Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Full Stop

On August 9 of this year, four days before my play Infectious Opportunity opened at the New York International Fringe Festival, I had a heart attack. I was (and, as of this writing, still am) 34 years old.

Up until the paramedics rushed me to Bellevue Hospital, it wasn't a particularly dramatic ordeal. I experienced the symptoms that one is told about, but the symptoms didn't come suddenly or violently like in the movies. The thought periodically crossed my mind at the time that I was experiencing a heart attack, but for the most part, I was too busy thinking, "Ow ow ow ow make it stop make it stop make it stop."

Seriously, folks; if you're thinking of having one of these things because all the cool kids are talking about having one, I'd advise against it. They hurt quite a bit.

As I said, at first, it wasn't a particularly dramatic ordeal. In fact, the morning of the attack was pretty unremarkable. I woke up, got my morning ice coffee, and had my morning cigarette outside before taking the train into Manhattan. After I finished my cigarette (which would turn out to be, as of this writing, my last), I went underground to wait for the L train to take me to work.

While on the subway platform, I felt an odd sensation in my left arm and upper chest. It was as if I had a sunburn in those two parts of my body. A weird sensation to be sure, but not an intensely painful one. Certainly not too painful to cause any serious alarm or consider calling 9-1-1.

At the time, I thought: "Huh. This feels weird. I wouldn't mind if this feeling would go away." The train arrived and I boarded, forgetting about the irritating sensation in my arm and chest. Off to work I went.

When I got to the neighborhood where my office is, I found myself feeling winded going up the stairs of the train station. The sensation in my arm and chest had intensified from a mild burning to a more tightening sensation, as if there was a weight on my chest and someone had tied an elastic around my forearm, cutting off my circulation.

"This is beginning to really hurt," I thought. So I started to walk a little slower, as I still found it difficult to catch my breath.

Still, no clutching of the wrist a la Glenn Ford in Superman, no pounding my chest with my fist like Da Superfans from the recurring Saturday Night Live sketch, and no crashing to my knees like countless films depicting someone suddenly suffering a heart attack. I could still walk, talk, and think clearly. Off to work I went.

It wasn't until I got upstairs to my office and sat down at my desk when the breathing became a serious effort. Down on the street, it felt as if a large dog was sitting on my chest. Now it felt more like a small elephant. I was sweating profusely, even though the air conditioner was on in the office. Within less than a minute of sitting down, I turned to my boss (who sits right next to me) and said, "Excuse me."

I stepped out into the hallway and walked back and forth a few times, trying to get some air and now feeling like I had completely lost circulation in my...well, everything. This was a new pain, a new scenario I was unfamiliar with. What was happening? I didn't know.

That's when the thought first hit me: You're not gonna be able to walk this off.

The inner voice was right. I wasn't going to be able to ignore this pain, and I wasn't going to be able to take the subway back home and walk — or sleep — this off. Whatever was happening...

(It was around this time, at roughly 10:30 on this Tuesday morning, that the thought that this could be a heart attack entered my brain. I was immediately reminded of both author Harlan Ellison's description of his heart attack in his book, Slippage, which mirrored my current experience, and John Goodman's portrayal of Dan Connor having a heart attack in an episode of Roseanne, which also mirrored how I felt and how I must have looked to others. I was however in too much pain now to seriously dwell on this idea. The only really lucid thought I could hold onto at the time was something to the effect of: "I hate this I hate this I hate this I hate this.")

...it was going to require immediate attention from professionals, since I had a (correct) hunch that within a couple of minutes, I would no longer be able to walk.

So, I re-entered my office, and said to my boss: "I don't feel good. You need to call someone."

My boss asked: "Is everything okay?"

My response, which was rather curt, was: "No. My arm and chest hurts and I'm having a tough time breathing."

His eyes widened as he agreed that that sounded very bad indeed. So he told me to lie down on the couch by the door. I did so as he called 9-1-1 and a co-worker of mine handed me a glass of water.

Shortly after my boss called 9-1-1, several paramedics arrived and surrounded me, asking me a series of questions, taking my vitals and giving me both aspirin and nitro glycerin.

At the time, they could have easily told me the only way to relieve me of the pain was to shoot me in the face with a shotgun, and I would not argue with them.

The pain and discomfort had now increased to insufferable levels and enveloped me, so I would have eagerly accepted a shotgun blast to the face if it meant not having to feel this way anymore. "Fine!" I would have said if I had the energy and that's what they had to offer. "You need to shoot me in the face? Shoot me in the face! Quit foot-dragging, let's do this. Just make this shit stop!"

Fortunately, they did not kill me, but instead lifted me onto the stretcher they brought, and took me down to the ambulance through the freight elevator. I was then taken to Bellevue, which was only a few blocks away from where I work.

Before entering Bellevue, one of the EMTs warned me that the next few minutes were going to be chaos. Sure enough, he was right. Upon entry of the hospital, I was surrounded by what seemed like 100 doctors, nurses and surgeons, all asking me multiple questions all at once, many of them the same questions. I was handed several forms to sign as I was being wheeled through a labyrinth of corridors.

Throughout this, the EMT told me that in a few minutes, my femoral artery would be cut open, a balloon would be inserted into it, and I'd feel "One thousand times better."

Those were the magic words. The idea of being cut open didn't bother me as long as the end result would be to stop feeling this way.

