I dodged a bullet on Sunday, and I owe a big thank you to the members of Brockport Volunteer Ambulance Corps and the emergency room staff at Unity Hospital for saving my life.
Everything was fine Sunday afternoon until just after the kick-off of the 4:00 football game.
Then suddenly, and without warning, I felt excruciating pain in the left side of my chest, just below and to the left of my shirt pocket.
It was a sharp and intense pain, like someone had stabbed me with a knife. The pain was so bad, I couldn’t even stand up.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain was a 15 or 16, and when I tried to stand up, it spiked to a 20 on a scale of 1 to 10.
As long as I sat still, the pain was constant and didn’t increase. My hands were clenched so tight I had white knuckles, and my fingernails were digging into the palms of my hands.
I wanted to gut it out. My motto for dealing with colon cancer is Grim and Bear it. The situation is grim, but I’m going to bear it as best I can.
But this pain was different. First of all, it was really severe, and second, it wasn’t in my stomach or my intestines. It was in my chest. So a little voice inside told me I had to do something and that grim and bear it was not a viable option,
So I leaned forward, put my knuckles on the over the coffee table, and pushed down as as hard so I could stand up.
The pain was outrageous; screaming white knuckle pain, but it had to be done. At least I knew I could move.
As I stood there, I evaluated the situation.
The pain in the left side of my chest was so bad, that I thought I’d had a heart attack. I couldn’t think of anything else that would give me such pain on the left side of my chest.
That only goes to show what I know.
I thought about whether I should try gut out this pain, as I had gutted out so much other pain, or whether I should call 911 and to go to the emergency room.
I don’t like calling 911, It makes me feel that I am imposing on the ambulance crew. They have better things to do than run a grumpy old curmudgeon to the hospital for a pain that might dissipate in five or ten minutes.
But unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot of other choices. I live alone and my son and daughter both live about 20 minutes away in Gates. To narrow my options even further, Brockport is a college town, and all but three of my neighbors are college students. The college students are no help at all, and I didn’t know if any of my real neighbors were even home.
I looked around the room, saw my cell phone on the piano where it was recharging, and decided to walk over to the cell phone before I decided what to do next.
Every step was freaking screaming agony. The cell phone was only ten feet away, but I could only take little baby steps and it took me about five minutes just to reach the cell phone.
It was grim but I decided to bear it as best I could for as long as I could. I didn’t have any other option except screaming at the top of my lungs and hoping somebody would hear me.
That didn’t seem like an intelligent choice, so when I reached the cell phone, I dialed 911. When the operator answered, I told her I needed an ambulance because I had excruciating pain in my chest and I thought I’d had a heart attack.
Then came what seemed to be a million questions; name, address, telephone number, date of birth, symptoms, nearest cross street. After answering the questions I told her to have the ambulance crew come to the side door by the driveway.
Then I started to put all my ducks in a row.
First I sent an email to my daughter, Sarah, to tell her that I’d called 911 and was going to the emergency room. Then I went upstairs to get my wallet and my hat.
It was difficult going up the 14 steps to the second floor but at least I could do it one step at a time instead of step up, lift my other foot up, step up, lift my other foot up, over and over again.
Coming down the steps was a different story. The stairs seemed to be moving away from me so I had to grip the railing with all my might and watch where I put my feet with every step.
When I got downstairs again, Sarah texted back to find out which emergency room: the funky one in Brockport, or the real one in Greece. There is nothing quite as infuriating as a text, when you’re in pain and just want the world to go away.
But that’s the way we communicate nowadays, so I texted her back that I was probably going to Greece, since that’s where the ambulance took me when I called 911 last summer on the day I found out I had colon cancer.
I got my keys from the basket on the kitchen counter; then I went out on the back porch to make sure the back door was unlocked.
The ambulance arrived while I was on the back porch. But I was so unsteady on my feet that I needed to hold on to two people just to make it down the three back stairs.
