Health scare leads to greater understanding and awareness

by Keith Barber

My heart started to race and I couldn’t catch my breath. This can’t be happening again, not twice in one week! I thought. It’ll pass it’ll pass it’ll pass. What I thought was a simple case of acid reflux turned out to be much more serious. Normally, if I’ve had too much coffee come out. Everything felt wrong. The A/C blew too cold. The refrigerator hummed too loudly.

Most of all, my body wasn’t allowing me to breathe. Is this how it all ends? I thought. Will someone find my in a heap on the hardwood floor? What was it all for? Eventually I dialed 911. An operator answered. “What’s your emergency? “I… can’t… breathe,” I said, barely audible. “What’s your history?” she asked. “I’m taking medication [gasp] for a [gasp] procedure I had [gasp] a couple of days ago.” “Okay, I’ll transfer you,” she said. Transfer me?! No! I thought. This can’t be happening. Resigned, I said, “Okay.” What else could I do? Luckily, another operator picked up immediately and I gave her my address. “They’re on the way.” A small wave of relief passed over me. Another 30 seconds went by. Where are they? Why am I all alone? Meanwhile, my heart pounded at 200 miles an hour and my muscles trembled

Then I could hear the sound of sirens in the distance. They grew steadily louder and stopped. I could hear the sound of footsteps on my apartment building stairwell and a knock on my door. The emergency medical technicians opened it gently. I managed to walk three steps to my hallway so they could find me. “Are you having trouble breathing?” a fireman asked. I nodded in response. They placed an oxygen tube under my nostrils and over my ears, and for the first time, my heart rate began to slow. I’m going to live, I thought. As I breathed deeply, taking in all the pure oxygen I could, I gave my medical history to a female EMT. I explained that I was taking a steroid, prednisone, due to the removal of a 1.6-centimeter salivary stone two days before. It was an infection related to that salivary stone that landed me in the emergency room just a few days earlier. She asked if I had eaten before taking the prednisone, and suddenly I realized I hadn’t. All I’d had that morning was four cups of coffee. I’d also had a very stressful personal in the morning, acidic air bubbles will rise in my esophagus. Water and a few extra-strength Tums normally take care of the problem, but not this time. My heart was practically vibrating. I began pacing around in my apartment waiting for my pulse to slow. It didn’t happen. Then my muscles began to tremble and I felt too weak to stand. Noises emanating from just outside my window became amplified in my heightened state of awareness. People carrying on with their Saturday afternoon, not a care in the world, passed beneath my window. “How can you be enjoying yourself while I’m dying here?” I thought. If I had tried to verbalize the words, no sound would have uncontrollably.

telephonecall. I didn’t tell the EMT about the phone call. It was embarrassing.My friend Charlene arrived as I was fielding questions from the EMTs. Icould hear her high heels moving quickly across my hardwood floors, andthen there she was. It was an amazing comfort to see a friendly face.She gave me a big hug. I needed it. Then they loaded me onto astretcher and placed me in the back of the ambulance.

“Water!Water! Someone please get me some water!” a panicked voice shouted outinside the Baptist Hospital ER. From my vantage point at station 6, Ihad witnessed EMTs wheeling in a young African-American man whoapparently had suffered a severe burn on his chest. His pleas startedat a normal volume but increased rapidly in intensity. Before long, hewas crying uncontrollably, and the vast emergency room was filled withthe echoes of his suffering. Meanwhile, the woman in thestation next to me talked casually on her cell phone about her minorbiking accident. Dr. Kevin, the ER resident, walked over and shook myhand. He asked me about my symptoms, and recommended a chest X-ray. Aftera while, two X-ray technicians raised up the back of my bed and placeda hard square plate behind me. I told Dr. Cline, a heart specialist,that I had never suffered any major health issues but heart diseasedoes run in my family. “Just to be on the safe side, I’m goingto order a stress test for tomorrow. We’re going to keep youovernight,” Dr. Cline said. “Your chest X-ray looks fantastic,” Dr.Kevin said. A big exhale helped bring my heart rate down a couplenotches. At one point, I watched the heart monitor surge to106 beats per minute. A few deep breaths and my heart rate dropped backto 72 beats per minute, which I thought was normal. I figured out laterthat night my normal heart rate is around 56 beats per minute. Theymoved me up to the emergency department holding area to stay for thenight. The cacophony of the ER was silenced. About 15 minutes later,the first of my relatives appeared. My aunt and uncle drove down fromMount Airy, and the moment they walked in the room, I felt better.Family members continued to arrive throughout the afternoon andevening. When they moved me into a private room, I felt normalfor the first time. My nurse practitioner, Heather, gave me a goodreport. The EKG and blood tests had all come up negative for apulmonary embolism or damage to the heart muscle. A final test would beperformed before I went to bed and I would have my stress test in themorning. My mom decided to spend the night in my hospital room. She’s abig believer in the philosophy that you never leave anyone alone in thehospital. Charlene arrived for a late visit, and I began thinking aboutthe precious nature of friendship. Once the test resultsturned up negative, my body began to respond to the good news. I wasfeeling better, but still afraid to eat any solid food. I had two cupsof yogurt before trying to get some sleep, which was fitful due to thesix wires connected to my chest. Eventually, the exercise physiologistshowed up to take me to my stress test. Despite my dehydration, shetold me I did well on the treadmill. I waited on the results for thenext couple of hours but I had a feeling I already knew the outcome. Sureenough, the test revealed that my heart is in good working order, andSaturday’s event was not cardiac-related. I never got a definitiveanswer on why the episode took place, but nurse Heather seemed to thinkthe combination of prednisone and caffeine on an empty stomach hadsomething to do with it. As I walked to Parking Deck B with my mother,my brother and my 7-year-old nephew, I remembered something my fathersaid years ago after having quadruple-bypass surgery. For bypasssurgery, surgeons must stop the heart for a brief period. Theafter-effects vary on each patient, but my dad had to re-learn how todo simple things like pick up a pencil. He felt like a newborn, hesaid. That’s exactly how I felt on Sunday — a newborn with anotherchance at life. I felt humbled and incredibly grateful. My true naturehas always been a peaceful one. I will be true to that nature in theway I treat others and I will go forward without fear because somebodyup there must really like me.