Was I going to die? That thought crossed my mind at this point as well. Oddly enough, it wasn't a particularly troubling thought. I don't write this to convey any sense of machismo, bravery, or even some sort of death wish, but to convey that I thought that whatever was going to happen, it was now out of my hands and it was going to happen very, very soon. In other words, however this was going to turn out, I'd know the result in mere minutes. Besides, these people seemed to know what they were doing, and it wasn't as if I was in any position to argue or offer my proverbial two cents.

It wasn't long before I was placed on the operating table...

(Later, one of my nurses, Mary, would tell me that the time from my entrance into Bellevue to being put on the operating table was 11 minutes, something she and the other nurses were particularly proud of. I too was quite impressed.)

...and a woman whose name escapes me pulled my pants down and proceeded to shave my groin.

"And she didn't even buy you a drink!" the EMT joked. I laughed (albeit weakly) and wished I could come up with some sort of rejoinder, but was too overwhelmed to offer any type of witty reply.

I was given some meds to make me...well, not knocked out, but just loopy enough to not care about my environs. I vaguely remember a pinching sensation in my leg (where they inserted the balloon for the angioplasty) and being spoken to some time later, asking me how I felt.

"Much better," I replied. And that was the truth: I felt so much better than before I had been wheeled in.

"That's good," said one of the doctors. "Because you had just suffered a massive heart attack."

A massive. Heart attack.

That was the first time I had been told what I had experienced. Sure, like I said, the thought had crossed my mind. But the pain had been too intense for me to linger on the thought. Plus, this was the first time it was confirmed for me. And not just a mild or minor heart attack.

It was a massive heart attack.

Well, shit.

I was later told that one of my arteries — which now harbors a stent — had been clogged pretty badly with plaque and cholesterol. A blood clot had formed and got lodged in there like a cork in a wine bottle, completely blocking the flow of oxygen to the heart.

During my three-day stay at Bellevue, I would be told by numerous doctors and nurses that it was a miracle I was so close to the hospital (I work three blocks away from one of the best heart hospitals in the city, if not country) and was tended to so quickly. Again, I wasn't — and am still not — in any position to argue.

I was released from Bellevue the day before Infectious opened, but was still not back up to full strength to be able to attend. After the show, several people called and texted me to tell me it went about as well as it could have: a sold out performance and standing ovation. On one hand, I was very sad to have missed it. On the other, I was glad to hear it went so well and was happy that I was alive, healthy and no longer in the hospital.

I now take a regimen of blood-thinning, cholesterol-lowering and blood pressure-reducing medicine. Some of which I only need to take for the next few months, others I'll need to take for the rest of my life.

I also no longer smoke. August 9 was also, not surprisingly, the day I quit smoking. I had my last cigarette a few minutes before I felt the first symptoms of the attack, and asked one of the nurses to throw out the pack found in my shirt's breast pocket when I came to from the procedure.

So far, the quitting of the smoking has not been a challenge in any way. After four weeks, I have no desire to smoke. I guess it took something this extreme to stop cold turkey and have the stopping stick.

Very recently, I was taken back to another hospital (Woodhull in Brooklyn) after having a very bad reaction to one of my blood-thinning medications (Coumadim, a drug I now no longer take), but that's another story for another time. What I did learn from that hospital visit is that my heart is now substantially stronger than my stay at Bellevue, and recovering faster than most of my doctors had predicted. If I have my way, I won't be staying at any hospital anytime soon.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who came to visit me while I was recovering at the hospital, who sent me kind and encouraging words, who checked in on me both in-person and online, who picked up the slack during the run of Infectious and who snuck in books, DVDs and real food to me. I can't thank you enough. I feel incredibly fortunate to know you and to have such a loving and fast-acting support system.

As I write this, I'm recuperating in Maine after staging three plays and enduring two stays in the hospital.

In short, what a fucking summer.

I plan to return to my fair city this weekend. In the meantime, I need to write the next play, and start calling random people who haven't had a heart attack — regardless of their age — "kiddo."

A cranky young man,

James "Bucko" Comtois

9 Comments:

Blogger Coco Craft and Tarot said...

James, I am so thankful you are recovering and thankful you posted this. The world needs you and your words. So get better and keep putting them out there. :)

12:35 PM  
Blogger Emily Owens PR said...

This story is so scary! So so glad that you're OK. Please take care of yourself!

12:59 PM  
Blogger ukejackson said...

Good luck, James!
Uke Jackson

2:47 PM  
Anonymous Ken said...

So glad you are doing OK. Must have been terrifying.

Good luck and easy-does-it!

4:12 PM  
Blogger Carin said...

Referring to you as "Gramps" from now on. Check.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A terrible experience, but a nice piece of writing.
I am glad that you have been able to give up smoking (and also drinking). I guess I have to stop thinking of you as the teenager you used to be and admire you as the adult you have become.
--SK

1:34 AM  
Blogger August Schulenburg said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'd been wondering about the details, but figured you had told the story enough times already, so didn't ask. Just so glad you're doing all right.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous RLewis said...

I appreciate that you're able to write about the experience. I'm taking notes. And I'm glad that you're better now. It's gonna be a terrific part of one of your plays one day, I'm sure.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Thank you for sharing this with all of us. It's a scary thing and now has me worried about my own health. I think I see myself as the perpetual 20 year old (of which I'm not).

Good to hear that you are alright now and on the mend.

11:50 AM  

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