Tick Tock The Clock Is Ticking

Leon Hammack
B-757 cockpit somewhere over the Pacific between LAX and HNL.

The FAA grounded me for the duration of their investigation, which took about three and a half weeks to finish. So I was released back to flight status by the FAA thereafter, around the second week in June.

I returned to the air on the last week of June. At the end of that trip I noticed that my heart was beating weirdly, irregularly, or it was doing something that I had never noticed before.

When I returned to my house in Yuma, AZ, I made a phone call to my cardiologist, Dr. John Nelson in Fresno, CA, on Friday July 2, 2010. I expressed to him the feeling that I was having in my chest. He asked me if I could be in his office Monday morning? I acknowledged that I can easily be in his office on Monday morning. The appointment was scheduled and set in stone for 8 am.

My cardiologist decided that I needed to wear a heart monitor for 48 hours so that he could see, in more detail, what the heck was going on with my heart. So at the end of the 48 hours he took the heart monitor off, reviewed that data, and got me an appointment with an electro-physiologist, Dr. Koi Le. As Dr. Le explained to me, even though he was a cardiologist, his specialty and training was in electro-physiology. He continued to explain that my cardiologist is like a plumber and he, Dr. Le, is the electrician!

To make a long story short, once. again, by the end of the week, Friday specifically, I was having a procedure known as a Cardiac Ablation. For those who may not be totally familiar with that medical procedure, you might want to check out that link and read my five part rendition of what it was like to go through that, along with the overnight hospital stay. You may find this informative and I hope entertaining!

After recovering from the Cardiac Ablation and notifying the FAA of that procedure, my airline flying career came to a grinding halt. My flying career dropped like a prom dress. The FAA, in its infinite wisdom, revoked my medical certificate rendering my aviation career finished effective July 9, 2010. Even though your FAA pilot’s license has no expiration date, it is rendered invalid when you do not have a valid medical certificate to accompany it! That is the lone catch.

One of the outcomes from the cardiac ablation was that Dr. Le got an up close and personal look at my bicuspid aortic valve. It was at that point that there was definitive proof that, in time, I will be having to have my aortic valve replaced at some date in the future. Additionally, this event signaled my cardiologist that he needed to come up a plan to monitor the degradation of my aortic valve.

For the next five years my cardiologist put me on a schedule to have echocardiograms every six months in order to keep a close look at my aortic valve. Everything seemed to flow nicely for the next five years. In June of 2015 the echocardiogram results began to show that my aortic valve and the left ventricle might possibly be beginning to show signs of stress and change. My cardiologist decided that I need to have my second angiogram so that there can be another “up close and personal” look at the ol aortic valve.

After reviewing the results of that angiogram my cardiologist said that I needed to look into securing a thoracic surgeon’s opinion on my status. With that tidbit of advice I began my homework via the internet.

Now that I was living in Yuma, AZ I decided that I need to research thoracic surgeons at Scripps in San Diego, a mere three hour drive from Yuma vs. an 8 1/2 hour drive to Fresno! I began my in depth research looking for the best thoracic surgeon available associated with the Scripps system. After much scrounging, and with a suggestion list from my cardiologist, Dr. John J. (Jeff) Tyner was my overwhelming choice.

It took about 2-3 weeks to get on Dr. Tyner’s schedule to have a consult. Prior to the office visit I had to forward most of my medical records from my cardiologist and from the doctor that performed both of my angiograms, as well as my last two echocardiograms.

Making the three hour drive to San Diego gave me ample time to ponder what was to come after the doctor visit. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to undergo aortic valve replacement soon after this visit. To say that I was nervous. is a gross understatement! Once I was ushered into the room awaiting my introduction to Dr. Jeff Tyner, listen to his analysis of my case, and get some of my questions answered the nerves went supersonic!

Mayday, Mayday!

