Memorise the Room

By Sean McDermott

It was three years ago and some that I was taken to Brampton Hospital at breakneck speed with sirens and horns blasting and just myself and a paramedic in the back attempting to survive what seemed like the last lap of the Indy 500.

It was December, and although I was almost completely bed-ridden with the violent symptoms of End Stage Liver Disease and had retained enough water to fill a small decorative pond, I said goodbye to my daughter and my extended family as they planned to trek up to Caledon and fetch a tree for the coming Christmas season.  “I’ll be fine, “ I said reassuringly, for I had eaten well, I was in good spirits and the remote and the phone were on the bed beside me.  “Have fun.”

I had been suffering from some electrolyte management failures lately and had become accustomed to a heart arrhythmia that sounded like a beginner drummer.  He couldn’t come in on the one after a speedy drum solo. It had something to do with high potassium levels and the inability of my scrunched up liver to act normally. The family were gone about an hour when I started to feel the signs that something was wrong and it was escalating.  I developed a headache, was very thirsty and was disinterested in TV or reading. It was the TV thing that gave it away now that I look back, because it was a Sunday and there would have been a football game and nothing would have swayed my interest from that!

Before too long it occurred to me that I may have to call an ambulance if things got worse.  I had done this before so it wasn’t unusual to pick up the phone and describe symptoms to a stranger but I was always reluctant to make that decision until I was close to a panic.  I felt steadily worse and realised that I could feel my heart palpitate in my ribcage and that it wasn’t going away.  I took my pulse and it was racing and booming at times.  I checked my balance by walking downstairs and getting my bag with all my i.d and a book, a deck of cards and a fresh t-shirt and underwear.  I didn’t feel steady on my feet so I dialled the 3-digit magic number and lay down on the couch and waited.

First came the firemen, as usual, within a minute with questions, tracking mud through my mother’s living room, then the paramedics.  They whisked me onto the gurney and practically flung me in the back of the ambulance with an ECG attached sounding like a car that had been broken into.  There was one paramedic with me who radioed ahead that I had headaches, was very thirsty and that I was “V-taching” from 180 down to 50 repeatedly. In my best polite tone I asked him what that meant and he told me that my heart was flip flopping between a very high rate and an extremely low rate intermittently.  I enquired at what moment I should panic and he looked me in the eyes, like in a movie, and said, “ If I panic, you should panic”.  I felt better, at least about not freaking out.  He needed to insert an i.v and I helped him since Mario Andretti up front was not slowing for anything and at 100kmh we were bouncing around in the back.

On arrival there were the familiar sounds of the ambulance doors opening and the floor locks clicking open and I was carried down with a bump, like a bad landing, to the ground and wheeled in to the wide well lit hall of the hospital directly in front of triage.  Thankfully, I had skipped rolling through the waiting room and they were transferring my health card to the triage nurse on duty. The ECG was still ringing like an alarm clock an alarm clock every 30 seconds and there was a lot of activity around my portable bed.  I kept my eyes transfixed on my paramedic hero, and he kept asking me how I felt and telling me to relax.  He seemed to be panicking a little but I was breathing steadily and remaining calm as the parade of medical caregivers marched their band around me. I heard repeated requests for a bed and “it’s almost ready, one minute!” was the reply.  I leaned my head toward the wall and focused on a straight line and things started to get blurry.  My headache had disappeared but I couldn’t see so well so I told the paramedic and he shouted out “he’s losing vision”. Then I realised that everything was becoming muffled and I tried to focus on the ceiling and breathe.  I was only breathing lightly now, whereas before I had been taking in long slow buckets of air, now I was taking tablespoons.  I told him this just as my vision went out, and the last words I heard were about “no vision and no breathing”.  I realised that I was now perfectly relaxed and out of that situation.  I sensed no alarm anymore as I slipped away. “I’m dying”, I thought. I was then interrupted by the last notion that my 11-year-old daughter would return from Christmas tree cutting to the news that her Dad had died in hospital.  For a moment I regretted that I had never discussed that this might happen someday and we had never had a plan for how she could talk to me if I were gone. Everything went out.

Sometime after that I felt the cool air of oxygen in my nostrils and came back slowly, looked up at my hero and smiled.  My heart had started up again! What a moment! I had actually checked out, popped my clogs, hung up the boots, shed this mortal…wow! About one month after this I sat down with my daughter and told her what I had felt and thought when I was dying, and we worked out a plan for what she could do afterward, if it happened again, and how we could still reach each other.  It remains private.

They stabilised me and put me in a private room and monitored my progress from an attached more elaborate ECG. There was a phone.  Nobody knew that I was here, especially my family who were probably drinking hot chocolate, waiting for a hayride and telling jaunty tree-cutting stories that grew taller than the trees. My instinct as always was to call someone and since I had not seen a nurse in an hour and had memorised every corner of the room including the ceiling, I chose to call my soon to be ex girlfriend to wish her a happy anniversary since it was three years to the day that we had first dated.  Things had been strained lately between us and we had even agreed to take a break because the pressure of my illness and the lurking chronic alcoholism that had caused it had put some gap between us.

I picked up the phone and called her.  I hadn’t talked to her for about three weeks and she seemed taken aback.  I wanted to wish her a happy anniversary and to hang on with her for dear life but I began with the usual polite questions to gauge her response and then asked her if she had moved on and dated anyone since we had agreed to part for awhile.  I expected that she would say no and that she would rush to my side and comfort me and all would be well again and I would live and help decorate trees and such.  Instead she replied “ oh boy, what am I gonna do with you?” and then gave me the gory details about going out a few times with a guy in some light-hearted remnant of a tone.  I excused myself said goodbye, didn’t wish us happy anniversary and rolled over uncomfortably shut my eyes and cried for about half an hour, cried hard.

A nurse entered my room and noticing that I was visibly upset asked me how I was feeling.  She said “why didn’t you call a nurse if you were in pain?”  I told her that I was alright and that I was having a hard time dealing with an emotional crisis and then I poured my heart out to her, which felt good.  She had the usual kind and bulls-eye appropriate words to make me feel better and suddenly I had a thought and I started grinning and then smiling.  She finished taking my vitals and asked me what was so funny.  I told her that at least my sense of humour was intact because here I was hooked up to i.v’s, ECG, and oxygen.  She said that my heart had not come back to normal yet and there was evidence that I could have another episode.  I laughed and said to her, “ you know what I just realised about the phone call that I made and the outcome of that, and feeling so miserable? She said “what”, starting to smile herself.

I said “I’m glad I was in cardiology, hooked to an ECG, when my heart was broken!” And we both laughed our heads off and repeated it a few times and she said “you alright now?” and I guess I was.

Click to see other stories by Sean McDermott.