2013: “These things just sometimes happen, you see?”

Sign for the Augusta National Golf Club
Does anything say “Augusta” more clearly than the Masters?

If you recall, oh intrepid reader, when we last left off, it was  mid-March of 2013.  After nearly passing out at work, I was in an ambulance, heading to University Medical Center in downtown Augusta, my heart apparently going wild. And not in a good way.

While I was in the ambulance, I felt a little odd, but fine overall.  Apparently my level of calm was somewhat unnerving to the EMTs.  They weren’t used to my level of not-freaking-out.  I talked with them quietly and told a few jokes (dumb ones, like as not). It helped that I still had experienced no pain, just fatigue and that weird fluttering sensation in my chest, and so it was hard to “envision” a medical crisis.

I also felt very confident that, whatever happened, even if I died, it would not be outside God’s control or His plan. I knew this was a fact and that I would either conform my opinions to it or I would not. Just like 2+2 would always equal 4, God’s sovereignty would be true, whether I wanted to admit it or not. Don’t think this reflected some kind of credit to me; for some reason it thankfully came easily at that moment. I would have to wrestle with really understanding it for months afterward, with varying degrees of success.  As most people, I really still am.

My wife, Kami, and our daughter met me coming off the ambulance. It was good to see them, though I hoped they weren’t too worried.  Soon, my daughter was bundled off to her cousins’ house and Kami and I were ensconced in the emergency room.

It appeared that I was suffering from something called “atrial fibrillation” (afib), an electrical disorder of the heart where the top chambers get confused signals and start to quiver. The larger, lower chambers race to try to keep up.  At points, I saw my heart rate shooting over 180 beats per minute!  That isn’t sustainable, and, if allowed to continue, can eventually lead to heart failure.

Well, as stereotypical as it sounds, they said that an electric shock could knock me out of it and they could send me home that night.  We tried it. Twice.  They knocked me out, brought in the paddles, and…nothing. (I later learned that this particular operation could have killed me. In afib, clots can form in the heart and a shock like the one they gave me can dislodge them, causing, in effect, a do-it-yourself stroke. Thankfully, I hadn’t been in afib long enough to form any clots.)

I was given a chest x-ray and a doctor came in to tell me that my heart was swollen for reasons unknown.  He was admitting me to the cardiac intensive care unit to try to bring things under control. They put me on medication to bring my heart rate down, and waited for me to come out of afib while performing various tests.

It may well be a testimony to the amount of stress I had been under that these few days in the hospital were really more like a vacation. With the exception of waking me up at midnight and 4 am each night to take my vitals and “make sure you’re sleeping well” (!?!?) I was actually able to relax and rest. I still felt exhausted, but under the circumstances I can’t say that was surprising.  The food was decent, and the most annoying thing about it was that no one would let me get up and walk around on my own.

And here’s where it started getting really strange.

Usually, when things like this happen, there is a reason for it, and that reason is often quite plain. The doctors who examined me would cluck their tongues as they asked questions and you could see the conclusions forming in their minds.  And then the test results began to come rolling in.

The first was an echo cardiogram, which images the heart live using ultrasound. I was nervous, joking with the tech that “Oh!  That doesn’t sound good!” when she listened to my heart. She laughed and quickly pointed out that I had no idea what I was talking about. She was right.  The doctor came in and said that the test had shown no abnormalities whatsoever.

This was followed up the next day with a heart catheterization, where they shoved a probe directly into my heart via an artery. Again the doctor expected to find something.  Again, he found nothing.  He told my wife and my mother that what he saw on the screen was something he didn’t often get to see:  “a young, healthy heart” with clear arteries displaying plenty of branching.

Later that day, my heart kicked itself back into sinus rhythm.  I actually felt it happen. Suddenly something changed and I could think and see more clearly. I asked the nurse in the room and she confirmed it. My EKG continued to show a “suppressed Q wave” that I later learned was indicative of a “right bundle branch block.”  In short, there was a problem with the electrical conduction system taking signals from my brain to my heart, but apparently it wasn’t serious. (Of course, I’m just parroting smart things other people are saying. I really don’t understand it that well. Dammit Jim! I’m a doctor, not a physician!)

One thing that occurred to no one was the possibility of a recurrence of Lyme Disease.  It turns out, however, that the situation I had been experiencing had all the hallmarks of a classic case of “Lyme Carditis.” The Lyme bacteria and co-infections can inflame the pericardium, the protective sac around the heart, and sometimes even the heart muscle itself. It can interrupt the heart’s electrical system in a very serious way, leading to permanent damage. One doctor, Oncologist Neil Spector, suffered from untreated Lyme watched his heart degenerate to the point where he required a heart transplant! As the Lyme doctor currently treating me noted in our first interview, his story sounded exactly like mine. (With the happy exception that I’m now receiving treatment, apparently/hopefully before irreparable damage has been done.)

I was able to go home the next day. The experience had cost me (or at least the insurance company) better than $20,000, and I had discovered…nothing.  In fact, the doctor’s quote to me, as he was informing me of my discharge was, “Well, these things just sometimes happen, you see?”

They say that ignorance is bliss; I can attest to the fact that it isn’t. Not only is it a form of slow mental torture, it can also be simply dangerous. But more on that in my next post.

2013: The “Year of Suck”

Phinizy Swamp

For those intrepid souls actually taking an interest in this gripping saga, you’ll remember that I was “done” with Lyme back in 2008.

Welcome to 2013, known not-so-affectionately around our household as the “Year of Suck.”

