You never know…..

In one of my favorite movies; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, (Queenie) Benjamins adopted by fate mother proclaims; you never know what’s coming for ya.

Floating aboard my cousins Bass Boat very early Saturday morning a mere two days since diagnosis, I felt the need to push all my emotions down deep inside. Control myself, place my mind in the right space so as to look forward, beyond my current issues. Then with confidence firmly choose the correct rod, the right lure and hunker down for a long day’s grind. I could not under any circumstances allow myself to wander into the land of death, possible death, my heart failing, the surgery becoming botched, my family falling apart, my pathetic life unraveling before my eyes. It was as if the angel of death had arrived and was sitting alongside me. Taunting me, calling me out for all my misgivings, while allowing one or two last chances to get things right in this world. It was a daunting emotional mind fuck.

Tony and I were fishing in a very well run tournament series (NewJen) and there was no place I would rather have been at that very moment in time. Fishing is my escape from the world, and being as though I am competitive as fuck, it was a double win for me that very morning. 80 teams around us, the sun just beginning to rise over the mountains and off in the distance the national anthem is being played. 160 or so men, women and youth took off their hats, placed them over their hearts, standing upon the bows of their liquid rocket ships, some singing along, others with their heads slung downward, it was a thing of beauty. We were seconds from blast off, moments from 70-80 mph runs towards our first opportunities for greatness. It is what I live for and not only was I privileged enough to do it that very morning, but with family, my cousin standing alongside me.

Not going to sugar coat it. I was terrified as fuck when we ripped across the lake. Knowing sometimes is so much worse than not knowing. All I could think about over and over again was the doc telling me the size of my aneurism. Too big to live my life untouched, not big enough for emergency surgery, but large enough surgery needs to be done in a rapid timely manner. I can now no longer go do the things I did before. You know simple things like running, lifting weights, oh wait sorry; lifting anything over 5 pounds! Carrying things for your girl, the way I raised. Yeah pretty much no straining in any way, yes that includes pooping!!! Whatever you do don’t strain while doing that!!! Could you imaging pulling an Elvis on the toilet!! Its laxatives every day for me!!! But as we ripped across the lake, every bump, swell or rocker left me holding my chest and wondering why. Why me?

My whole world changed that weekend.

As I was fishing, Lynnsie was back at the cottage with all the kids. She promised them a fun filled adventurous day. Lucky for us we were able to get a cottage with a dock so my Bass Boat was out front in the water and that is where all of the kids spent the majority of the day. Fishing, playing, pretending to be in a tournament of their own. Why was this so lucky? Because while they were making their own fun, Lyn’s spent the entire day, holed up in the bedroom, laptop in hand, mired in research. She learned everything there was to learn about my upcoming procedure, how it was performed, the percentages of those who survive and the percentages of those still making it post op. She also researched within our medical system as to who was the very best doctor to perform the surgery. She wasn’t taking any chances. She would later tell me when presented with all the evidence; you have lived through so much, been in so much emotional pain, you are not going to die on my watch, you don’t deserve this bullshit. I don’t care what anyone tells me, we are getting you the best, you will come out of this alive and I will be right by your side. No arguments, no feeling sorry for yourself. She then handed me a piece of paper stating; this is him, this is the guy and I don’t care that he is the best, which will make it difficult to see him, I will get him to see us.

Tony and I had a fair day fishing, not our best but enough to keep us in the points. By noon I had put my fears away and was really focusing on our task at hand. By the time we rolled in, I was still lost back in a life of normalcy, when we got in the truck to head home, through our normal banter of fish lost or what could have been, I focused on the learning points of the day.

We hit the driveway to our cottage and as I walked in the door turning to wave as my cousin drove away, I grabbed a beer, sat down and was instantaneously transported back to Thursday, the words, the facts, and the diagnosis. I started dwelling on fucking percentages.  Have I ever explained through this blog just how much I hate god damn percentages!! They are numbers derived from testing subjects, cases gone both good and bad, they intentionally are loaded to favor hope. But hope is just that; hope. It is neither fact nor science. It is an emotion, a response to someone’s idea of what might keep you interested or holding on. Hope is a falsehood, a misnomer, a correction of fact to illicit a response. Hope is fucking bullshit because in the end you can have all the hope in the world, but real life tangible fact will always rule the day. I have lived through hope, held onto hope, awoken every day regurgitating statistics leading to hope. Every time fact and science slapped me square in the face with no remorse. Every time through prayer, love, pain and hope I was let down. Every time, I hoped, I ended up placing the person I loved more than anything in the ground. Hope can fuck itself.

