When the last episode ended my anesthetist had opened up the flood gate for “the happy juice” to flow through my IV. Additionally, I was about to grease another landing on in “Happy Valley”, the body tingling began, and then the lights went out!
Those six hours that I was out and on the heart/lung machine seemed to only be seconds before I was coming out from under the influence of “the happy juice”!
As I was slowly coming out of the deep comatose of anesthesia I was having intermittent breathing issues. I could feel the breathing tube down my throat and ending at the bottom of my right lung. It felt like I had a glob of phlegm, a goober, some may call it a loogie, that would temporarily block the bottom of the breathing tube so that I couldn’t breathe! I was beginning to panic. In a few minutes, or so it felt like, the breathing tube was being slowly removed!
Somewhere in this same time frame, while I was ever so slowly resurfacing, I heard my nurse tell me to wiggle my toes. I responded by trying to wiggle my toes. I thought that I could visualize a figure that resembled Jason near the foot of my bed. In fact, it was both Jason and Jim in the room! God, that was such a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that they were in the room with me.
As I found out later that night or maybe the next morning, Jason told me that he wormed his way into the ICU long before access was granted to the family. Apparently Jason was watching nurses, and other authorized individuals, come and go through that door and timed it perfectly when someone came out. He grabbed the door and held it open so that he and Jim could slip into my ICU cubicle. The ICU nurse was not happy with Jason, but allowed both of them to stay in my area for a few minutes to satisfy their concern!
As the effect of the general anesthesia was wearing off, I was thinking to myself, I made it! I don’t know how long that surgery took, but I made it! I am really alive! The emotions gushed all over me! I made it, I made it, I made it! They had fixed my heart and gotten me jump-started!
I AM ALIVE!
I guess that I am just lucky that way!
Soon I was able to keep my eyes open intermittently and my family was being allowed to come in to be with me while I was coming back to life.
I am not sure how long it took before all of my family was able to come in to visit me, but it sure felt good to be able to see them. I am sure that I probably wasn’t making great sense when conversing with them, but at least I was talking to them.
When we last gathered here I was relaying the story of my surgery being postponed because I had developed a UTI and the surgeon delayed the surgery so that I could get over that infection. What a huge emotional letdown that was, but it was much better that way than what could have been the alternative.
It is now the morning of December 16th and it is time, once again, to head over to La Jolla a day ahead of my scheduled aortic valve replacement surgery. This time Edie cannot come along because she had some medical appointments that she could not miss. No, this time it was just Jim and yours truly in my hot rod heading westbound through the desert to the Pacific Ocean! The other two brothers, with spouses with spouses in tow, and Jason (Jeremy was sick and I told him to stay home) were also heading to La Jolla to try this surgery support thing one more time.
This time, just like a finely choreographed dance movement, the four cars all arrived at the hotel within a few minutes of each other for checkin. We all took a few minutes to greet and hug each other. It sure made me feel a little more at ease to have my immediate family, once again, there for moral support.
We signed in at the front desk, exchanged pleasantries with the hotel owner, Maureen, unloaded our baggage into our respective rooms, and met back at the hotel office. Once we were all present, we headed down, once again to the taco joint, Puestos. It was a unanimous vote! Everyone was excited to get some more of those fabulous tacos there.
Following dinner we all adjourned to our respective rooms in preparation for my surgery in the morning at 8am. I pulled out the letters that I had written to my brothers and my son that were in envelopes. I instructed Jason to hand these out to my brothers for them to read while I was in surgery. He, Jason, also had a letter from me as well. I had decided a week prior to going to La Jolla for the first attempt at surgery that I wanted to express to each of my loved ones my inner most feelings, just in case the outcome of this surgery was less than the desired results.
In between this trip to San Diego and the last attempt at surgery I had completed the Power of Attorney forms so that Jason could make all the necessary decisions, if needed. I handed them to him in our hotel room and gave him a few instructions. I don’t think that it fully sunk into his head what this Power of Attorney means! It will strike him when they roll me down that long hallway for surgery, I will bet!
