Off and on I'd had an irregular heartbeat all my life, as had my mother. I'd assumed this was fairly common, but I was wrong. A cardiologist later told me that only about one percent of humans have such a problem. It never seemed to bother me much. When working out with weights, for example, if my heart became too erratic, I'd simply pause for a minute or so until it kicked back into a more normal rhythm. Whaleys are famous for ignoring important symptoms by rationalizing them away, a trait that’s killed more than one of us.
Atrial fibrillation means that the top chamber of the heart is beating too rapidly (ventrical fibrillation, when the bottom part does the same, is much more serious, often fatal). In the fall of 1999 I first experienced "a-fib," and went scurrying to the emergency room at Brigham Hospital in downtown Boston because it wouldn't stop. The doctor hooked me up to an EKG and the monitor on the wall clearly showed the rapid spikes of my heartbeat, which I stared at in fascinated horror. "Atrial fibrillation, all right," the doctor said casually, as if it were no big deal to her. "What can be done to stop it?" I asked, alarmed. "Well," she replied, "we can either treat it with medicine or electrically." "ELECTRICALLY? PADDLES!!!" I said, perhaps too loudly, mentally revisiting TV medical moments ("CLEAR!"). "Oh, look," she said, smiling and pointing at the wall, "it's stopped!" I peered at the EKG readout. My heartbeat was normal. "What happened?" I asked, confused. "You scared yourself back into a normal rhythm," was the comforting reply.
Things went well for over a month, but then I developed a difficulty: when I would sit up perfectly straight (or stand straight, though it was harder to notice then) I’d feel my heartbeat as a steady thump in the muscles of my left abdomen. This wasn't painful in any way, merely annoying. So I phoned Dr. Love and told him about the problem. "Hmm," he replied, "that means the bottom lead has come out and is sticking into your abdomen muscle—this happens in about one percent of the cases." "What's to be done?" I asked. "I'll have to go back in and reposition it." Since I had a social function coming up over Labor Day in another week, I asked if we could postpone it until I returned. We agreed that "the procedure" would be done on the Wednesday after Labor Day in the late afternoon. I had a class to teach at the law school from 3 until 3:50 p.m. on Wednesdays, and Dr. Love said I should have someone drive me to the hospital immediately after class; he would perform the 45 minute operation at 4:30 p.m. So that's what we did. Barbara (see "The Woman Who Runs My Life," May 5, 2010) drove down from her home three hours away (she lives near Youngstown, Ohio), took me to and picked me up after class, ferried me to the hospital where Dr. Love sliced me open ("Real shame," he muttered, "that incision was healing nicely"), and then drove me home. The next morning I taught my 10 a.m. class with my arm in a sling, and I assumed that was that.
I was wrong. The following Saturday as I was watching an OSU football game on TV with my friend Pam, I felt rhythmic thumping in the same left abdomen muscle. Damn. I sent Dr. Love an email entitled "Bad News With Whaley's Procedure," explaining the return of the thump, and his email in reply said "This never happens in my operations!" (With surgeons it is frequently, I've discovered, all about them.) "Come in next Tuesday after your 3 o'clock class and I'll reposition it again, and this time I assure you it won't come out!"
As I've explained before in this blog, I've been sliced open many, many times in the past (see "The First Time I Nearly Died," August 8, 2010). By the time Dr. Love proposed playing around yet again with my innards, I was fed up with letting medicine have its way with me. Pills seemed to be controlling the a-fib pretty well, so I sent him an email telling him that I would come in on Tuesday, but I wanted him to remove the device completely—that I was done with letting doctors tamper with my heart. Alarmed, Dr. Love sent me back an email saying to do as I suggested would, in effect, be a decision to commit suicide. I thought about that for a number of long hours, then sent him a reply that I still wanted the thing out and would take my chances. "Why?" asked his responding email. So I told him: I was about to turn 58, I'd faced death much in the past and was unafraid of it, my life had gone very well both from a personal standpoint (my son Clayton was living happily in Seattle and I was proud of him) and professionally (I'd just been voted "Outstanding Professor of the Year” by the OSU law school graduating class, and it wasn't the first time that had happened), and if my time on earth was over, well, it'd been a great run. But I was finished with medical experiments that may or may not work. Indignant, Dr. Love wrote back that it would work this time, and that I should come in next Tuesday after class and we'd discuss it in detail, at which point he'd either take the device out forever or reposition the bottom lead. I agreed and said I'd see him Tuesday afternoon.
A weekend spent thinking about one's impending death does (as the saying goes) focus the mind wonderfully well, but, in the end, that possibility didn't alter my desire to be done with the device. I called Barbara, told her about all this, and asked her to come down on Tuesday so she could again take me to the hospital after class. Poor Barbara was conflicted. She usually supported me in my decisions (unless they involved matter of taste, of which I have none—see "The Many Faults of Douglas Whaley," March 31, 2010), but this decision meant the possible death of her beloved Doug, and she didn't know what to say. Disturbed, but knowing she was needed, she agreed to accompany me on Tuesday.
When Barbara arrived around noon, she looked as bewildered as I felt. "It's surreal out there," she commented, explaining that she'd learned the news when she stopped along the way to get gas and everyone at the station, customers and employees, were standing in front of a TV at the cashier's station.
"Is Dr. Love still going to do the operation?" she asked me. I didn't know so I called him. He told me that, like all of us, his plans had been cancelled (OSU had suspended classes). The good doctor had been planning to fly to Europe that evening for a medical conference, but, of course, no planes were leaving the ground on September 11th. "Why don't you come in at 2 p.m.," Dr. Love suggested, "and we'll talk about whether to replace the lead or take the device out." I agreed to that.
All of us were in a very strange mood when we met at Dr. Love's office. He and I argued about the wisdom of letting him put the bottom lead in its proper place, but Barbara sat there very quiet—upset on many levels. When people she loves are threatened (and to my great good fortune I am one of those lucky people), she reacts like a mother grizzly bear whose cubs are in harm's way. But in this bizarre situation she didn't know what or whom to claw.
After about twenty minutes of serious discussion, Dr. Love suddenly announced, "Of course, we could just turn the bottom lead off." Silence filled the room for a moment and then I repeated, "Turn it off?" "Sure," he replied breezily, "you don't really need it." "How hard is that to do?" I asked. As an answer, Dr. Love reached across his desk, picked up a doughnut-shaped object attached to his computer by a cord, placed it on my chest over the incision, punched a couple of keys on the computer, and then announced happily, "It's off."
I thought Barb was going to leap across the room and rip his throat out! All the angst we'd been through could have been avoided if Dr. Love had had this thought days ago. Talk about an anticlimax!
So, for me, whenever 9/11 is mentioned this strange twist on that awful day comes to mind.
Let me end the story by mentioning that the defibrillator was removed at the time of the heart transplant (never having gone off except, inappropriately, at the moment of orgasm, which—trust me on this—puts a real crimp in one's sex life). These days I'm through with artificial devices living inside my body. I'm very pleased to state that Andrew's heart never misses a beat.
"About That Heart Transplant," January 24, 2010
"My Heart Belonged to Andrew," February 17, 2010
"Another Letter to Andrew's Parents," March 10, 2010
"A Toast to Andrew," May 2, 2010
"Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad," May 19, 2010
"The First time I Nearly Died," August 3, 2010
"Rehabilitating Doug," June 12, 2010
"The Purring Heart," November 23, 2010
"Naming My Heart," March 24, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013