Craig Wisner

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Rekindling.

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Rest is good, each day a little better than the last.  There’s still chest pain and heart inflammation, especially when I shift positions abruptly or go from standing to laying down, but it’s subsiding slowly.  My heartrate is a little fast and hard, but it’s regular.   Bleeding has stopped and my fever is almost gone.  Things are certainly looking up.

There is so much art on my mind.  I’d highly recommend the photographers above.  In the midst of the troubles I’ve been facing, there’s also been a lot of time to think about other things.  New projects, ideas, inspirations.  In a day or two I expect I’ll feel well enough for a little time in the studio with some wood or clay.  I’m purchasing a new bandsaw today, my mind racing with ideas for wooden utensils to compliment my pottery, namely chopsticks and spoons to accompany bowls.  A few large chunks of black walnut sit in my shop, waiting to be formed.

I’m on a ramen kick right now.  Not actually eating it, but contemplating whether or not a perfectly cooked bowl of ramen or soba in a quality bowl with good utensils is the ultimate expression of art in my world.  Not a creation that hangs on a wall and screams of ideas and for attention, but a collection of processes, skills, and objects that combine to become perfect in the moment.  Humble, simple, practical art.  Accessibility, functionality, and transience without getting the ego hopelessly involved.

I’m also thinking a lot about alternative surfcraft and bodysurfing.  I likely will not be able to ride a surfboard for the next six months because of the blood thinners I’m taking and cutting/concussion risks, but I’m actually looking forward to devoting some serious time and practice to bodysurfing.  I have a few ideas for new bodysurfing handplanes to make, maybe even a small paipo (bellyboard).  Below is a recent handplane I was able to take out a few times prior to surgery.  Carved from cherry with two concave channels on the bottom and finished with a few coats of sanding resin, I liked the fit and feel.  I’m still not entirely sold on handplanes though I have fun making them.  They allow you to make sections on smaller waves but are a bit of a swimming nuisance in large or steep surf.

The coming months are also going to be a good time to grab my GoPro and strap on some fins to try my hand at surf photography, providing I can keep from getting run over.

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Ever onward.

Strange Rhythms. (Part 4)

I’m on the other side now.

Thursday was my transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE), a scan performed to check for blood clots in my heart prior to surgery, to make sure nothing can get dislodged by a catheter and cause a stroke.  If you have a strong fear of choking or things in your throat, which fortunately I’m not too bad at, this one would be a nightmare.  I kept telling myself it was practice for sword swallowing.  The morning starts with the usual four attempts to get an IV started, the doctor becoming impatient as he keeps returning to find the nurse still struggling.  My arm is a bloody mess by the time we have a line going.  They’re in a hurry, the blood can wait.  In comes the echocardiograph machine with the same operator I remember from a few weeks ago; she remembers me because of my tattoos and expresses hope that I’m not in here because of something she found inside me.

I was under the impression that the TEE was performed with a skinny wire and did a double-take when I saw a two foot long flexible black probe about as thick as my pointer finger.  The tech met my look with a shrug and slight smirk.  This is probably the part where a lot of people try to run away.  I was given a cupful of lidocaine jelly to let sit at the back of my throat and gargle and swallow, followed by a few sprays of another topical anesthesia.  Instant panic.  Along with not being able to feel whether or not I could swallow, it started to become difficult to feel my own breathing.

And then a shot of sedative in my IV.  Whatever it was, it was good.  All the fear instantly subsided. I see how people go off the deep end on medical grade drugs.  And then another shot.  Even better.  I melted into the gurney, feeling more relaxed than…ever?  Alarm bells should have been going off when a plastic tube and mask were strapped onto my face to hold my mouth open and prevent me from biting down.  But I was just too comfortable.  When the probe was in the back of my throat they told me to swallow, creating a brief opening so it could be forced down.  Once down in my esophagus behind my sternum it was a pretty strange and uncomfortable sensation; literally that of hard metal and plastic rubbing around somewhere deep in my chest.  As they flexed and rotated it while scanning my heart I lay there passively in my drug-induced haze, surprisingly not worried about what was being done to me, though it was uncomfortable.  An entire life could go by and it wouldn’t bother you in that state.  Thirty minutes later the scan was finished and the probe was pulled out with one swift, horrible tug.  I was cleared for surgery and they began prepping me for the next morning; some final bloodwork and getting shaved from knees to chest.  I was discharged with an incredibly hoarse and raw throat, getting worse as the drugs wore off and the day wore on.

