To quote Mark Twain:
“THE RUMORS OF MY DEATH HAVE BEEN GREATLY EXAGGERATED!”
On Tuesday, March 2, 2008 I drove my van to the church on the corners of Summit and Detroit Avenues in my hometown of Lakewood, Ohio to vote in the 2008 Presidential Primaries. Once in the voting booth I noticed that my vision wasn’t quite right. As I read the ballots I began experiencing blurry, colorful bursts of watery fuzz around the edges of my eyes similar to a light show from the old Fillmore West! (Give me an “F”…) As I struggled to read the ballots I attributed my vision troubles to the poor fluorescent lighting being used in the churches’ basement. Or perhaps it was the stress I felt knowing that my vote could save the world from the buffoonery of George W. Bush and help to re-unite the fractured Democratic Party. Regardless of why my eyesight was being affected, I ignored my troubles, voted for the Democrat of my choice and drove back home thinking to myself “my there sure were a lot of Irish Judges running un-opposed” on this years ticket” weren’t there?
Eventually my eye troubles subsided but few hours later I began to experience a sore throat, headache and an earache. I was also beginning to feel a terrible, crushing and burning pain across the front of my chest. A straight line of pain racing from breast to breast began to present itself and whenever I took a short breath it felt like a tractor-trailer rig was pressing down on my chest. I called my family doctor to request an appointment. His first opening was three days later on Friday, March 7, 2008 at 1:30 PM. I took the date and tried to cope with my discomfort.
I spent the next few nights trying to rest while ignoring the pain that was ever present in my body. I attributed the pain I was feeling to the “flu” as my whole body ached. I took aspirin to alleviate the pain and managed to get some rest.
On the afternoon of Friday, March 7, 2008, with the snow beginning to fall all around Cleveland I saw my family physician Dr. Zangmeister. Dr. Z. could not find any reason for the pain I was feeling. He could find no sign of any type of infection but he was a little worried about the pain in my neck and the pressure and pain I described in my chest. As a result he very astutely advised me to “go the hospital and get some blood work done to rule out the possibility of a blood clot.” (This is what I call Miracle #1!)
I left the good doctors office and drove to Lakewood Hospital. I went to the lab, got blood drawn and drove home through the snow. As fate would have it our gig that evening at Akron’s Northside was cancelled by club owner Michael Owens. (This is what I have come to dub miracle Number 2! I would have driven to Akron to play the gig had the show not been cancelled by Michael).
With our gig cancelled I spent the night at home relaxing in my recliner, playing with my 10-month old daughter Sophia and watching television with my dog Rufus curled up at my feet. I turned in for the night at around 10:30 PM.
At 11:30 PM I was jarred awake from my slumbers by an increase in the pain that I described above. The aforementioned pain was getting worse. I got out of bed, got myself dressed, wrote my girlfriend a note stating that “I went to the Emergency Room” and drove myself through the heavy snow to the Lakewood Hospital Emergency Room.
Upon entering the ER I was treated for the “flu” and instantly felt 100% better. All of my pain and symptoms subsided. I was all set to leave and head home when “miracle #3” took place.
At 3:30 AM Saturday morning as I was about to head out the door of the emergency room for home, the ER doctor told me that “the blood work from earlier in the afternoon was back and there were some elevated numbers and levels that were a cause for concern.” The doctor strongly urged me to admit myself into the cardiac unit for the night and get a cat scan in the morning. I almost didn’t take his advice as I wanted to go home, but at his behest I succumbed and settled into a hospital room for the night. (Miracle number 4!)
I spent the next 16 hours lounging around and watching TV in my hospital bed. I suffered through the hospitals versions of breakfast, lunch and dinner. I watched the Indians play a spring training game. I took in a Cavs game. I channel surfed as every station in town and even the national weather shows broadcast reports about the “great blizzard” that was crippling Cleveland on this March 8th afternoon and waited patiently for my cat scan.