Then the EMT and his assistant took me under the arms and helped me to the back of the ambulance and then up and into the ambulance and onto the gurney.
Then the fun began. The EMT wanted me lie down on my back, but that hurt so much I could only do that for a few seconds. Lie down, get back up again.
I had to sit up. So the EMT and his assistant helped me sit up and then they moved the gurney to the sitting position.
Once I was strapped in, the ambulance started moving. But the driver never put on his lights, and he stopped at every red light along the way, which drove me crazy. I just wanted to get to the hospital five minutes ago, and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t turn his lights and siren on and cruise through the red lights.
But I don’t know the protocol for ambulances, so I didn’t bug anyone about it.
The trip to the hospital was going so slowly and the ride was so bumpy, that I asked the EMT if the ambulance needed new shocks or was it just me
The EMT just pointed up front and said, “It’s my driver.” He didn’t drive fast, but he did seem to hit every pothole and bump in the road no matter how big or how small it was.
On the way, the ambulance staff called ahead and by the time we got to the hospital, the emergency room staff was ready and waiting for me.
As the staff prepped me, than the questions started all over again: name, address, telephone number, date of birth, symptoms, etc., etc., etc.
So I answered all the questions again. I told them what happened and that I thought I’d had a heart attack.
After things settled down a little bit, one of the nurses said that they didn’t think I’d had a heart attack at all. She said they thought I had a pulmonary embolism.
The instant she said that I gave a sigh of relief and relaxed. I hadn’t had a heart attack after all.
But she and the other nurses standing there were shocked by my reaction, and looked at me as if I was crazy.
They told me that a pulmonary embolism is as life threatening as a heart attack, and that if I hadn’t come to the hospital immediately I probably would have died.
That was a sobering thing to hear a few seconds after thinking I was out of the woods. I didn’t even know what a pulmonary embolism was, much less how dangerous it can be.
Then the battery of tests started: blood tests, a chest X-ray, and an Ultrasound. They could have done more tests, including a CT scan, a V/Q lung scan, and a pulmonary angiogram. But they didn’t have too.
The blood tests, chest X-ray, and Ultrasound confirmed the initial diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism in both lungs.
So they gave me a shot of dilaudid (hydromorphone hydrochloride) to help with the pain, and started a regimen of de-coagulants and bold thinners to dissolve the blood clots and prevent the formation of new ones.
About that time my daughter, Sarah, arrived, and she and I spent the next twelve hours in that same cramped emergency room cubicle waiting for a bed to come open upstairs. Somebody had to be discharged before I could be admitted.
During those twelve hours, the doctors and nurses explained to me exactly how dangerous a pulmonary embolism is.
First, it’s rare to have a single pulmonary embolism. There are almost always multiple clots. They said that I had blood clots in both lungs. And when I asked why I only felt the pain on my left side, they said that the blood clots in my left lung were probably bigger.
They never explained where the blood clots formed, and I never asked. But they did say that people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer are hyper coagulant.
Being hyper coagulant means that blood clots form too easily, or don’t dissolve properly, and then travel through the body limiting or blocking blood flow.
They said this is a very dangerous situation, because the clots can form in, or travel to, the arteries or veins in the brain, heart, kidneys, or lungs which can cause a heart attack, a stroke, or even death.
In my case, the blood clots either formed in or traveled to my lungs, and threatened my life.
The also told me that cancer is one of the main risk factors for pulmonary embolism because cancer can increase the levels of the substances that help the blood clot, and chemotherapy increases the risk even further.
Pulmonary embolism is so life-threatening, that according to the Mayo Clinic website, about one-third of people, with a pulmonary embolism that is undiagnosed and untreated, die from the pulmonary embolism.
I guess I dodged a bullet. My pulmonary embolism was undiagnosed and untreated until I took that ambulance ride to Unity Hospital in Greece.
If I’d decided to grim and bear it, I’d probably be dead.