Posts Tagged ‘serious illness’

Heart Attacks & Hospitals by Walter Michka

Jun 07 2013


When my eyes blinked open after my quadruple bypass, I was in the Intensive Care Unit. I couldn’t move. A plastic tube blocked my view; it went into my mouth and down my throat. Tubes stretched across my forehead, too, taped in place. They ended in a vein in my neck. I could turn my head enough to see my wife sitting by my side. I tried to speak but nothing came out.

There was a nurse buzzing around, checking stuff, changing things. She was a nice woman, blonde, I think, athletic. She was blurry without my glasses. When she saw me looking around, she peeled the tape from my face and one, two, three— slid out the intubation tube.

The next hour or so were flashes, pieces of moments. Eventually, she decided my care didn’t need to be intensive anymore and it was time to take me to the cardiac floor: room after room of people just like me— except older. I said thank you to her as the orderly wheeled me away.

Northwestern hospital sprawls across several city blocks near Lake Michigan among the high-rises of downtown Chicago. With its diagnostic facilities, rehab buildings, and towers devoted to specialists, one for obstetrics, and another one strictly for surgery, it’s a formidable presence. My new home was a corner room, twenty stories up, with views of the city on two sides. It was quiet except for the woman next door who continually yelled at everyone— in Russian.

When they lifted me from the gurney to my bed, I could see three tubes trailing from my rib cage, ending in bulbs filled with bloody liquid. Two wires came out of me, too, actual electric wires that could be used like jumper cables if my heart suddenly stopped. A tube stuck into the incision as well. That led to a box with a button I could push if I needed more drugs.

I’ve never been hit by a car but I imagined it felt a lot like this. Coughing, sneezing, clearing my throat— all hurt. My chest was numb. “Oh, that’s natural,” they told me. “You’ll have some numbness for six months, a year, maybe the rest of your life.” It felt like a big plate or a shield. They kept me pumped full of painkillers, morphine that made me see things crawling on the walls and gave me weird dreams.

The next five days were a blur. Injections and pills and scans. Nurses measured fluids that came out of me— pee from the catheter bag, that red stuff leaking out of my lungs. I wasn’t going to fight them. I didn’t yell at them in Russian. I did what they told me. If they needed blood at 2am I figured they knew what they were doing and I went along.

The nurses taught me a little routine to get out of bed which they made me perform the day after surgery: roll to one side, swing my legs toward the floor, and tilt my top half up until I’m sitting. This way I could eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner sitting in a chair. I could also take walks three times a day around the cardiac floor, gingerly circling the nurse’s station, one, two, three times, then back. Ten or twenty nurses, techs, mostly women, buzzed around, a flock of moms ready to help me if I asked.

Little by little, day by day, they pulled stuff out of me. The catheter one day. The jumper cables, the next.  The day came when they decided I could leave. A nurse yanked the last two drainage tubes from my chest— ready? On three… I could feel them pull through my lungs like a ripcord, first one— zip, then the other. She pulled the catheter from my arm and the sticky, EKG patches off my skin.

My wife helped me get dressed, everything in slo-mo— pre-planned, deliberate movements, easy. Everything tentative. It had been a week since I had worn clothes and I was pretty gamey without a shower. I left a brown patch on the pillow where my head used to be. There was nothing stuck in me anymore, no reminder of what they had done. They gave me a red, heart-shaped pillow to take home. It was a cute way to “splint” myself whenever I sneezed.

A smiling Jamaican orderly performed the customary wheelchair ride to the front door, talking the whole time. I could move pretty well by then and slowly took the ten steps from the chair, through the blast of cold, January air, to the car. I sat gingerly in the back seat as my wife drove us home to spend the next month learning to live my life again.

The worst was over, I guess, but I wasn’t the same person. My life had taken a hard, right turn almost overnight. My world was shakier now, unstable. It showed me what, I suppose, I already knew: that life is temporary and anything can happen. But with the help of my flock of moms I got through it.

Walter Michka – Life after Quadruple Bypass and more..

Jun 07 2013

Walter Michka is a Chicago writer and comedian who’s worked on national TV, local radio, and major ad campaigns in the States. His short story “Gut Feeling” can be found in the Clackamas Literary Review and his eBook “Thought Nuggets” at fine e-retailers near you. Walter underwent an emergency quadruple bypass in January of 2009 after experiencing chest pains that everyone, including his doctor, thought, at first, was acid reflux. Read his weekly blog: and more at:

We have also featured the link to his lighthearted quiz – 12 Ways to tell if you are older than you think.. have a look.. if you dare!


How to be a Health Advocate

Nov 28 2012

When you or someone you care for is seriously ill , there are many down to earth ways which can make all the difference in creating the essential mix of hope and healing. For the patient/health advocate team on the journey of a major sickness together, always think of it in terms of the “we” relationship, including engaging others to help.



  • Offer to be a conduit of information, and be the clinic companion.
  • Offer to check online health information to make sure it is ‘gold standard’.
  • Become an information gatherer, or find out who to contact for a ‘second opinion’ if that is what is wanted.
  • Find out if there are additional nursing, caring services, or group support in the local  area.
  • Build up hope. Avoid the statistics of the negative and provide opportunities for encouragement at all times.
  • Always support a decision once it has been made.