There I was, surrounded by family, drinking a beer, looking at the woman who has quite possibly saved my life by forcing me to go to the doctor and all I can think is its all bullshit. Her statistics she worked so hard on all day, the doctor she is telling me about, the procedures, how the procedures are done and their survivability rates, yeah all I can think about because I am clearly not listening is I am going to die, this isn’t going to end well. It never does let’s just face it, it is my turn to die. The angel of death rides shotgun, it’s just a matter of time.

Staring at her. My lip begins to quiver, snot begins to roll from my nose and tears fall hard like rain. I am shaking all over. The kids are outside and so move to the bedroom and hide. The children know nothing and we aren’t going to tell them until we have met with all the doctors and have a solid plan in place. I look like an infant, sobbing, blubbering, expelling so much trapped emotion. I just don’t understand and no matter how many times I am told just how lucky I am it doesn’t matter. Not feeling lucky today fuckers! I have chosen feeling sorry for myself and have resigned myself to the fact I deserve too, right here, right now and for some time to come. I want so badly for the angel of death to quit following me. Or crazy thought; maybe I am the angel of death, and it’s time for me to go. Taking every soul I have acquired over 25 years both professionally in the fire service and in my personal life with me. You know the ones trapped in my head dancing along with the ones I loved.

The next few weeks until my appointment with the cardiologist were to be the hardest of my life. Living in the unknown, trying to not look up procedures on the internet. Wrapping my head around the whole thing. Looking at my children without crying and feeling horrible for them again. What if they lose me, what if their whole lives are forged in hate and despair from losing their parents. It just isn’t right. Trapped in a strange purgatory of not being able to go to work, not being able to work the ranch, ride a horse, a motorcycle, a tractor. Fear of any large jolt or bump dissecting my aneurism kept me regulated to sitting in a chair doing nothing. Not a great way spend time when you don’t have all the answers.

I chose to write a will.

It was strange and quite possibly one of the most realistic, grounding moments of my life.

To die or not to die, that is the question. Quickly enough we would know the answer.

Because you never know what’s coming for ya….

Doctor says what??

April 25, 2019

Working a structure fire in one of our neighboring cities I was partaking in the almost mundane task of lowering a ladder from the “C” side of the structure. Nothing big, I had help and it really was/is a job that after proper training becomes the equivalent of putting your pants on every day, (I mean if you wear pants, like pants, you know, that sort of thing). I had developed a pretty significant cough that week and unfortunately it kept rearing its ugly head. Feeling as though it was nothing more than allergies due to this specific time of year my cough was “kind of” being controlled with medication, but it certainly made firefighting a little harder.

At the halfway point of lowering this particular ladder, something “popped” in my right shoulder. Not like a balloon or a pressurized bag, but more along the lines of let’s say; a guitar string letting go. I knew right, deep down inside there was a problem. Oh I stretched it, didn’t make a thing of it, rotated my arm a couple of times and shrugged it off to being older. But yeah, there was a problem.

The better part of this year I worked out like a mad man. Starting in January with eating right, and swapping to a mostly vegetarian diet. Then running, stairs and eventually weights. This lifestyle change had in fact worked wonders!  Not without struggle though, it was hard, taxing, and I was always dizzy or nauseous after each workout; but for real, I was quite literally in the very best shape of my life! Down three pant sizes, lots of muscle and very, little fat! One side effect to the effort though was these uncontrollable muscle spasms or shaking after each workout.  A little scary at times but I simply chalked it up to effort. In the end, I felt great!!!

So how could such a simple task like lowering a ladder take me out?

Upon returning to the station the On-Duty Captain was notified as the pain was intensifying and my range of motion became more limited. For the record; I hate putting in paperwork! I hate looking broken or weak! Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to do this job and our injury/workers comp system is deplorable! In my humble opinion it favors those who don’t want to go back to work and challenges those who do want to go back or at the very least, need too!  