When Dr. Tyner entered the room, he introduced himself, engaged me, and then went over all of my records that was at his disposal, I realized that I couldn’t have selected a more professional, a more empathetic, and top-notched thoracic surgeon than Dr. Jeff Tyner! I am beginning to feel more assured.

After reviewing all of my records and medical data, Dr. Tyner told me that open heart surgery was not indicated at this particular time. However, it is definitely in the near future. If the criteria for replacing my aortic vale was solely based on the severity of the murmur/regurgitation/leak, then he would be doing my surgery on the following day! But he said that the severity of the leak is not the sole criteria to require this surgery. He added that as long as the walls of the heart have not started to show stress, then he thinks that we can buy some more time! Whew! That took a lot off of my mind!

So back I go to Yuma with a reprieve!

For the next four years everything seemed to flow smoothly, or so I thought!

Stay tuned the saga will continue.


My Enlightening Summer In Review


(Captblowdri @ Talladega Superspeedway)

Labor Day is now upon us and that signifies the end of summer.  The Labor Day weekend is traditionally the last weekend of the family sun and fun.

My 2010 summer has been drastically different from any other that I have had since graduating from Fresno State in June 1973, or for that fact in my entire life!

The preface to my summer was written on the evening of May 16, 2010.  That was to be the beginning of, what I will deem, my enlightening summer!  The series of events, the UAL Flight Safety Investigation and the NTSB Investigation, that followed the cockpit fire, made me feel like I was under the intense scrutiny of both United Air Lines and the federal government.

In conjunction with dealing with the above events, I was notified that one of my closest college buddies, and the former Chief of Police of Madera, CA, had lost his gallant battle for his life.  It was the summer of ’69 that I first met Jerry Noblett. However, it was a cool spring morning on May 24, 2010 that I had to say farewell to my buddy!

As the next few weeks progressed, I came to realize that there was something strange going on in my chest.  I was feeling like my pulse was erratic, my blood pressure was giving me strange feelings, and I was feeling tired.  So I did what most responsible patients do, I contacted my cardiologist, Dr. John R. Nelson.

On Monday July 5th, I was able to get in to see my cardiologist.  Before I left his office he had me hooked up with a heart monitor that I had to wear for 24 hours. Late the next evening my cardiologist called me to relay to me the news from the monitor data.  The doctor instructed me to report at 8:30am for a heart CT scan and an echocardiogram.  By the time I left his office on Wednesday afternoon, I had an appointment to see the Electro-Physiologist, Dr. Khoi Le, regarding my newly found issue, Ventricular Tachycardia!

Thursday morning at 8:30am I consulted with the Electro-Physiologist.  When I left his office around 9:15am, I was scheduled for a cardiac ablation procedure with a hospital report time of 8:00am Friday morning.  The four hour procedure and my stay in the hospital was an experience that I soon will not forget!

One of the several outcomes from the cardiac ablation is being grounded by the FAA pending the outcome of this procedure and many tests that are to follow.  The latest from the FAA is that I am grounded until at least November of 2011.  Another outcome from all of this is that my aorta valve is approaching the point whereby it is needing to be replaced.  Another procedure that I must confront sometime in the near future!

In spite of the medical conditions that have come to light, I was able to meet up with one of my brothers in Belleville, KS and Knoxville, IA to get a heaping dose of midgets and sprint car racing in August.

So all was not lost!  In spite of it all, I have had a very enlightening summer!

Other than that Captain Blowdri,  how was your 2010 summer?

Cardiac Ablation, Part 4

The Friday night from Hell!

In Part 3, I left you with this thought; “You can NEVER rest in the hospital.”

Let me explore and expound upon this thought.

From the moment that I arrived back into my room, there were nurses coming and going about every 20 minutes,  They would come in and take my temperature, take my pulse, check my left groin, monitor the bruising that occurred there, check my catheter, and dump the fluid out of it as needed.

