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The twist of fate behind my clogged artery | Guest column
Most of us tend to take a lot of things for granted. When something unexpected and sudden happens, we confront the reality that everything can be fine one minute, and the next your life can be turned upside down.
Not long ago, I was working at my computer when my right eye bothered me a little. I took my glasses off and rubbed my eye. Within minutes, I was totally blind in my right eye. It was a scary experience because you don’t know why it’s happening or if it’s going to be permanent. In your mind, you are saying “I don’t want to be blind!”
I was rushed to the medical center and immediately underwent testing to determine the cause. After preliminary tests were completed, the attending doctor told me I was lucky.
The “luck” apparently was in the fact that a piece of plaque had broken free and traveled through my bloodstream and lodged in my eye, causing temporary loss of vision. Had it not lodged in my eye and instead traveled to my brain, I was told, it would have resulted in a stroke.
Additional testing was ordered. After completing a carotid doppler test, I was referred to a vascular surgeon who reviewed the results and delivered the bad news. It appeared both my carotid arteries (your lifeline of blood flow to your brain) had serious issues. The right carotid was likely inoperable because it appeared to be totally obstructed, and the left was seriously blocked. The doctor immediately ordered a more sophisticated MRA/MRI test to see if the right carotid could be saved.
After the test was completed, he felt there was enough of an opening to restore the right side first. He told me major carotid endarterectomy surgery needed to be done right away. However, the risks were simply too high to do both at once, so it would involve two major surgeries within a period of weeks. In the meantime, I experienced five more incidents of loss of vision. It was a highly stressful period: I wondered if my luck would run out and the next one would be a major debilitating stroke.
In mid-September, I had the first surgery followed by recovery in the critical care unit. The surgery went well, and other than a scar from just below my ear to my throat, and some numbness that may be permanent, the first was behind me. My right eye was permanently damaged with slightly blurred vision. A little annoying at times, but considering what could have happened, it’s OK.
Six weeks later, the second surgery was performed. Once on the operating table, surgeons discovered the left carotid had what the doctor described as a “really ugly” ulceration in addition to the blockage. He explained that the wall of the artery had been significantly deteriorated and weakened and was probably in imminent danger of rupture, which is usually fatal unless you have access to immediate medical assistance.
Again, he advised me I was really lucky to have the surgery when I did. This time, I really did feel lucky. Recovery was in the intensive care unit (ICU). That’s where I quickly realized in spite of my situation, it really could be worse, and I was much more fortunate than my roommate.
Our beds in the ICU were separated by a cloth curtain that remained closed for the entire time. I could overhear many of the discussions with medical staff and my roommate. It was apparent my roommate had some serious issues and was in significant pain. He was counseled on the process of being fitted for a prosthesis and how to function with it. What struck me about what I heard was the positive attitude he displayed in spite of his problems.
Later that night, the voice from behind the curtain asked me what I was in for. After explaining my situation, his response was touching in the empathy he expressed. I asked him what he was in for, and his story made me almost embarrassed to talk about my problem, as it seemed minor in comparison.
He had been in the hospital for more than a month this time and was slated to go to the rehabilitation unit for several more weeks. He said this was one of his many hospital stays this year. I was curious as to what had brought all this on and how he was able to stay so upbeat in the face of such personal hardship.
His story relates directly to my point about how things can be fine one minute, and the next minute you are in a situation you could never have imagined. At 60 years old and three years my junior, he put into perspective how lucky we are to make it another year.
For him, it started as a very minor incident that spiraled into a life-threatening saga. His travails began when he got tangled up in some baling wire that had been left on the ground by one of his employees. He said he felt stupid even talking about it because he tripped and fell and suffered a minor puncture wound from the wire and injured his heel. He explained he had been in good health prior to that, and it just seemed like a minor thing at the time.
Over the next month, in spite of putting antiseptic cream on the puncture wound, it kept getting more inflamed and more painful. It reached the point he finally went to the doctor. To his utter shock and disbelief, the doctor indicated the infection was so severe, he was in danger of losing his leg above the right knee. Within a week, things deteriorated to the point he was in the hospital for emergency surgery to remove the leg. While undergoing the surgery, he suffered massive cardiac arrest and his problems compounded. After spending six weeks in the hospital, he was released to go home.
For several weeks afterward, he had a nagging pain in his back that he attributed to laying in a hospital bed for so long. After describing the pain to his doctor, tests were ordered. It was discovered he was suffering from cancer of the liver. Again, back to the hospital for surgery and again, while being operated on for the cancer, he suffered cardiac failure. That was what prompted his current hospital stay — a totally unexpected journey from a seemingly minor incident to having his whole world turned upside down.
As I was being discharged from the hospital, they wheeled me from my bed and out the room. The nurse stopped briefly so I could visit with my roommate for a minute. Previously, he was only the voice from behind the closed curtain. Now he was visible. He was a big man, and one who obviously had a physically active lifestyle that was going to change dramatically. He explained his small business had not really prepared him for retirement, and that in addition to the physical side, there were a whole host of issues he was going to have to address. He admitted it was frightening and uncertain, but he would survive somehow. He then turned the conversation, telling me to take care of myself, to eat right and walk. He told me that’s what he was going to do just as soon as he learned to manage his new prosthesis. His positive and upbeat attitude left me no doubt that not only will he survive, but he will thrive.
Sometimes when life throws things our way that seem difficult, it’s important to remember everything is relative and indeed, things could be worse.
Jerry Vaughn is a Federal Way resident.