written by...Kathleen N Kendzierski
"Another Life To Live"
Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988...a day that changed my life. We were planning to join my sister, Judy, and her in-laws at her house for turkey and the fixings. My job was to bring the rolls. I awoke early so I could run over to the grocery store to buy fresh rolls. I put the coffee on and sat down with a cigarette and waited for the first, freshly brewed cup. The cigarette smoke bothered me so I stubbed it out. By then, the coffee was ready and I poured a cup. Something didn't feel exactly right, but I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong. The coffee didn't taste as good as it had smelled a few moments before - I paced around the kitchen - tried the cigarette again - one puff - put it out again. By then, apprehension set in. My left arm started to hurt ( I had pain in my arms before, especially when I did too much typing) - but - this felt - DIFFERENT. I grew restless. I sat down in my favorite recliner chair and tried to relax, but I couldn't. I felt sweaty, yet chilly, and that darn arm just kept on hurting. I couldn't sit still and was banging me feet together. Finally after a few minutes, apprehension grew into a sense of real fear. But, fear of what? Somehow I knew that I should tell someone and get help. I was the only one up at the time so I woke Bob, my husband. Told him that my arm was hurting and that I felt scared - I couldn't believe it when I started to cry while we talked - asked him to please call the doctor and tell him that there was something wrong with me. He. called. He wasn't able to tell the doctor much because I was crying too much to really say a lot - could only get out that me left arm hurt a lot and that I was scared and sweaty. The doctor told him to take me to the hospital emergency room right away. I started to cry harder, this was a holiday and certainly not a day to go to the hospital! I mumbled something about the rolls and Judy's house while Bob helped me to get dressed. It took a while as I was nervous and growing weak and couldn't get my clothes on.
We left the house, leaving a note for the kids telling them where we went. Upon arrival at the hospital, Bob took me directly to the emergency room while he want to the admissions office to sign me in. The nurses helped me into a gown and started to question me about my history. I became angry and told them I wanted them to just make me feel better. "I can't think with my arm hurting so much, and I just know something is terribly wrong with me." I cried then and they gave me some white, chalky liquid to drink. I thought they were crazy - antacid will NOT fix my arm. I tried to take the stuff but a little sip stuck in my throat and I really had a hard time swallowing it. They prompted me to drink all of it. By now, I was more than angry at them. I told them I couldn't drink that junk and laid my head down on the cot. All of a sudden, everything went black and I heard the nurse say, "No pulse, no respiration" and something else that I couldn't make out. Months later I remembered that they had announced over the pager system "Code 4 Emergency Room". (Code 4 is used by hospitals to announce either a cardiac or respiratory arrest.) Being the only patient in the emergency room at that time, they had to be calling the code on me! Poor Bob was still in the admissions department when they announced the code and he didn't know what was going on - he knew I was the only patient in the ER but he didn't know what Code 4 meant. Someone (I think from Pastoral Care) finally approached him to let him know what was happening.
Deep darkness - I'm hearing talking but can't make it out - I strain my ears, can't understand the words - sounds urgent. Suddenly I'm thinking about reading accounts of other people's "near death" experiences - why am I thinking about this?...could it be?...where's the tunnel?...the LIGHT?.....I look real hard but can't see anything. I don't like this...I can't be dying...I'm too young...I didn't finish that afghan yet and...OH, BOB, HELP ME....I didn't say goodbye or.....I hope he doesn't cry and...Nick...God, he's only a "baby" yet - oh, sure tell me, he's in what, 4th grade?...come on Kath, you would miss all of them...the names came....Bobby...Cindy...Jay...Mary...Trink...Daisy, our dog....the rest of the family, friends, co-workers faces sprang into view.....is this the review of my life?....where the heck is that light? Oh, no, have I been that bad....am I really going to go to.....Please God, I don't want to be here -its dark and chilly and scary. My eyes fly open and I see a doctor leaning over me and he says something like, "Hi, welcome back". Blackness again. Eyes open again, same doctor saying something about a heart attack.
Back and forth between bright overhead lights of the ER and blackness several times. Bits and pieces of conversation - words like heart cath, blood type, blood tests, major MI, diabetes.....is this really ME they are talking about - I don't have diabetes but ......didn't they say I had a major heart attack? I try to talk but something is in my mouth. I try to swallow and can't. I am scared, I start to cry again. Different voices saying something about a ride t ICU. Movement - people fussing about moving me and watching out for the tubes and something about ventilation. Is it warm in here? Boy, do I feel tired! Can't open my eyes. I go to sleep.
