As I lay on the operating table, I couldn’t help thinking that this must be how it would feel like being abducted by aliens and subjected to the proverbial probe.Right above me were two ginormous eyes – I call them “eyes” as I have no other vocabulary to describe them with. They were a mix between mobile x-ray scanners and large format ipads. As I lay there, they moved — swished and swooshed around my chest and face, their electronic “pupils” focusing and dilating to get a fuller and better picture of my heart.
I appeared to have been placed at the centre of two concentric, white rings that formed part of a massive machine. These two rings swished and swirled around me, time-machine-like, as I lay, staring upwards at the clinical, white ceiling.
There must have been some six aliens in the room: junior aliens who were playing the role of nurses and technicians, and who kept reassuring me that everything would be ok; and two senior aliens – the doctors – leading the fray: one doing the actual probing of me, and the other, more senior one, peering over the shoulder of and advising the younger along the way.
The lead nurse had told me that some 95% of the time, the angioplasty was performed by way of a catheter being put through a major artery in my wrist.
But as I’ve always been told I was special (and not necessarily in the positive sense of the term), it turned out I would be part of that wee 5% of the general artery-clogged patient population for which a radial (wrist) angioplasty was impossible.
The doctor informed me as much, after a painful – for me, that is – battle between catheter and radial artery, wherein the latter flailed and spasmed like a sandworm in a dune, and refused, under any circumstance, to sanction intrusion.
Eventually, they had to settle with performing the angioplasty by way of a major artery at my groin.
Ah-hah! I thought. This had now become an alien probe proper – the kind where those bug-eyed visitors send foreign tubes into your body by way of your anus, or at least, your nether regions.
I didn’t feel anything this time.
The catheter went in smoothly.
Though I thought I felt a sudden opening up in my chest – a sort of inner gasp without an actual expiration of breath – as the balloon attained my heart and forced open the troublesome artery of mine that had caused all this fuss in the first place; that had placed me squarely in the midst of a science fiction caper, as its main protagonist.
* * *
The doctor had explained, some two weeks earlier, that what I had, specifically, was a major – read: more than 75% – clogging of the main entrance to the Left Anterior Descending Artery, disingenuously abbreviated as LAD, for short. The rest of my arteries, it seemed, were completely clear.
This particular condition was also popularly known as the “widow-maker” – because a heart attack caused by the clogging of the LAD was almost certainly fatal, and since men are more often the victims of cardiac arrest (and death), the LAD has made many a wife a widow in the course of history.
Receiving the news, my first thought was how fortunate that there’d be no one I’d widow, or widower, rather. My second thought was how ironic all this was – as in, Alanis-Morissette-ironic. I’d only just collected the keys to my brand-new apartment and a brand-new lease of life, as it were.
Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? / It’s like rain, on your wedding day / It’s a free ride, when you’ve already paid / It’s when you got your keys to your brand-new pad/ And find out you have a [potentially fatal] heart condition!
The shock and the disbelief would come sometime later, when I had time to process the news. When I had moved into my new apartment.
[I’m still processing it, though I’m a little over it by now, as you can tell by the tone of this blogpost.]
The doctors were initially very worried.
I had been informed of my condition in the worst possible way after all.
I was in the middle of a Zoom meeting at work, when the doctor’s office called to say that I needed to come into the clinic immediately. This was the Monday after I had done the CT scan of my heart (on a Saturday). The doctor had said, “we would only call you if there was something urgent.”
In short, this was the kind of call you don’t want to receive on the phone.
As I clambered into the Grabcar to the hospital, my heart sank to my arse and threatened to poop itself out.
As expected, the worst was proven to be true.
I was told that bypass surgery was the most effective and appropriate intervention – gosh, how I hate this word – for arterial clogging of the widow-maker variety.
However, given I was so young – “you’re so young”, the doctor tutted, again and again, “you’re so young” – a stent would be recommended. Perhaps a bypass later on, when I was older, the doctor added, as though a bypass was reward for good behaviour.
Ascertaining, by way of a treadmill stress test, that I was extremely fit – my heartbeat went way past 180 bpm, without any sign of abnormality, and with me continuing to ramble on enthusiastically about the museum’s gorgeous Jewellery and Fashion galleries – the doctor was then reassured that a stent would be sufficient; that it would last me at least 15 if not 20 years, as long as I changed my diet and took better care of myself.
