My disabled month

Because of my heart’s fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat) and tachycardia (a rapid heartbeat), I spent the last month disabled: That is, in an instant, I became unable to do some things that were normal for me the day before. And then, in another instant, with a shock of electricity on Monday afternoon, I was able to do them again. But now I do those things with a slightly different perspective. I learned something in my disabled month.

I do most everything fast. I walk as fast as I talk as fast as I eat as fast as I type. But now I slowed down because if I overdid things by just a hair, the heart rate would go wacky. Walking up a slight hill on a Manhattan street — even walking against the wind — suddenly felt like a force field fighting me me.

It’s no big deal. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t scary. Please stop yourself from leaving those nice, sympathetic comments — which I very much appreciate, but which I don’t need anymore, being normal again. I got around New York and London, too, during this episode. My only point here is that something changed: I was slowed down. And that changed other things.

While my heart was skipping, stuttering, and speeding, any staircase I faced grew before me like the road before Sisyphus. For a week, I couldn’t go up the stairs in my own home and rationed my trips and missed some work. Then I fired the doctor who wouldn’t give me the medication to control my heart rate. I got back on the right pill, a simple beta blocker, and then I was able to get up and out of the house. But still, when I faced stairs, I went up them slowly. I sometimes had to stop halfway up and, having conquered 20 steps, I would pull off to the side to recover.

I suspect I irritated the people stuck behind me on stairs — people in a rush, people like me, only days before.

I now stood on the right on escalators, rather than rushing up on the left. I now sought out elevators even for short, one-floor hauls. In the PATH station in New York, I stood there with old people, sick people, and mothers with baby carriages, waiting for a lift. I was embarrassed. I wondered whether they looked at me thinking, ‘What a lazy SOB: he looks fit and healthy and the excercise of a few stairs would be good for him: Get moving and don’t take up space on our elevator.’ Of course, it’s New York: Nobody really pays that much attention to anyone else. But I heard that echo in my head.

When I checked into my quaint hotel in London, built in seventeen-something, they were leading me, hauling my suitcase, up to two flights of stairs to my room — no elevator — and I had to beg off and beg for a ground-floor room. The clerk looked irritated. I might have been irritated at that, New Yorker that I am, if I had been in fighting fit. But instead, I felt embarrassed.

When I got on the plane coming home, they put me in an exit row and asked me the standard question: Are you able, etc.? I had to say, no, I’d rather not sit there just right now. I didn’t say I wasn’t able, though I wasn’t. I sensed another odd look: ‘What, you won’t rescue your fellow passengers, you selfish, first-class oaf?’ As we used to say in California, I was projecting. But that thought did flash through my head as I thought for a second about sitting there to avoid the embarrassment, though I realized that would have been irresponsible.

You all knew I was in afib, as we say in the club. It was rather self-indulgent to blog about it, for people go through far worse things than this. But I was glad I did, for I met other nice people who shared their help and experience, among them Tom Evslin’s brother, Bill, a doctor who’s a member of the club and who’s working now to find ways to survey fellow members to see what can be learned.

But I didn’t tell everyone I felt strange. I did talks and panel discussions and was fine. But as I blogged, when I did an appearance on Donny Deutsch’s show and got pissed at a professional prude and enemy of the First Amendment, my heart really went wacky fast and I thought for a second I might pass out on TV. Now that would have been embarrassing. Luckily, few would have seen it.

But now, I’m normal again. I bound up stairs, walk up on the left on escalators, rush by elevators, carry suitcases. But the contrast is so stark, it taught me a very small lesson about being disabled for a month: It wasn’t the heart rate that changed life, it was what I thought of myself that changed.

No, I’m not going to slow down and smell roses now; they make me sneeze and this wasn’t that big a life lesson. I’m not going to turn into a soft-hearted soul, even if my heart was soft; I’m still a snotty New Yorker and still a snarky blogger. No, I hope that I simply learned that the people in front of me are going at their own speed, probably for a reason. They’re not trying to get in my way as I rush past. I need to stay out of theirs. And I need to be grateful that I can rush past again. I need to appreciate normal.

  • http://www.writingup.com/blog/ashok ashok

    This enemy of the First Amendment (but hypocritical prude, moreso than professional) wonders about slowing down and wondering what people think. Do we speed up partly because we want to be in the position of “I don’t care what you think, I’m busy — look at all the things I’m getting done?”