Prior to lights out in my room I receive a phone call from a phone number not listed in my phone and I debated on whether to answer that call. But it was an 858 area code and that was the area code for La Jolla. So I thought that I should take this call and not let it go to voice mail. I am very glad that I took the call because it was from my surgeon, Dr. Tyner. When I heard his voice I knew that something was up. He said that there was an opening in the surgery schedule slightly earlier in the morning and he would like for the surgery to occur during that time slot. Could I get to the hospital at 5am for a 7am surgery? I replied in the affirmative that I could be there at that time. So now I have three less hours of time til the show gets on the road. I notified everyone that I must be at the hospital at 5am, so we all set our alarms appropriately so that we could caravan over to Scripps.
So now it is time to go lights out and get some all important sleep before the big show happens bright and early in the morning!
The 3am wakeup call and alarm arrived within a blink of an eye, my friend! My routine began with shaving and taking a shower with this extremely strong ant-bacterial soap, just like the one I took just prior to climbing in the rack and grabbing some really valuable shut-eye.
I was trying to be a quiet as I could be so that Jason could sleep til I woke him up for the drive to the hospital. As I stepped into the shower a million thoughts ran through my mind. First and foremost was the thought of “yep this thing is really gonna happen”! Then I started thinking about what was really going to take place in that surgery room in about three hours. My heart began racing at supersonic speeds, my knees began to quiver, my mind was racing like a top fuel dragster, and the emotional flood gate opened up big time! Once again, my hair was on fire and I was having a hard time keeping it together in the shower. Thank God I was all by myself in there and nobody could see or hear what I was dealing with! I have to appear to have it together this morning and be fearless. Don’t let Jason and my brothers know that I am scared SHITLESS!! Put on your Pilot’s face Captain Blowdri…….do not let them see you sweat!
I was thinking just please just tell me when it’s over!
I drove the car with Jim and Jason along over to Scripps, which was quick and uneventful. THANK GOD!
Walking into the hospital I had another round of knees quivering and again the emotional rollercoaster had just left the loading station! As I rounded the corner and saw the receptionists desk where I needed to sign in, the emotional rollercoaster reached that first high peak, was now rocketing downhill, and my mind was having a hard time staying fixated on the paperwork that I was filling out!
As I finished the paperwork and walked over to where my family was seated the emotional rollercoaster subsided, at least temporarily.
Within about ten (10) minutes of completing the paperwork I was called back to begin the surgery prep. When that happened the ol body became overrun with the jitters. It was getting closer to a reality, this open heart surgery thing.
It took about 15-20 minutes to get me all prepped up for surgery. I stripped down to the ol birthday suit and slipped on that designer hospital gown that conveniently gives everyone a nice view of the ol flat saggy butt! At this point I really could care that, if I moved too quickly, I would be photographing the entire nurses station this morning. The unmistaken fact is that, unless they all had binoculars or a telescope they couldn’t see a thing. As George Costanza from Seinfeld so aptly put it……shrinkage was in affect this morning!
My brothers came in to talk with me and lend their support and express their love. Jerry and Sue came in and we prayed for my surgery to be successful and for my quick and complete recovery. When Jason came in I could tell in his eyes that he had grabbed the gravity of this event and appeared to be moved. Again, I expressed a few of my thoughts and requests to him. I told him to deliver the letters to the brothers once they rolled me down the hallway.
Shortly after I got those items off of my chest to Jason the surgical nurses came into my room and announced to me and Jason that “it is showtime”! I wanted to crawl out of that bed and slither out of that hospital, but I also knew that I have to have this procedure done if I want to live to a ripe old age. Jason squeezed my hand, gave me a kiss on the forehead, and told me that he loved me. It was extremely difficult for me to keep it together as they rolled me out of the room! I kept thinking don’t let him see that you are falling apart. You are the dad, be tough, be strong!
