CHAPTER ONE: BORROWED TIME
Excerpt from EAT FAT, BE HEALTHY : When a Low-Fat Diet Can Kill You
Swimming up through the depths of sleep, I am weighed down by dream and nightmare images. I know something is wrong. The images are not just phantoms of a tired brain, but real demons. They try to suck me back down into a cold, roiling darkness. Some instinct tells me I must fight to the surface of consciousness or die.
I emerge. I know I'm awake, but it still feels like the nightmare. My chest feels crushed by a truck while at the same time it seems to be exploding outward. I'm bathed in sweat and cannot breathe. Only a faint illumination from a streetlamp fights through the blinds of my bedroom. Disoriented and afraid, I turn to see the greenish glow of the bedside clock: 4:00 A.M.
What is happening?
At first I try to calm myself with the thought that I have indigestion. The spicy marinara sauce from dinner had a lot of garlic in it. Could it have affected my stomach? Or do I have food poisoning? No, this is nothing like food poisoning. My stomach does not feel sick. The pain is higher. Heartburn?
No. It is not possible that food could do this. Heartburn. Heart...
Oh, my God. Is this a heart attack?
It doesn't seem likely. I've recently had a checkup. And a cardiac stress test. I'm in good physical shape, I exercise every day, I don't eat meat or fatty foods.
It gets worse and now fear sits on my chest as heavily as the pain. I lie still for long minutes, but the crushing pain does not abate. Now I begin to hear and feel my heartbeats. Each one is like a hammer blow to the anvil that is my chest; each one sends the pain ringing through me more and more stridently.
Something I'd read pops into my mind. If it is a heart attack, I have to take aspirin. I try to stand, but a white-hot dagger cuts through my body and I land on the bedroom floor on my knees. On all fours I crawl across the carpet and down the hall. Faced with the stairs, I stop. I can't walk down the stairs because I can't stand up. If I try to scuttle down the stairs headfirst, I fear I'll slip and break my neck. I turn around and lower myself a stair at a time, like going down a ladder. My mind is screaming to move faster, but my body can't do any better.
Like a hunchback I scramble into the kitchen and struggle to pull a bottle of aspirin out of a cupboard. Spilling pills all over the counter, I push two tablets into my mouth and then partially fill a glass with water. I wash down the aspirins and fall to the floor, exhausted by the effort.
Emily, my huge Black Labrador-Akita, is whining. She licks at my face, trying vainly to help. She knows something is wrong.
Now I also know something is wrong. Terribly wrong. And I know I have to get out, get to a hospital fast. I am alone. If I pass out, nobody will find me for days. I must get out while I still can. Thoughts of indigestion evaporate. I know I am fighting for my life.
Even in my extremity, I think of the dog. I have to put her out so she will not be trapped in the house if I collapse. Crawling now, I make it to the sliding glass door off the dining area, haul it open, and send the bewildered dog into the night. Then I drag myself to the kitchen wall phone and dial 911.
My breath is ragged. It hurts to breathe. Only shallow breaths work. Deeper breaths cause my insides to shatter.
"Hello. This is the 911 operator. How may I help you?"
The voice that scratches from my throat comes as a surprise. I barely recognize it as I quickly spit out my name and address so they will know, just in case. In case I can't go on. I am now struggling for each second of consciousness.
"What do you need?" The voice stays calm, but a little louder. She knows something is bad.
"My chest. Oh, God." A wave of agony smashes through me. I had thought I was in excruciating pain before, but what I had felt so far was as nothing compared to the molten horror that now erupts in my chest. I pray that the old pain will come back. The new pain is beyond belief. I scream as I collapse from my knees to the floor.
"What is it? Sir, what is it? Do you have chest pain?" The operator's voice jumps up the scale and she is now worried. Her professional demeanor slips for a second.
"Help me. Help me." I scream it. I whisper it. It becomes my personal mantra and all I can think of as the seconds crawl by. I am trapped in amber. I know the ambulance will never get to me. I say it over and over again as I writhe on my back. "Help me. Please, help me."
"Sir, try to take steady breaths. Try to stay calm. It will help."
There is no way to stay calm. A freight train is roaring through my chest. And breathing is now a form of torture. I know I have to breathe, but I don't want to.
The smartest thing the operator does comes next. She gives me a goal. "Sir, the ambulance just checked in. They're not far from you now. Just a couple minutes at most. Is your front door locked?"