The night before surgery went by in a blur.  I did a fairly good job of not thinking about it.  The drive to the hospital at 6AM the next day felt a little like a trip to the gallows, filled with complete uncertainty as to what was going to happen.  It’s the waiting that makes you crazy.  While I stood in line to check in, it was difficult looking at my wife, mother, and sister sitting in the waiting room together.  These are my people, the ones that pull together.  I couldn’t help feel that while they were obviously there for me, I wouldn’t know it when I was out.  They were just as much there for each other and it was good to see them together.  Other families filed in, probably five in all, forming little units units of kinship throughout the room.  I couldn’t help but notice that all of the patients were men.

One by one, nurses filed in to call respective patients and lead them off to be prepped.  Deep breaths, hugs, tears welling behind eyes.  Soon it was my turn, led down a hall and to my gurney.  Undressing, starting IVs, meeting my nurses, anesthesiologist, my surgeon.  I’m told about the procedure, that my surgeon is now opting for cryo-ablation, a process whereby instead of using heat, cold balloons will be inflated around the openings of my pulmonary veins in the left atrium.  The extreme cold will destroy any bad electricity, isolating the veins and the bad signals they are producing.  It is supposed to carry slightly less risk than using heat.  I’m then dutifully reminded of what those risks are, informed that there is a possibility I could end up in open-heart surgery, or worse, due to certain complications.  At this point there’s nothing left to do but agree and move on.

Family was let in for a last goodbye. Everything said tends to feel like it falls a little short.  There’s not enough that can be said or done by any of us.  We can only try.  They can’t go down that hall with me so they turn to each other.  I make the walk with my head up, escorted by a nurse and anesthesiologist.  It’s all-in at this point and I’m feeling alert but not nervous.  All I can do is what I’m told.

The surgery room is like the command center of a space station.  A bank of a dozen monitors hover over the table in the center.  The table is also part machine, a massive rectangular block covered in knobs and controls, likely those to be used to guide the catheters and probes inside me.  Machinery, wires, hoses, computers, and tools are everywhere.  Drugs that will induce arrhythmia so they can focus in on the electrical sources.  The ceiling is covered in cameras and scanning devices.  And the system begins to roll, inertia quickly building, orders and confirmations flowing between the staff.  My surgeon is getting dressed in the back as nurses and techs hurry in circles around me.  Electrodes, patches, IVs…I’m being synced with the machines that surround me, every facet of my physical existence being measured and displayed on a screen.  I hear the surgeon beginning an audio recording in the corner with my name and the time and date as nurses begin propping up my arms and padding and securing my head.  The anesthesiologist puts an oxygen mask on me and tells me to take a few deep breaths and that if I feel sleepy, to just go with it and keep breathing.  Here we go.  By my third breath I’m gone.

I was in surgery for seven hours.

Or more precisely, my body was in surgery for seven hours.  I don’t know where I was.  I am convinced that this is what death is, only without waking and remembering that place of nothingness.

But I do eventually awaken.  Images are fading in and out slowly.  A nurse talking to me.  Lights.  Then Lusi and my mother and sister, the curtains of the recovery room.  I’m incredibly disoriented and feel like I need to throw up.  I here someone very far away tell me the surgery went very well, a vague image of my surgeon standing there, and blackness again.  I remember saying goodbye to my mother and sister, more blackness.  I start coming to in another area, still fighting nausea.  Slowly things start to become more clear.  Lusi is beside me.  I’m told again that everything went well and the surgeon is very happy with the results, that he believes he wiped out all the bad pathways.  I start to become aware of a nagging pain in my chest, pressure, and a feeling of tightness.  There is a heavy sandbag on my groin, applying pressure to the catheter sites.  Three incisions were made on the left, one larger one on the right.  It feels like I’ve been kicked in the groin a few times.  I have to stay completely flat for the next six hours.  The biggest concern at the moment is making sure I’m not bleeding; the risk is high as I’m on blood thinners.  My throat is sore and lungs feel congested.  I cough a chunk of blood and become suddenly aware of the discomfort of the urinary catheter that I didn’t know I had.  They assure me everything is OK.  It’s very difficult to believe them given the circumstances.  Six hours is a long time to lay flat and still when your body is wracked by all sorts of strange sensations and pains.

