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Another ride on Earth around the planet

Nov 10, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

One year ago today I was preparing for a night when I wouldn't sleep. Not for one second.

I was lying in a hospital bed, three days after having a heart attack and one day before undergoing a life-saving but punishing operation.

A year agoTuesday, the heart attack struckat about7:30in the morning while I was getting dressed for work. I was alone at home, standing in the closet with my 8-year-old calico cat named Lola. First I noticed the discomfort, then I leaned against the wall, and finally I sat down as the hot, radiating, painful pressure advanced throughout my upper body, including my ears and my hands. I've had worse pain in my life, but this was unmistakable.

Lola didn't care much. She flopped on her back for a belly rub. I obliged, thinking that rubbing Lola's white belly wouldn't be a bad last moment on Earth.

I spoke to her, also. "If I'm still alive when I finish tying my shoes," I told her, "I'm calling 911."

I was, so I did.

Truth be told, this was second time I'd felt the pain within the previous 10 days, and at least the fourth heart-related incident, I now realize, that I'd experienced since late September.

Even so, if it had been aTuesdayinstead of aMonday(a day I go to work but we don't publish a paper), then I probably wouldn't have called for help. I would have gone to work instead. As it was, I held the phone for a minute or two, deciding whether to go to the trouble of calling. My first plan was to ride my red Honda scooter to the emergency room, reasoning that I could go right to the door without having to find a parking place.

But I called the ambulance instead, reciting a bit of rehearsed dialog that I'd heard on the police scanner all these years. I heard the sirenwithin five minutes, by which time I'd put on my coat and hat, gone outside and waited on the front steps.

At the ER, the consensus was that I'd had an episode of angina pectoris, a term I knew well from my father's cardiac adventures. He'd had two bypasses, an angioplasty and a stent from his mid-50s to late 70s, part of a family history that made my own heart attack predictable. Still, I was shocked when an enzyme test showed I had suffered heart damage. The ER physician, who was in his first day on the job here, called the heart center in Casper. I was going, right that moment.

The helicopter fired up, and I had a fun trip over the prairie, wearing my own headset and microphone, just like on TV. Everyone was pretty nervous though, including me. I'll never forget the comfort I felt from my chopper EMT, who squeezed my hand and patted my shoulder many times on the 38-minute flight.

After checking my enzymes again, reading my EKG printout, and hearing my recent history - including the episodes prior to Nov. 7, the examining cardiologist said, "Mr. Peck, I'd say you are having a heart attack every 10 days or so. The next one will kill you."

They packed me off to bed, telling me to lie still as much as possible. I was inundated with blood thinners, part of a plan to stabilize me until I could get a heart catheterization. At the cath lab, four snow-boarding "bros" prepped me up, including administering a tube through my groin upward to my heart.

The cardiologist arrived, and the bright dye was pumped into the tube, enabling him to see the blood flow in my heart via an X-ray/MRI-like procedure. The words "slight burning sensation" will never have the same meaning to me.

He discovered massive blockage in three vessels, including the descending artery nicknamed the "widow maker." He thought he could get the repair work done with just two bypasses, however, and then began a sales job on me.

"This is a terminal condition," he said, adding that the only way to fix it was with surgery. The date was Nov. 8. Without the operation, he said, I wouldn't see Thanksgiving.

Sold.

"Does anyone refuse the surgery?" I asked him. "Yes," he said, "more often than you might think." Sure enough, a couple of days later I listened from the doorway of my hospital room as another patient rejected the idea and walked out.

Preparations for the surgery were considerable and, generally, interesting. A highlight came when two enormous cotton swabs were coated in yellow, disinfecting glop and shoved by a nurse deep up my nostrils, all in the name of protecting against the MRSA virus. "How was that?" she asked - a rhetorical question if I've ever heard one. Then she did it again.

I had been told the surgical prep team might come for me as earlyas4:30 a.m.I stayed awake through the night, getting a couple of editorials written (Trump had just been elected, so it was a topic-rich period). My nurse told me that I'd have a ventilator tube in my trachea right after surgery but that I probably wouldn't be aware of it.

