the heart attack (part two: Rome)

If you haven’t read part one of this story here, you may want to check that out before continuing to read here!

It was snowing outside, and it was about a 35-minute ambulance ride to the nearest hospital. From the ambulance, I called my mom and my friend Tammy in Chicago and asked them to let people know what was going on and to pray. I texted Matt’s mom and let her know where we were going, and I texted with her some about what the kids might need. I talked with the ambulance driver, who had known Matt’s older brother and sister growing up – Matt’s sister Denya’s husband Tim is a volunteer firefighter, and all the EMTs knew Matt’s family. And I prayed and prayed and prayed. I was nervous and shaking the entire time, but I knew I needed to be as calm as possible. Matt was unconscious for the entire ambulance ride, and it was pretty harrowing. His jaw was clenched shut so tightly that they were unable to intubate him through his mouth, and he vomited at one point, and while no one was panicking, it wasn’t exactly smooth, either, and it was a long ride. A few friends texted short prayers and notes of encouragement, and it was so reassuring to know that others were praying with me during that drive.

Once we arrived in Rome, a team of doctors and nurses was already set and waiting for him in a room. They had me wait in the hall for what seemed an eternity. I could hear them talking but couldn’t make out what they were saying. It seemed pretty calm, so I assumed things were stable, but I didn’t really know what was happening. At that point I felt pretty pitiful, alone in a hospital in a city I didn’t really know with my husband unconscious behind the door after some sort of traumatic event. It was actually a relief when the woman in charge of checking in and billing came to talk with me, and eventually a nurse came out to talk with me, as well, and some of the EMTs stopped to talk, too. Matt’s mom had reached out to her sisters, and it wasn’t long before Matt’s Aunt Sue was there, followed soon after by his Aunt Cathy and Uncle Roger. Though I’d met them only a handful of times, it was a relief not to be alone in those uncertain moments. And as an added blessing, Aunt Cathy and Uncle Roger are both nurses and were helpful in explaining exactly what was happening and in knowing what questions needed to be asked.

Finally they opened the door and let me come in. Matt was intubated to help him breathe and had had a GI tube placed to drain his stomach. They told me that he was sedated, but he could hear me, so I was welcome to hold his hand and talk with him. I did so, though I wasn’t sure what to say, in part because it was by now rather late at night. The nurses and doctors asked me to tell them about what had happened and asked some questions about Matt’s medical history. They told me that they were obviously admitting him, and they were ordering consults from neurology, pulmonology, and cardiology, but since Matt was stable now, it was unlikely anyone would come to see him before morning. In the meantime, they ordered a number of tests. He had a chest X-ray to check the placement of his breathing tube; a chest CT to look for blood clots; a head CT and an EEG to look at his brain; an echocardiogram and an EKG to evaluate his heart; and blood work to measure his troponin level, among other things. I’d sit with him and hold his hand (and one of the aunts and uncles would stay with me) when I could, and we’d wait in the hall when he went out for tests. His aunts and uncle dozed a bit, but I was pretty nervous and wasn’t anywhere near sleep.

We were finally settled in a room in the ICU around 4:00 in the morning, and Matt’s Aunt Sue and I went in and sat with him.

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While he had been stable since we got to the hospital, there were still so many questions. It was surreal to close my eyes and know that the background noise was a ventilator breathing for my husband. I tried to rest a bit, but around 5:00 various people began coming in for more bloodwork, labs, and tests. Respiratory people were the first to come, and they explained how the ventilator worked and what all the readings on the monitor meant. That was encouraging, as the monitor showed that Matt was generally starting breaths on his own, and they had already turned down the percentage of oxygen he was getting.

Mid-morning Matt’s aunts and uncle left to head back to Camden to be at Denya’s funeral. I knew Matt would be so sad to be missing it, both because he wanted that closure and because he was supposed to give the eulogy (which he later published here). They had arranged for Matt’s cousin Sarah (also a nurse) to come and be with me, though, so there wouldn’t be that much time I’d be there alone. They were willing to stay if necessary, but we all wanted them to get to be at the funeral.