It’s a very long night.  I’m exhausted but sleep won’t come.  Closing my eyes only causes me to immediately focus on the sensations throughout my body.  Instead of relief there seems to be more fear and anxiety on this end of the surgery than when I went in.  All of this is apparently based on faith.  On letting go.  On complete trust that when they tell you things are fine that they are, despite what you may be feeling or fearing.  Minutes tick by on the clock.  1AM.  2AM.  Lusi stays the night with me.  She’s been so good to me throughout all of this, dealing with all my irrationality and fear and anxiety, the sleepless nights, constantly giving.  I’d have certainly gone mad without her there, her presence and distraction being entirely necessary to keep from entering a panic. The night is a haze of waiting, nurses taking vitals, and laying there in discomfort until I’m eventually released to go with instructions and a new bag of medications the next day.  It is a huge relief to be set free, to be outside and on my way home.  It is also a time of great stress as I’m now on my own, left to deal with all the strange feelings and pains without the security of doctors and nurses nearby.  It is a little hard to believe that I’m ready to go home given what has just been done to me.  Fighting back this fear and anxiety seem to be the the first hurdles of recovery.  I’m new to this.

I come home to hand drawn “Welcome Back” signs from my children, who also saw it fit to hide and try to jump out and surprise me, no doubt the doctor recommended way of welcoming home someone who has just had heart surgery.

I lose it, they lose it, and we’re a mass hugs and tears.

And now it’s healing time.  Sleeping time.  Time to try and overcome anxiety and fatigue and chest pains and simply rest.

Onward.

___________

A Will Oldham song and video that somehow make too much sense to me right now:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBJ4ekzclPk

Strange Rhythms. (Part 3)

Leading up to the procedure is medication and testing.  CT scans and echocardiograms, mapping of my heart for the work to be done.   This was my first experience with marker dye; a strange warmth emanating outward from my heart as I heard the machine start pumping fluids into my IV while another machine whirs in circles around me. I’ll be put to sleep for another scan, this one a probe that goes down my esophagus to be closer to the heart to search for clots.   I’m not much of a technology aficionado, but I’m more than happy to have it when it comes to this.  I have to imagine that 30 years ago the treatment I’m currently receiving would have been out of the question.

I’ve been undergoing Warfarin treatment, an anticoagulant that will help lower my risk of stroke from clots generated by the condition or the procedure.  Unfortunately, despite my feeling completely normal, Warfarin essentially turns you into a hemophiliac.  I cannot risk cuts, bruises, or especially head injuries/internal bleeding.  Activities that take me out of the range of immediate medical help are out, as is surfing due to concussion and cutting risks.  I will be on the drug for one month leading up to the procedure and for three months after.  Over the course of  having my blood tested every two to three days to check its effectiveness,  I’ve also found that I have difficult veins; it takes on average three or four sticks with the needle to draw blood.  The joy.  I look like a junky with heavy bruising in the crooks of both elbows.  Fortunately my dosing appears stable and I was cleared today for being tested only once a week.  It may not seem like much, but this has been a huge relief.  The testing itself is not so bad, though I’m not excited about needles, it’s the fact that I’m constantly in and out of hospital waiting rooms.  I’m looking forward to being off of it completely; it’s my understanding that Warfarin originated as a pesticide/rat poison.  I can’t help think of the strangeness of this every time I swallow a handful of little pink pills.

It’s strange seeing my blood so thin.  Lighter red in color, flowing like water.  Small cuts leak for a day, needle holes from a blood draw ooze four an hour.

