On the Late Unpleasantness

Honestly, the way this past June went, I'm kind of glad to see its backside.

The first few days of the month weren't too bad, but on the evening of Tuesday the 6th, our last full school day, I noticed a certain fatigue and achiness and decided to take my temperature when I got home. At 101.4 Fahrenheit, I felt entitled to take the next day off for a doctor's appointment, but I ended up missing the following Thursday, Friday, and Monday before the fever finally came down. My suspicion was Lyme disease, thanks to a recent tick bite, but the tests (when they eventually returned) came out negative.

What did develop, however, was shortness of breath and a loud, rasping cough, so I returned to the doctor's office and got the not-entirely-unsurprising diagnosis of pneumonia. That persuaded the doctor to give me a course of antibiotics (which I was pleased to note would dispatch any Lyme bacteria if the test had produced a false negative), but the cough remained essentially untreated. I purchased a second "family-size" bag of Ricola cough drops and bore down to wait it out.

After another week, though, it became apparent that the wheezing and cough, while diminished, were still lingering, so I made yet another appointment for the 28th. Upon listening to my chest, my physician pronounced the pneumonia gone--the wheezing and coughing were now originating not in my lungs, but in my throat--but my elevated pulse rate led her to give me an EKG. And that led to a whole new development: cardiac arrhythmia.

Whatever my health issues in the past have been--broken bones, high blood pressure, bad knees, extreme myopia--the one thing that has never failed me has been my cardiovascular system. To receive this news was therefore a distinct surprise, even though I do have a family history of the condition. In this case, my resting pulse was racing (over 100 beats per minute) and irregular, and after I paid a visit to the cardiologist's office the next day, I learned why that is a bad thing: not because the doctors feared my heart might stop, but because the rapid/irregular agitation of blood can lead to clotting. Having already gotten the Fear of Stroke Talk back when my blood pressure spiked (it's now well-controlled by medication and stress relief, thanks), it didn't take me long to see what I'd be doing over the next five days: damn near nothing. I would take my prescribed drugs to thin my blood and slow my heart rate (as well as the ones to open my breathing tubes and suppress my cough), and I would sit quietly at home. I read. I watched TV (finishing our third season of The Great British Baking Show). I farted around on the internet. I washed some dishes and cleaned the bathroom sink, but was really the only useful activity I can claim for those five days. And this morning I went back to see if my heartbeat might be returned to regularity through the use of an electric shock.

Electric cardioversion, as it's called, is a fairly common procedure. It involves the use of a defibrillator, the same sort of machine you'll find in many public places for emergencies, to send a charge of electricity into the heart.

Which stops it.

At this point, the heart basically reboots itself and begins beating in the normal sinus rhythm, and bye-bye arrhythmia, but there's no question that the patient's attention is rather inexorably drawn to that part reading "which  stops it." On Monday morning, I knew, I'd be going to the hospital so that they could deliberately stop my heart.

I have now had a chance to test the accuracy of Samuel Johnson's observation that "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Of course, I knew that the doctors' purpose was not to stop my heart permanently, but even the prospect of a temporary stop does throw open the mind's windows, providing a full view of the mortality outside. Every action becomes fraught with unwelcome significance: this burger with truffle fries could be your last meal, this matinee of 1776 could be your last movie, this word could be your last one shared with her... and is that really the one you'd want if it had to be your last?

And the change in perspective is complete. It's universal. It interrupts everything. All your plans are put on hold. The things you have not finished weigh on your mind, and the things you might perhaps complete before your deadline all scream for your final scraps of attention. You feel guilty for everything you do not do, and everything you manage to do seems unworthy of the precious time it takes.

It doesn't help if you're forced to sit around while your wife does all the cooking, and dog-walking, and household chores, either. You feel bad because you not only have an appointment in Samarra, but you're making somebody else go through the trouble of making your travel arrangements and packing your bags.

Luckily, I had two things on my side going into this appointment: one, a reasonable and proximate cause for my arrhythmia, namely my pneumonia. My doctor theorized that the extra stress being put on my cardiovascular system by my illness might be responsible for my heart's irregularity, and that therefore treating the symptoms might relieve that stress. Two, it is not at all uncommon for a heart to return to its usual beat on its own; this has happened in my family on no less than two occasions when the Big Shock was lined up and ready to be applied. I took no small comfort in this history, and when I took my pulse on Friday and counted out a regular 70-beat-per-minute rhythm, I felt confident that an EKG on Monday would show that I had converted.

And this morning, when the EKG showed exactly that, I felt not so much relief as satisfaction: I'd taken the proper medications, I'd practiced the necessary relaxation, and my heart had come through for me. I'll stay on the blood thinners for a few weeks, and I'll monitor my pulse as well, but otherwise I have a clean bill of health and can be as active as I like.

So that was June. I look forward to a much more pleasant July, and my family looks forward to finally getting a bit of work out of me. But as I consider what this episode has taught me, I don't think it's anything quite as straightforward as "Carpe diem" or "Memento mori" or any of the other lessons so universal they've been rendered in Latin for generations. I think perhaps it's an appreciation for the unavoidable absurdity that mortality lays on our final earthly moments. If my heart had stopped this morning, I would for all time have been halfway through Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, would still be frustrated by not having life birds in Mississippi and Georgia (Georgia! Fucking GEORGIA!), and would go to my grave knowing the last complete narrative work I had enjoyed involved watching Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt, hosts of the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot, dancing to the jingle of their new dinosaur-meat restaurant: "Flame-broiled, deep-fried crime against nature: MOON FOURTEEN!"

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 3, 2017 10:59 AM.

Of Cheeseburgers, Mnemonics, and "Army of Darkness" was the previous entry in this blog.

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