The team arrived with the wheel chair, then left for a minute or two. In an act of stupid bravado, I dropped to the floor and did 20 pushups before they came back. Not recommended, I'm sure.

In pre-op a woman I'd met seconds before shaved some intimate parts of my body and gave me Valium. I remember nothing after that but am told by family members who were there that I began reciting the presidents in reverse order, getting all that way down to Washington and back up the list seven spots to Van Buren before the light went out.

"Cabbage," or coronary artery blockage grafting, is a ferocious, physical ordeal, agruesome invasion of my body that required a power saw and a screw-driven prying device for the dirty work. The heart is stopped with the same drug used for executing murderers. It is chilled like ham in the deli counter, then sliced and stitched, using a bypass blood vessel taken from my left arm and rendering me unable to take my pulse in that arm for the rest of my life.

The nurse's prediction about the ventilator was wrong. I was aware of it, and it didn't go well. I thrashed around in my bed, and when someone tried to calm me down I hit him in the face. Sorry about that. I truly couldn't help it, and I understand why they brought in the restraints to pin my arms to my sides before I nodded off again.

The nurse told my wife, "Your husband is out of his mind," referring to my post-op antics. She nodded, referring to 253 months of marriage.

When they took the tube out and I could breathe on my own, my Shawn came to see me during a brief period of wakefulness.

"I thought of you first," I told her.

I recovered quicker than most patients in the following days. I wasn't overweight, which made operating on me easier and of shorter duration. I was in pretty good shape, and the operation didn't put me into a depressive funk, which it had done to my father. I did all they asked, including eating fairly well under the stern observations of a woman I'll always remember, dietician Anne Marie Mosier, who commanded me to eat more. I got a smile out of her - barely - with a joke about a bowl of steam from an old Woody Allen movie.

Dischargedfour days laterI came home to some difficult days. Being sawed almost in half takes it out of you.

I had missed election night at The Ranger, the first time that had happened since 1982. I do a lot around the office, and the young staffers in the newsroom had to carry a lot of extra weight while I recovered. I came to work on Nov. 5, and I didn't returnuntilDec. 20, and then in limited capacity. To Katie, Dan, Alex, Claire, Andee and Scott, I'm sorry I did that to you all.

Most of the time away, Shawn was at school with her fourth-graders. So I sat home alone, doing a lot of sleeping, and a ton of sitting by a sunny window in between snowstorms that were accumulating the record-setting snowfall of last winter.

I think I can say credibly that in that entire time, either Lola the heart attack cat or our big tiger tomcat named Bib were never more than three feet away. My purring nurses did wonders, I think.

Shawn said the first month of my return was like bringing baby Robert home 23 years before. She handled everything, from tucking me into bed to dealing with the $250,000 medical bill. I am fortunate to have had good insurance, set up to handle something just like this. It wasn't easy for her. Shawn is a giant.

Robert came home from college for Thanksgiving, then for a month for Christmas and New Year's. He helped me do some newspaper work from home. He shoveled snow. He sat with me. He stood beside me. He still does. I love him like you wouldn't believe.

Having a heart attack didn't make me special. It's likely that nearly 1,000 other people in Fremont County have had a heart attack in the year since I did. The surgery isn't as common as it used to be, but I've encountered dozens of others in the past year who also have had it at some point in their lives. They read my four newspaper columns about it last year and had their own stories and advice.

I have appreciated it all. I feel well, and I do everything that I did before. But life is different now. I get colder more easily, and faster. I don't sleep as well as I did before. After about four hours, the bed becomes an enemy. I'm still super skinny, but I have gained back about 10 pounds.I weigh what I did when I was 15 years old.

I haven't had even a hint of chest pain for a year. This morning I did 124 pushups, each time thinking about that cold hospital floor.

I told my coworkers I wouldn't ever come back to the full workload I had carried before last Nov. 7, but that wasn't true. I'm in full harness again, pulling hard 65-70 hours a week, getting the paper out, living my life, doing my work after riding the planet around the sun another time. Heart attack or no, this is the only way I know how to do it.

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