My Sweetie writes.
Anecdotal Evidence. Chapter 17.
(and a heap-o-luck)
This is my story, although I do not remember much of the first part.
On 6-6-88 I awoke to the phone ringing. This was a couple years before you children were born, and I had been peacefully sleeping next to your father. The call was for our French housemate, so I threw on my vintage satin smoking robe, ambled into the next room, paused to pet the cat, and ... fell over dead.
Your father heard the thud, and came out immediately to find me seizing. He said my eyes were rolled back, and I had no pulse. We had all learned to do CPR as part of our at-sea training, and he started in on me right away, aided by Mandy, another of our housemates. She called the medics.
On arrival a few minutes later, the medics cut off my favorite robe, and established that I was in ventricular fibrillation, a fatal rhythm where the larger heart chambers quiver in a disorganized fashion until they can no longer, usually not very long.
The medics shocked me. No change.
They raised the joules, according to protocol. (Medics are big on protocol.) They shocked me again. Again no change.
A third time, more joules, and the v-fib persisted. Here ends the protocol. The machine does not go any higher. Intravenous medcations had been given. A decision was made to shock me again, as I was only 25 and there was nothing to lose.
With the fourth shock my heart reorganized itself into a healthier rhythm.
I was still unconscious.
They transported me to Harborview, bypassing the closer University Hospital as I was uninsured. When I arrived in the ER I was posturing, assuming positions seen only when the brain is dying. I was intubated, and in a coma from lack of oxygen to my brain.
Your father was with me the whole time. My mom was there, too. A banker, she rearranged my finances so I qualified for welfare immediately, a practical help.
The next day, I woke up on a ventilator. I could not speak. I wrote your dad a note, in a very shaky hand, “Will you be my late valentine?” He still had that note in a special place when last I saw it, saved there for years nestled among cherished childhood trinkets..
Able to breathe on my own, I came off the ventilator, but had to stay in the hospital for several tests. I was the youngest and healthiest patient in the ICU, and doing pretty well except for one thing: I had no short-term memory. At first, I was charming. I read my cards over and over, delighted anew that an obscure relative had sent me a card. Over and over. Repetitively delighted 24/7. For a couple of days.
Later my confusion compounded as I would not sleep. By day four I became paranoid. I deduced that my family had ganged up on me, committed me for insanity, and told me this cockamamie story about having a heart attack, which was ridiculous! I was young and healthy, what was this BS? I was determined to leave, get on my bike, ride across the street, and be home, a total fabrication. In my frustration, I became agitated. I pulled out my catheter, bit my sister and punched your father. The nurses’ notes say I was cursing. Since I worked out at sea, I normally had a sailors way with words, so I am certain that was a valid description.
I was sedated and restrained.
After that, your father stayed with me past the close of visiting hours so I was cued to go to sleep. The nurses allowed this as I would only sleep if your father got into the hospital bed with me until I drifted off. I know he was exhausted both physically and emotionally.
Your father helped me immeasurably with the memory loss. Because we had both been working in the Bering Sea foreign fisheries, he remembered so many things that no one else would know about our recent adventures: names, boats, and places. He spent hours recounting stories for me that I should know, building my memory back little by little. It was a true labor of love.
Ever-pragmatic, my mother was seeing that I might never recover my memory, and was looking for nursing home placement at the suggestion of doctors. Your father, a man of great loyalty and faith, was opposed to placement for two reasons. One, that it was too early to tell; I might improve and be independent again. Fortunately for us all, he was right. The other reason was that he was planning to care for me himself because of his love for me. When I heard this later I was really touched, and also horrified that he would enslave himself to me at the tender age of 26.
I was hospitalized for ten days. The time at home afterward is a fog, although all the family was there as I had always wanted, and everyone got along well. United by their concern for me, they realized that there are more important things than longstanding family squabbles. It was a childhood dream come true.
On discharge I was in limbo. Several things happened as a result of this uncertainty, pivoting on the moment when I lost a sustainable cardiac rhythm, one moment that changed all.
I did not know what I could do for a living since it was unclear whether, or when, my heart might throw another fatal rhythm. I certainly was no longer qualified for the Peace Corps, who had just given me a thorough physical. Their only reservation was hiring me with my wisdom teeth in place. Your father and I had been slated to go to Liberia, where things fell violently apart not long after, when we would have been living there in our very own mud hut.
I canceled our wedding, just 2 weeks away. Never having been one of those girls whose sights were set on marriage, I was marrying for the best reason I had ever heard of: so we could go to the same place in the Peace Corps. We had planned to say our vows in the underwater dome of the aquarium, nearly all our wedding plans in place when I coded. They fully refunded our deposit, noting ‘bride had cardiac arrest’ was an original excuse.
Your father joked: “if you didn’t want to get married, you could have just said ‘no.’”