Yes, there was that constant reassurance, pre- and post-stent, that all would be fine and that the stent would last up to 20 years, possibly. And that because I was so fit and healthy, I would cope well post-stent. I would live a “normal life”. Everything would be “back to normal”.
Yeah, yeah. That’s all well and good.
But you see, I’ve read Joan Didion. I’ve read her magnificent 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she processes the grief she had had at losing her husband and her daughter, one after the other, suddenly.
Her husband, John, had died of sudden cardiac arrest at the dining table; he had had a stent put in his heart some twenty years earlier. And this is what she wrote about his having had his angioplasty done then:
“I recall that John and I took different views of what had happened in 1987. As he saw it, he now had a death sentence, temporarily suspended. He often said after the 1987 angioplasty, that he now knew how he was going to die. As I saw it, the timing had been providential, the intervention successful, the problem solved, the mechanism fixed. You no more know how you’re going to die than I do or anyone else does, I remember saying. I realize now that his was the more realistic view.” (pg 158)
I suppose I should say that’s how I feel too.
I feel that I’ve been meted a death sentence, and that I now have a “Best Before” date affixed, literally, on my heart. Perhaps it might last 15 years, maybe 20, if I’m lucky. Hopefully more. In any case, I now know too, the most probable means by which I will die.
I don’t want to die. It’s so very boring.
There’s so much I’ve yet to do. So much I’ve yet to experience. So many people I’ve yet to frustrate and annoy the hell out of.
So I’ve decided I’m going to not-die with a vengeance.
I’ve already changed my diet completely. I’ve never known just how yummy muesli, granola and oats could be.
The greatest challenge remains for me to change my outlook on life – I’m prone to anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and highly strung.
Oh and there’s the matter of my being way too nice. And my having poor management skills. [See PREVIOUS BLOGPOST]
Mindfulness is in order. Or failing that, Xanax.
* * *
I was in the ICU for two nights post-stent, and through it all, I was constantly reminded of just how young I was to be having this procedure.
It’s like EVERYBODY kept determinedly rubbing it in, and in the most innocuous ways possible.
The night doctor came in to remove the catheter in my groin, to check if my artery was still spurting blood everywhere, and to nurse and dress the wound. [It involved some minor acrobatics on the part of doctor, nurse and myself, in order for pressure to be formidably applied on the wound by way of immense bandages].
He casually remarked that my procedure had been extremely successful, but that I’m “rather too young to have had to go through it”. I had to explain my family history, work stress, yada yada. That would be the first in a few repeats of the same old yarn I’d have to tell in the course of the two nights in hospital.
The day nurse came in the next morning, all mother-like, in her lilting Filipino accent…
“Oh, you’re so young, sir! How did you find out?” So out comes the same old yarn about family history and work stress.
“Oh, in what line do you work?” came the innocent refrain. I told her I worked at the museum.
“Oh, are you a manager?” No, I said. I was the Director.
“Oh, you’re so young to be a director! But I understand now why you are here,” she said, patting me on the shoulder in consolation.
And of course, I was the youngest person lying in ICU those two nights, which made things worse. Everyone wanted to descend on me to tell me how strange it was that I was there.
All things considered, though… everybody – all the nurses and doctors – were extremely kind and warm and generous.
That same (motherly) day nurse, told me, “in your day job, you must work very hard. Entertaining and catering to all the VVIPs and the guests and the members of the public is very hard work. We are both in the customer service line, so I understand what you have to go through. We have to do this too, as nurses. But you don’t worry, ok. Today and tomorrow, you just rest and relax, ok? You let us take care of you. We will take care of you very well, alright? You don’t worry. We’re here.”
I burst into tears.
* * *
Back on the operating table…
As it turned out, the pre-stent angiogram revealed the clogging in my LAD to be more than 80%. It also revealed clogging in not one but two spots along the entrance to the LAD, and yet another spot in the entrance to the artery beside that – the Left Circumflex Artery.