A neurologist also came to see Matt, and they turned off the sedation to try to wake him up briefly to check his brain function. With great effort, he was able to open his eyes as directed, and another encouraging sign was that, of all the voices talking to him, he was particularly tuned in to my voice. He was really agitated, though, which is understandable – he had been unconscious since the night before in the hotel room and was now half awake in a strange place, surrounded by strange people, and probably most disconcerting, was intubated. We tried to reassure him, but he kept gagging and then vomited and aspirated, and they turned his sedation back up right away. It took a while to get him cleaned up and settled again, but his nurses that day were great – they did an amazing job taking care of him and also helping me as I worked through everything that was happening. Good nurses, those who do their jobs well and go the extra mile to be kind and considerate and helpful, make all the difference in the world.

Cardiology – the ones from whom I was most interested in hearing – was the last major consult to come see him. The cardiologist said that we really needed to transfer to a different hospital that had a cath lab, so we’d be able to find out what was going on, and he was going to arrange that. It took a while, though – from about 11:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon.

While Matt was stable and I knew what the immediate plan was going to be, those 5 hours were pretty rough for me. I knew this was probably ultimately a cardiac issue, but I didn’t know anything else. Perhaps hardest was that I had had to leave my kids so quickly the night before – after one of the most traumatic events of their lives – and I hadn’t seen or talked to them since, and because Denya’s funeral was happening that day, I wasn’t really able to talk much with the people who were with them and even find out how they were doing.

And I had to make decisions about who to tell and how and when – all without consulting Matt. Many of our closest friends and family already knew, but I knew I was missing key people, and I needed to talk to people where we both worked, and I just needed to let more people know what was happening, both to inform them and to ask them to pray. Matt and I always talk through those types of things together – we’re a couple, a team, and we complement each other well. I felt alone having to make those decisions for us without him. But I called his department chair, texted one of my colleagues, and put together a Facebook post.

Matt developed a fever that afternoon, and they gave him Tylenol and eventually packed his body with ice to cool him off. No one seemed surprised, but, particularly since he’d aspirated twice and pneumonia was a significant risk, it was an unwelcome development.

Matt’s cousin Sarah stayed with me through most of the afternoon, taking off only once it seemed that our transfer was reasonably imminent. It was such a blessing not to be alone much during that uncertain first day.

And, for some moments of levity in the midst of a generally pretty dark day, our good friend Dan, and his father, who had been Matt’s 6th grade teacher, stopped by. True to form, Mr C arrived with a bag full of fast food cheeseburgers, hoping Matt would be awake so he could taunt him about the food he’d no longer be able to eat. Matt loves this photo I snapped of the two of them.

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And finally that afternoon I did get to text with Matt’s sister Stacey and hear that our kids were doing great, and eventually I connected with Matt’s mom, as well. That was reassuring, though I still missed them like crazy. Matt and I don’t leave our kids all that much, particularly overnight, particularly without prepping them well ahead of time, and I’d never been away from Atticus overnight before. This was not part of the plan. I talked with one of the nurses, through tears, about how I was still nursing Atticus, and I’d need to pump if I didn’t get to see him soon. It was so touching to me that she said she’d try to get me a pump or find out if I could use one in Labor and Delivery, but if she couldn’t, she was actually still nursing her daughter so had a pump with her at work and would let me use hers. Labor and Delivery had a supply of new mother bags, though, which included simple manual pumps, and they graciously offered one to me, which was very helpful during those days in the hospital.

I also received multiple offers from family and friends to fly out and be with me and/or help with the kids, which I so appreciated. After talking with Stacey, I finally decided to take my brother Danny and his fiancée Sharon up on their offer to come. Since they live in Washington, D.C., they could be in New York in a matter of hours without having to fly or rent a car or worry about any of those logistics, and in a scenario in which I knew nothing about what the next few days would hold, that seemed optimal.

Around 4:00 everything was finally arranged to transfer Matt to St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Utica. It was agreed that I could ride in the ambulance, as long as I promised that under no circumstances, no matter what happened, would I leave my place in the passenger seat of the vehicle. Having sent Mechell’s coat back with Sarah, I left wrapped in blankets over my stylish ensemble of yoga pants with knee high black boots and a nursing tank top and plaid pajama top with bright orange sweater on top. We departed Rome Memorial Hospital with lights on and sirens in use – Matt was stable, but it was still important that we make the trip quickly and get him back to a hospital setting. And while we drove, I was moved to tears watching the other cars on the road pull over. I thought of the Mr. Rogers quote about looking for helpers in times of tragedy. When they saw the lights and heard the sirens, people moved out of the way and did their part to sustain my husband’s life. I continued to pray and thank God for bringing us this far.