Someone is talking to me. I open my eyes and see this young, handsome man by my bed, holding a chart open and saying something about signing a consent form for a "Heart Cath" - he is smiling at me so it must not be too bad. He continues to explain the procedure to me and tears come again. He pats my hand and says it will be "okay" - that they just want to look inside my heart to determine the extent of the damage - so I signed the papers. Wait....did he say damage? What does that mean - oh no, my eyes are closing again. Stop it eyes!!! I want to ask questions. I don't want them to do this to me. I changed my mind.....too late - eyes are closed and there's blackness again. Now, what was I thinking about....I drift off to sleep again as if I had not a care in the world.
Later I woke up - there were beeping noises all around me. I felt tubes in my nose, throat, arms, and other places I won't mention here. Wait - someone's here. It was Bob and Judy, my sister. What is she doing here - she's supposed to be cooking a turkey dinner for everyone. I didn't get the rolls. I tried to say I'm sorry but the tube in my throat prevented me from speaking. I tried to move to look around - I don't want to lay down anymore but they stopped me - told me to keep still because I had a splint on my leg that they used for the heart cath and it had to be straight for 12 hours. My arms were tied down - tried to get them free - they are too tight - how could they tie me to the bed - I am very angry now...I bang the other leg against the side rails in frustration....they told me again that I needed to be very still and rest. Bob said the kids want to see me and I nod the head. They came in, one or two at a time - Bob and his wife, Leanne, Cindy, Jay and his girlfriend, Colette, Trink, Mary. They were all crying. Hey you guys, why are you crying? I tried to sit up to show them that I'm okay but I couldn't move much - the tube in my throat hurt....tears ran down my cheeks and I tried to pull my arms free again. Bob told me to go back to sleep and something about seeing me later. Hey, you just got here and I have a million questions.....where is Nick? - Why isn't he here? - seems like everybody else was - did I miss seeing him.....oops, darkness yet again. (Found out later that they decided not to have Nick see me until I looked a lot better. I was a sorry sight with the tube stuck down my throat, my tongue sticking out of my mouth and tubes running all over the place. Being on a respirator was not a sight for a nine year old boy to see his mom.)
One day melted into the next - with no idea of what day or time it was or even really where I was. I vaguely remember lots of talk about "major heart attack" and "diabetes". I also remember thinking no more hot fudge sundaes or chocolate donuts or chocolate chip cookies....being a chocolaholic...it was almost more than I could stand to think about so I'd drift off to sleep again and again.
I remember other things - some of which I really don't want to remember, like suctioning and catheters. But most of the days I spent in ICU are just a blur or small pieces that don't fit together. I remember a Chaplain friend of mine who stopped in for a visit while I was still intubated and couldn't talk. When asked if she could so anything for me, I wrote a note to her. It simply said "chocolate malt". She later told me she knew I'd be okay then because I was still "me" and still had my own brand of a sense of humor. I remember complaining about how hot it was. They had to turn the heat way done and everyone else was cold ( the nurses all wore sweaters in my room). They eventually got a fan to blow on me and it was a little better but I needed a cold washcloth on my head most of the time to stay cool. Bob would have to tell me to breathe when the machine would go off because I'd forget to breathe occasionally. It amazed me that not breathing didn't hurt - when you first have trouble breathing it hurts but when I coded, I remember thinking that it didn't hurt anymore. I was on the respirator for four days before I was able to breathe on my own with the help of the oxygen mask only.
One day, a bunch of balloons arrived at the nurses desk, which I could see from my bed.....I wondered who they were for - they looked so cheery - the nurse brought them into my room - the card indicated that they were from co-workers from a previous job (Children's Hospital Lab"......How did they know?????? The balloons were attached to a pail that had a hospital survival kit in it. There was a noise maker to ward off doctors and nurses, a spider to scare them away and some other stuff in it that I don't remember but it was very cute.
