Robert Rufa: The ride of my life — with sirens

It’s the morning of May 31, a day shy of the 18-month anniversary of my heart attack. I’m feeling a little odd when I get up but otherwise semi-OK. After breakfast and halfway through my coffee I decide to check my blood pressure, even though I’d taken my meds only a few minutes earlier. The monitor says my heart rate is 30 at first, then just says “Error.” Uh-oh. I’ve heard of runner’s heart, but that’s a little low. I check it on two other devices. Same thing.

So I call the triage nurse at the VA, tell her what’s up, and ask what I can do to bring it up. “Nothing,” she says, then tells me to get to the ER as quickly as possible — as in call 911. I call, and within minutes the EMTs come in force, sirens roaring. Dang, I hate drawing attention to myself. They finally get me in the vehicle, get me all strapped down, hooked up, and poked with an IV needle. And as they begin to roll, they call the VA ER with the info and their ETA. VA says “Divert to Mission.” Huh?

The EMT explains that this means the VA can’t handle it, which means it’s worse than serious. “Total heart blockage,” he calls it. So here we are underway, sirens roaring, and already I’m thinking “I want to go home.” Then my son arrives, and he’s worried. I tell him I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to anyone.

In the ER they do some preliminaries, then get me up to Cardiac ICU, where I am again poked and hooked up to monitors — only to find they can’t get a blood pressure reading and have to do it with the manual cuff. Meanwhile, my heart rate is bouncing around between about 15 and 30, and someone explains that the heart chambers have stopped communicating.

The following morning I wake up, which means I’m still alive. Since I’m about to have an echocardiogram, I’m not given food. After the echo, a nice cardiologist tells me he’s gotten my records from the VA and that my heart is a lot stronger than it was almost two years earlier, and that a pacemaker would now be a viable option. Not so last year. He heaps praise on my VA cardiologist for whatever she did that enabled me to beat the odds.

The next morning they do a heart catheter to see if there have been any changes since my last one. Afterward they tell me my heart stopped five times during the procedure, and they had to connect a temporary pacemaker. For this reason, a permanent pacemaker becomes urgent, so that is done later Tuesday. That evening I finally eat, and the food is surprisingly decent. Ditto breakfast the next morning. And by 1 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, my son is driving me home.

By the time you read this, I’ll have had my follow-up exam at Asheville Cardiology and I’ll be driving to the grocery store again — better than before, they say.