In between glances at the television and out the window, I finished a book by Tom Gorman about the history WMMS Radio that I was smart enough to bring with me the previous evening to he ER. I continued to look out my window and watch as the snow fell hour after hour and piled up outside my window. The white stuff was blanketing Belle avenue and was bringing the city to standstill. Mind you I felt perfectly fine. I had no pain and almost left my hospital room three different times through the course of the day. Each time I mentioned leaving the nurses convinced me to stay to await my cat scan. (Miracle number 5!)
Early in the evening on May 8th our gig at Mon Ami was cancelled by the club owner due to the continuing snow and bad weather. This was miracle number 6 as I would have checked myself out of the hospital and done the gig. I have only missed 5 gigs in 19 years! If I’d have done that gig without getting a cat scan I most likely would have died! Instead, I stayed in the hospital and awaited my cat scan that seemed as if it would never take place.
FINALLY, at 6:30 PM on Saturday night, April 8th, 2008, some 16 hours after I was admitted into my room, I was taken to get my cat scan. I was scanned and returned to my room. I was all set to go home when a surgeon came into my room and told me the most shocking words I have ever heard in my life. He simply stated with no emotion whatsoever “ we found something on your cat scan. You are going to be transferred to the Cleveland Clinic right away and you will be undergoing open heart surgery within the next few hours” I was stunned. I layed down in my bed as the nurses began to take steps to bring my blood pressure down. I really had no idea what was wrong with me. I felt fine. I did not feel any pain at all. All I knew was that I was on my way to the Cleveland Clinic for “heart surgery.” I called my mother from my bed to apprise her of these latest developments and awaited transport to the Clinic.
As the snow continued to fall and paralyze the city I nervously waited for my ambulance ride to the Cleveland Clinic. At this point everything seemed to become very surreal. Three medics arrived and entered my room. A journey that normally takes 15 to 20 minutes had taken them 45 minutes as they traveled across town from the Cleveland Clinic to Lakewood Hospital through the sleet and snow. They strapped me onto the gurney and wheeled me out of Lakewood Hospital and into the awaiting ambulance. As they wheeled me through the hospital, and past the emergency room where this odyssey had began many hours earlier, I felt like a piece of furniture or band gear that I have moved a thousand times before. It felt so strange and scary to suddenly be confined to a rolling hospital gurney and have no control over my movements or actions.
As I looked out the back window of the ambulance from my secured bed the city resembled a moonscape. There was snow everywhere. Through the thin slit of a window in the rear of the ambulance I saw abandoned cars, trucks and busses on the side of the road as we passed them by. As the paramedic unit slowly and cautiously barreled through the sleet and snow I caught glimpses of people wandering in the streets bundled up like real life “Michelin men and woman.” As I quietly took all of this in I tried, unsuccessfully, to not to think about my situation. It was so foreign and scary to me to have no control over my actions and no idea as to what was wrong or what would transpire. I knew I was in good hands, but I was also scared to death.
Upon my arrival at the Cleveland Clinic Cardiac Intensive Care Unit a team of 7 doctors and nurses immediately went to work on me. They informed me that I had a “tear in my aorta.” They spent the next 10 hours walking my blood pressure down via copious amounts of medicine in preparation for my imminent surgery. I was awake through all of this and I must have been in shock as I just laid there without moving a muscle, thinking about my 10 month old daughter Sophia and how much I loved her and wanted to hold her again. I desperately needed to see her 4- tooth smile and hear that pure belly laugh that only a child can deliver. I yearned so badly to hold her in my arms again and smell the baby smell that was so strong whenever I’d press my nose and face up to her beautiful little head. I wanted to tickle her and kiss her neck and cheek one more time and tell her I that I loved her. I fought back the tears as I considered for a brief moment that I might never see her again.