Surgery is fast approaching, only two days away now.  I have found, as advice confirms, that reading on the internet about procedures soon to be performed on you is not helpful, will have no bearing on the outcome, and only serves to heighten one’s anxiety.  I cannot say I’ve dealt with this process very well in the last few weeks, slipping into a mild depression.  Combined with the Warfarin and the inability to do what I’m used to doing, especially surfing, it’s hard not to feel like something is wrong with me.  It serves as a stark reminder of how attached I’ve become to the ocean in recent years.  The greatest outlet that I possess for stress release is the one I can’t use…in the time I need to use it the most.  While I can swim and bodysurf, I’ve mostly held off.  I don’t want an injury or mishap to push my surgery date back.  Once I’m through the surgery, I’m more comfortable getting back in the ocean, despite still being on Warfarin for a few months.  In many ways I carry guilt that I’m not dealing with this better, thinking of all of those who go through far worse, who have to make decisions that carry far greater risks.  I suppose events like this are a learning process.  That’s not to say there’s no reason for me to worry, but at times I feel like I’ve been dealt a relatively easy hand compared to….

Compared to what?  This is all I know.  Comparisons are not helpful, yet I still exist in a mental space fluctuating between guilt and fear and trying to simply let go.

Scott Spitz of Run Fast. Run Vegan. has been a big inspiration to me over the last few weeks.  I’ve read his blog for a few years and have been following his recent struggle with stomach cancer. While it feels selfish to find strength by comparing my situation to someone’s that is far worse, his story has certainly helped inspire me to begin to adopt a much more positive, fighting attitude towards what I have to undergo.  His resolve is motivating.

I’ve tried my best to begin to foster a more fatalistic attitude, to stop thinking about it and just show up to do what I have to do and take it from there.  Again, it is in the quiet spaces that I have a hard time; in dreams and in my thoughts while going to bed.  But I am now feeling more ready to do this than I was weeks ago, if anything, to just end the waiting and anxiety.  I’m ready to turn the page. 

Strange Rhythms. (Part 2)

Dr. V. skips me passed the admitting areas and straight into the hands of a paramedic for another EKG and processing for a room in Emergency Care.  At this point everything speeds up; people do what they are trained to do and inertia builds.  I’m wheeled to the front of the line, top priority.  Our hospitals don’t know how to go slow; everything is immediately geared towards expecting the worst, doctors and nurses and techs charging full steam ahead.  I soon find myself on a gurney in a room with an IV drip, injections going into my IV line, an unknown injection in my stomach, pills, an oxygen mask, oximeter, and a wiring harness connecting me to monitors.  The rapid, irregular beating of my heart beeping on the monitor is driving me insane.  I’m told I have to try my best to calm down, that my heart rate is too high, that I have to do anything I can to relax.  I tell them to turn off the beeping if they expect me to relax.  They can’t.

My heart rate isn’t responding to drugs, at one point pushing 180 BPM laying prone.  It’s as if my heart is running a sprint.  I’m told in a matter-of-fact way that I can have a heart attack if I have a sustained high rate for too long.  They’re giving me more medications to lower my pulse, hoping to also make it more regular.

Three different doctors come through within the hour, each asking the same questions.  I retell my story over and over.  I’m told that due to the irregular rhythm, blood can pool in the atria and form clots, putting me at a very high risk of passing a blood clot and having a stroke.  Until now, I have never envisioned having a stroke.

I’m utterly powerless, laying there and staring at the clock, vividly aware of the wild sensations in my chest, trying to get myself to stay calm.  They’re making it sound as if I could die any minute and I haven’t even had time to call my wife.  Dr. V.’s words echo somewhere in my mind.  At around midnight a doctor enters with an advanced directive form, asking if I’d like to be resuscitated should my heart fail.  I stare at her blankly, trying to process.  She answers for me, saying I’m young, that she assumes I’d like to be resuscitated.  I say yes.  I’m asked if I’d like to be kept alive via feeding tube should I lose my ability to swallow.  I answer no, but she instructs me that I should check the “let’s temporarily give it a try” box.  I’m baffled to be in this situation given I was eating Thai food with my wife eight hours earlier.  Nothing is making sense.

That feeling of resignation I experienced as a teenager begins to take hold.  I start thinking that I should unhook myself from these machines and just go sit outside.  The smells, the sounds, the lighting; I hate this place.  I understand that one of the greatest fears all of us civilized humans share is dying in a hospital…and yet that fear is based on reality as that is how most of us will die.  I want to tell them to let me go outside and get some fresh air, to just unhook me.  If I am to die, I’d almost rather it be out on Sunset Blvd. under the stars instead of under these fluorescent lights surrounded by strangers doing their respective jobs on me.  “You’re so young…” the nurses keep telling me.