The ride down that hallway to the OR seemed to take an eternity. It was enough time for me to see my entire 68 years run by in my head. Along the route there was a left turn, then a right turn, and then we stopped in front a set of double doors. I think that this is where “the show” will be happening.
One of the nurses hit the button that opens up those doors to reveal this well lit, high tech, surgical room where I will spend the next 5 or 6 hours this morning. It was a busy hub of activity with 5 or 6 surgical nurses at their workstations preparing for my surgery. Once my two bed chauffeurs got me transferred onto that extremely narrow and highly uncomfortable surgical table, the process for me began.
The two that brought me into the surgery room began to attach all kinds of electric probes to my upper torso. They were very professional, but had a great sense of humor. I think that they could feel that I was petrified. So, they kept up the levity as they were doing their job.
Then something happened that I have never seen before. I have had a few surgeries in my day but this team was really unique. One by one each of the surgical team stopped what they were doing, walked over next to me, put their hand on my shoulder, introduced themselves to me, and explained their role in the surgery. The very last one to come over was the guy who was behind the big machine to my right. His name was Matt and he had the single largest impact on me.
He said, “Mr. Hammack my name is Matt. Do you see that big machine over there? That is the heart/lung machine and I will own you for the next 5 or 6 hours. I promise you that I will take very good care of you!”
WOW!!! That blew me completely away. I was astounded!
Now that the introductions were made they all went back to their workstations. I could tell that the preparations were rapidly coming to a conclusion. The anesthetist had arrived on scene and talked and comforted me as well. He said that he was giving me some thing to relax me a little. My two bed jockeys asked me if I would like to listen to some music while they were finishing up prepping me? Quickly I remember Dr. Tyner stating that he doesn’t allow any “noise” during the surgery. I said that I would like to listen to some music. I was asked what would be my pleasure? I replied do you have any Eagles tunes? Like magic my absolute favorite Eagles tune comes over the sound system…….. Hotel California!!!
How did they know?
Somewhere about halfway through this 6:36 classic rock and roll tune, before the Don Felder/Joe Walsh classic guitar solo, the anesthetist said to me, Good Night Mr. Hammack! With that announcement the curtain was beginning to fall and I didn’t get to hear the best part of the song……the guitar solo!
As my body began to tingle and I knew that the light switch was about to be thrown, my last thoughts before I greased on another landing in “Happy Valley ” was……..
As you remember, I left off the last installment where my cardiologist scheduled me to go downstairs and get my pre-surgery chest x-ray in preparation for my impending open heart surgery. Additionally, Dr. Adams told me that she would get in touch with Dr. Tyner’s office to arrange a pre-surgery consult with him, as well as inform Tyner that I would like to get on the surgery schedule for November 21st.
As I stepped into the elevator to go down to the first floor and check in with the imaging department, my whole being was in unbelievable turmoil! My hands were trembling, my heart was racing, my brain was desperately trying to keep my emotions in check, and my legs were as weak, rubbery, wobbly, and very unstable like a jar of SMUCKER’S strawberry jelly! I was thinking to myself the bad dream that I have had now for the past thirteen (13) years is finally coming to fruition! Even though I had the whole summer of 2019 to think about this surgery and prepare myself for it, I was woefully ill-prepared emotionally for what I was beginning to experience.
The elevator door opened, I stepped into the lobby of the imaging center, marched over to the receptionist, announced my name, and she told me to take a seat, they would call me back. So I followed those simple instructions, dutifully stepped over to a vacant seat, parked my nervous and quivering body into one of the extremely uncomfortable chairs that are always in the waiting rooms of medical offices.
Within just a few minutes I was beckoned to follow this imaging person back to the waiting x-ray room. The chest x-ray took all of about 5 minutes to accomplish and I was set free to go as I came.
The three hour drive from La Jolla to Yuma seemed to have taken forever, when in fact it is just a three hour drive!
