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Not A Pumphead Ping-Pong Party

February 2, 2011
Hee Haw

Image via Wikipedia

So, two weeks ago I made a promise to myself to be more kind when speaking of or talking about my body. I’m happy to say that for the most part, I’ve stuck to that. Accepting what is is a powerful thing. After years of preaching of the virtues of denial, “loving what is,” as Byron Katie would say has far more benefit that I’d thought.

Around that same time, I had another revelation, or validation I could say. I need to vent about it, so bear with me.  Hit the delete key. Do which ever works best for you. If you stick around and read it, thanks as always for being my witness.

Right after the bypass surgery, I noticed things were different. Of course my body was different. Subtle symptoms were now replaced by glaring deficiencies and disability. Emergency surgery to save my life gave me none of that relief and improvement some seem to experience. It wasn’t just my body that was changed though. My mind was changed as well.  My short-term memory was toast. Things seemed foggy. Speaking sometimes was like wading through soup. I remember telling the surgeon about it at that first post op visit. He brushed it off saying it was anesthesia. His nurse said it would pass.

I told my then cardiologist. He said the same thing at first, then just ignored it when I brought it up each time I saw him. He ignored about everything I said, that’s why I went almost three months with two of those grafts having failed almost immediately. That would explain the lack of improvement. That’s a another story though…

So, I went online myself and researched. My sense of smell was almost gone. The memory thing got worse, instead of better. The speaking got worse. I would be unable to find words. I didn’t sleep. Crowds were overwhelming. I didn’t read anymore. I was different in a million ways. Much I attributed to the trauma of it all. I wasn’t quite right though and knew it. I read about “pump-head,” the cognitive decline that often happens to people after being on the heart lung, or bypass machine during open heart surgery. The only problem with that theory, my surgery was one of the first at Emory Crawford Long done, “off pump,” meaning they hadn’t stopped my heart when they did it. Then I read how they had thought the “-” was caused by stopping the heart and cooling the blood and it went away after a year or so, yet those done “off-pump” seemed to have the same percentage, perhaps even more, of cognitive decline.

After about a year, I stopped keeping up with the research. I just sort of accepted it as something Lisa and I knew, but no one else. If my girls noticed, they didn’t let on. It was frustrating though. I would be talking to the girls and realize I couldn’t remember the conversation of two days before they were referring to. Or, I wouldn’t recall whole events, days even. It seemed memories entered my brain like ping-pong balls, bouncing around but often never landing anywhere. Usually, with clues, I could recall at least part of past events. Others seemed whole and intact. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it, some simply landed and others didn’t, except that overwhelm (and it didn’t take much) and fatigue made it worse.

I avoided crowds and groups of people, people in general I didn’t feel super safe and comfortable with (that left about half a dozen or so) because I found I really wouldn’t be able to talk. I could listen and follow fine, but when I went to speak, I would seem to lose my way, things in my mind would slow down like slow motion, like that thick soup. Or, I’d realize they were speaking of something I should, but could not remember causing a wave of panic to cover me. After being a public speaker the past few years, that was quite a major change.

I also didn’t have much interest in much of what folks said…they were so serious and acted as if they had a thousand years to live, to do and fret and seek and search. I found most of life funny and wanted to laugh and finally not take life so damn seriously. They didn’t seem to have any interest in what I tried to say either. I was trying to heal from a broken heart and had experienced some sort of deeply traumatic but profoundly clarifying event. I needed to talk about it.  I also had the desire to milk this remaining physical experience for all it was worth. They were still trying to figure out spiritual things and have out-of-body experiences. They were still waiting for “then” when they’d be happy or whole or enlightened or complete. They still sought out their inner child and hoped to follow their big plan, their life’s great purpose. They still dreamed of changing the world. I was no longer dreaming. I felt I’d been rudely and roughly awakened. We just weren’t on the same page anymore. And I couldn’t seem to say any of it.