2019 was going to be a better year, it was supposed to be BETTER I told myself over and over again. This is nothing but a strain, nothing but a simple, every day strain associated with physical work. I’ll be in and out of the doctor’s office and the guys will be giving me shit in a few hours. Right? I climbed into one of our utility vehicles, started the motor….Damn! I’m such a fucking pussy….

Long story short….

Right glenoid tear, cracked ball, strained muscles. I’m officially off work with full restrictions for movement or use. Soooo the much hated workers compensation game began.

Playing by the rules, I began visiting the workers comp doc on a regular basis; who I end up really liking by the way? I began moping around the house, feeling all sorry for myself. Can’t do chores (stupid), can’t ride horses (stupid); can’t sleep because of the pain (stupid) and worse of all? I have this cough that makes my shoulder throb when it’s at its height of coughy, coughy land (fucking stupid)! I’m angry, hard to be around and really not feeling well about myself and life in general. Touche’ 2019, Touche’

Oh yeah that cough…. That fucking pain in the ass cough!

Let’s talk about that shall we? Huh? You in? Ok well, to bad here we go…..

A few weeks go by and my cough is so bad that I am soaking the sheets in sweat at night. Not just damp, moist like a hot summer’s night next to your favorite person; actual pools of sweat. My head is pounding, I can’t breathe and I am up all night struggling.

Lyn’s daily has been suggesting I see a doctor, of course I am balking at it. I’m 53, work in emergency medicine and this fireman isn’t jinxing himself by going to the doctor? Ok, so maybe I should put the bullshit aside and go, but I am not going too. Why? Because I am a stubborn, know it all, self-centered man who obviously knows more than anyone else! Yeah that’s right I just called myself out! But it is the truth. I’m a rigid asshole sometimes..

Finally after much coercion I agree to make an appointment with my general practitioner. Of course I totally don’t! I agreed to it, but never said when! Ha! Yeah that went over real well with her too.

After another week of showing my lungs to the world each time I tried to breathe, the cough just wasn’t going away. Everyday Lyn’s asks if I have made that appointment. Every day I make some lame ass excuse as to why I haven’t. One morning all my excuses and bullshit came to an end.

May 08, 2019

I awoke that morning drenched as if I had taken a dip in the hot tub and rolled right back into bed, then for fun had a kid throw a bucket of water on me to seal the deal. My coughing had gone on all night without a break. Sitting on the edge of the bed wondering if I should try and sleep or just roll over and die, Lyn’s tells (not asks) me to go to the ER. I try pacifying her with a; I’ll walk in and see if there are any openings with my GP. I’m not taking up time in the ER. It’s just a cough. Through searing painful heat ray lasers shooting from her eyes, I glanced up, her arms were crossed and I knew that was the wrong answer.

Here is a little background; Lyn’s works in one of the busiest ER’s in Northern Ca. She worked on an ambulance before that and is no slouch when it comes to patient care. She was no longer looking at someone she cared for feeling a little ill. She had given me all the leeway she was going to give hoping my 25 years in emergency medicine would wake something up inside me where I might say; hey stupid! You probably should go to the doctor! Then do something really crazy like, oh I don’t know, actually following through with such an amazing idea that I thought up all on my own like a really big boy. Let’s face it, in a nutshell, she was finished with my half ass excuses and was treating me like an unruly patient in her charge. Rightfully so.

I was told with stern love and kindness to get off my ass and go to the ER. I tried to pawn it off and it was reiterated that I needed, right now, to get off my fucking ass and go to the ER! If I did not do so by the time she got off work, she was going to beat my ass (not hard to do in the state I was in) load me in the car herself and take me to her facility! Yeah the red headed inner Irish devil child had come out! In retrospect it was kinda sexy…

Being a man who had successfully navigated two previous marriages I knew instantaneously when to fold my cards, push my chair back, stand up and walk from the table. I told her, no I promised her over the phone I was headed to the ER. I always keep my promises.

Parking the car I slowly walked by the front glass doors of the ER. Peering in like a kid trying to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus without being caught, before me lay an empty waiting room. I had told myself if the ER was packed I was going to keep walking over to my GP’s (General Practitioners) office and try to get squeezed in that day. Intent would have been met and no one would be the wiser. But there I stood, staring at an empty ER waiting room. It was a sign.

Walking through the door to triage nurse meets me and asks; how can I help you today.