As the seconds, minutes and hours crawled slowly past, the team of physicians and nurses continued on with their task of lowering my blood pressure. They poked and pricked my arms taping IV’s into my veins aiding them in their endeavors of taking my blood and infusing my arms with life saving medicine and fluids.
After about 10 hours of this they were pleased with my blood pressure numbers and I was taken for a second cat scan. I laid motionless in my bed for several more hours awaiting the results of this scan. Finally the results came in. This time their findings were “inconclusive” meaning they saw something but they weren’t sure if it was a “tear in my aortic arch or not.” I was told that I should stay in intensive care until Monday morning. At that time I would be given a third cat scan by the “day shift. I was told that there were more people on the day shift and that they were more skilled in taking and manipulating the images and contrast of the images. Plus they now knew what they were looking for as there appeared to be a small amount of blood outside my heart. They were trying to determine whether or not I did in fact have a “tear in my aorta” an ailment with a 90% mortality rate if left untreated or undetected. Most people die within 1 to 2 days of such a tear occurring. The most recent and famous victim of this ailment was actor John Ritter of televisions’ “Threes’ Company” fame who died in 2003.
On Monday morning my bed and I were rolled out of my room in the intensive care unit and taken down the hall and up the elevator for my third cat scan.
Upon returning to my room in the I.C.U. I laid in my bed not feeling any pain confident that I would soon be released and permitted to enjoy my life again. Later that day one of the 8 heart surgeons that tended to me returned to my room to give me the results of my third cat scan. I’ll remember his words for the rest of my life. He said, “IT’S THE REAL DEAL. YOU HAVE A TEAR IN THE ARCH OF YOUR AORTA. WE NEED TO DECIDE HOW TO TREAT IT. WE MAY HAVE TO OPERATE.”
I laid there once again in shock and unable to come to terms with the ramifications of what I just heard. I knew from what the surgeons had already told me that an operation on the arch of the aorta is very risky and that there is high probability of stroke. In fact there are only 4 or 5 surgeons in the world who even perform such procedures on the aortic arch. Luckily for me two of those surgeons reside at the Cleveland Clinic! Once again a flood of emotion began to overtake me as I thought of my daughter and how much I wanted to raise her and watch her grow. I couldn’t imagine her having to grow up without a dad. As the tears welled up in my eyes the surgeon touched my arm and told me things would be “OK.” He left the room and I laid in my bed contemplating my life and mortality.
The up side to all of this is the simple fact that I was responding very well to the medication that the doctors had been feeding me through various tubes and IV’s. My blood pressure was way down and under control and I was not and still didn’t feel any pain.
I spent 6 long days and 6 even longer nights in intensive care not moving or being permitted to get out of bed. While I laid in my bed I was visited by family and friends, some of whom I had not seen since high school. Near the end of the 6th day the doctors told me that they were pleased with my response to the medicine that I was receiving and that they were going to try to treat my condition medicinally and not with surgery. In addition, the fact that I was feeling no pain at all prompted them to prepare to release me from intensive care and upgrade me to a “step down” room. I was close to being permitted to get up and out of the bed I had not moved from in 6 days!
On March 14, 2008, I layed in my new bed in the “step down” room enjoying my emancipation from the confines of Intensive Care and patiently awaiting a visit from one of the surgeons who had been looking after and keeping an eye on me in I.C.U. After a few hours a new surgeon, whom I had never seen before showed up and explained to me the status of my condition. He then told me “I would be undergoing surgery in the morning!” I was in shock. I went from having a life-threatening problem, to not having a problem, to having a huge problem that required immediate surgery, to not needing surgery, to being told by this new doctor that I would need surgery. I again, began to wonder if I would ever be allowed to go home and if I would be able to hold my daughter, kiss me girlfriend Brooke, pet my dog Rufus and basically enjoy my life as I once new it.
I explained to this new doctor that I was supposed to be released within a few hours. He told me he “knew nothing of this and that my condition was very serious.” He left the room and I buried my head in a pillow trying to fight back the tears and my fear of the unknown.