Medications taking effect, things finally begin to slow down.  I’m left alone longer, the blood tests slowly become less frequent.  Troponin I is a protein released if the heart is in failure; I was being tested every 15 minutes for it.  I’m afraid to call Lusi but eventually find the down time to do so; I lose it when she picks up the phone, I swallow back tears trying to explain the situation in a rational and collected way as my throat keeps seizing.  I want nothing more than to be with her and the kids.  Then I could get through this.

Sometime in the middle of the night I’m transferred to a new room for a longer stay.  A crash cart and heart monitor ride at the foot of the gurney; I catch a few concerned glances as I’m being wheeled down the hall and my heartbeat is audibly wild, heard beeping through the machine.  Yet everything appears relatively stable now.  I do not show any of the protein markers for heart failure.  The problem begins to present itself, slowly becoming more clear to the doctors as they piece my symptoms and tests together.  Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation with no underlying disease.  They order an echocardiogram to see if there are any physical abnormalities.  The night becomes a blur of medications and blood drawings, my heart monitor alarm going off every time I shift my body in the bed.  And the waiting.   I’m terrified that the scan will reveal some terrible gift from my ancestors; a faulty valve, a heart enlargement, some unexpected deformity.

The nurses are afraid I’m losing it, sitting in the room with the lights off, no TV, door closed.  Admittedly, I don’t deal with illness well, retreating into a depression.  They want to cheer me up, coming in every 15 minutes asking if I want to watch something, do something.  Fluorescent lights and bad television are not the answer though.  Lusi arrives early the next day; having her at the bedside immediately makes this more bearable.  Again, I am choked up, confused, emotional. She’s in the room and listens to my heart valves during the echocardiogram, a high pitched swishing coupled with an abstract image pulsing on the screen in black and white.

I’m eventually cleared to go home, heart rate wild and erratic but deemed stable enough for discharge.  I’m given prescriptions and instructions.   I’m assured that I will not drop dead, though I’m reminded that I’m at high risk for stroke while in this unnatural rhythm.  I’m told to rest, to take the week off of work.  I ride home with my head out the window, savoring air and natural light, optimistic that whatever happens next, at least it will happen outside of that hospital.  I get home, eat, and sleep for 16 hours.

I’m afraid of my heart and its strange rhythm.  I squirm on the couch, taking repeated deep breathes, hoping to somehow calm it down.  I’m winded by light exertion, my heart immediately jumping into fits of hard beats, premature ventricular contractions.  I play video games with my son, just as I played games with my father when he was ill.  After fives or six days of movies and laying around the house, I feel well enough to return to work, light headed from medications, yet determined to try and act normal.  Again, the resignation sets in.  Being scared becomes too tiring.  I try to forget, to ignore the strange beats drumming from my chest as I’m teaching.  My students are very supportive, coming forward to volunteer and keep me from doing anything strenuous.  Some ask what it feels like.  I describe it as a fish out of water flopping around in my chest.  A student suggests that perhaps the problem is that I have a goldfish instead of a heart.  I hadn’t considered it.  “How’s the old goldfish today, Wisner?” becomes the norm.  This is why I like teenagers.

Ten days later I have my first appointment with a new cardiologist and my options are presented, most involving a life on medications, all of which will have their own range of mild to serious lifestyle-altering side effects.  I am informed that in the majority of cases this condition only gets worse with time.  The fact that I have been in sustained AFib for 10 days is already a bad omen, making it less likely I will come out of it naturally.  If I’m in the rhythm much longer, the diagnosis changes to “chronic” and treatment options change.  The cardiologist eventually informs me about catheter ablation, a process in which wires and a camera will be fed into my heart through the femoral vein, pierce the septum between the atria, and get guided into the left atrium.  They will detect and burn out the bad electrical signals originating from around the pulmonary veins in my left atrium, the cause of the fibrillation. The risks are relatively low, though serious, such as stroke or nerve damage or bleeding, but estimated at less than 4% on the whole.  However, it is believed I have a 60-70% chance that this procedure will end the problem for good.  The longer the condition is left untreated, the more permanent it typically becomes, thus limiting treatment options, as the heart begins to actually make the bad electrical pathways permanent.  The cardiologist flat-out says if he were in my position, at my age and health, he’d choose the ablation procedure.  Sitting there with my heart beating wildly, I immediately agree.  Anything to make it go away.  In my naivete I was hoping I’d be scheduled for the next day and I’d be on my merry way.  Not so.  Instead I was informed it would take over two months, with many tests, procedures, and medications to be used along the way.  I’m now scheduled for September 5th.