    You don’t seem to have this attitude at all – for you, it’s more a matter of being an inconvenience to others. To speed up is to get what you need done so others can have a chance, and for others to rush seems to show their politeness in a deep sense, too.

    Hmm. I’ll have to think about this. Not many times that the motion of the world has been praised. Most times, people despise the busyness and lack of reflection both moving fast or moving at all imply. Usually I encounter works like Wordsworth’s Sonnet Upon Westminster Bridge, where only the city at rest is what allows the narrator to realize that it has a beauty as part of a greater, natural whole.

    Then again, in that particular poem, the city being composed of things that can be still implies a praise of the motion, as if the stillness or slowness was indispensible to the movement of others (in the poem, note how we ascend from the city to the air to the stars and God in His Heaven, and how the city then is called a heart – it seems that what is divine stays still, so that the human can move, be free).

    Oh well. You’ve got me thinking, and I thank you for that.

  • Mumblix Grumph

    All my life I was in a state of afib. Sometimes worse than others, usually when asked to perform a physically demanding task. My heart would sputter and I would get SO DAMN TIRED! Trouble is, my family subscribed to the old German work ethic, and since I was “Young And Healthy®” I had no excuse. I was just branded as lazy.
    I began to believe that I was just weak and yes, a lazy wastrel. Gym class totally sucked. I would easily beat any damn kid in short sprints, but I would be the last one to finish the mile. Even Weinman, the 240 pound Jumbo Jew ran better than I did. The coach would just berate me for a lack of effort and he’d tell me to quit smoking (I have never even lit up once). I would bring up the topic of my constant tiredness and he would just do a primal shrug and give me the skunk eye.

    This was my life up until the age of 38. I had a bout of severe afib that lasted for 3 days. Even I knew that this wasn’t just laziness. The ER doctor took one look at the EKG and I was in intensive care for 6 days.

    Now I’m all fixed and cannot bring myself to step out of my old self. Strangely…NOW I’m more scared of my heart than I ever was back before the ablation.

  • http://donatacom.com/blog.shtml Terry Heaton

    You are many things, Jeff, but normal will never be one of them. :)

  • http://www.drcookie.blogspot.com JennyD

    I have really appreciated you posting about your health. Too often, health issues and how individuals handle them are mysterious. We know what doctors say, but we don’t often hear about patients and their lives. Thanks. You gave me and others an up close look at what you went through.

    One thing I hope we all get out of this is that just because you can’t race around, doesn’t mean you are not valuable. When we see people on the right side of the escalator, we might remember that they could be there for many reasons.

  • al hill

    eighntn monthsago I had a stroke Thedockter in the ER told Me that it was a life changing event i go to A recovery center every day and I now haveo ne usable arm and One usable leg and can get around in a wheeelchair I am one of the lucky ones I feltt nopain during the stroke but the recovery sure as hell hurts thank you for the Post I feel the same way every day that I Have to go out

  • rick gregory

    Jeff,

    You probably know this by now, but afib can cause clots to form in your heart and, if you’re unlucky, to escape and cause a stroke. I know – my Dad suffered an afib related stroke. Please watch this and if it recurs, don’t wait a month to deal with it.

  • http://ruthcalvo Ruth

    Now, Jeff, people can take you aside at parties and ask for advice about their recent experience of palpitations. And by the way, I have this finger constantly going numb…..

  • Tom

    Jeff — Glad you’re feeling better. You might consider a daily gratitude journal. Each evening (or anytime), write down five things you’re grateful for that day. It’s important to slow down, smell the roses, and give thanks (not that I’m very good at it either). Can make you a better person, too.

  • http://www.bloodandtreasure.com Noel Guinane

    I see what you’re saying, but if I was disabled, I would accept I was disabled. All of us have natural rights which doesn’t mean we are all born equal. We’re not. Some are born rich and privileged, or are brainier, more talented, or just luckier. Being disabled is a disability. I might not like it, but there it is.

  • http://www.paradox1x.org Karl

    “I hope that I simply learned that the people in front of me are going at their own speed, probably for a reason. They’re not trying to get in my way as I rush past. I need to stay out of theirs.”

    While I don’t want to go thru what you went thru, I know the opportunity to walk in others shoes and return to our own can be a powerful one.

    Sounds like you took the right lessons from it.