Now most of those activities are ok.   However, when the nurses check your catheter tube and its connections, that is somewhat degrading.  More emphatically, when they pull down the sheets and check the bruising that is in you left groin and pubic region, embarrassment doesn’t really cover the feeling very well.  Moreover, when the nurse is trying very hard not “to bust a gut” and break out laughing, demoralized comes close to how you feel! I know it is only the hospital, it shouldn’t bother you.  Oh yeah, right I forgot!

Anyway, I digress.  After four hours in surgery and three hours in the recovery room, I get to my room and all I want to do is grab some much needed sleep.  My family leaves my room about 9 pm, I am thinking that now I can get some rest and sleep this long day off.  I am not prescribed any pain medication everything in my mind tells me that with the door closed I can really get some good sleep!

Oh contrare my friend!

From 9 pm Friday night  until 1:20 am Saturday morning the nurses were in my room every 20 minutes taking my blood pressure, temperature, and checking right and left groin and pubic region, keeping a close watch on the spreading bruise that I have there!  From 1:20 am until 3 am I was able to sleep uninterrupted, one whole hour and forty minutes!

The calm and quietness of my room ended at 3 am when the phlebotomist comes into my room, flips on the light switch, and announces that she has to draw some blood.  At 3 am they have to draw some of my blood, you really got to be sh#%!ing me? “Why 3 am, couldn’t this wait for a more civilized time, like say 7 or 8 am”, I inquired?  “No doctor’s orders,” was the response!   Dude!!! So out comes the foot long needle and she drew out, what seemed to be, a gallon of my beloved blood!

Now that this ordeal is over, surely I can sleep the rest of the morning?  Yeah right!  As the “Dracula Nurse” was leaving, in came the morning nurse to take my blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and she pulls back the covers to get a better look at the old groin and pubic area to check the status of my bruising again.  Dude !!

It is now about 3:30 am and this old boy is getting very tired of my hospital care!  I hoping that this is the last interruption so that I can at least get a couple of hours sleep before the sun rises.  Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, I was oh so wrong!  At 5 am the nurse once again enters the room and turns on the high intensity lights for another round of……..blood pressure, pulse, temperature,  additionally she gave me a pneumonia shot, and of course checking out my groin and pubic region for bruising!!

I was starting to feel paranoid. I think that the word was out and all the nursing staff had to cop a view!!  For sure I knew something was up when the nurses started bringing a magnifying glass with them when they entered my room!  Dude!!

Well so much for sleeping at night in the hospital.  There was nonstop interruptions throughout the night in my room! The high intensity lights in my room felt like searchlights each and every time the light switch was turned on!

It was truly the “Night From Hell”!

Stay tuned for checking out and going to my sister’s house in Part 5..

The Elecrto-Physiologist and My Heart, Part 3


(photo courtesy Leon Hammack)

It was with Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird” and this last thought that I ended the last article, Part 2:

The last thing that I remember were these words from the stereo system:

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
‘Cause there’s too many places
I’ve got to see……….

Off to Happy Valley, USA I went……………………

“Mr. Hammack, wake up, wake up, the surgery is over!”

As rum-dumb and as groggy from all the anesthesia as I was, that was even better music to me ears than Lynard Skynard was to me some 4 1/2 hours previously!  The unknown was over.  None of the possible “side affects” seemed to have happened to me!  I can hear, I think that I can somehow slur an answer out.  So maybe no heart attack, looks like no stroke happened, and I am definitely alive!


As they rolled me out of that daunting surgery room, one of the surgical nurses told me that we will be rolling by my family and that they would stop briefly so I could say “hi” to them.  Yeah, right, like I could be coherent after being under the influence of  “the good stuff” for more than 4 hours!  However, I do remember stopping briefly at the waiting room, seeing adults that closely resembled my family, muttering brilliant verbiage that probably was totally undecipherable, but nevertheless undeniably brilliant!

