emotional aftermath of spouse’s serious illness

12 Lead ECG EKG showing ST Elevation (STEMI), ...

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I’ve been going to Cardio Rehab with Rob on and off. Recovery from a heart attack is a family affair we are told though so far, I am it as far as the “family” part goes.

Unless we are counting all the forced walks we dragged Dee on over the summer.

I have seen only spouses in attendance at the various classes they offer, so I wonder why they simply don’t say “spouse” instead of “family”. In my mind, they are not interchangeable terms.

Today’s class went over the basics. Heart Attack 101. Anatomy. What can go wrong. What it feels like when it does. How to gauge pain and dose yourself with nitro. When to dial 911.

Mostly it reiterated what we’ve heard in several other classes:

You are now chronically ill with a disease that will technically never get better. Stabilize perhaps. But your days of claiming 100% health are behind you.

Heart attacks are qualifiers.

“I’m in great shape … for someone with a heart stent and known blockage.”

There will forever be the “but”. Though not necessarily the other shoe.

“Are you worried,” Rob asked me.

Not really. My husband is a keener after all – one of the reasons why he is doing so well and the absolute reason why the company doctor and the P.T. at Cardio Rehab won’t clear him for work until he finishes the program.

It wasn’t his bad habits that caused the heart attack. He doesn’t have many in terms of diet although he could have exercised more. No, it was the stress. He can’t do anything half-assed. Even if it’s something he could care less about, he treats all responsibilities and tasks under his jurisdiction more seriously than a heart attack.

I am not worried for some reason, and it’s not naively assuming we’ve dodged a bullet that can’t ricochet back at us. I am not that complacent or foolish. I just don’t see the point in dwelling on the what-if factor or the when/again possibility.

We’ve taken additional health steps. Reordered life a bit. Safe-guarded what we can. And that’s all anyone can do.

Animated sagittal MRI slice of my beating heart

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The Canadian health saga continues with Rob’s first cardiac rehab meeting yesterday. His cardiologist – the one I’ve yet to even lay eyes on and who he saw just once during his procedure (which the doctor didn’t perform but merely supervised in any case) – referred Rob to a five week program designed to assess his fitness to return to work and get him back on the healthy heart road via an exercise program and fun little classes on weight control or sexual function.

Oh, that last wasn’t an either/or, but examples.

The cardiac rehab is located in Edmonton. Per usual the parking options were limited. So hard to come by in fact that a portion of the orientation is devoted to parking issues.

Rob was probably one of the youngest participants. Certainly no one else showed up with an eight year-old in tow. There was perhaps one gentleman in his late 30’s or early 40’s, everyone else was qualified for the discount menu at Humpty’s.

As we walked in, each patient receives a personal packet of info containing his/her appointment schedules and a menu of rehab class options in addition to the ones pre-selected to match his/her “event”.

No one has heart attacks. There are “cardiac events” only. It’s a pc thing.

The nurse who conducted the session tried hard to be brief and witty and was neither, but she told a little story at the onset which neatly sums up the health experience here from my perspective.

The operator at the hospital received a call one afternoon from an elderly woman wanting to inquire about the status of a patient.

“Who is the patient?” asked the operator.

“Helen Finley,” the old woman replied.

“Well,” the operator said, “I’ll be happy to get an update for you. Let me put you on hold and I will contact the nurse on the ward for information.”

A few minutes go by and the operator returns with good news.

“The nurse tells me that Helen is doing quite well. Her blood work came back normal and her blood pressure and other vital signs are good. In fact, she’s doing so well, that her doctor is planning to release her this evening.”

“Oh,” the old woman’s voice shook, “that is good to hear.”

“I’m glad I could help, ” the operator said. “Is Helen your daughter?”

“Oh no,” the old woman said, “I’m Helen and no one tells me nothing.”

Of course no one laughed. I suspect that any of the other people in the room could tell stories that mirror our experience. But the nurse didn’t mean to highlight one of the chief problems with the system here; she was trying to make a point about asking questions. The assumption being that patients are in the dark because they don’t ask questions rather than the fact that often there is no one to ask questions of.

After the presentation, which could have been mailed to Rob and lost nothing by way of information, we hung around until the auditorium cleared. Rob’s goal for the afternoon being to arm wrestle someone into giving him return to work clearance.

“After your stress test tomorrow and a couple of monitored exercise sessions,” the nurse explained, “you will meet with the occupational therapist, who will give you her recommendations to take to your family doctor. He will give you clearance.”

“Um, that’s not what I’ve been told, ” Rob said and went on to inform her of the buck-passing he’s encountered ever since he first asked “when can I go back to work.”

He had hopes of heading off to work on Monday when Dee returns to school. I kinda had hopes in that direction myself, but it could be another week or so.

Provided nothing goes wrong at the stress test.

That thought just won’t completely go away, and it’s silly because Rob hiked six miles not two weeks after he got home from the hospital. He’s installed air conditioners, and this last weekend, we were up and down the stairs at the Shaw Conference Centre from the river to Jasper Avenue more times than my legs care to recall. If he was going to drop, he’d have done it by now.

And his job is, frankly, physically more restful than any of his hobbies are.

The aftershocks come in waves and they are not proportional to the severity of the event.