Knowing the ambulance is near helps me to hang on. There is comfort in knowing I won't be alone in the middle of the night. I can make it a few more minutes. Hell, I could do anything for three minutes.
"I'm opening the door. Be back in a minute."
Now I can barely crawl. Though I've been on my back on the floor for only a few minutes, it feels as if I have gained a hundred pounds. I drag myself across the living room, down the small stairway, across the landing. I think of only one simple task at a time, trying to get each one right, trying not to make a mistake. I flip off the dead bolt and pull the door open, the effort setting off howling agonies in new places in my body. I switch on the front spotlights. One task at a time.
Oh, why didn't I let those people who came door-to-door paint my house numbers on the curb in front of the house? With all the trees and shrubs, what if the ambulance driver doesn't see my house number? What if he drives right by?
I retrace my route and get to the phone, my lifeline. "I'm back." I can't believe the trek I just made.
"How're you doin'?"
"Still here," I gasp.
"Are you lying down?"
"Yes. I'm on the floor," I get out between gritted teeth. Breathing is painful, talking worse.
"The ambulance just turned onto your street. Hang on."
I clutch at the hope that in a few moments, there will be people who can help me. Through the pall of pain, I notice my legs are moving. It is like I'm pumping on a bicycle. I try to stop them, to stay as still as possible, but they have a life of their own. For a few moments I am weirdly fascinated at this disconnection from my legs as I watch them pumping away.
I hear the doorbell and then the storm door opening. "Hello. Where are you?" a voice says.
In a minute, I am surrounded by three West Des Moines EMTs. They get a blood pressure cuff on me. One starts an IV. Questions, voices. I settle into a quiet place in my head, and for a while everything is a blur. The pain is there, but my mind is drifting, my consciousness slipping.
I reorient in the ambulance. Someone is asking me to keep my legs still. "I can't stop them. They're walking all by themselves," I say. I do not know that this is my body's way of compensating for my failing heart by pumping blood with the large muscles in my legs. All I know is it feels better to have my legs pumping, so I don't try to stop them.
I hear the whine of the tires and the steady beat of the big engine. The medics shoot something into me. Lidocaine. I don't feel as bad. Absently, I think of the route we are taking. Six miles. Six minutes. I concentrate on holding on. Then the doors fly open and I am rolling through the darkness of the parking lot, then the light of the emergency room. More scurrying, more controlled chaos.
"Shall we cut your sweats off or pull them off?"
At first the question makes no sense. I blink in the bright light. The nurse wielding the scissors seems eager to use them. "Pull them, please." I have visions of needing my sweatpants to go home in the morning. Optimist.
Then everything goes black.
My heart stops.
At home I had lain in bed five minutes. It had taken ten minutes to get an ambulance. It was another fifteen and I was in the emergency room at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. Half an hour. In that time a third of my heart died. Had I waited another five minutes to call 911, I would have arrested in the ambulance and probably died.
But in the emergency room, they are staffed and equipped for this. Seconds are now crucial. The great survival engine that is the ER revs up, and the staff attacks this body that contains a dying heart. I awake for a few seconds, as if being roused from a nap. Annoyed at the intrusion, I can't figure out why a young nurse is straddling me and pressing on my chest. "What are you doing?" I snap. "Get off me." Then I am out again, returned to a slumber that is not a slumber. I am at the edge, drifting back and forth over the shifting boundary between life and death. I am dancing on a tightrope.
I awake again. The pain is still there, but somehow more distant, removed. It's as if my mind is cocooned in a safe place and my body is somewhere else. There is commotion -- another heart attack victim is wheeled into the ER -- and staff are trying to keep two stricken men alive. In all the excitement, nobody notices I am awake. A male nurse at the foot of my gurney is complaining to someone, "I can't move him alone. He's bagged. I need help. Somebody has to work the Ambu bag." The Ambu bag is a large plastic football attached to a mouthpiece; by squeezing it, they keep me breathing.
I take off the plastic mouthpiece that covers my lower face and in a jolly voice say, "Here, let me do it."
The male nurse's eyes go wide. "I thought you were out."
"I was. But I'm not now. Where are you trying to take me?"
"The Cath Lab. But we're swamped."
"Hand me the bag. I'll do it."
The male nurse looks shocked. "No, I can't let you do that."