I was cleared for “light” exercise, assured that despite how weird I feel, I wouldn’t drop dead, that my problem is electrical.  I was encouraged to listen to my body and take it easy.  Which I of course interpreted to mean I could go surfing.    Nearly two weeks without much activity, let alone being in the ocean, I’m ecstatic to get out.  The following morning I paddle out alone at 5:30 AM, rhythm still irregular, thankful the waves are relatively small.  Getting outside the breakers leaves me winded, my heart rate high, and I’m not sure if this is going to work.  But being back in the water alone is sheer ecstasy, washing away so much of the stress and fear almost immediately.  I catch a few small waves, simply enjoying the morning.  John soon meets me there and somewhere during the joy of riding waves and tumbling underwater I forget about my heart.  I’m just surfing, everything else has vanished.  I try to scare John a few times, stiffening and falling off waves while clutching my chest in agony.  Despite the comedy, I’m certainly more at ease out there knowing that he was an ocean lifeguard; I’d bet on John more than anyone else I know to haul a limp body out of the ocean.  About 45 minutes into our morning I’m greeted by a dolphin pod.  Dolphins always cheer me up, the closer, the better, and I take this as a gift, a fleeting moment that sparks an immediate appreciation for being part of this world.   One comes straight at me in a wave as I paddle out, another swimming beside me.  I wonder if they can hear or feel my heart, if their echolocation clicks are penetrating my chest, if they feel my weird electricity.

I feel surprisingly good and take my pulse when I get out of the water.  My heart rate has converted back to a regular rhythm, the first time in over 12 days.  It feels so good to feel normal.  That I have been cured by dolphins is the only rational explanation I will accept.

With the exception of a few flutters and spells lasting only seconds, I’ve been in a normal rhythm ever since.

I get to go back to life and pretend everything is fine- until I find myself alone in quiet spaces and the silence amplifies my thoughts.  I cannot help but imagine a thousand different lives, a thousand outcomes, a thousand deaths.

 

Strange Rhythms. (Part 1)

Strange rhythms and palpitations.  Lying in the darkness feeling like a fish was flopping around inside my chest, I was at times convinced I was going to die, cold fear and anxiety washing over me in floods.  The episodes were typically short lived, though eternal in my mind, but I was able to endure them and eventually fall asleep or forget.  Though it happened as far back as my late teenage years, I don’t know why I never went to a doctor.  It’s strange the sort of denial we foster about our bodies and our fears.  Perhaps that denial is simply the dread of having those fears affirmed by a professional, being told that we are in fact sick, as opposed to pretending it might be something else.  Until that confirmation, we can shrug off strange sensations and pains and call them stress or anxiety or not enough rest.  I have dealt with the heart episodes long enough that I actually grew so tired of being afraid that I simply accepted whatever was to come.  I specifically remember a night in which I lay in bed, heart racing and sputtering, resolved that if I was going to die then I would die, but I was not going to be afraid anymore.  In this resignation I was free, temporarily, from the panic surrounding the sensations I would feel.  In letting go there is peace, coupled with avoidance.

I was told my father spent an entire night suffering while sitting upright in a dark living room, fighting chest pain and heart failure, refusing to go to a hospital.  I have to wonder if the motivations for his stubbornness were the same as mine, if he too resigned himself to possibly die right there on the spot rather than face questions and hospitals and confirmations that yes, Mr. Wisner, you are very sick.  At least in uncertainty we can lie to ourselves.

His death from heart failure when I was eighteen years old has caused me to forge a complicated relationship with my heart.  I imagine that a normal person doesn’t think about their heart very much, as it should be.  The silent engine, faithfully pounding away, governed on its own accord; there is nothing to think about.  A healthy person has no reason to fear it will simply stop, that there will be some great and sudden malfunction, a misfiring of electricity or a muscle starved of oxygen and withering.  My heart has been a constant source of anxiety, but especially since his death; I had become convinced that besides some books and a watch, my father left me a defective heart.  I am possessed by a hyper-awareness of what my heart is doing; the rate, the strength of each beat, every twitch and ache, the pulsing in my temples most often being the last thing I think about before drifting to sleep.

