I don’t have time to edit this but I wanted to get it posted before Mom’s procedure tomorrow. Please excuse any errors.
Last week my mother called me shortly after two in the morning to tell me she wasn’t feeling right. Every time she turned her head, she got unbearably dizzy and nauseated. She lives on my property, so I walked over to check on her. Her blood pressure was elevated, but her heart rate was fine. We tried orthostatic blood pressures (lying, sitting, standing) and nothing changed, which is a good sign. Still, she felt awful, so I called 911. Better safe than sorry. The EMTs who arrived said she was likely experiencing vertigo. They asked her if she wanted to be taken to the emergency room and she declined. If it was just vertigo, she’d be fine, she thought. They left, I helped her to bed and went home.
The next morning, she had to be up at my sister’s house to get my sister’s grandkids on the bus. She drove over, but when she got there, her vertigo seemingly returned. She called me, terrified, and I told her to call 911. The same two EMTs from the night before arrived, but this time, per my request, they took her to the emergency room. A few hours later, her cardiologist decided it would be a good idea to have a heart catherization. The heart cath found an 80% blockage in one of the arteries that feeds blood to the heart, as well as a slightly calcified valve. They placed a stent to fix the blockage, but left the valve because the risk of open-heart surgery outweighed the benefits of fixing it. She was admitted to the floor. My sister and I were told she was stable, so we went home. The next afternoon, she was discharged, and my sister brought her home. We ordered pizza, and we ate together, as a family, joking and reliving the incident, which we thought had come to an end.
After Mom finished her pizza, she asked me to take her to the bathroom. I walked her down the hall and got her settled on the toilet, and then I closed the door behind me and waited in the hallway to give her privacy.
Not long after I closed the door, less than ten seconds later, I heard what sounded like a pig snorting. I opened the bathroom door to check on her and she was slumped over, propped up against the sink, eyes bugging out of her head, snorting like a feral hog. I sat her up, placed a hand on either side of her head, and begged her to talk to me. She came to a bit but wouldn’t meet my eyes. She started huffing an puffing, as if she couldn’t catch her breath, and kept repeating three words: “This is it.”
When I took Mom’s pulse it was only thirty. I screamed for Chelle to call 911 while I tried to keep Mom conscious. I’m not sure how long it took the EMTs to arrive, but of course it felt like forever. Mom was lucid for most of it, but whenever she talked, her tone was ominous. She said things like, “Jesus, let this end,” and “I don’t want to do this anymore.” When the EMTs arrived, it was the same two guys who had come the last two times. As they unpacked their equipment and hooked her up to their machines, they were both in agreement that she had an episode of vasovagal syncope, where the body shuts down due to certain triggers, like severe pain. Their tone was light and jovial, and they joked that, although this might seem scary, she’d be fine.
Once they had her all hooked up, they ran an EKG, and their attitudes changed drastically. One of them kept saying, “Third degree heart block,” while the other went outside to call for lifting and transportation help. The bathroom in which Mom was having her episode was off a narrow hallway, and they were going to have to carry her out into the hall so they could place her on a tarp. Mom was declining quickly at this point, so they moved forward with moving her without waiting on help. They managed to get her down the rickety back steps and onto their stretcher just as the second ambulance and an off-duty volunteer firefighter in a red pickup showed up.
At some point while they were getting her outside, her heart stopped. They used a device called an AED to provide external stimulation to her heart as they loaded her onto the ambulance.
By this time, my sister had arrived, so she and I followed the ambulance to the hospital. We waited in the emergency room for an hour before finally checking with the front desk for information about Mom’s condition. One of the ladies behind the desk took us to an empty room and told us that the doctor would be in to talk to us about Mom. We were sure the news would be that Mom had passed. Why else would they pull us off to the side? We paced around this room for forty-five minutes before I finally went looking for someone who knew what was going on.
They’d forgotten about us. Mom wasn’t dead, but she wasn’t doing well either. She’d been taken for a second emergency heart cath, and no one knew how long she’d be in there, so they led us to CCU (critical care unit) and told us to wait for news. Another hour passed. And then another. I called the operator. All the operator could tell me was that she was still in the operating room and that she’d call me back when she knew more.
Finally one of the CCU nurses came out and told us that Mom was stable and being transferred from the OR to CCU, and she’d let us back once Mom was settled. Two Code 88s (hospital code for cardiac arrest) were called while we were waiting. My sister and I were sure it was Mom. It wasn’t. Stephanie (the CCU nurse) came and got us after about thirty minutes and allowed us to see Mom.
Mom looked like a hollow shell of her former self. There was no one home. I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies in my time, and even more people in a vegetative state, and that’s what Mom looked like. Every ounce of hope I had left disappeared.
