“Oh no, now we’re that family,” my son Daniel said, his eyes wide in mock horror, and I realized he was right. We were in the waiting room of the ICU last Thursday when my sister-in-law Julie commented how sorry they were that our family had to experience yet another health crisis, after all we’d been through. We were now the family that everyone felt sorry for, the family no one ever wants to be in.
When I took my husband David to the Emergency Room in Dyersville last Thursday morning, I’d expected they would discover he was having a bad reaction to the pain medication he’d been prescribed on Monday for his shoulder pain; shoulder pain he’s experienced many times since his cancer treatment in 2006. Instead, we were informed that something was going on with my husband’s heart and he would be transported to Dubuque by ambulance. In shock, I don’t think I was truly aware of the ramifications of what we had just been informed of, and, in fact, the doctors and nurses did not seem to be overly concerned. They were joking with us and talking about the extreme couponing show because one of them recognized me as the writer of the weekly couponing column in the Telegraph Herald newspaper. I do remember David’s look of confusion when they mentioned an ambulance and him asking “Can’t Mary just take me?” I laughed at the incongruity of it all; hadn’t we just driven to Dyersville, talking about everyday things? How could my husband be having a heart attack?
I called our son Dan from the gas station where I was filling the van’s tank. I don’t remember what I said when I looked up and saw the ambulance pass by with the lights flashing, but something in my voice prompted my son to offer to give me a ride to the hospital. By the time we got to the hospital, we were told David was undergoing a procedure that could “fix” whatever it was that was going wrong with his heart. It still didn’t seem real, but when the cardiologist came out to speak to us, I do remember feeling as though the whole situation was surreal, that any minute now someone would tell us that David was fine and there was nothing wrong with his heart; that it was all a joke and we could go home.
“It was a big heart attack,” the cardiologist informed us. “One artery was completely blocked, the other one partially, so we had to put two stents in. We don’t know yet how much damage there was, but he will be in ICU for a few days. It was probably not his shoulder, but his heart that was causing his pain. Heart attacks are not like you see on television,” he continued, and I wondered how many people pictured Fred Sanford clutching his chest and yelling out, “This is it! The big one! I’m coming, Elizabeth!” when they imagined a heart attack. I knew David would have.
When Dan and I stepped into the elevator to go to ICU, a huge sign hanging on the wall inside declared the impending signs of heart attack; dizziness, breaking out into a cold sweat, nausea…symptoms David had experienced in two separate episodes in the previous few days. The only symptom he hadn’t had until that very morning was the heaviness and pain in the chest, and even then, those symptoms were mild when they did appear on Thursday. “When I breathe deeply in and out, I feel pain,” my husband had informed me. I called the doctor’s office and made an appointment for 3:00 that afternoon. An hour later, still sitting in the chair he’d slept in the night before because of shoulder pain, a look of confusion passed over my husband’s face. “Now when I breathe, a pain shoots to my other shoulder.” I decided right then that David shouldn’t wait until that afternoon to see a doctor, but when I called to report the new symptom they informed me we should head directly to the Emergency Room. David hesitated. He’d lost his insurance just two weeks prior. No one should have to make that kind of choice; between money and health. Just two weeks ago, David would have likely gone to the ER in the middle of the night when he’d felt cold and clammy, dizzy, and so sick he told me he “thought he was dying.” Instead, he lay down next to me, I wiped the sweat from his forehead and we waited to see if he got better. “Does your chest hurt?” I asked then, and he shook his head no. “Do you have any trouble breathing?” and he again shook his head no. “Just my shoulder hurts,” he responded, and shoulder pain was nothing new in his life since he’d gone through so much radiation in that area and the muscles had deteriorated. He’d taken copious amounts of Ibuprofen both times he felt like this, so we decided he should avoid taking it. Accounts on the Internet about ibuprofen allergies sounded much like what he’d experienced; nausea, sweating, dizziness. How were we to know that a heart attack could manifest itself without the chest pain? That centering on a familiar shoulder pain David began experiencing while raking in the yard meant we were missing a crucial period when the heart attack could have been happening? Was it Sunday night the heart attack happened, when David woke up in such agony that he opened up every bottle of pain reliever we had in our house? The pain was never in his chest, he’d had no trouble breathing, but when he came to me in the middle of the night and touched me with a cold clammy hand and asked what could be wrong, was it simply the fact that he’d lost insurance two weeks before that kept me from dialing “911?” No, David had fainted before, felt nauseated, broke out in a cold sweat~ these, too, were familiar incidents in our life post-cancer. It wasn’t until the heaviness in the chest that David experienced something unusual in his symptoms, and by then the damage had been done. David had experienced a heart attack, and not just a heart attack, but a “bad one,” one that left his heart damaged, about “50%” the cardiologist would tell us a day or two later.
During the first 24 hours with David in ICU, I had the odd sensation of feeling like I was doing it all wrong; that I wasn’t playing the part of the concerned wife correctly. While certainly concerned about David, my face felt funny. I touched it as I looked in the mirror in the family lounge bathroom. Was I supposed to be crying? When I smiled at my son and husband, did I look deranged? Did David know I love him? When I leaned over the hospital bed to tell him, he thanked me in a very serious tone of voice. Thank you. Thank you for loving me. His eyes mirrored the shock I was experiencing
When I left David Friday evening, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him for at least 24 hours. I’d be conducting a writing workshop all day Saturday, one that had been planned for months. I’ll see you tomorrow, I whispered to David, and he asked what time. When I answered that it might be 5:00 before I could get there, I saw his eyes go to the clock on the wall. In an hour? He asked, and I felt a stab of sadness. He’d been getting confused, with the medication or his low sodium level, we weren’t sure. Did he not realize I would be gone all day Saturday, even though I’d explained it several times and he’d assured me he would be fine? I headed to Hy-Vee when I left the hospital and mid-way through the store I felt tears running down my cheeks. I quickly left the store and sat in my van, crying. Soon my shoulders were shaking and I was gulping back noisy sobs that wouldn’t stop. I called my daughter. “What’s wrong with me? I can’t stop crying,” I asked, and we agreed that I’d had a delayed response. She handed the phone to my son, who assured me I was not crazy and it was normal to break down in a grocery store. Driving home, the stark reality hit. I could have lost David.
My grandson Jacob began his five-day chemotherapy session yesterday morning. My daughter Elizabeth is at the University of Iowa hospital with him. We have no idea how sick this particular type of chemotherapy might make him, nor what he faces ahead in a cancer treatment that will involve a stem cell transplant and continued chemotherapy. My husband is still in ICU and his two youngest children haven’t been able to visit him. All of this still feels like bad dream, but it is now our reality.
One of my sisters stops at my house with pizza for my children that first night; another brings a bowl of potato salad. Yet another takes Abby to the store to shop for food she and her sister would like to eat while they are alone at the house over the weekend. A card arrives at the hospital for David, another arrives at the house. One brother stops at the hospital with his wife that first night, another stops a couple of days later. My sister and brother-in-law visit David at the hospital on Sunday. My daughters bring over food, give me a ride to the hospital. My sons visit their Dad, give me a ride, feed my younger children.
It occurs to me; Yes, we have become that family, the family everyone feels sorry for. But we are also the family that loves each other, huddles together in a waiting room in support of each other, can turn to each other in times of need. My sons. My daughters. My siblings. I could call up one of my brothers or sisters right now and they would drop everything to help. I feel blessed.
Yes, we are now “that family.”
But thankfully, I have my family; that family.