As I started up the ol Sequoia in the underground parking lot, backed out of my parking slot, drove out of the medical facility, jumped on the interstate for the drive back to Yuma, my body and heart were having an all out war for control of my brain! In racing terms I was having the dreaded helmet fire! Another description of this event would be that my hair was on fire! What was worse is that I couldn’t call 911 to put out the flames, because the flash point for this fire is deep inside my scull!
I really don’t remember much of the drive. I don’t remember driving through the city on I-5 and then heading out East on I-8, through and over the mountains that separate the towns of El Cajon and Lakeside from the Imperial Valley. Nor do I remember much about the drive through the Imperial Valley and on over to Yuma. I obviously was trying to cope with, and put into perspective, the events that were now beginning to sequentially fall into place.
What I do remember of that lonely drive back home was me thinking about all the things that were about to unfold. The reality that I was less than four weeks from having the open heart surgery that I have been thinking about off and on for the past thirteen (13) years. But those thoughts were always that it was way far off into the future, not in the here and now.
I would, from time to time, think about going through this pre-surgery routine, how I would greet and deal with the news that it was time “to get ‘er done”. I thought that I would have everything all in check, that I would be this rock steady, even keeled old man that people would say ” man, he has got this all under control”!
It just ain’t happening that way, brother!
The fear of the unknown will bite you directly in the ass, my friends! It will take total control of your life and put a whoppin’ on you! (More to come about that idea in another installment.)
So now I have approximately three weeks to prepare for the absolute biggest, scariest, event in my life, of which I have very little to absolutely no control over!!! Let that wash all over your body for a while and see if your hair catches on fire as mine did for the whole three hour drive home! I am sure that I appeared Zombie-like to other drivers as I navigated my way home! Because I was totally overwhelmed by what was beginning to happen in my life.
Some of the drive home I felt nervous and scared because I live alone, I knew that I was going have to take care of myself during this recovery process. There were some of those gut wrenching emotions rattling around inside of me that somehow wiggled and worked their way through my head and escaped through my eyes, which made it very difficult to see as I drove home.
Some of the drive home I was consumed self pity. I mean how could this damn thing happen to me…….why me Lord? I have always felt like I was a healthy dude most of my life, now things are just taking a healthy DUMP! I have zip, nada, zero control of this, and I have always been in solid control of my life! Well, dude that is not the case for me now! I am in the passenger seat along for this whirlwind ride that is about to commence!
As quickly as those self pity thoughts came into my head they vanquished. Replacing those thoughts, for a time, was the idea that I am so lucky that my abnormal aortic valve (I had a bicuspid aortic valve) was discovered and that I am having it replaced before it could fail completely and kill me! What a lucky dude I am!!!
Then, I would think yeah right I am going have my chest split wide open, my sternum sawed in two pieces, put on life support (a heart and lung machine), have my heart cut open, have my aortic valve removed and replaced with a bovine tissue sewed in its place, and then put back together. Oh damn I sure am lucky!!!!! (Does the sarcasm flow through here?)
The other prevailing thought on that drive was that I really need to get all my affairs in order, assign a power of attorney with Jason being in charge……..just in case……….you know just in case… you know what may happen. There goes the emotions erupting everywhere again!!!
I was a babbling fool by the time I arrived at my home that evening! But I got it together, at least til bedtime.
From my visit with Dr. Jeff Tyner in the Fall of 2015 through the Spring of 2018, everything seemed to move along swimmingly, or so I thought.
In the Spring of 2018 my cardiologist in Yuma, I relocated my cardiologist from Fresno to the city where I was living, relayed to me that there appears to be some indications in the latest echocardiogram that warrant a closer look. He wanted to send me to the local hospital for testing. I had decided that I was about to fire him because he appeared to be practicing in the 1950’s! So with new curiosity I decided that I would take all of my tests over to Dr. Tyner at Scripps La Jolla to have him take a close look at these echos.