Me: Are you busy

Nurse: we are open 24/7

Me: (kindly) not what I fucking asked! Are you busy?

Nurse (taking me by the forearm): I think you need to sit down.

Sit down I did, and at that moment I realized while seated I was placing myself in a tripod position to ease my breathing  and that I was in fact speaking in 2 and three word sentences with sweat dripping on the floor. I was sick, real sick and for the first time over the last several weeks, through all my excuses, becoming a little worried.

They (ER staff) took me immediately, chest x-rays done and a breathing treatment started it was fairly obvious I was battling a solid case of pneumonia. Heart rate up, jitters from the albuterol, I was finally starting to catch my breath when the doctor came back to have a word with me.

Doc: Hey James, so we were right, you have pneumonia. We will be sending you home with some medication to treat it along with doses of albuterol, but there is something else. We spotted a dark shadow over your heart so you are being sent to CT for a better picture. Is that ok with you? I laugh and say no problem doc, ask anyone my heart is two sizes to small (Grinch reference) so I’m sure it’s nothing. We both chuckle and off to CT I go.

Two hours later.

Doc comes in and leans against the wall.

Doc: James, it is confirmed for sure, you do have pneumonia.

We both laugh at the absurdity of the re-diagnosis.

Doc: But there is something else. You have a T.A.A.

For those who do not know what a T.A.A is, it stands for Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm.  In a nut shell, the garden hose that feeds my heart is ballooning and ready to pop. If it pops, I’m dead in under thirty seconds! That’s right, I will bleed out on the inside. Nothing anyone can do.

I look him in the eye and say; you can’t tell me that doc, you can’t tell me I have a T.A.A! You know what I do for a living! You can’t tell me that!! I promptly begin freaking out!

He says; James because of what you do for a living, I told you that way. I know you know what it is and what needs to be done. He calms me down, gives me all the specifics and reminds me that in fact I am the luckiest person in the building. They caught something that has no known signs or symptoms. In the medical world it is known as the silent killer.

I walk out to the parking lot in shock. The sun seems brighter, the air smells different. Holding it together, head held high, I make it to the truck. To that date, longest slowest walk of my life. Once inside, I start it, turn on the A/C, hang my head behind my dark tinted windows and cry. A lot.

I text Lyn’s to give her the update. As soon as she is able to process what I have just told her, she clears it with her team and runs outside to call me. I am sobbing and sobbing hard, I can’t breathe, and I’m coughing, crying, and speaking in two word sentences again. All I can focus on is every call at work I responded to where the person/patient had an aortic aneurysm. They died. Even the few I went on that were post operation, yeah……they died. What the fuck! What the holy fuck! Yeah I know doc reminded me I was the luckiest guy in the building at that very moment because they found it in time but I sure didn’t feel lucky! I feel fucking cursed! So god damned fucking cursed!!!! Fuck you 2019, fuck you God, fuck everything!

Lyn’s pulls me back in, reminding me she is there for me, she isn’t going anywhere, and she is going to do a ton of research. She tells me we will find the very best doctor for this procedure, acquire him and everything will be fine. She reminds me that there is no way I have survived everything life has thrown at me without surviving this too. Calm down, breathe it will all be ok.

She has a way about her. I don’t know what it is but she has this consistent way of talking me off the ledge even if it’s momentarily. She is also a thorough planner and I know the planning is about to begin. Someone is going to be taking care of me, something that never, ever happens. The fact that it’s early in our relationship and she isn’t running away, is mind blowing. She says she is all in. Over the next several months, it will show just how “all in” she has become. I learn I am a lucky man once again.

Hanging up the phone, I proceed to spend the next hour calling my three very best friends. The three men in my life I would gladly give my life for in return. I tell them the news, give them all the prognosis and each one of them find a way to make me laugh. You know why? Because that’s what real friends do. They have your back no matter what and you have theirs. We will be that way until we die.

I place the truck in reverse and start my way out of the Kaiser parking lot. I’m terrified, certain I am going to die, worried about what I am going to tell all four of my already emotionally damaged children. Fuck me. What I am going to tell them? They’ve lost their moms’ and now they are most likely going to lose their dad! Haven’t we done enough? Hasn’t my family been through enough already!! Why?

I’m driving up 505, sobbing again. The pain is real, I am scared of the reality I am about to face. Little do I know just how scary things are about to get…