All these were explained to me by the doctor – the senior one – who pointed, here and there, at this large black, SAMSUNG-TV-like screen by the side of my head, on which x-ray silhouettes of my heart and its offending artery were blown up garishly like an extramarital affair on a TV soap.
“Shall we put the stent in then?” the doctor asked a still-awake me, lying there on the operating table, momentarily distracted by and fascinated with the swirling alien goggle-eyes swishing and swooshing above my chest.
“Sorry? Oh yes, please. Thanks so much,” I replied, as though I was replying to a waiter, who, upon sending a pot of tea to my table, asked if I would like milk and sugar to go with it.
The stent that went into me had to be almost 4 cm in length. It had to extend from the LAD into the Left Main Coronary Artery – the BIG KAHUNA – in order to “protect me fully”. It was, in other words, a long stent.
It was all explained to me after the procedure had been done. And then I was told that the worst was over. And there was nothing to worry about now.
“Thankfully we caught this early,” the doctors said as a parting shot.
And yes indeed, I have to say I’m deeply grateful that we had “caught this early.” Because instead of possibly dying in some 15 to 20 years’ time, I could’ve literally, almost certainly, died in the next year or so; probably even tomorrow.
So I’m thankful. I’m very very thankful for this stent in time, so to speak.
“A STENT IN TIME” [uttered in a stentorian, cinematic tone.]
The perfect title, as it were, for a comic science-fiction-cum-medical caper involving time travel, alien abduction, and a way-too-young protagonist who has his heart broken repeatedly and finally fixed…ish.
Excuse me, while I cry again.
Tears of joy, I promise.
* * *
To add to the surrealness of the situation; and, proof, once again, that I have inexplicably found myself a protagonist in some science-fiction caper, those closest to me have been revealed to be robots.
My mother, upon learning of my affliction, decided to go to the clinic to take care of a cough. She informed me, administratively, by text message, the day before my procedure, that because she would be going to the clinic – on the 10th of November; the day after my procedure, mind you – she would have to “self-quarantine for 14 days, for my safety”. So she would not be visiting me at all during my convalescence.
After a week and a bit of radio silence post-stent, I called her home to ask when or if she was intending to call me at all to check on how I was.
Her reply was that she had called my brother, and that my aunts had also reported my status back to her. She was thus satisfied that the procedure had went well. And in any case, my brother was staying with me to take care of me. So she did not see it necessary to call. And – here is the clincher – there was the matter of her cough.
All of this was pronounced with the most matter-of-fact, mechatronic, fembot tone as usual, as though this was the most natural thing in the world to do for any mother when her son has just had a stent put into his heart.
What did I say, guys.
The other of my closest – a very old friend, whom I’ve regarded as possibly one of my best – also went radio silent immediately after my stent and has maintained radio silence till now.
You see, both my robot-mother and this robot-friend of mine live in elaborately self-constructed parallel realities stuck firmly in the halcyon past. Let’s call my mother MSHAVISHAM#0011000111, and the other SUMMEROF99#1100111000.
Both are so stuck in their parallel universes, that they see the world through lenses so refracted they’re unable to let in any light whatsoever from the present reality, least of all light reflected off a mirror.
Just before my procedure, I decided, since I was going for a potentially life-changing procedure, and because the circumstances happened to be right that evening, that it was finally time to feed SUMMEROF99#1100111000 the proverbial red pill.
[Yes. This is a reference to The Matrix.]
It didn’t go well, as one can expect. Nobody who constructs elaborate parallel realities likes the truth being told to them so starkly.
And therefore, the silent treatment meted out as punishment, after one’s close friend goes through a major life-changing procedure, without any sort of self-reflection whatsoever on the part of the mete-r of said punishment, as to this possibly, maybe being just a wee bit toxic… perhaps? No?
This, over and above regular “advice” dispensed to me about my professional life – as though I don’t actually run a large organisation – and casual japes about how I’m completely hopeless at anything practical.
“Did you not know that one aircon remote can turn on the rest of the air-conditioning?” No, I did not. Thank you so much. You’re so brilliant. You know everything.
It is disappointing.
It is… dare I say again… heartbreaking.