From 2008 until 2012, I was exhausted almost constantly. No matter how much I slept, I never felt rested. I also noticed strange chest sensations every now and again. There was one in particular that felt, I thought, as if my chest was a tiny piece of the vacuum of space–like it was turning itself inside out.  I wrote it all off as no big deal. Stress at work could explain it. I’m getting older, right?  And who has time to be sick? I have my girls to care for.

Besides, I would get in shape in fits and starts–often via hiking–and when I did, I would generally start to feel better. So, surely, I just needed more exercise. That’s it. Yeah.

Then, in January 2013, I attempted to make a career change in the hopes of getting closer to my family. As an only child, I felt (and feel) duty bound to be available to take care of my parents, and it made sense to move sooner, when we weren’t needed, rather than wait for a crisis. So, we relocated to Augusta, Georgia and I started working as a government contractor. It sounded like a new adventure!

And it was an adventure–just not at all what we expected it to be. It turned out to be the really nasty, uncomfortable kind that more than makes you late for dinner! Within six months of the move, our stress-levels were off the charts.  Contracting work is never “low stress” or particularly stable at the best of times, but mine changed so often I never had a chance to even get my feet under me.

When I signed up, I was told my lack of experience was no problem–that I would be in training for about a year before they turned me loose.  Okay.  No problem.  Sounds good.

Second day on the job I was told, “You’ll be about six months in training.”  From a year to six months?  I like to think I’m relatively smart. I can handle that.

End of Week 1, the boss walks in: “With the campaigning season coming up, I’m going to need you spun up and ready in four months.” Right.  Let’s do this.

Beginning of Week 2:  “We’re running a little short on analysts. I need you all to be ready in six weeks.” Six weeks, eh? That’s only 46 short of a year, but who’s counting?

End of Week 2:  “Congratulations!  You’re out of training.”  You’ve got to be kidding me?!

No big surprise, I wasn’t up to snuff yet and had to be sent back. The guy I worked with this time was a great analyst, but it was perfectly clear that he didn’t want to be tied down to training me. To add to it, he would sometimes foist me off on another analyst lead from another company (One who knew something about teaching, structure, and patience), who, by the end of a day or two, had me turning out products with some confidence. Then, when I came back to my main trainer, he would tell me to not do anything the other guy he sent me to train with told me to do.* We can further add that, having never served in the military, I had bad habit of coming off the wrong way, no matter how hard I tried. Being “myself” didn’t work. Neither did trying to talk to people about the things they talked about. (At one point I spent weeks listening to one guy’s epic saga of dog poo chucking from his yard into the neighbour’s and what he would do if the neighbor threw it back.) Even minding my own business and doing my job seemed to bother some people.

I was also maintaining ties back to my old life as a college professor.  (I generally like to keep my options open, and this only made sense with a transition this big. If things went south, I wanted a fall back to be able to feed my family.) My bosses there had graciously transitioned me into a fully online role (something I was very grateful for, especially as things developed). I was teaching four classes and managing a team of graduate students who were also teaching classes. It was the least of my worries–but it was another worry nonetheless.

In the midst of this, my wife, who had suffered from schizo-affective disorder, visited her new doctor. He took one look at her medication list and said, “You know this one here, Seroquel? You have a 5% cumulative increased chance each year of parts of your body just locking up and never working again. You’ve been on this ten years? We have to get you off of this medicine right now.”  Unfortunately, what the makers of Seroquel neglect to mention when they market their drug is that coming off of it is literally akin to coming off heroin. My wife suffered for months from massive mood swings and “itchy blood” where she would scratch her skin so hard that she scarred herself. This left her unable to sleep more than a few hours at a time.   With both of our fuses so short, there were nights we argued over some little, stupid thing from dusk to dawn.  Seriously,  the sun would be coming up and we’d still be going at it.  And then I would have to go to work again.

Were this not enough, while all of that was going on, my oldest daughter (number 2 having not yet arrived) began having panic attacks.

So…we had just moved to a new area; I was trying to learn a whole new career in constantly changing circumstances while maintaining a door into another one; I was trying to learn a whole new social culture; I was sitting up into the wee hours of the morning scratching my wife gently so she wouldn’t gash herself and draw blood; I was putting my daughter back to sleep from night terrors. (Did I miss anything? Probably.)

And then one day I went into work, as usual, sat down at my station with a Coke and got busy. I don’t recall how long I was there, but suddenly my vision began to grow dark.  A tunnel was closing in. I can remember seeing the Coke sitting on the desk, at the center of an ever shrinking circle. There was no pain, no discomfort. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.  I knew something was very wrong.  I checked my pulse–it was all over the place!

I almost sat back down at my desk. I didn’t want to look weak to the team or my trainer. I just wanted to get through the day and get home. Still, my mind was clear enough to know that if this was even a hint of something serious, I needed to get myself looked at. No one’s opinion in that building mattered if I was dead, after all. So, I checked out and headed to a walk-in clinic not far from our apartment. I expected they would tell me to go home and have a good rest.

They didn’t.

Within minutes of the doctor listening to my heart, she had me hooked up to an EKG. She told me that my heart was beating like I had suffered two or three major heart attacks.  She told me to call my wife and to not even think about going anywhere. As I heard the sirens of the ambulance screaming into the parking lot, I felt the familiar chest sensation–which had suddenly taken on a new meaning.

Yep. This wasn’t a good year.

_________

*It quickly became clear that there were no real standards in that shop. I don’t mean quality was low; rather there was no agreement on what a “good” product looked like (though they could spot bad ones easily enough). That reduced everything to the whim of the person checking your work and made personality and politics paramount.