Once in the recovery room, I could tell that there was some concern over my lack of recovery.  The recovery room nurse was hovering over my left leg, applying pressure to my groin area, and expressing concern that the bleeding will not stop there!  He was also making calls to the surgery room or the cardiac floor for assistance.  It was slow in coming, in fact I was in the recovery room for over three hours.  The normal recovery time is about an hour.

Needless to say, the stress that my family and friends were feeling was tremendous.  There were starting to be some frayed nerves precipitated from the lack of communication between the recovery room and the family waiting room.  Among my family and friends, there was this overwhelming felling that something was something definitely wrong, because I was so long in the recovery room.

On the other hand, I was horizontal in recovery kind of stuck in a holding pattern, like I was arriving at JFK, ATL, SFO, or ORD (Chicago)!  And on top of it all, I didn’t really didn’t give a dang!  After all, I was still rocking in my head to some goooood Lynard Skynard that led me down the path to Happy Valley, USA!  Surely nothing could be going wrong.  Nevertheless, there was concern in the recovery room over my left groin bleeding.

After more than three hours in the recovery room, the nurses were able to get the bleeding in my left groin stopped, and with that accomplished I got to go to my hospital room.  Now the time is about 8pm Friday evening, 12 hours after I first signed into the hospital!  To say that this has turned into a very long day is a gross understatement to say the least!

As my family and friends assembled one at a time into my room there was noticed a collective sigh of relief that this procedure was now over for them, as well. They could see for themselves that I had made it through a very long, arduous, and intricate surgery, in turn making their Friday a very long and anxious ordeal!

From my standpoint, it was a welcomed relief to be back in my hospital room, seeing my family and friends, knowing that all of the worst was behind me.  However, for those of you who have stays in the hospital for any length of time, arriving back in your room is only the beginning of what is in store for the patient!  You can NEVER rest in the hospital.

Stay tuned for the “Friday night from Hell”, and Part 4!

The Electro-Physiologist, Part 2

When I last left you at the end of “My Date With The Electro-Physiologist, Part 1”, I had thrown out the idea that I was having a “helmet fire” as they were rolling me out of my cubicle and down the L-O-N-G hallway to the elevator.

For those of you who are have a difficult time comprehending the concept of having a “helmet fire”, I will try to help you understand that concept of feeling.  A “helmet fire” has no conscience or internal clock, it can happen at any time, at any place!  But my “helmet fire” was occurring on the gurney, on the L-O-N-G hallway to the elevators.  It was happening as I was leaving my family and friends for, what I perceived, could be the very last time!  The fear of the unknown that lay ahead of me at the end of the gurney ride, the thought that something could happen during the four hour procedure of probing my heart, a heart attack, a stroke, and the worse side effect of this procedure……death, was causing my emotions and my intellectual thoughts to call each other out and begin an “old fashioned, blue collar, bar fight” inside my head!  It was  totally out of control!  That my friends, is just one example of what a “helmet fire” might be or feel like inside your brain!

However, by the time I had gotten into the surgery room, the “helmet fire police” had arrived inside my heard and arrested all those involved in the “helmet fire” and carted them off in the “paddywagon”!   But now the fear of the unknown had taken over and things got real serious.  The surgery nurses, both men, had arrived in the room.  Their first point of business was to gather up all the patches, probes, and the electrical connectors that was going to be used in this highly computerized and electrical exploration expedition into the sanctuary I call my heart.

It took them more than 30 minutes to put the required patches on my chest and back in the appropriate places, place the probes in the designated areas fore and aft, and then attach all the wires that would provide the vital information to the many computer screens that were above the surgery table.  During this “hook up” process  the nurses obviously noticed that I was shaking in my boots, even though the only thing that I had on was that “designer gown” I described in Part 1.

