Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (excerpt #40)

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Author’s note: The following passage is the 40th excerpt from Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.


The next morning, I felt a little bit better despite developing a persistent dry cough, which was more of a nuisance than anything else. I also felt like I would get back to normal eventually.  After breakfast, I sat up in bed and started making phone calls to friends, political colleagues, and co-workers.

My office mates were going to stop by the house to see me, so I decided take a shower, which proved to be a difficult and energy intensive task. Walking gingerly into the family room with a wet towel and dirty pajamas tucked under my arm to take to the clothes hamper in the garage, I could see that Sandra wasn’t pleased.

In a serious and agitated tone, she told me that I was doing too much, too fast, and she wasn’t comfortable with the office team visiting. I told her that I felt fine, and that just a few minutes with the team wouldn’t hurt. I would take the next three weeks to recover and build up my strength.

My relationship with God was off to a good start in the emergency room, but it would take a while to fully form. Back at home, it took a couple of steps back. I thought I had beaten the odds and once again was in control of my own destiny.

It was good to see my colleagues when they came to visit. They each looked shell-shocked, not sure what to say or how to react when they saw me. One of them later remarked that it looked like I was “putting on a show” to let everyone know that I was okay.  After some small talk about how I was feeling and my experience at the hospital, I immediately held an impromptu staff meeting.

The meeting didn’t last very long because, as a few colleagues told me a year later, the situation was awkward due to the tension everyone was feeling from Sandra. She clearly wasn’t happy about me trying to do business as usual. Exhausted, I ambled back to the bedroom to continue the pattern set the day before: sleep, medication, salt-free food, sleep, repeat process.

The persistent dry cough intensified so I called the advice line at Kaiser seeking relief. The nurse indicated that some patients with heart conditions like mine were allergic to a specific medication prescribed to manage blood pressure levels. After consulting with my cardiologist, the nurse provided an alternative blood pressure medication to alleviate the cough.

It didn’t work. By bedtime, the dry cough had developed into a hacking cough that produced pink frothy phlegm and kept me from sleeping through the night.

Sandra called the clinic to make an appointment the first thing in the morning. When we arrived at the clinic, my blood pressure measured 78/50, dangerously low. My oxygen saturation level was at 92%, lower, but not alarmingly, than the normal range of 97-100%. The doctor, concerned about the blood pressure reading, listened as I tried to persuade him that it was low due to the medication

I explained that I felt fine other than the cough. Despite my protests, the clinic doctor sent me to the emergency room where doctors immediately stabilized my blood pressure and oxygen levels, and re-admitted me to the hospital. It was almost exactly 48 hours after I was discharged.

After a battery of tests, the diagnosis was clear to doctors. I had a condition called congestive heart failure, otherwise known as CHF. The damage caused by the heart attack on June 7th was so extensive that the ejection fraction of the lower left chamber of my heart was well below the normal 55-65%.

In other words, my heart wasn’t strong enough to pump sufficient oxygenated blood into the body. The pool of blood left in the lower left chamber began to back up causing gooey build-up in the lungs. I was drowning in my own fluids. This explained the low oxygen saturation level and coughed-up pink discharge.

The medication prescribed to make my heart work more efficiently wasn’t working so the doctors adjusted certain medications, removed some, and added others to get the right mix. A nutritionist, psychologist, and pharmacist visited me to discuss the importance of eating a salt-free diet, managing stress, and taking medicine exactly as prescribed.

I had a better understanding of the physiology of CHF, and a renewed commitment to resigning from the school board and taking the time I needed to heal before going back to work.  Three days later, once my lungs were clear and my heart was stable, I was released from the hospital on June 15th. It had been an exhausting eight days.

Staying away from the hospital wouldn’t last long. The next morning, June 16th, I again called the advice line because the coughing didn’t allow me to sleep through the night. I was tired, sleepy, weak, and terribly uncomfortable. I was becoming increasingly frustrated and irritated as I coughed incessantly and struggled to catch my breath.

The advice nurse suggested that I consult with my doctor to determine what would be best to stop the coughing. I was prescribed cough medicine with codeine to help me sleep. I spent the rest of the day sleeping sporadically, coughing uncontrollably, and spitting up reddish-pink gunk.


To read all excerpts click here:

Next Wednesday: Part 1 of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life concludes with two more trips to the emergency room in less than three days.

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