A few minutes later I heard a commotion at the nurses desk just outside my room. It seemed that the “new doctor” who had just left my room was being told by one of the nurses that I was to be sent home. A short while later one of the numerous surgeons who were keeping an eye on me in I.C.U. appeared at the foot of my bed and told me that he was sorry about the confusion. The new surgeon on the new floor mistakenly thought I was “just admitted and he had no idea that I had been in ICU for 6 days.”
I was going home!
A few hours later I was back at my house in Lakewood. I was home! I held Sophia in my arms and gave her the longest and tightest squeeze ever! I put her down and she smiled up at me as she played with her toys on the floor. I was so glad to be out of the hospital and back home again.
The fact of the matter is this. I have an “A-typical, Type A dissection in the arch of my aorta.” It most likely occurred due to high blood pressure and strain from shoveling snow, carrying band gear and my “portly athletic physique.” At this point my condition is going to be managed by copious amounts of blood pressure medicine and by not lifting anything or moving heavy objects for quite some time. By keeping my blood pressure down it will allow the torn area to heal over time. I am very, very lucky. Most people who have this ailment die. As previously mentioned, John Ritter died as a result of this condition as did Lucille Ball.
I am on a massive diet. I am eating heart healthy foods in small portions and seeing a Cleveland Clinic nutritionist every three weeks. I take 7 pills every morning at 9:00 AM. I check my blood pressure twice a day. I eat three meals every day at the same time. (Something I have not done since grade school) and I am not moving or picking up anything heavy (with the obvious exception of Sophia, my 18 pound, little daughter).
After three weeks off from work I returned to gigs on Friday and Saturday March 28th and 29th with a rare back to back appearance at our west side home-the Savannah Bar and Grille. The gigs went well. I felt a little pain but nothing I couldn’t deal with. At this point I feel pretty good. I have roadies moving my gear. I am taking it easy and while I am not singing or playing as hard as I once did, I am able to sing and play with just a small amount of pain. I will be back to my old form in no time at all - God willing.
There is a slight chance that I may need surgery but that is highly unlikely provided I follow the doctors’ orders, lose weight and keep my blood pressure down. I will need to see my surgeon every 6 months for a cat scan to keep an eye on the tear. It should heal and get stronger over time but it will always be something that we will need to keep an eye on for many years to come.
With my condition under control and being monitored, the band and I are planning on doing all of our gigs throughout 2008.
April 2, 2008
JUNE 6, 2008 UPDATE:
It has been nearly 3 months since the initial diagnosis of my problem. In that time I have lost over 50 pounds with the help of the Cleveland Clinics’ Nutritionist, Kellogg’s Heart Smart Cereals and Healthy Choice frozen entrees!
Each week that goes by has seen the pain that I have experienced in my chest, arms and shoulders diminish ever so slightly. At this point the pain is almost undetectable. The first few weeks back I had a lot of pain and I was very worried about pushing myself too hard. At this point the pain is a thing of the past. I take 2 to 6 Tylenol per day as needed for pain along with my blood pressure medication. The doctors told me “the further you get away from the initial date of the tear, the greater your chances of survival!” I am feeling really good about that.
I feel very strong and my singing and playing is at about 90%. This is great as I was feeling about 45% during the first few weeks out of the hospital. Despite the life-threatening nature of this condition the band and I only missed 3 weeks worth of gigs. That is amazing! I am feeling great, eating right and expect to be 100% in no time barring any unforeseen complications or problems arising.
I have received hundreds of emails, get well cards and phone calls from concerned family members, friends and fans of the band. All I can say is “thank you.” I never realized how blessed I was until I almost lost my life. While I wouldn’t recommend nearly dying to everyone, it isn’t a bad way to put things into perspective. We are all blessed with good health, family and friends. In the end nothing else really matters now does it?
June 6, 2008