I have managed to silently cope with all the strange behavior of my heart, having developed a dubious assortment of my own strategies to try and mitigate the physical sensations and the anxiety they produce.  Breathing, meditation, imagery.  Or when those failed, simply squirming on the couch with nervousness while watching a movie with my wife, trying not to let on how uncomfortable I was. I became very good at calling the fits of strange beats “anxiety”.  2004 finally found me at the doctor’s office reporting my experiences.  I was given an EKG, which came out normal, followed by a pat on the back, and assurances that somebody so young and healthy wouldn’t be having heart issues.  But I knew the results before they even did the test.  I knew they wouldn’t find anything as I felt the sensations stop about thirty minutes before arriving.  Yet I chose to believe them, because I desperately wanted to.  I was told to see someone about managing anxiety and stress.  I did.  I was given my choice of 3 or 4 different prescriptions to help and I passed.

On a Friday evening at the end of May of this year I had a particularly bad episode, preceded by a week of more frequent episodes than normal.  In addition to the rate being very high and erratic, there was a sensation of pressure I had never experienced, a tightness extending up into my throat. My heart was working far harder than it ever had before.  I tried to ignore it but couldn’t; I found myself out of breath and getting slightly dizzy while trying to work.  I went to the bedroom to relax and close my eyes, attempting to counter it with calm, but lying in the dark stillness only heightened my awareness of everything my heart was doing, causing even more panic.  I got in the shower and started breathing exercises, doing all I could to will everything back under my control.

But I am not in control of my heart.

After three hours I decided that now was likely the best opportunity yet to get to the doctor and have them catch it.  Suddenly my thinking shifts from wanting it to stop to hoping that it won’t, hoping the sensations last until I get get to a doctor and an EKG.  It is a strange thing to want a problem to continue.

Events quickly turned disorienting in urgent care, a feeling of detachment and distance taking over, as if I were watching the events from somewhere up above, spectating an episode in my own life.  Dr. V., a thin, long haired Indian man with wire rimmed glasses and strange calm about him called me into his office after the nurse finished my EKG and I returned from giving blood at the lab.

“My friend, you are in atrial fibrillation, and you have a potentially serious heart condition.  Are you in pain, having any shortness of breath?”

I remember a ringing in my ears as I began to process what he was saying.  On his desk sat a small Chinatown gift shop Buddha and I was suddenly intensely aware of the temperature of the light in the room.

“So this has nothing to do with anxiety or stress?”

“No, not at all.  This is a physical problem with your heart.”

My stomach sank.  Twenty years of lying to myself was instantly dispelled.

“We do not know what causes this.  There’s a lot of speculation, but nobody really knows.  Is there heart disease in your family?”

I explain about my father, both of my grandfathers.  All male blood relatives except one have died of heart disease of one form or another, most when relatively young.

“What ethnicity is your family?”

“German and Danish, primarily.”

“Ah.  Germans have bad hearts.  Unfortunately, we cannot control what is in our genes.  What is written in them determines far more than we know.”

My head spins as I try and comprehend where he’s going with this.   I’m almost angry, wanting to challenge him and ask what the hell he’s trying to say, but I can see in his eyes and his calm that he actually speaks with care.

“I’m immediately checking you into Emergency Care and personally escorting you there.”

I’m overwhelmed by the feeling that this is not supposed to be happening and I realize that nothing is supposed to happen, that this feeling is me not wanting this to happen.  I’m confused by the fact that I was fine this morning and now I’m sitting here, with this.

He gets a wheelchair and we’re soon out in the night air, crossing the street and down a back alley to the Emergency entrance, the sounds of Hollywood and traffic filling the night.  It’s a long walk, or feels long, and we talk, the conversation helping ease my anxiety.  Until he informs me that medicine is like art, that he has seen people walk in the doors on their own and die within hours due to poor decisions made by doctors.

I’m not sure if this man is the Reaper or some sort of monk-like Savior, but I know that I have no choice but to go with him.

Leonardo da Vinci, from his sketchbook.