  • Be a good listener. We do not have to talk  about the problem or be giving advice all the time.
  • Maximise the laughs. Laughter is the best  medicine.
  • Be relentlessly encouraging among friends and family, and cultivate the friends with the most positivity.
  • Be ready for those thoughtless remarks that can sometimes drop into conversations, and if necessary be prepared to challenge them.
  • Be open to talking about spiritual questions, but don’t feel that there have to be answers or that we have to provide them. Share what wisdom we have, and be equally confident and supportive  in the silences.
  • Be honest. Avoid giving false reassurance or only dwelling on heroic tales of recovery.
  • Help the people visiting to be as normal as  possible. It does not need to be all serious.
  • Help people to understand that we are  different as a result of the illness.
  • If your patient friend doesn’t want to talk about ‘it’, that is OK.



  • Flowers and plants at home. Yes, men like flowers too.
  • Borrow a footbath from a local pedicurist for a home treat.
  • Give cashmere bed socks.
  • Give a loose-fitting pair of cotton trousers.
  • Help with the cooking.
  • Offer to find somebody who can provide a home massage.
  • Suggest a talking book if your patient friend is too tired to keep their eyes open.



  • Plan treats ahead so there is always  something to look forward to.
  • Check out whether other members of the family are coping.
  • Offer to set up a supper rota.
  • Offer to set up a group email.
  • Offer to find out about grants and financial  entitlements.
  • If your patient friend is keen on alternative medicine, find out what is available locally. If they are paying for it, check that they are not being exploited. Also check out what is available on the NHS locally.


Practical Checklist for the Serious Illness Journey

Nov 28 2012

Here are a number of check-lists for the journey to help you think about, plan and prepare for all the different aspects of having a serious illness:

Consultations and Appointments: Ask the Questions you want Answered

Write down a short list of the most important questions you want answered before each and every consultations and appointments. Areas and topics you may want to ask about include:


  • Is there a diagnosis, and what further tests are needed
  • What is the disease, and what are the main symptoms
  • What are the main treatment options, and also where and when
  • What is the time period for treatment, and how long until you get better
  • What are the main side-effects and other major problems about treatment
  • Where do you find out more about your illness.



  • Who are the available specialists
  • What are the local success rates dealing with your illness
  • Do you want to ask for a Second Opinion



  • How far should you try (and are going to be able) to continue with your ‘normal life’.
  • What extra care is available, and how do you go about  getting it.
  • What is the best nutritional care for your condition, and who can provide the best advice.
  • What other approaches can you use to help you, and who are the best people to ask about this (it may not be the doctors).
  • What can complementary and alternative medicine contribute to treatment and your wellbeing.


Serious Illness – Managing Change

Nov 28 2012

Waterfall Visualisation Exercise

This is an exercise to help you find your personal meaning in the experience and to regain control of your life. It is also a way of helping you take stock and make the big choices in your life.

You need to feel it is the right time to do this visualisation, probably after the first shock of the onset of a serious illness is over and you are through the main initial treatment period. You can also do this exercise several times if you want to, at intervals of several weeks or possibly months. It is a powerful exercise, and if it is realistic and feels right for you I suggest you do it in the company of someone supportive, such as your partner or a trusted friend.

You will need about 30 minutes to do the visualization, and pencil and paper. If you write the important things that come into your head during the process this can be useful for you afterwards when you want to think back and reflect on the experience, and as a record to look at again at a later time.

When you feel it is the right time and place, and you are ready to begin:

Imagine your serious illness as being like a waterfall. Draw this on the blank piece of paper. Draw a horizontal line, then the waterfall, and then continue the horizontal line forward along  the page to the paper’s edge..

  • Now imagine that the line is the river of  your life, with the waterfall representing the powerful and irreversible  change that your serious illness has brought. Take a little time to slowly  look back and forward along this river, and take it all in.
  • Next draw a canoe on the horizontal line of  the river below the waterfall, and draw yourself in it as a stick person.
  • Begin to have a look around in your own mind  from this position in your canoe. You can look back at the waterfall, its  power and suddenness, the shock and upset , and the turbulence in your life it has brought to you.
  • Then look further back up the river above the waterfall, and remember how it was before your serious illness occurred.  Tears may come, so be ready. Have some paper tissues nearby, and if you  are with somebody else, let them support and comfort you as much as you feel that you need.
  • After a time and when you are ready. You can  now turn your attention to where you are now, sitting in the canoe on the  river below the waterfall. Begin to examine your position. Look at the health you still have, and assess it carefully and honestly. Yes, there have been losses, but begin to think of the things you can still do. Take stock of yourself. Be honest about the upsetting parts but also look for the positive and uplifting parts, and what makes your life worth living.
  • Now turn to look downstream, and imagine the river of your life ahead flowing on. Begin to think of all the things you want to do and could do if you set your mind to it, including the big choices you need to make in your life, as well as some of the other  smaller, perhaps practical but still important things you need to do. Write these down if you want to.
  • When you have done enough and you feel like  finishing, begin to return to being inside your own body. Let the waterfall dissolve, along with the idea of the river and the canoe, and you in it. Take a few moments to become wholly present in the here and now, and when you are ready make it a moment of conscious decision to end the visualization session.