Guest column: A brush with death prompts reflection

Dec. 17, 2012 @ 11:42 PM

It was a Friday night. My wife was in Boulder, Colo., visiting our son and grandson. I had attended the Durham Preservation Society’s annual gathering at Morgan Imports and had left early after a busy day to return to our home in Trinity Park.

I was in bed reading around 11 p.m. when it happened. It was as if someone pushed an ice pick through my heart — or so it felt. The pain was fierce and severe, and wouldn’t let up. It was like nothing I had experienced before.

Even when it finally subsided, I was still in pain. I debated if I should go to the Emergency Room at Duke or Durham Regional, but I wasn’t partial to going on a Friday night and having to wait hours for service. Besides, it could simply be heartburn or indigestion.

After a restless and somewhat sleepless night, I awoke the next morning still in pain. I soon visited our daughter, Christine Johnson, in South Durham and she insisted I go to the Duke Urgent Care on Fayetteville Road. The medical staff there listened to my story and quickly ushered me into their office, where they performed an electrocardiogram, a test that shows the electrical activity in the heart. Minutes later they told me that the test was inconclusive. I could have had a heart attack, but they weren’t sure. Additional tests were needed. This could be very serious, they informed me, so an ambulance was called to take me to the hospital of my choice.

As I was transferred into the ambulance, I passed out. For how long, I don’t remember, but eventually I was feeling warmth, sensing light and perhaps even hearing music.

Was this heaven? The heaven so many of us longed for? I knew that that was possible for me, but attaining its reality was more dubious, for I had always lived with my personal creed, that I will not tiptoe through life in order to arrive safely at my death. Anyway, I figured my admission would be a close vote.

Gradually as I regained full consciousness, it began to dawn on me where I was. The bright lights were mounted in the ambulance ceiling and generated the warmth coming over me, and the “music” was that of the siren, not a harp. I wasn’t embedded with St. Peter after all, but three guys from the Parkwood Emergency Medical Services unit.

“What’s your name?” the attendant asked, “and do you know where you are?” I answered as best I could and then he explained, “I’ll be honest with you. Your heart stopped for about 45 seconds, you turned blue and your pupils dilated. I gave you CPR to bring you back. It’s good to see you. We’re on our way to the emergency room at Duke.” That was quite a message for me to internalize.

Then I began to make sense of bits of radio chatter as another attendant called ahead to the Duke E.R. I overheard portions of the conversation, “… 60-something-year-old male whose heart stopped ... possible heart attack." My thoughts went to my family and friends and to the more prosaic, but salient question … is my life insurance paid up?

Arriving at Duke, I was rolled into a large emergency room filled with at least 15 doctors, cardiologists, nurses, specialists and residents.

I tried to keep my usual sense of humor about my situation. “Are you allergic to anything?” asked the nurse. “Yes,” I replied, “needles.” Upon which she promptly inserted two IVs, one in each arm. During the ordeal, I was fortunate to have a sweetheart of a nurse, Kim Slingwine, who was always at my side.

Next, I was hooked up to numerous jumper cables and more tests were administered as they continued their diagnosing. I was informed that the testing would take time, and that I would be an overnight guest.

Early the next morning, I endured a stress test, walking up an inclined treadmill where I had to get my heart up to a specific rate. The results of this final test were delivered to me by Dr. Randall Best later that afternoon. He informed me that it was not clear what my problem was, but he was sure that “your heart did not cause the pain,” he said succinctly, and I was released from the hospital soon after.

What does one learn from such an ordeal? What do you ponder when you find yourself, as T.S. Eliot said, “… like a patient etherized upon a table”? Although it may be a cliché, it’s a good rule to live every day like it is your last, love more deeply and worry less. Also, like other Durham and Triangle residents, I am thankful that we live in an area that provides top-notch medical facilities and ambulance service. My only fear now is that when I receive my hospital bill, I may truly have a heart attack.

The writer survives as a member of the Durham City Council.