Leonardo da Vinci, from his sketchbook.

A Thousand Lives.

“Ma, you scared a goin’? You scared a goin’ to a new place?”

Her eyes grew thoughtful and soft. “A little,” she said. “Only it ain’t like scared so much. I’m jus’ a settin’ here waitin’. When somepin happens that I got to do somepin, I’ll do it.”

“Ain’t you thinkin’ what’s it gonna be like when we get there? Ain’t you scared it won’t be nice like we thought?”

“No,” she said quickly. “No, I ain’t. You can’t do that. I can’t do that. It’s too much livin’ too many lives. Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll on’y be one. If I go ahead on all of em, it’s too much. You got to live ahead cause you re so young, but, it’s jus’ the road goin’ by for me. An’ it’s jus’ how soon they gonna wanta eat some more pork bones.” Her face tightened. “That’s all I can do. I can’t do no more. All the rest’d get upset if I done any more’ n that. They all depen’ on me jus’ thinkin’ about that.”

-Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

I marked this passage in the emergency room, full of fear and doubt and hope about a multitude of lives and paths I had never before imagined.  Ma is right.  It’s too much to bear.  Hiking has been a refuge these days; walking the Arroyo, tracing the stream slowly, crawling in and out of thickets, finding shade to sit and listen.  A small toad in the grass, dragonflies mating on the water.

The present is just fine.

Lower Eaton (Canyoneering). 5/10/14

A 5AM alarm and eggs with coffee.   I stand out front of the house and look to the mountains to find a heavy cloud layer and cool temps, prompting me to take a blade to an old wetsuit and turn it into a farmer john, rolling and stuffing it for the trip.  Eaton has been in my sights for a while, a local classic that has somehow escaped my attention thus far.  As Adan is starting to get on the rope with me, more options are beginning to open up, though I’m not sure how I waited this long as the trailhead is only a few miles from my house.   The lower stretches before the first fall are likely some of the most traveled miles in the foothills of Los Angeles.  Steep, broken country, however, keeps the masses out of deeper reaches of the canyons.  Roughly an eight mile loop, the upper 75% is surprisingly pristine feeling given its proximity to a few million people.  Fifty foot rappels apparently do wonders for thinning the herd.

Adan and I found the canyon harder than Keyhole or Orderville in Zion.   Longer rappels, trickier ledges, and an equal amount of swimming, jumping, and sliding into pools.  The anchors are straightforward enough- slings on boulders, around trees, the occasional bolt, but more thought was required than simply clipping bolts on our Zion trip.  The most difficult aspect, by far, is rappelling slick, wet granite, covered in moss and algae, providing comparable footing to being on ice.  The slightest attempt to support weight on the feet will result in a fall.  Adan took a few good ones while on the rope and I managed a sprained finger and bruised a palm from the heroics of simply slipping while walking the stream.  My back is still feeling a nice 10+ foot jump into a 3′ deep pool.

More technical trouble; the Gopro stopped working somewhere about 60% through the day, missing one of the last, biggest waterfalls.  It took a hit on the rocks while being thrown down from a 40 foot fall and had some trouble reading the SD card ever since.  What we also failed to capture was our exposed class 3/4 ridge fiasco while getting out (not that I would’ve had a camera out anyway).  The rock of the San Gabriels is completely unnerving to climb on; so much of it rotten, fractured, and ready to give way at any moment.  As I’m downclimbing a very exposed section of ridge with literally 200+ feet of air to the right and under me, I discover a volleyball sized hold moving under my weight; It’s been a while since I’ve climbed anything with a “you slip- you die” penalty.  We were both certainly firing on 100% and reached solid ground with some adrenaline pumping.

Scrapes and cuts and bruises, poison oak, soaked gear, and tired legs.  Seven hours out and we both seemed to forget to eat or drink…A full spectrum day.

DCIM100GOPRO

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If I can't hack it as a canyoneer, I can always try wrestling.

If I can’t hack it as a canyoneer, I can always try wrestling.

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The Point of No Return. Once you slide this fall, you’re pretty much in for good.

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DCIM100GOPRO

Hard to tell here, but this slide is nearly a twenty footer.

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My favorite rappel of the trip. A nice drop through a small slot into a cave. I’d like to come back to sleep in this area.

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