I’m really dragging this out, I know, making it into a book. Forgive me, or hit “delete.” When I went to the doctor a couple of weeks ago (the second time) for the joint pain and inability to sleep, my GP, she started asking Lisa to describe my sleeping. Lisa was telling her how I am never still, that even when I go to sleep, I don’t stop moving. That led to my telling her of the loss of my sense of smell, the memory loss and other cognitive challenges. She listened and asked questions. Finally she started telling us how being on that heart lung machine can cause brain damage. I told her again my surgery was done off-pump.

Then she said,

“There is no way they can graft those arteries without introducing air into the blood stream. Bubbles of air, acting just like blood clots go to the brain. They know this will happen. They just hope the brain damage is small enough it isn’t noticed.”

Lack of smell- a part of the brain where an air embolism went.
Memory loss- a part of the brain where an air bubble went and wreaked havoc
Speaking trouble- ditto
As for the sleeping, she said part of the brain tells the body to be still when we sleep, or else we’d move with our dreams. Air bubble there, too.
And certainly big enough to notice.

Maybe I should be devastated, but instead, I am so relieved. For two years, I’ve known something was wrong. I’ve known damage was done. It was so infuriating that they all just brushed it off like I was imagining it. I suppose they didn’t expect me to live long enough for it to matter. Maybe they were afraid I’d sue them. Instead, I know I’m on bonus time. I don’t want to spend a precious second pretending things aren’t what they are, that I am not what I am and how I am. It’s dangerous, too to pretend that way. I absolutely would not remember if I’d taken my meds at least every other day. They weren’t doing me any favors ignoring it.

Oh, here’s a funny piece of the heart surgery story. I was “stuck” on the ventilator for a while after surgery. I was in ICU and they let Lisa and the girls in every two hours for a little while. I don’t remember them being there. I do remember waking up and wondering how I could be alive and feel so badly, how I could hurt so completely. Anyway, Lisa sings beautifully and I love for her to sing to me. They said she would try to sing sweet church songs or love songs to me during those visits and I would shake my head and wrinkle my brow. The only songs I wouldn’t protest to were the songs from the old TV show “Hee Haw,” like “Gloom, Despair and Agony On me” and, “Where Oh Where Are You Tonight?”

For whatever reason or cause, I have met another me. While the old me isn’t gone, I have been whittled down and fine tuned to someone far more simple than I was before. It feels as if the world doesn’t know how to respond to someone who for whatever reason has stepped off the moving sidewalk; who isn’t planning and dreaming and plotting and seeking. I didn’t and the world doesn’t place any value on just being. I haven’t known quite how to respond to myself either. I’m not seeking profound answers or trying to make a big difference. I know I can’t juggle so I don’t try anymore. I don’t strive for riches or that dream house or trip. I don’t need recognition or approval from more than my immediate beloved family, the ones who are still around.

The song Lisa tried most to sing was ,”The Greatest Thing,” and it begins, “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”

I guess I do still need a witness, or else I would not write. While I cannot speak as before, I must still have much to say. I appreciate it when someone listens. I’m quite okay if they don’t. I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am. For lack of a better work, I will call it blessed. The greatest dream of my life, the original dream, the main dream, was a loving spouse and children. I have that and then some. Lisa and my girls, my grandchildren are my dream come true. I love what is. The greatest thing in all my life is loving them. The greatest thing in life.

Right here. Right now. Ah

Mustn’t end on too serious a note, so watch this…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary Bagatelos permalink
    February 2, 2011 12:57 pm

    It never fails to amaze me how perfectly and accurately you are able to describe these experiences. BTW, I have a hunch that Byron Katie’s real name is Katie Byron. I don’t think she wants to sound like a female, for whatever reason. That Muppet clip was spot on. Great metaphor! 🙂 xo Mary

    • February 2, 2011 1:27 pm

      Thanks Mary…never thought about her name before except a brief thought about it sounding a bit odd. Reminds me of the Nascar comedy about Ricky Bobby! Love, A

  2. Lynn permalink
    February 2, 2011 1:22 pm

    I love what you said and how you said it. That’s all there is to say.

    Except “What the H— is going on in Egypt?


    • February 2, 2011 1:28 pm

      Thank you Lynn, as for Egypt it’s more than my ping pong table can handle!

  3. Lynn permalink
    April 1, 2011 11:50 am

    Where oh where have you gone Dear Allie?

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