"Why not? Some union bullshit?" I'm amazingly lucid and in a frivolous mood. I say, "Look, this is an emergency, right?" The nurse nods. "You need help, right?" The nurse nods again. "And I'm in danger, right?" By now the male nurse is laughing. He's never had a half-dead patient grill him before. "Well, give me the friggin' bag and let's get the hell out of this traffic jam."
With a big grin, the male nurse refits the mouthpiece and puts the blue, translucent Ambu bag into my hands. I squeeze and breathe and we roll out of the ER.
As we roll down a hall, a passing nurse with curly brown hair and a uniform that looks as if she'd bought it from Victoria's Secret comments, "Hey, Jimmy, you guys short on staff?" The male nurse laughs.
I spit out the mouthpiece and in a laughing voice say to the nurse, "Ma'am, this is an emergency. Will you please not distract the driver?" Both nurses laugh because they can't believe it. They are inured to the many strange sights they see in the hospital, but this is beyond their experience.
Then all goes black again. The humorous interlude ends. Over the next three hours, my heart will arrest again and again.
Out of nowhere I hear a male voice say in a matter-of-fact way, "He's dead." His tone is final, solemn.
The voice seems close, but nothing is around me. I am calm, removed from the world, moving into some otherwhere, but still connected enough to my body to be able to hear. Part of me is amused. Part of me is alarmed at the meaning of the words I have just heard.
My heart has stopped again.
Someone working on me wants to give up.
My body lies there, the subject of scrutiny, of analysis. People I don't know and will never meet again are deciding my fate. Something about the improbable outcome fascinates me. But my mind can't stay focused. I have a thought and then it is snatched away. I keep trying to return to the important decision these strangers are pondering. I am at the border between life and death. I am trying to understand the interplay of forces and events, but the distractions are enormous. Lights are bursting in battlefield brilliance and I hear explosions, deep and resonant. I am strobing in and out of silence and loud madness, a contrast so large I cannot hold a thought. It happens faster and faster and suddenly I am alone.
Each stoppage of my heart is like a tiny pearl of time suspended in space, strung through by the perfect line of the infinite. Like a ripe grape squeezed in a child's eager fingers, I am squirted out of my body along that line, off into the universe. But it doesn't happen just once. It's as if some cosmic jeweler is stringing a necklace of these events, these places where no-time exists. In each of these pearls is encapsulated a physical transition where my body goes from death to life to death. In between, the crash of two incompatible realities assaults me in a wrenching cacophony of light and sound and cold and heat.
In one of the silences, I see my body with all of its organs and cells going about their specific and complex tasks, all dependent for food and oxygen on the flow of blood over and around them. The engine on which all these cells depend suddenly stops pumping. Oxygen is quickly sucked out of hemoglobin in the bloodstream and consumed by the hungry cells wanting to keep on about their business. Carbon dioxide begins to build up in the blood. Cells begin dying.
To save them, my heart must restart and pump against the inertia of all that blood -- pounds of it -- that is sitting in my veins preparing to congeal. Those first few pumps will be more difficult than any others as each corpuscle must be bumped along its way from a complete stop.
Electricity shocks my heart and it spasms, sending the first shiver of movement through the arteries and veins and capillaries. It is much like watching a long train of boxcars respond to the first tug of the diesel engine. First one car moves, then the next, and next, as the engine overcomes the inertia of each car and takes up the slack between them. The first cars are moving for several minutes before the last car begins to follow.
Blood cells move, plasma flows, and soon the oxygen-starved cells of my body are functioning again. Millions of macrophages -- the body's tiny repair shops -- deploy and locate dead and damaged cells, intent on carrying away the litter of death. Oblivious, the system keeps on about its business at the cellular level, unaware that the consciousness that controls them is far away; unaware that other collections of cells are making decisions that will determine their survival and continued existence.
Then, again, the engine quits, and the little boxcars of food and oxygen bump into each other as they slow down, then stop.
No pulse, no breathing, no movement. It has happened again and the only difference between me and a corpse is my temperature. "He's dead." Is the man who speaks up voicing a consensus or merely his opinion?
Regardless, Dr. Rough, the on-call ER cardiologist at Mercy Hospital, continues his work, stringing the next pearl in my existence.
