Helter Shelter 

How the docs stripped me for parts, and put me back on the road

How the docs stripped me for parts, and put me back on the road


Two summers ago, on an August night way too hot for outdoor fun, I went to McCabe Park to play some pickup softball. Probably because of the heat, I went temporarily crazy, and decided to take some ground balls at second base.

For those of you who don’t know, a decent effort in the middle infield involves lots of explosive movement, best suited for smallish folk no older than 30. Seeing as how I was about the size of an NFL lineman, and in my 40s, it didn’t take me long to run up an oxygen debt that I couldn’t quite repay.

That’s when my chest started to hurt. It didn’t hurt a lot, it was just uncomfortable. Kind of a sick feeling, right smack in the middle of my chest.

Now, given that both my parents—and three out of four grandparents— dropped dead from heart attacks in their 30s, 40s or early 50s, I should’ve sat down and asked somebody to call an ambulance. But no. I kept on playing. The pain never quite disappeared, but it did ease up when I rested. I knew good and well what it was—it was angina, and that meant my coronary arteries were clogged up.

Like a fool, I ignored the angina for two weeks. Then, on a Monday morning, as I was going out the door to work, I confessed the whole thing to wife Brenda. A few minutes later, my internist’s nurse called me on my mobile phone, and told me to get to the doctor’s office, right then. When I got there, they ran an electrocardiogram. It looked fine, but my doc booked me for more tests, starting at 6 o’clock the next morning.

The results of those tests were worrisome. The circulation at the bottom of my heart didn’t look right. My internist, John Gibson, told me that my right coronary artery was probably blocked. He scheduled me for an angiogram the next day.

Let me just tell you: When a doc sends you for an angiogram, you’re screwed. You might be only mildly screwed, but you’re screwed.

I was deeply screwed. Cardiologist Joe Fredi took one look at the real-time X-ray movie of my beating heart, and told me flatly, “Mr. Jowers, you’ve had a heart attack. You’re going to need bypass surgery.”

Right then, all I could think about was how stupid and negligent I was for getting myself in this mess. Given my godawful family history, I shouldn’t have gotten married. I surely shouldn’t have created a child. And I never should’ve made a habit out of leaving rock & roll gigs every night at 2 a.m. and heading straight for the Krispy Kreme.

Dr. Fredi explained to me and Brenda that my right coronary artery was blocked, and that I had other narrowed arteries. The spookiest thing was the plaque near the top of my left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery. That’s the artery they call the widowmaker. If it locks up, you’re dead.

I got all this news on a Friday. First thing Monday morning, cardiovascular surgeon John Lea took a power saw to my sternum, and neatly ripped it in two. Then he cranked me open with a rib spreader, and got busy inside my chest.

Dr. Lea and his crack surgical team put me on a heart-lung machine, and stopped my heart, so they could work on it. Then they stripped me for parts. They “harvested” the saphenous veins from my legs, and used them to make bypass grafts. Inside my chest, Dr. Lea cut loose my left mammary artery (didn’t need that one anyway), and used it to bypass the troublesome blockade upstream of my LAD.

In case anybody’s wondering: They charge by the bypass, about 10 grand per graft. It’s all itemized, right there on the invoice.

Best news to come out of the operation: Lea said I had not had a heart attack. He couldn’t find any damaged heart muscle, even downstream of my blocked right coronary artery. Most likely, the blockage happened slowly, and I grew replacement arteries—which they call “collateral circulation” in the cardiology business.

Worst part of the whole deal: Waking up. Oh, it started out well enough. I remember hearing Dr. Gibson’s voice, and I remember him coming over to my bedside. Before I go a bit further, I’ve got to tell you: I had two scary, life-threatening surgeries, a year apart. After each of them, Dr. Gibson was the first physician to show up at my bedside. To his great credit, he knows that when a man’s been cracked open like a crab, he needs to wake up knowing that his doc’s close by, and at the ready.

But don’t you know, soon after Gibson left, I had trouble breathing. I was hooked up to a ventilator, and it was breathing for me. Problem is, I’m just not the kind of guy who gives up control of a critical task like breathing. I started trying to breathe for myself. Next thing I knew, I couldn’t breathe at all, and I started foaming at the mouth. I figured I’d better get somebody’s attention pretty quick, but I couldn’t talk, and my hands were strapped down. So, I started kicking the bed rails. Believe me when I tell you: Nothing brings a squad of nurses quicker than a freshly bypassed man launching a full-out assault on his hospital bed. They took out my breathing tube, and shut off that evil ventilator. I could breathe fine after that.

Later that night, nurses had me out of the bed, and shuffling around the room. After that, it was just a matter of hanging around the hospital long enough for them to take all the needles, tubes and wires out of my body. Little known fact: When you leave the operating room, you’ve got a couple of tubes hanging out of your chest (so they can check for internal bleeding). You’ve also got pacemaker wires running into your heart. The pacemaker wires are there in case you need a jump start. As soon as the docs know you’re OK, somebody comes into your room and yanks all that stuff out. You can actually feel the tubes gliding through your insides and the wires pop out of your heart muscle.

Five days after the operation, I went home. Two weeks after that, I went back to work. After about a month, I felt better than I’d felt in years. But I do want to make one thing clear: Any surgery that makes a shoebox-size hole in your chest is brutal and nasty, and has aftereffects. My scars are big, permanent reminders that one of my critical parts broke down, and it’s patched, but not exactly fixed.

Best not to dwell on the scars and patched-up parts, though. I’ve got great physicians, who gave me more days to live. I’ve got a wife and daughter who love me more than I deserve. Clearly, I ought to just accept these gifts, and never even think about complaining.


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