A few days ago, we learned that Kim had a heart attack. Kim was pretty sure that’s what was happening when she was wading for Petoskey stones – a clenching tightness in her chest that was different from the array of pains that are part of her daily life. She has been dealing with fibromyalgia and arthritis for many years, and cancer and then surgery related back pain for the last several. But this was different, and she knew it. We sat on our Adirondack chairs as she described the pain and we discussed whether to call 911. I fetched her two aspirin from the house, but the pain was starting to release before she took them, and about 40 minutes after it began, the pain was gone. We sat there for about half an hour, waiting to see if there would be a return and vowing to call 911 if it happened. It didn’t. We made our way carefully up the stairs to the house. I held her hand firmly.
Later that afternoon we spoke with a doctor who was conveniently visiting our neighbors, Rick and Sandy. We described the symptoms to him, and he suggested that we see our physician “better sooner than later,” by which he meant “better sooner than too late.” We had appointments on Friday (this was Monday) for our annual physical with our family doctor, an excellent diagnostician, and we decided to wait. This may have been a mistake, but we got away with it.
Friday’s doctor’s appointment confirmed what he called “irregularities” on her EKG, what he described as a “T-wave inversion.” Though this was a term that I had not encountered as an English major, I knew that it was not a good thing.
We went from the doctor’s office to the cancer center for Kim’s monthly infusion and then spent much of the drive home processing the news. Kim says that during her attack she thought, “Better to die quickly of a heart attack than suffer a lingering painful death from cancer,” whose return she is awaiting, instantly adding, “but not yet.” (This echoes St. Augustine’s famous prayer, ““Lord, make me chaste – but not yet!”)We have been thinking in terms of our Ten-Year Plan, with five active years in our new house and then, maybe, five more somewhat compromised years. The prospect of sudden death changes all that.
One of the first changes we made, after committing to a healthier diet and daily walks, was to add to her “Five Wishes” end-of-life instructions, “NO CPR!” Chest compressions would mean a likely breaking of the cage apparatus enclosing her spinal cord, leading, most likely, to paralysis. Nope – rejected option in your mid-70s, though a possibility when younger.
The doctor said that he usually recommends a stress test following a heart attack like Kim’s, but he cautioned that a stress test sometimes itself leads to heart failure, and with Kim’s no CPR instruction, this might not be a good idea. They made an appointment for the stress test in a week, allowing that much time to think and talk it over. The other option, he said, is to “let nature take its course.” This is what she decided to do.
Kim told Ben, our grandson, “I’ll do whatever the hell I want, for as long as I can,” but we are making some changes. Thursday, before the official diagnosis, we decided to trade our new mattress for an upgrade to a bed that allows the head, knees and/or feet to be raised, with a wave and vibration functions. It’s an expensive version of the hospital bed we rented for Kim when she was rehabbing at home for a month following her surgery. Just in case. We are eating more oatmeal, less bacon and red meat, more veggies, less sugar – a tough one if you’ve tasted Kim’s scones, cookies and pies. Karen, our neighbor, has brought us cucumbers and lettuce – before she knew of the heart attack. We are talking about cutting our nightly drink. I wonder if talking about it is good for heart health.
Saturday found Kim planting flowers, almost as if nothing had happened. She did, however, ask me to dig a somewhat deep and difficult hole, and she took over watering our extensive new plantings because, she says, she finds it “relaxing” and “zen-like.” She pointed out to me that newly planted perennials don’t look great until the third year, which I think is a good thing. Our newly planted trees will start to fill out in 5-10 years. We are just about finished with the installation phase of our landscaping – and our lives – and we are moving into the maintenance phase.
Kim is pissed off at me for writing this, as calling attention to herself in this way is not her style, not who she is. But I need to write it for me, as a caretaker. Yesterday we worked with Rick and Sandy to build a small rock wall. Kim, with her stubborn German heritage, was right there with us, but she was only lifting the smaller rocks.