I arrived well-stocked: water, Kind nut and protein bars, notebook, pens, cell phone charger, laptop, Kindle. I settled into a chair in the corner, a bit out of the way, and opened up the People magazine I bought in the gift shop as a further distraction, determined to block the image of Steve being wheeled into the operating room out of my mind. Not much luck there.
What had begun seven years ago as a once a year or so event had become, over the past year, monthly occurrences which resulted in visits to the Emergency Room. Steve’s heart would go into A-Fib, causing it to beat wildly, quickly and irregularly. This first started happening when he was riding his bike on one of his routine twenty-five mile or more routes over the hills and back roads further north and west of our house.
He called me while sitting on the side of the road, bicycle resting on the pavement, to let me know he had just summoned an ambulance and they were taking him to the hospital. He felt faint and his heart was beating out of his chest. After administering a beta blocker and determining he was not having a heart attack, the Emergency Room cardiologist monitored Steve closely and we watched as his heart returned to a normal rhythm on its own, over a period of eight hours. “Often we have to shock the heart to get it back into rhythm,” the doctor told us. When Steve was released the next day, after being kept overnight as a precaution, he was reassured that this was probably a once only occurrence, and he needed to be sure to stay hydrated on bike rides. A follow up visit to a recommended cardiologist confirmed this.
But then it happened again the following year. And the year after that. And annually for a few years, often unrelated to his bike rides or any other strenuous activity. His heart recovered on its own but he was always uncomfortable enough that we headed to the Emergency Room every time.
This past year, the incidents escalated. Steve’s heart was going into A-Fib monthly, and I would race home from the gym or Italian class or wherever I was to take him to the ER or, in one particularly scary incident, call an ambulance.
Steve is one of the healthiest people I know. He hasn’t eaten meat in fifteen years. He pays close attention to his diet, ensuring he gets enough leafy greens and lycopene, not too much dairy. He considers a handful of walnuts to be an adequate snack. Two glasses of wine is a lot for him. He was biking regularly, even participating in the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Pan Mass Challenge. “I could have ridden further,” he declared at the end of the 84 mile ride.
This A-Fib stuff was confounding. It was easy to understand why the 300 pound guy in the cardiologist’s office had heart issues, but Steve? This made no sense.
“So, is this just going to be what happens now?” I asked him. “Do I have to make sure my hair is done and I have mascara on just in case we have to run to the Emergency Room?” “Maybe,” he said.
We wondered if this was, for him, part of the aging process. He turned sixty-five this summer. Was having a heart that we were told was healthy, but beat irregularly and quickly sometimes, part of Steve’s old man issues, like having difficulty sleeping or thinning hair or being grumpy?
And now, I sit in Beth Israel’s Cardiac Surgery Waiting Room. After consultation with a surgeon, we decide to go ahead with an ablation, a procedure that will shake up the nerves in the heart, and, hopefully, stop the A-Fib episodes. It’s not open heart surgery since they are using catheters, but still. Shaking up one’s heart is serious stuff.
I try to concentrate and read. I pull out my notebook and jot a few sentences, then cross them out because they are stupid and trite, tearing the page with my fervent strokes. The clock on the pale blue wall next to me counts down the minutes loudly and slowly and the glare from the overhead lights hurts my eyes. I glance up every time a doctor comes in to update others who wait alongside me and overhear phrases. “He’s in recovery.” “Everything went well.” “You can see him shortly.” A short, blond woman about my age, along with what appeared to be two daughters, is lead into a small, private room off the waiting room. That can’t be good. I go for a walk to avoid seeing the trio when they emerge. I pace up and down Longwood Avenue, not noticing the heat and humidity on this early July day, wishing I could have a cocktail and maybe a smoke.
My phone buzzes. It’s the surgeon. “Hi Cheryl, he’s fine and in recovery. The procedure went very well. We’ll come out to get you soon.”
So, now we wait and see. There’s no test to determine if the ablation eradicated the A-Fib. If he doesn’t have another incident, things look good.
We had to adjust some plans for the remainder of the summer: Cancel the Sting and Peter Gabriel concert, and the one with Hall and Oates. Change Steve’s 65th birthday celebration from a gathering in Boston’s Seaport District for dinner, to a quiet family barbecue. Postpone dinner invitations from friends because he grew tired more easily post-surgery, and was more comfortable being at home.
Six months later, the effects of last summer are still profound, but fading. We’re back in the swing of concerts and theater. He’s almost finished with the last large project of the house renovation, installing wooden slats, which he is individually painting, to cover the storage area underneath the kitchen addition. We walk to the center of town for dinner. He’s even back on the bike occasionally. Cautious optimism is our mantra.
“Can we plan that trip to Spain now?” I ask the other day. He pauses. “Um, let’s wait a bit.” If I don’t hear from him for a few hours during the day, I trudge up to his third floor office and peer in. “Just making sure you’re still alive,” I tell him. “So far, so good,” he says, not even glancing up from his desk. We both walk a line between caution and the desire to return to what was our normalcy.
For now, and maybe for just a little bit longer. we are both in the waiting room.