It was really good to re-establish contact with Dr. Tyner and to get his expertise again on my tests. After he scrutinized the different material that I brought to his office, he concluded that he could tell that the aortic valve is beginning to degrade, but not enough to schedule surgery yet.
Whew!!!! I am buying more time!
He informed me that instead of making the trip over to La Jolla when I was tested again, I could just have my cardiologist send them to him for his review. That is when I relayed to Tyner that I was about to fire my cardiologist and I want to establish a cardiologist within the Scripps campus. I asked him if he had any recommendations? (I had already done my research and had a list of five doctors I was considering.) He paused a moment and asked me if it mattered if the cardiologist was male or female? I replied that it did not. I just want the best cardiologist here!
He then said that was good and that he will work on getting me an appointment with Christina. I looked into my notebook and found. Dr. Christina Adams and asked if that was the doctor that he had in mind? He nodded affirmatively and replied that he was pleased that I had done my homework!
In about 3 weeks I got an appointment with Dr. Adams, so I hopped in my car and headed over to La Jolla for the consult with her. She is a very pleasant, extremely competent, and kind physician. She went over all of my meds, she looked at Dr. Tyner’s comments, and she came up with the plan. As she walked me out of the office towards the front door, she reassured me not to worry about my aortic valve. She continued saying just let her and Dr. Tyner worry about those medical needs! As I walked out to my car, I told myself that is exactly what I need to do.
Six months later, November 20, 2018, I returned to her office for and echocardiogram, consult, and review of the echo. After the completion of the echo I had about and hour till I saw. Dr. Adams so I grabbed a little light lunch in the basement cafeteria. Up in the office, Dr. Adams enters the room, we again run through my meds, and she talks a bit about my aortic valve. She indicated that the valve regurgitation has worsened and things are beginning to degrade, but leave the worrying to her and Dr. Tyner. She further added to enjoy the upcoming holidays with my family, and that she would see me in 6 months, in May.
In May I return to Scripps for another echocardiogram and consult with Dr. Adams. This time there was something different about Dr. Adams and how she entered the room. It was at this time that she indicated to me that surgery is just on the horizon. The aortic regurgitation. has worsened and the ventricle wall has began to thicken. That really knocked that crap out of my happy-go-lucky attitude that I was exhibiting! My stomach immediately knotted up and began twisting like wringing out a bath towel! After I gulped once or twice I asked her does that mean that I need the surgery ASAP? Her reply was that I didn’t need to cancel my annual summer RV trip to Oregon. However, I need to be keenly aware of any chest pain, swelling of the ankles, and or shortness of breath. If any one of those conditions presents itself, load up the ol RV, get on back home, and give her a call!
Well, the summer of 2019 went extremely smooth!
Once I returned back home, got all my stuff offloaded from the RV and put away in my house, it was time to go back to Scripps in San Diego for yet another echocardiogram and consult with Dr. Adams.
This visit was an eye opener! After reviewing the echo she again asked me when was the best time to do the aortic valve replacement surgery? I had all summer to think about the answer that I gave her. After I found my tongue, grabbed my chin from the floor, I looked at her and told her November 21st. My heart was dieseling, my stomach was knotted up, and I had a hard time controlling my emotions as my words came out!
She said to me since you are going to need a chest x-ray pre-surgery, and it was within 30 days of my surgery date choice, would I be willing to go down and get that done since I am already in San Diego? I thought that was a good idea. She called down and reserved an appointment for me. Additionally, she told me that she would arrange a pre-surgery consult with Dr. Tyner.
All of the sudden I realized that I am not bulletproof anymore,
I don’t go all in but I’ll take the gamble And I don’t burn both ends of the candle anymore I take the corners, slower and steady This chip on my shoulder, it ain’t so heavy anymore
We still fly like gypsies Just a little closer to the ground And we still love our whiskey But now it’s just a little watered down