Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Heart Issues

“You’re a very lucky man.” Those words, coming from a cardiologist at Duke University Hospital, carry weight. “Most people who experience what you did last night are not alive this morning.”

Since we came in Friday night, Ben has been catheterized, MRI’d, and echocardiogrammed in an effort to find out why his heart rate was almost 300 beats per minute. They still aren’t quite sure they know the answer to that one exactly. But in the process of looking for an explanation, they discovered a lot. So much, in fact, that as I type this, Ben is in surgery for a double bypass AND mitral valve repair or replacement, a 6 hour open-heart procedure.
There’s nothing like a real life trauma to throw things into perspective. I rearranged my schedule -- thanks to the kindness of my classmates, supervisor, professors, parents, kids, and friends -- so that I could remain up here in Durham. I’ve assumed responsibilities and questioned doctors and met Ben’s friends and daughter and talked with his ex-wife (we’ve even been texting today!). I’ve laughed my head off, and cried, and worried. I’ve felt strong, and weak. I’ve been glad to be here, and I’ve wished I were anywhere else. But mainly I’ve just been grateful. Grateful at the opportunity to know someone in a completely different way….there’s nothing like this to reveal facets of a person! Grateful at the providence that put us at Duke when this happened and for the world-class cardiovascular surgeon who is working on him now (his "clinical interests" are listed as cardiac transplantation, left ventricular assist devices, adult cardiac surgery, and mitral valve surgery). Grateful that undetected problems could come to light and be addressed. Grateful for life.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Issues of Life and Death

I'm trying to process my life right now. So, as I tend to do, I do this by writing about it. I haven't written since August, and here it is November. I've been living life. It's been busy and full and happy. Although the divorce process has been lingering now for going on three years, I've felt the internal shift that has allowed me to make peace with the process while moving forward. As part of my Beth 2.0 strategy for approaching life -- embracing and fully living the life I'm in (which right now means "Student") -- I bought tickets to all the Clemson home football games. I've started dating. I've started enjoying the fruits of regular exercise (running, no less! I hate running!, and biking) and losing weight and eating healthy. I've traveled; I've said yes to opportunities; I've danced. I cannot remember feeling quite so alive.

This weekend was supposed to be very busy and full and happy... I was supposed to go to Durham with Ben, whom I've been dating for two months. He moved to Spartanburg on Labor Day to take a new job, and met me about a week later. We've done lots of stuff together, and have had a great time getting to know each other. As a Duke grad, he was over-the-moon to take me to a Duke basketball game (vs. Davidson) and -- less enthusiastically, after having experienced Clemson Tiger football! -- a Duke football game (vs. Ga Tech, who beat Clemson!) We were going to meet his older daughter, who is a freshman at Duke, and we were going to swing by High Point to take Mackenzie and Courtney to lunch. Then we were going to have a few days back at work/real life, before diving into Thanksgiving with both feet. Next weekend I had won the grad student lottery to get tickets to the USC/Clemson game, and we were going to wind up the holiday weekend with a trip to Columbia for that.

That's how it was supposed to go.

And that IS how it started out. We jumped in his Jeep on Friday afternoon, to meet with his friends in Durham, Ed and Jackie, for the game. We arrived a little late, but within the first quarter found our seats in Cameron. It was a historic game, because after the game Coach K was feted for his 903 win... the win that made him the winningest basketball coach ever. Following that ceremony, we met up with his daughter Liz and some of her friends. We took them to the Panda Express. The evening was unusually cold, and we had a long way to walk following dinner. Ben started gasping a little, blaming it on the cold and a bit of asthma. We got in the car, turned on the heat, and pulled out of the lot. Suddenly he stopped the car, and began gasping. I asked if he wanted me to drive...no, it would be fine; he was just a little winded, and the car was feeling kinda hot. He began sweating, along his temples and cheeks. He became cranky. He thought maybe he was hyperventilating...after all it was cold, and then the car was hot, and after all, we had walked a long way. When we got where we were staying, he got out of the car and doubled over. If only he could lie on the sofa and catch his breath, he surmised, he would feel better. If only he could take a few aspirin, because he was developing a headache. If only his heart would stop racing...

When EMS arrived, they calmly warned him how much the defibrillator would hurt, and then they applied it. He screamed. I started the self-talk: You need to remember to bring a change of clothes; You need to find his insurance card; You need to stay calm. The EMS asked me to fill out the forms: What WAS his Social Security number? I certainly didn't know. What WAS his birthdate? I didn't know. I'm just the girlfriend of a few months. I'm not the wife, or even the ex-wife. I'm just someone who thought we were going to have a fun weekend of sports and family.

They shocked him again. This time, he knew what it would feel like. This time the EMT stepped in front of me, suggesting I really didn't need to see this happening. Ben screamed again, and I began to cry. Ben began looking very glassy eyed. He looked vaguely at me and said something about not being ready to give up the fight. What response could I give? What do I know? What context do I have for understanding what is happening? Surely, this was happening to someone else. Not to Ben. Not to me.

But they loaded him on the stretcher, and began giving me directions to follow them to the hospital. I did, as if it was my own life dependent on getting it right. I sat in the waiting room, until they called for "Mrs. Howell". I'm not Mrs. Howell, I explained.