On November 7th 2017, death reared its ugly head as I walked my dog on a trail in Albuquerque New Mexico. Jogging up a slight hill my breathing became labored, sweat poured from my body, and my throat felt like it was closing as if hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing the life from my body. I slowed to a walk and tried to catch my breath to no avail. I mentally stepped into meditation and forced my breathing into slow, regular breaths. I could a hear a wheeze coming from my lungs and airway as I passed people on the trail, trying to catch my dog, Kona, zipping between people and dogs.
Fear rose in my mind and I frantically searched for the causes of this condition. Anaphylaxis? The classic symptoms of a heart attack were not present. No chest pain. No radiating pain down my arms. No numbness or other effects of that dreaded event. I deliberately slowed my walking to a very timid pace, deliberately taking one step at a time.
I called my partner and asked her to pick us up. I was about a 1/4 mile from the trail exit. I felt a bit more calm, but the tightness in my throat did not subside. We drove home and I sat outside on the porch, pouring water down my throat. I took a benedryl thinking this pill would alleviate what I thought was an allergic reaction. After three glasses of water, I felt a little better.
And then. I cannot explain the feeling exactly. I knew, completely knew, that I was going to pass out. The feeling in my head was like a kind of blurry sense of self; I was feeling the onset of syncope, as I was told later. I told my partner to call 911. She did. I passed out.
I was A+Ox1. Verbally responsive with a grunt, clutching my throat, breathing heavily. Then, in about a minute, I was back. I felt better. Not just better, restored. The fog lifted, the tightness in my throat gone. Just as I woke an ambulance appeared, then two, then a fire truck, sirens blaring. Paramedics came up to me, asked me questions, and fitted me with a blood pressure cuff, and set up an EKG. The paramedic searching for my pulse said, “He doesn’t have a pulse.” Dude. Really? I am moving, talking, responding to questions and I don’t have a pulse? Not likely. The EKG looked roughly normal; maybe a depression, maybe arrhythmia. Inconclusive results, as they say. They asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said, very clear, yes.
The short ride to the Heart Hospital included taking 4 baby aspirin. I was hooked to an IV, fluids poured into my veins. The paramedic talked about what was happening, radioed “probable MI”. I arrived, and doctors surrounded me. More questions. Blood taken. Within about an hour, everything was normal: heart rate, EKG, BP slightly elevated. One doctor said, “He converted on his own.”
The hospital stay was quick; I sat in the ER for about 24 hours while they decided what to do. Found one marker in my bloodwork that showed a possible MI. Heart cath. Stent. Sent home the next day.
Since that day, I have felt like death is following me around. It’s a completely new feeling, but one I should have been aware of much sooner. My Buddhist practice is all about the reality of death and how we do not acknowledge it or prepare for it. We go about our days oblivious to the fact of death. Some see this focus as nihilistic. Instead it’s very much part of life.
In my artery, the so-called “native artery” I have a lesion. It’s blocking some percentage of that artery. It’s in the artery known as the “widow-maker.” My doctor said to me, “It’s just a matter of time.” Isn’t that so true? Just a matter of time for us all.
In the meantime I have changed my diet (plant-based), excluded oils, dairy, and all meat from my eating plan. Watching triglycerides (they can be a problem even on a vegan diet) and monitoring my blood work. Too, I am on a self-proscribed exercise plan doing what I love to do: riding my road bike. Last weekend, one year since the great unfortunate event, I rode about 62 miles in the Day of the Tread. I planned to go just 50, but felt good and decided to make it longer.
Here I am. A survivor. Someone who is attentive and aware of what I face. Someone who, in the face of all of the potential gloom am seeking out the silver lining; the sun light in the midst of the rain.
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798