It is a quiet place, not warm, not cold. In fact, it doesn't seem I have a body at all. I am just here. It is milky white, not bright, just a constant glow all around me. I have been here a long time, yet there is no sense of urgency or desire to leave. Time is meaningless. I am just here in an endless now.
My thoughts clarify and I understand that I am not where I have been all my life. This place is clearly an otherwhere. I sense that the space is infinite and that I can stay forever. Part of me has dim memories of the world I have come from. I remember something about a tunnel of light I am supposed to pass through. But there is no tunnel. There are none of the things I had read about people who had come back from death. I am in something totally different.
I am aware that I have gone over. I have no regrets. I have no fear. It doesn't feel like a bad prospect. It is not something over which I have control, so I accept it in a peacefulness that I have never known. Time goes on. Years, days, minutes. I have been here forever; I have never been born. This is where I had come from, been, and would remain.
Far off there is a tug, a ripple. Something has happened in all the unhappening around me. I am suddenly aware that the other place still exists. The place I had been for a while. The physical place. And I know I can make a choice.
If I concentrate my thoughts on that tug, I can become closer to it. I am not moving, per se, but I can make the ripple, the difference, more accessible. I know that to do so will make me closer to that other place. The physical place. I am curious. I think of the ripple and feel its presence again.
I somehow know that if I bring the ripple closer to my consciousness, it will pull me in. I can see the distortion in the space around me. I know if I enter it, I can go back. If I want to. I ponder this choice for infinity.
It is so easy to go back. Though I like it here, I know that later I will have all of eternity to wander the universe. I feel carefree about returning to the physical world. I know I will be back here again when that interlude is over.
I let the ripple, the force, seep more into my mind. I hear a boom, feel a tug. It is the first thing that has actually happened since I have been in this place. Then I hear a voice coming through the ripple in space and I know I must either sever the connection with the ripple or follow through. I think of my fiancée. She is still over there, in the physical place. Though this floating, infinite otherwhere is comfortable, I remember the flesh, the world of touch and light and sound.
I decide to reenter the world of the so-called real. I want to spend more time with my fiancée because I have not felt or sensed any other living consciousness in the otherplace. The afterlife is not what I had always thought. I am certain that when we are both "dead," we will not be together here, so I want to spend whatever time I can with her before returning to this place. I concentrate on the ripple and feel its tug again.
The boom happens again. Stronger this time. I am almost into the ripple. I have one last chance to turn back.
Far off, a universe away, I hear a voice and I understand what it says.
"Three hundred." I know this is a big jolt of electricity and I know it's headed for me.
Why doesn't the voice say, "Clear"? The voice is supposed to say that.
I actually feel rather than sense the last tug. The voice had come in so distinctly, I know something big is about to happen. Part of me doesn't want to feel what I know I will feel. Birth. Oh, God, maybe I should turn back. Maybe this is a mistake. Then I think of the clear blue of my woman's eyes. I want to look into them again. I let the ripple pull me in.
I am trampled by a raging elephant. It slams me, mauls me, and leaves me gasping. I scream in my head and all the pain I have ever felt is concentrated into one searing second. The assault against my new senses is like the rasp of heavy sandpaper across my brain, my eyes, my eardrums. And it gets worse. Up, up, out of the living guts of a star, I writhe. Through cosmic heat and chaos and an unbearable flash of thermonuclear light, I wrench through the ripple. My own personal Big Bang.
Oh, God, why did I want to do this? Idiot!
With three hundred volts of electricity, they defibrillate me and start my heart for the seventy-second time.
In that moment when I flash from the comfort of where I have been to the bright lights and bustling activity of the Catheterization Lab, there is something familiar. The pain all over, the unfocused, stabbing brilliance of the light, somehow I know these sensations. I have felt them before. It is as if my body holds the memory, not my brain. I cannot think it up; only my body in its agony can offer up these connections from the dim reaches of somatic memory. For a fleeting second I reconnect to my infant self, that searing instant when I left the warm comfort of the womb for the cold, dry universe of independent human existence.
I have somehow short-circuited time. It folds in on itself, and two points, my beginning and my almost-end, are now next to each other with only the tiniest gap to cross. The ends of the long string of my life are brought together and I connect to that far-off point, that memory, and for an instant I am in both places at once, my birth and rebirth.
I am suddenly in the new, cooling universe and the pain is gone.
With the eyes of a newborn I gaze out of my forty-five-year old body.
Copyright © 2000 by Matthew J. Bayan