One of them asked me what kind of music that I like.  I replied that my music runs the gamut from Alabama, ZZ Top, Merle Haggard, The Beatles, The Eagles, Lynard Skynard, Brad Paisley, and many points in between!  “My music tastes might be called eclectic”, I added!  He replied that I would most likely enjoy what he was cranking up.  Well he was right, over the speakers came a little southern rock band from Jacksonville, FL that you all may have heard over the years…….Lynard Skynard singing “Sweet Home Alabama” followed up by “What’s Your Name, Little Girl”!

As this long, painstaking pre-surgery procedure was culminating and the team was ready to rock and roll, my doctor strolled in and greeted me with this phrase, “Good morning Captain how are you doing?  We are ready, how about you?” I replied, obviously in a apprehensive sort of way, that I was indeed ready to get this over.  The anesthesiologist had taken up his position next to my right arm, briefed me on what to expect, and set a mask on my face with the consoling words that this will start to relax you now, Captain.  He was right I could feel the soothing affects of the anesthesia, along with Lynard Skynard’s tune “Free Byrd”, I was fading.

The last thing that I remember were these words from the stereo system:

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
‘Cause there’s too many places
I’ve got to see

Off to Happy Valley, USA I went!

Stay tuned there is more to come in Part3!

My Date With The Electro-Physiologist, Part 1


(photo courtesy Leon Hammack)

July 9th, 2010, that was the day, and for many reasons a day that I will never forget!

What started out to be a typical summer Friday turned into anything but that.  I was told to report to the second floor, outpatient surgery, at 8am for pre-op and processing.

I make sure that I am at the hospital with about 15 minutes to spare so that I can find my designated place to register.  I got through the registration process reasonably quickly.  However, there were a few things that I found quite puzzling.  When I first get to the registration window and tell them who I am, they gave me a slip of paper. I look down at this piece of paper and I notice that I have been designated and relegated to be known as patient N.  That is a little unnerving to know that I have been reduced to just one letter, “N”, until I finish registering.  So there you have it, I am now patient “N”!

Really is there that much concern that my privacy would be compromised or stolen at a hospital?  After all, in just a few hours I am going to “Butt Naked and Spread Eagle” up on surgery table for the whole world to see!!  Additionally, I am going to have TV cameras, work tools, and wires threaded up and into places that have never been open to any one or anything!  Having myself “Butt Naked” up on the surgery table is the kind of privacy I am really much more concerned about, rather than exposing my identity to others around me!  To me that was an exercise in nonsense.

Anyway, off I go now into my little cubicle for the finer part of this pre-op adventure.  To start with, I am instructed to get out of clothing and slip into that fine hospital floral patterned, backless, knee length, and I might add, with ties and snaps, designer gown! Man did I look great in this hospital contraption!

Next in this process is the part where you get the IV inserted into your arm for the impending surgical process.  Sometimes it can feel like she/he is inserting a telephone pole into your veins.  However my “needle girl” was obviously skilled at searching out and inserting that seemingly footlong IV into my left forearm.  It was almost pain free!

It is approximately 8:45 am and now all the pre-op items have been accomplished!  It appears that I now I only have about 1:15 to wait for the procedure to actually start.  Which, in my head, I am thinking that in about 30-45 minutes they will be rolling me out of this location and heading me towards my destiny meeting with the Electro-physiologist, the surgery room, and the medical technicians that will be assisting him in this 4 hour, inter-artery invasion into my beloved heart.

Now the clock is ticking.  I am keeping a very close watch on the clock that I can barely see at the nurse’s station through the skinny slit in the curtain dividers.  Ten o’clock comes and goes, no gurney coming for me. Odd, I am thinking, the procedure was scheduled to begin promptly at 10 am!  Oh well, they will be rolling into my small confines shortly, so I just hang out with the family.

It was 11:15 am before the bell rung for me!  It wasn’t a sense of panic that I felt, but there was some semblance of “this could be more serious than I originally thought” running through my brain.  The NASCAR boys might equate this thought to, “he’s having a helmet fire” right now!!

Stay tuned for Part 2!