Disappointing and heartbreaking, that I’d failed to see that all these years, I’d been colluding with my friend to maintain this false construct, this false reality, which had been holding her back, and from which she continues to refuse to extricate herself, despite my best efforts at cajoling her, gently persuading her and insisting that she does.
So much frustration in life, transferred onto everybody else around her. So much negative energy. Such a waste of time and of a life.
Well… I no longer consent to collude.
Sometimes paths diverge and may never converge again.
This is one of those moments when they do.
It hasn’t been all red pills and disappointment.
At the risk of sounding facetious, the cockles of my heart have been right-roundly warmed.
No, hang on.
No, let me rephrase. They haven’t just been warmed, they’ve been stir-fried in a wok with garlic, fresh coriander and sambal belachan. [Damn, I’ll never be able to eat sambal belachan again! 😩]
In the past two weeks, my family, my friends and my colleagues have rallied round in a major way. I’ve already mentioned my brother – I love him and his family so! – staying with me and spending time taking care of me in the few days after I returned home from the hospital.
I’ve also felt so loved with all the phone calls and text messages, with the popping by to see how I’m doing; with the specially-cooked healthy dinners and specially selected fruit-and-healthy-munchie hampers; and with the bouquets of gorgeous flowers, including peonies, which are the flowers I love most in the world.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you all. Thank you so very much. Thank you again.
I’ve never felt so cared for, ever.
Growing up as a child with poor health – I almost died of asthma once; my dad had to rush to hospital with me literally gasping for dear life in his arms – I always told myself that I had to grow up to be a strong and fit adult; that I could not burden anybody and allow myself to be taken care of.
I’ve prided myself all my adult life on never being dependent. And not since I was a child with crippling asthma, have I ever been admitted to hospital.
[“Is this your first time having this procedure?” – came the head nurse as he lay me down on the operating table. “This is my first time in hospital. Period,” came my reply.]
But yet these past weeks, I’ve learnt to graciously succumb to vulnerability, and to being dependent and taken care of.
In doing so, I’ve stumbled resolutely upon, begun to understand better, and have been at the receiving end of a surfeit of love.
Because that’s what it is: LOVE.
And I’m so lucky to have so much of it, from so many people – those whom I’ve known well or known all my life, and those whom I barely know.
I’ve been so happy, even as I’ve been recovering and processing, physically, mentally and emotionally.
OK – I’m tearing up again.
Damn these hyperactive tear ducts!
* * *
In the spirit of not-dying-with-a-vengeance, I’ve decided to cultivate my inner badass. It’s now a matter of survival.
With some 20 odd years of shelf-life remaining, I don’t have time anymore to entertain people or situations who suck.
Certainly, I haven’t been mincing my words in the recent, occasional emails I’ve sent off at work, while I am on Medical Leave. I’m no longer that mincing, wide-eyed boy-director – not that I ever truly was.
Jokingly, I tell friends, patrons and board members that my work involves me being a kind of “high-end geisha” – “I’m just missing the samisen, haha” – when in fact, I’ve always been super-fit in body, mind and spirit, and I can pull a sucker-punch very well, thank you. In full costume, to boot.
The challenge for me, looking ahead, is how to be devastating, without ruffling the feathers in my own hair. How, in other words, to keep calm, even while I’m delivering the fatal blow – in a manner of speaking – to a difficult situation or person.
And you’d be surprised to know that leading a museum involves dealing with many, many, many difficult situations and people. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Certainly not for the heart-stented.
My health and my heart depend on my remaining calm and detached, even as World-Around-Me morphs spectacularly into Korean-Soap-Opera, as it very often does.
Simple decisions often result in consequences unforeseen, that are fiendishly difficult to resolve and extricate one’s self from.
I would say that the biggest threat to my life, at present, is the fact that I continue to be the Director of the Museum. I think it safe to say that I cannot do this for much longer. Perhaps two to three years, tops. Even less.
In the meantime, the best thing to do, would be to just make my decisions, stick to them no matter what, and say NO, NO, NO – Amy-Winehouse-like – a hell of a lot more.
And if anybody doesn’t like it, they can just fuck off.
In the immortal words of Prince…
“Party over, oops out of time / So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999.”
Oh, did I mention how happy I am in my new apartment?