Third degree heart block, as it’s been explained to me, is when the upper and lower parts of the heart fail to work together. A normal beating heart is in what’s called a Sinus Rhythm. To achieve a normal sinus rhythm on Mom, they had to place an external temporary pacemaker. The pacemaker was set to 60 beats per minute. If Mom’s heart dropped below that, the pacemaker would send an electric pulse into her heart, forcing it to act properly. On top of that, they had intubated her for the heart cath and had decided to keep the tube in place until morning because her oxygen saturation wasn’t great, registering around eighty. Because she was still intubated, they would keep her sedated until they deemed fit to ween her off the tube.
She was stable. There was nothing else my sister and I could do, and Mom seemed to be in good hands, so we headed home to rest and regroup. We weren’t home more than an hour before Stephanie called us. They’d attempted to take Mom to CT but Mom’s heart stopped before they could load her into the machine. We needed to come back to the hospital right away. Mom was unresponsive, and it was assumed she wouldn’t last the night.
I’m a momma’s boy. I make no allusions otherwise. All throughout my life my mother’s been by my side, through thick and thin, and this news obviously crushed me. My sister and I returned to the hospital, expecting the absolute worst, and that’s pretty much what we received. Like Stephanie had said, Mom was unresponsive. Her hands and feet were ice cold, and there was zero sign of life despite the rise and fall of her chest as the intubation did its job.
Years and years ago, after my grandmother lingered for days on end after a massive stroke, my mother drew up a living will. Her wish was to be a DNR (do not resuscitate) if she were ever to be diagnosed with a terminal disease, or suffered a debilitating sickness/accident that left her in a vegetative state. Per Mom’s request, my sister and I, along with our oldest sister who now lives in Houston, Texas, decided that if Mom coded again, we had no other choice but to let her go.
I told my mother that if she needed to go, she should go, that we would be all right. It would be hard, but we’d make it. I kissed her forehead and told her goodbye. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. That’s not hyperbole. No exaggeration. I felt like I was killing her myself. I’ll never forgive myself for that.
Mom’s eyes fluttered open for a brief second and she squeezed my hand. In my shock, I started screaming for the nurse. Stephanie rushed in to do a response test on Mom’s eyes. The previous one had come up negative, no pupil dilation, but now her pupils were dilating. She was responding, albeit poorly, to stimulus. Stephanie called the cardiologist’s assistant (Janet) and Janet came to check Mom out. Again, Mom responded, admittedly slowly and sluggishly, but she was responding. They stopped the sedation and gave Mom a chance to wake up. She drifted in and out, responding less and less, and we thought for sure her responsiveness had been a fluke. For the second time in less than five hours, I prepared for the worse.
After a time, my sister and I signed the DNR paperwork. It had become more and more apparent that the light had simply shone brightest just before going out, and that our moment of promise was nothing more than Mom giving life one final push. The PA, Janet, said Mom had already exceeded their expectations, and she didn’t expect much else. It was only a matter of time.
My mother is an incredibly stubborn individual. She’s where I get my drive from. Her stubbornness is likely what’s kept her alive all this time. She’s still going. It’s been two days since her last code, but her heart hasn’t stopped since we signed that DNR paperwork. Whether or not it’s her time, no one can say for sure, but she’s just stubborn enough to keep fighting.
Yesterday morning, she reentered sinus rhythm for the first time since she ate pizza with us. They began weening her from the tube that afternoon. She’s currently at 50% oxygen through the tube, and her O2 sat is 100%. She’s going for a permanent pacemaker placement today at 2pm, and if everything goes well, she’ll be taken off intubation. Nowhere near out of the woods yet, but it’s progress, and progress is better than the alternative.
So that’s where we’re at. Nothing is for sure, but that’s life on a normal day. I’m playing the role of cynical optimist, expecting the worst but hoping for the best, because I can’t allow myself to get my hopes too high.
My sisters and I do not get along. I’m the black sheep of the family, the heathen to their Christian extremism, so I was essentially alone while it was just me and my middle sister at the hospital that first night. Because of this, I retreated to Twitter to give status updates. My friends, fans, and followers were my rock that night (Chelle was at home comforting the kids, although I knew she would’ve preferred to be by my side, especially since she knows that my relationship with my sister is pretty terrible) and I will be forever grateful to everyone who was there for me. One of my best friends on the planet, Nettie, was there every step of the way, listening to me vent and keeping me sane. I love you, Nettles. I owe you a hug, and I plan to make good on that as soon as humanly possible.
Thank you to everyone who offered well wishes, as well as everyone who opened their DMs to me. I cannot thank you all enough. There’s still a long road ahead, but I had to write this now, if for no other reason than to compartmentalize my thoughts. I’ve left some minor stuff out, and maybe even screwed up the timeline of other things, but at least it’s out. Writing is how I cope with things, so this is me coping.
I hope my next update will be that Mom’s home and healthy. I don’t expect that to be the case, but I would love for it to go that way. I’m not sure how I’ll react should things go south again but I’m sure it won’t be pretty. Like I said, I’m an unabashed momma’s boy.
Here’s to nothing but good news from here on out.