My 46th birthday arrived and I was still in ICU - it's been a week since the "big one" and I was still here. When alone, my thoughts turn to why am I still alive? I now jokingly tell people that heaven wasn't ready for me yet because they are scared that I might try to "organize" it. The tubes were all out now and the nurses said I could sit and dangle my feet over the side of the bed. Such a little thing made me feel good. The young girl from physical therapy came in and told me that tomorrow "we" are going to go for a walk. My eyes widened - did I hear correctly - did she say WALK???????
The family came to visit and they brought me presents because it was my birthday but best of all, Nick came to visit me for the first time.....he looked older, more serious....feelings flood over me......I could hardly talk to thank them - my voice had not come back yet from having the tube in my throat for so many days, and emotions were running a little high. I thought that they understood even though I couldn't vocalize it well. After they all left, one of the nurses told me I might be moving to the regular part of the hospital soon. I dangled my legs over the sides several minutes and it made me very tired. This was the first day that I really remembers much of anything and was awake for several hours!!! Seemed to fit that this should happen on my birthday.
Later that night, I asked for water - I am so thirsty - they brought me six ice chips....they melted so fast in my parched mouth.....asked for more - they said, "No, you had enough for now". Enough!....you must be kidding!!!! After they settled me for the night and they were busy elsewhere, I got out of bed and maneuvered myself over to the sink. I calculated that the tubes and wires would stretch just enough to reach so I could get a real drink. No cup - I don't believe this - what kind of service are they giving me here? Aah, there's a small medicine cup on top of some papers in the wastebasket. Looks clean - turn on the water - rinse the cup "just to make sure", gobble one, two three, oh yes, this is soooooo good, four - oops! two nurses came running in yelling, "What ARE you doing?". I acted confused so they didn't scold me too much. Turns out, the wires did not reach but instead, pulled out of the monitor just enough to set the alarm off.
The next day, the physical therapy girl came to get me and "we" walked several feet out of my room and back to the bed again. I was exhausted, I hoarsely asked her if "we" were finished so I could take a nap! I couldn't believe how tired I was. The next time, "we" walked from my room to the nurses station and back - must have been at least 10 miles or so. The nurse told me I'm moving "tonight". They gathered my belongings and I moved to the "floor". That night, I was so excited about being out of ICU that I hardly slept a wink. It felt wonderful to have a telephone so I could talk to people again. I wanted to call everyone that I knew but of course, that was virtually impossible.
The two additional weeks I spent in the hospital were taken up in afternoon naps, walking in the halls to get my strength back (amazing how fast one get tired after a heart attack - all I do is rest and nap and I'm still very tired)., taking showers ( I absolutely hated those bed baths!!!!! ) , early evening naps before visitors, learning about diabetes and aftercare for heart attack patients (cardiac rehabilitation sessions), learning how to give myself shots and test my blood, late morning naps, and best of all having visitors and making phone calls to my friends.
The treadmill and I met with a bang - part of the discharge process was to have a stress test to determine the level of cardiac rehab I was to have. When the machine started, it was set too fast for starting off and I couldn't get my feet to move fast enough, so I fell. My heart was pounding and I was shaking all over. Dr. B. asked me if I thought I could continue. I was doubtful but knew that I had to have the test before I could go home so I rested for a few minutes more. When I finally regained my "usual composure", I passed the test with better results than the doctors had expected.
My voice still had not come back but everyone was getting used to me sounding like the "Godfather". I thought about the upcoming holidays. My visitors and I would talk a walk to the other side of the floor to look out of the windows - many of the houses nearby were all bright with holiday decorations. How will I get my shopping done? I wonder if we will have money to shop with....When I asked Bob, he told me not to worry about it....Is he crazy - now can I NOT worry? We?d walk down the other hall to the lake side of the hospital and look out those windows. I looked in the night sky and saw all the stars twinkling so brightly. Couldn't see the lake because of the darkness but I felt a sense of peace that everything would be okay and for a brief moment, my fears were quieted.
I finally got a roommate that was around my age. She was in for testing - stomach problems. We hit it off rather well. Turned out that she and her family were wrestling fans. We talked for hours about the professional wrestlers and how weird some of them were. We talked most of the day and half the night. She worked at Kohls and was a manager so we also talked about work and funny stories about the various employees at her place and mine.
The bright sun fell across my bed and kept me warm while I had one of my famous afternoon naps.....I dreamt about why I am still alive....am I not finished with my "job" yet? What do I have to do yet? Does it have to do with my family....my friends....my job? I contemplate what the doctor told me - that I was very lucky I made it to the hospital when I did and something about a low survival rate for that type of heart attack.