One of my first memories: two days after discharge the house next door caught on fire. The psychotic lawn mowing man who lived there was mixing gasoline in the basement while smoking. I was in bed and stayed there. Meanwhile your father was valiantly spraying our house, which was getting hot enough to produce steam. He came in several times to urge me to get up! For about 20 minutes I could not figure out what to save: clothes? Photos? Documents? I was paralyzed with indecision. Eventually I dressed and got out of our house, sitting empty-handed on our tiny lawn. Thanks to your father’s efforts, our house did not catch on fire. The medics were the same ones who had responded to my arrest the fortnight previous, and one of them said they thought it was us again, as the call came over the radio. They said, "those poor people."
And then there was the why of it all. The usual reason that 25-year-olds have cardiac arrests is cocaine. Not true in my case. The doctors guessed “maybe it was a virus.” I thought, “I hope I never run into that virus again!”
The doctors also said if I survived past 5 years, I would probably not have another arrest, which was statistically true, but meaningless as a way to predict my future. They recommended an implantable defibrillator. As a trained biologist, I had the Darwinian idea that I was supposed to be dead. I mean, I was glad to still be here, but.... I was not supposed to be. The defibrillator was the size of a pack of cigarettes back then. They are much smaller now. Set to go off if one’s heart went too slow, I imagined that, given my naturally low heart rate, I would be sitting peacefully, reading at a table, and ZAP!!! I would be on the floor. Further, the battery pack needed surgical replacement every 2 years. As a granola girl, I could not condone this, and I, against mainstream norm and medical advice, refused the defibrillator.
Thinking I might die again soon, I did not know what kind of work I could do. The doctors advised against travel, and I had done little else over the last two-plus years. They advised against biking, so your father and I optimistically invested in an old sky-blue Schwinn tandem so flexible it seemed possible to be in different car lanes while traveling in the same direction. Gosh that was fun.
My relationship with your father changed. He was loathe to let me out of his sight, and as an independent gal, it started to really get on my nerves. He got a full-time job after three weeks of me catching him at the keyhole as I was urinating, listening to see if I fell over dead. Always a light sleeper, he was hardly able to sleep at all, listening in the dark for my breathing. Three months later he went to sea again in what I considered my viability test. Thankfully, I passed.
Japanese tradition holds that when one’s life is saved by another, one owes one’s whole life to that other. This is a strange thing to put on a young relationship. Although it is true that we are not Japanese, it is also true that somehow this makes poetic or karmic sense. Somehow my conservative grandparents were moved to allow us to share a bed under their roof, reasoning that your father had saved my life. This gesture showed their gratitude and knowledge that I was still here because of him.
My sense of being lucky in this life increased and underpins my beliefs to this day. There were so many strange coinkidinks. For instance, I only planned to be in the U.S. for a total of six weeks that year, and anywhere else my arrest might have occurred, I would have been toast immediamente. 1988 was the year Seattle started the national pilot program for what is now the standard in access to defibrillators, so if I was going to have a cardiac arrest that year, Seattle was the right place to do it. I related my sense of good fortune to my cardiologist (whose name was, I kid you not, Jean Poole). She said I was lucky that the phone rang! As if otherwise I would have slept through.
I became a gardener, tending the things your father would have grown in his absence. I did surprisingly well for a gal with a generally black thumb, despite the tenacity of the morning glories and the persistent raids of the squirrels.
For a while I was tempted to interject into intractable arguments: “Oh, yeah? Well, I’ve been dead!” As if this gave me some kind of authority, although it did give me some lasting wisdom about life being short and a need to live it right as any day could be one’s last. I got over the outbursts. I am still solid with life is short.
I went back to school, choosing a career in nursing as I decided to stay near hospitals in lieu of getting a defibrillator implanted. I volunteered at several different places as I was particularly interested in midwifery. I took prereqs at the local community college, where I did well and bicycle commuted without event. Eventually I returned to the ER as a nurse.
I cry during CPR training annually. Your father is way harder on the mannequins than the protocol requires. He has my success story to back him, though, and I do not think he will change his technique just because the instructor corrects him.
On the ten-year anniversary of my survival, I got a tattoo of an ankh placed over the apex of my heart, celebrating that I chose life.
Just after the arrest, I wanted to go to a hypnotherapist to retrieve the memory of my near-death experience, which I could only intuit hazily. I agreed not to, as your father was afraid I would recreate the arrest at the therapist’s office, so out of deference to him, I was left with only strong impressions where I would have preferred more detail. I suspected that I had the sense of near death impressions due to my imagination, as I had avidly read books on this when pubescent and I knew all the stages by heart. I had a very strong sense that the reason I was still here was because of your dad. Not only because he heroically took the initiative that made it so I can be sitting here typing this today. There was more than that: I had a sense of purpose, this enduring feeling that I had something important that I had yet to do in this life and it involved your father. My impression was that my connection to him, working so hard to save me, so intent and earnest and emotionally connected, caused me to still be here, to stick around, to stay. It was not my time yet, because I had something important to do with your father. And I believe that that something was you children.
Lastly, I celebrate my death day every year, taking it off as my personal holiday and spending the day in gratitude for being here. Life is so cool.