Part 3 to come in another day or two!

the heart attack (part one: Camden)

As many of you probably already know, while we were in New York for Matt’s sister Denya’s funeral, Matt actually had a heart attack. I’m still not entirely certain how to write about this event in our lives – it’s still pretty raw, and I think it’s something that we’re going to be continuing to process for months and years to come. I’m going to share just a glimpse into how I’m currently thinking about it now, and I’m sure I’ll revisit it in the future, as well.

We’d all gone as a family to the calling hours for Denya on that Wednesday afternoon and then went to Matt’s mom’s house for a quick dinner. Knowing that it would be even more crowded that evening and that it had already been a long day for our kids, we decided that the kids and I would go back to the hotel and hang out there while just Matt went to the evening calling hours. The kids and I read books and played, and I set them up with a movie, and I texted with Matt intermittently.

I almost can't even look at this picture. It was so soon afterwards that everything changed. Every minute matters.
I almost can’t even look at this picture. It was so soon afterwards that everything changed. Every minute matters.

At one point Matt told me that his chest was hurting, and he got an aspirin from someone. I was concerned, but he’d had chest pain in the past and had even gone to the ER to get it checked out about a year ago, and the doctors had said they believed it to be more related to his chest muscles than his heart, so I think both of us assumed it was more of that.

Matt came back to the hotel after the calling hours ended. The girls were still watching their movie on their bed, so Matt and I sat with Atticus on our bed and chatted a bit and just relaxed. Matt was laughing at their cheesy kids’ movie, and at one point his laugh turned into a funny sort of wheeze-laugh. I asked him why he was laughing that way, and he just looked at me. I even asked him if he was having a heart attack, but he couldn’t respond. I started to become alarmed, and I remember thinking that it might seem silly if he came back to normal in 30 seconds, but I really thought I needed to call 911.

I told the dispatcher that I thought my husband might be having a heart attack and told him where we were. And I told him that I’d taken CPR classes but couldn’t remember right at that moment exactly what I was supposed to do first, but if he’d tell me what to do, I could do it. He told me I needed to get Matt off the bed and onto the floor. I really wasn’t sure I could do that – the hotel room was tiny, and there wasn’t much space between the beds, and Matt is a lot bigger than I am. I remembered seeing other cars in the parking lot that night, so I ran out into the hallway and yelled that we were having a medical emergency and was anyone else there. Fortunately for us, a couple, whom I later found out were Matt’s cousin Mechell and her husband, were staying right across the hall. They came over to our room and helped me get Matt onto the floor, and Mechell – a nurse – started performing CPR while her husband and I held Matt’s legs up. He was pretty blue by this point. Every once in a while he’d take a gaspy breath on his own, but he wasn’t breathing at all normally. I yelled to him to stay with me. All of our kids were upset by this point, and Mechell’s husband told me he could hold Matt’s legs, and I could grab the baby. Holding Atticus, I called Matt’s mom and told her that Matt had stopped breathing, and I needed her to come. In true mom fashion – doing what needs to be done no matter what – she said she’d be there.

An older woman also poked her head in the room, and as the 911 operator asked me if the doors were unlocked, I asked her if she’d go down and unlock the back door to get into the hotel. She also volunteered to stay down there and tell the EMTs where to go once they arrived.

At that point things seemed to be in something of a holding pattern, and the 911 operator told me that help would be there soon. I asked if he knew when they’d get there, because we really needed them, and right after that the first man ran into the room. Immediately they shooed us out, telling us to go across the hall to Mechell’s room.

I sat down on the floor with the kids and prayed. And I called my friend Brooke and told her that Matt had stopped breathing and I needed her to pray. Matt’s mom and his step-dad, Dan, arrived then, too. It wasn’t long before the EMTs – who, by now, had crowded into our hotel room, the hallway, and Mechell’s room – all let out a cheer – they’d shocked Matt’s heart, and he had a pulse, and they were hopeful that he’d be okay.

Mechell told me that someone would come and talk to me, and she asked if I was going to ride along in the ambulance. I didn’t know what I should do – I wanted to be with Matt, but I also wanted to and needed to take care of our kids. Matt’s mom said she would take care of the kids, and Mechell nodded. I had enough time and was able to get back into our hotel room just enough to grab my sweater, my phone charger, and my wallet. I wasn’t able to get to my coat, but I told Matt’s mom where to find our car keys in its pocket, and I said a quick goodbye to our kids, and Mechell gave me her coat as I walked out the door.

Next installment to come in a day or two…