One of my friends, Darleen, came to see me and she brought me a present from the bitch club - it is a Chinese Red bathrobe. It is so pretty and cheerful, I can't wait to put it on. It's so good to see someone besides the family - I love them dearly but a change of face is so nice.
More days passed, I felt stronger, walked further, and stayed awake longer each day until I was told that I would be going home "tomottow". I became frightened. One of the nurses came in to talk to me and reviewed my new daily regimen and to say good-bye. I started to cry - I'm glad to be going home to my family again and I am so very scared - what if......., how will I remember all these pills and how will I manage to cook, clean, and go back to work.... She told me that it was normal to feel apprehension, that I'll be fine and to call if I needed anything. We hugged. Others came in to say goodbye. They told me to keep my "great sense of humor" and that they would miss all my wacky comments. Later, my roommate and I talked and talked until another patient came and knocked on our door and asked us to "be quiet and go to sleep - don't you know that it is midnight and you are keeping everyone here awake". We apologized and he left. We broke out into laughter and couldn't stop giggling like a bunch of little girls. We closed the door so none could hear us and then continued our celebration - after all, who could sleep THAT night??????
The big day arrived - I collected my belongings and Bob came to take me home. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would crash through my chest wall. But I smiled and tried not to show how scared I was. A volunteer whelled me out to the car. The sun was shining on the snow and made me squint. It felt good to smell the cool fresh air. We arrived home. The kids were either at work or school. I was happy to see our dog, Daisy - she looked at me strangely and promptly sat on my feet - maybe that was so I wouldn't be able to leave again. Later in the day, Nick came home from school and the girls came home from work. All of this made me tired but I was afraid to go to bed alone. I waited for Bob to get home from his second shift job before I finally crawled into bed. The warmth of the waterbed felt wonderful and it was nice not to have side rails to maneuver around. My prayer was a simple, "Thank You, God."
After I went home, I had to go back to the hospital three times a week for cardiac rehab - walking on the treadmill (my most favorite thing to do!!) The nurse would first weigh me and then take my blood pressure and hook me up to the monitor. Then we'd do a series of warm-up exercises and then I'd walk on the treadmill. I hated that machine and never felt comfortable. I'd remember my fall and still had the scar on my left knee. I'd be very tense and would watch the clock to make sure I didn't stay on for more than one minute over time. We came up with a nickname for me - Wendy called me "Thunder Thighs" because of the size of them but also because I would get pain (thunder) in them from lack of exercise. There was a chalkboard in the office where everyone in rehab was listed along with their current exercise status and she put my new nickname up on the board. Everyone wanted to know who was thunder thighs and why did I have that name. The six weeks that I was supposed have stretched into about 8 or 9 - had to cancel some sessions because of illness or snow or whatever other excuse I could come up with. Bob made sure I went as much as ne could but some days I just couldn't do it. Once, I woke up with pain in my left arm. I was so scared that I was having another heart attack but was more scared to tell Bob so we went to the hospital for the rehab session anyways. When I got there, Wendy said "Hi, how are you today?" That was all I needed so I promptly started to sob. It took quite a while for me to calm down enough so that I could talk and tell her about the pain in my arm and how it felt like it did the day I had my heart attack. She took my vital signs(which were okay) and then hooked me up to the monitor which showed everything to be okay. We managed to do a short session that day and I felt better that I was able to do a least part of a session. I finally graduated and received a mended heart t-shirt and a pin to wear on it along with a certificate.
For the most part, I have changed - not only diet wise but also personally. Oh, I still wish I'd win the lottery and still want "things" others have, but I seem to be more content with what I have than before.....my friends also say that I am different but they can't pinpoint how. All I know is that sunrises and sunsets are more beautiful, the clear blue sky looks more intensely blue, clouds have faces on them, the air smells fresher than ever after a rain shower, the lilacs in spring are much more fragrant, the doggie kisses are more welcome. And the hugs are more frequent, the caring is deeper and the love is flowing more freely. I feel loved.
My voice finally returned after the holidays were over. I returned to full time employment after a five months leave of absence. In the following years, there were several other incidents of hospitalization, countless trips to doctors offices, and a bazillion anxiety attacks but those memories are for another time.....