Rob’s heart attack barely rocked the cardiologist’s Richter scale, but it lifted us up off our foundations and set us down again hard. I am left feeling slightly askew and wondering about the direction of the path I thought was straight forward and relatively paved.

In the last six months, I’d prepared for a new career path that focused more on the real world rather than the innerscape my writer self shelters herself in. I’d become more or less content with writing for the Internet and questioned the purpose and practicality of finishing the memoir – or even going back to a fictionalized account of how I ended up in such a different life from the one I’d imagined a bit more than a decade ago.

“It’s funny how we end up where we are,” Rob mused as we sat sipping tea on the back deck after his first long stroll yesterday afternoon. “I didn’t ever really picture myself a heart attack survivor or even having one at all.”

I can’t say I haven’t pictured myself a youngish widow again. I am wired for “what if” and have buried everyone I know and love dozens of times as my mind grapples with far-flung scenarios they way other people plan their weeks. But I will admit that I have grown comfortably complacent enough to suppose that Rob and I will celebrate many a double-digit anniversary together.

“You really freaked out on me,” he pointed out later in the day.

I can’t tell if he is disappointed or surprised by this. As I told the older girls while I paced the waiting area during the hour of time we had no idea where he was or if he’d sustained any unplanned damage during his angiogram,

“Grace under pressure is not me, so I hope you weren’t looking for it.”

Indeed, it took me well over two months to adjust to my late husband’s death sentence and the dementia that came with it. Which is not to say that I lost my presence of mind or that I was unable to tend to the details, I function – sometimes at quite a shockingly high altitude, but I am sharper than recently honed blade and my Sagittarian bent for action is idling constantly when not actually propelling me.

“I didn’t know what was going on or where you were,” I said, again.

“Well, were you expecting them to hand me back to you in an urn?” he asked with a smile.

“Yes,” I said. “I had no idea what had happened and no one seemed interested in clueing me in. All I needed was a ‘we were able to fix him during the angiogram but he needs to stay overnight and he’s being admitted, go get something to eat and check with admittance for his room number in an hour.’ Honestly, I would have been a totally different person had someone been bright enough to do that.”

Waiting though did give me time to reassess, and sometimes this is not reactionary as much as it is necessary redirection.

One of the things that was painfully clear as I paced was that I was in no way prepared for a disaster.

Last summer when Rob went into the ER for an abscess, he prepared a file for me with all the pertinent information I would need “just in case” – and no, it’s nice to have him leap to morbid conclusions the same as I do. It makes me feel less of a dark, twisted freak.

But in the interim, the file vanished beneath piles of paper which in turn were scattered thither and yon as we moved our lives from one room to another to stay ahead of reno work.

I was also painfully aware of legalities that still haven’t been completed like Dee’s adoption, my being on the house title and some banking details that would give me access without having to wait on lawyers and courts.

And we’re still fairly non-committal on the whole “last wishes and remains disposal” thing despite numerous conversations.

And yes, this is what races about in my brain in a medical emergency. While all of you superior humans focus on the positive and can readily put hands on rose-coloured specs, I start compiling lists for my worst case scenario action item agenda.

I find myself checking Rob’s colouring and watching his breathing. I ask him constantly how he is feeling and match up my exterior check with his answer. I am always trying to get him to rest.

“You almost died,” I told him last night as I curled up on his lap while he waited for the data recovery program to finish snatching Edie’s life off her barely breathing hard drive.

“I did not,” he countered, a bit annoyed.

“Well,” I said, not ready to let it go, “it could have been much worse. You did ignore your symptoms all week.”

“There’s nothing like waking up with sharp chest pains,” he said.

“And if you hadn’t, you  would have gone to work,” I said, “and anything could have happened. What if we’d been at the family reunion? Miles from medical help.”

“But we weren’t,” he said, “and it was hard to know what was really wrong before.”

“I told you even before Thursday that your symptoms could be heart attack related,” I said.


“Repeatedly, ” I insisted. ” And I was right.”

“It’s important for you to be right?”


And it is. I have been down this road of scoffing, pooh-poohing husband with scary and persistent physical maladies.

“If I had experienced chest pains while we were camping,” I pointed out, “there is no way we wouldn’t have packed up and headed to the ER.”

He couldn’t refute me. Rob is hawkish about my health but very much like the typical man when it comes to his own.

I am uncertain about how I feel. The medical professions thus far appear blase with the discharging cardiologist telling Rob he can go back to work in a couple of weeks (a “couple” means “two” where I come from). He handed Rob a recipe of prescriptions – some of which make zero sense. They want him to take medication for lowering cholesterol even though his levels are fine and in spite of the very serious side effects of statins and the recent studies that show there is no link between high cholesterol (which Rob doesn’t have, or did I mention that) and heart disease. Apparently in the Alberta medical world, heart attack treatment is one size fits all.

And even Rob is agitating to work from home at least via his computer and the phone because he is in charge of some major projects with multi-million dollar scope and long-range implications for his career.

“When did I become a corp whore,” he asked bemusedly just the night before his heart attack.

But I find myself grappling with need to hurry up and finish things – the reno, writing projects and such. Time being suddenly of the essence again in a way it hasn’t for a few years. That’s probably aftershocks. I have a feeling they may continue in unexpectedly ways and waves for a while.