surrounded my bed with all kinds of machines and other equipment. I was having things injected through my appendages and mouth from all sides. Early on, I heard the Spanish word corazón (heart) on my right and protested that there was nothing wrong with my heart, only to hear, on my left, the Catalan word infart (heart attack), and the man on my right told me that I was in the middle of a massive heart attack. I remember little else about those moments except that I vomited, a peculiarity of mine being that I almost never do that, even if I want to. I was later told that it was normal in the situation that I was in.

The next thing I remember is being scooped up bodily by some men and being placed in a chair that was then carried through the room where my guests were and to the curb where an ambulance (and some neighborhood onlookers or tourists) waited. As I was carried out, with all the things that you might expect me to be thinking of, two things predominated: I demanded my wallet with my CatSalut card in it, which grants me free health care in Catalonia, and then my phone.

“Where is it?” asked the friend who was going to ride up front in the ambulance.

“On the harpsichord.” Unlikely though it seems to me even now, I could say exactly where my wallet was and where my phone was. I was now wearing only the black pants that I had started the evening with and knew that I’d need the former and desire the latter.

The six life-saving men now turned me over to a driver and an attendant for the trip toward Barcelona, to Bellvitge, which is just outside that capital and has the premier cardiology center in this part of the world (some telling me later that it’s the best in Southern Europe). During the half hour or so that it takes to get there, the woman in the back of the ambulance with me conducted a friendly, normal conversation, telling me how unusual it was for them to enter a house in distress and find, as she said, a nice set of guests having drinks, appetizing smells coming from the kitchen, with table all set and candles lit: “Tot a punt!” she exclaimed.

Someone would ask me periodically from then on, where my pain was on a scale of 1 to 10. With the morphine, I could tell them that the chest got down to 7, but the arm remained at 10 for hours. I was alert enough to be slightly amused by being for the first time part of that scene from so many TV dramas in which the gurney is pushed with great speed down corridors with people jumping out of the way. We arrived in an operating room that reminded me of high-level recording studios, since there were more people behind glass with computers than there were people who would have more direct contact with me. Since I was in considerable pain, it seemed that we waited a long time for the top specialist who was traveling from X (I being in no state to catch the name of the place, even if it was one that I would have recognized). Since that must have been sometime after 10:30, I wondered if he was in the middle of another typically late-night Catalan sopar.

I had been told that a catheter would be inserted into my heart through my arm (right arm), which would in turn install a stent into the principal artery to my heart. I signed something.

Being unaccustomed to such treatments (having been hospitalized only once before in my life), I didn’t think to ask how long the operation would take. This would have been very helpful to me, since I was to remain awake and wondering, “Will this go on for two hours or fifteen minutes?” I don’t know how long it took, but I did notice that, as they wheeled me into Cura Intensiva Cardiològica, that a clock on the wall registered 1 a.m. on the dot.

The chest pain was entirely gone! The arm continued to hurt for an extended period, but much less than before. Herewith, I will end the detailed account. But, as I was wheeled past the neighbor who had ridden in the ambulance, I thanked him profusely and apologized for what must have been a tedious wait, as well as for his missing (as I had, too, of course) the chicken in coconut milk sauce, etc. left behind in Sitges. He said, “They’ve eaten it,” and it made me feel happy to know that the party had gone on despite my inconsiderate suspension of it.

On the next day, one of the other dinner guests arrived with a charger cord for my phone (essential by then) just after another friend had come with another one. Never had attention felt more gratifying. I was by now realizing that my dinner guests had saved my life. If I had been home alone, I’d almost certainly have taken several ibuprofen tablets and maybe some bicarbonate of soda, gone to bed, and died. So this was an educational experience to be stored up. Later that day, I was loaded into another ambulance and taken to intensive care closer to home, the Hospital de Sant Camil in the town of Sant Pere de Ribes, about a ten-minute drive from my house, my total hospital time being five days.

Emergency over, I’m not sure when it occurred to me—but it did occur to me impressively—that, at no moment during it all had I feared dying or even seriously considered it. (I was too occupied with trying to issue instructions for my phone, health card, and thinking of the practicalities of the dinner that I was leaving to others.) I did pray while we waited for the specialist in Bellvitge and during the operation, but not for my safety—only to gain access to the company, divine and saintly, that I thus was able to be conscious of. It also provided an almost aesthetic atmosphere that wonderfully transcended the merely technological and functional one of an operating room.

After five days in which I received sobering lectures from a cardiologist, who will now be “mine” in our nearby hospital (“Part of your heart has died irrevocably. It’s now up to you to take care of what you have left and to live a normal life via healthy practices”), I found him remarkably breezy and confident in our final interview. I then put on the clothes that a friend had brought from home (sets of my house-keys now being community property) and realized that I had forgotten to ask for shoes. So I walked out of the hospital to a friend’s car, and from his car to my front door, barefoot, just as I had come into the world, long ago and far away.

It was lovely to walk into my own home and find it in good order (the kitchen having been cleaned by the generosity of my erstwhile guests, during which activity the electricity had again shut down), but a dramatic moment occurred when I went into the back bedroom from which those men had carried me. Syringe reservoirs, bloody gauzes, empty medicine bottles, and former contents of my stomach were all over the place. It was like the dwelling of a junky. I closed the door and focused instead on my “garden,” a typical Sitges patio.




I tell this much of the story here and now, after two weeks, because hardly any of my friends abroad know that I’ve had this adventure. It’s not that I wanted to keep it from them (and a couple did get rumors via Sitgetans and other people in this country, through social media, since I live in a small town with a big reach), but I didn’t see the point of alarming them when I wasn’t capable of responding adequately to any concerns that they might have and alarms that might not have anticipated the happy recovery that I’m now two weeks into. My gratitude is great to literally hundreds of people who got wind of my attack via a friend’s post on Twitter and sent me messages (reaching even to the President of Catalonia, who sent me the message pictured above), but transatlantic communication from me was then almost entirely beyond my energies, even with our modern tools for it.

I’m a very fortunate person. Not least among the evidences of that are my friends.

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