  • http://www.classicalvalues.com Eric Scheie

    Thanks for posting about that, Jeff, as it helped give me some perspective on my own recent “frozen shoulder” problem (I’ve been feeling sorry for myself — but it wasn’t my heart).

    And thanks for helping defeat that lame brain proposal to criminalize anonymous blogging in New Jersey!

  • http://blogspotting.net steve baker

    very nice post, Jeff

  • http://woip.blogspot.com Patrizia Broghammer

    “No, I’m not going to slow down and smell roses now; they make me sneeze and this wasn’t that big a life lesson.”

    You are wrong, at least it should have taught you the lesson everybody sooner or later learns:

    No matter who, how, where, when, but life ALWAYS finds the way to fuck you.

  • http://thewordmaestro.com Jim Pietrangelo

    Thanks for that, Jeff. You know, my wife has Multiple Sclerosis (MS,) a simply diabolical disease. During those times when the disease is active (she has the Relapsing/Remitting form of MS) she may go so low as to barely be able to walk, requiring, perhaps, that we use a foldaway wheelchair bought for just such occasions. Other times she can get by with just the use of a cane; although even with the cane long walks are out of the question. She simply won’t have either the strength or the stamina.

    Similar to what you described, we’ll find ourselves standing to the right on moving sidewalks and escalators, seeking out elevators for a single floor hop, and yes, begging for the ground floor hotel room. Airports are a nightmare; although, on a recent trip to London, when security’s computers were down at Heathrow and there was a three-hour wait to get through the lines, the folks at Virgin took pity, requisitioned a wheelchair, and hustled us to our terminal. We were deeply grateful.

    During these ‘down’ times, it’s a real study in human nature to observe how people treat the disabled. Some good.. some bad.. some completely indifferent. This post really isn’t meant to paint all people with a common brush. That can’t be done. It’s merely written to acknowledge that of which you spoke. One thing that we’ve learned is that you really do need a sense of humor. You need to be able to step outside yourselves and chuckle at the situation(s) that you find yourselves in at times. People have a tendency to rant and rave at LIFE, to blame fate for their problems. You really can’t do that. Like I say to my wife, ‘It is what it is.’

  • http://www.kirabug.com kirabug

    Ah. You spent the month on fewer spoons.

    My husband has Cystic Fibrosis, and there are times when even I can’t relate to what he’s going through. He’s young, he’s healthy-looking, and he loses two hours a day to respiratory therapy treatments, avoids the stairs when he’s already short of breath, and causes huge backups at the airport trying to get his therapy equipment through security.

    I agree with Jim Pietrangelo – any time you have to deal with issues like these every day you learn to rely on your sense of humor. Otherwise, you’ll have to learn to rely on antidepressants ;)

    Noel Guinane said:

    I see what you’re saying, but if I was disabled, I would accept I was disabled. All of us have natural rights which doesn’t mean we are all born equal. We’re not. Some are born rich and privileged, or are brainier, more talented, or just luckier. Being disabled is a disability. I might not like it, but there it is.

    Heh. If I don’t like it, at some level, I’m not accepting it, am I? My husband’s accepted his CF, but when some moron tells him he should cut back on the cigarettes because of his CF-induced cough, it’s not a matter of acceptance, it’s a matter of frustration, sometimes embarassment, and sometimes just, “Why me?” We’re not all born equal, but it’s that inequality that causes us to strive to be better — even when sometimes it’s outside our grasp.

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  • al hill

    hot damn I am getting a new brace today and they tell me that I should be ablt walk with it using a normal cain and not tht oversized4 point cain I have been using … I find out almost every day just how lucky I was ,,,No it was not lucl it was very quick thinkijg on mt wifes part that saved my life ..5 people thar where in ibtensive care with me are dead now and I flat lined for almost two minutes ttat day …writing is still very hard to do……….but using the big cain I can now get up and make my own food and get to the bathroom bymyself any time I need to,every body hsve a great weekend….

  • al hill

    hott damn I am getting a new brace today and they tell me that I should be able walk with it using a normal cain and not tht oversized4 point cain I have been using … I find out almost every day just how lucky I was ,,,No it was not luck it was very quick thinkijg on mt wifes part that saved my life ..5 people thar where in iintensive care with me are dead now and I flat lined for almost two minutes ttat day …writing is still very hard to do……….but using the big cain I can now get up and make my own food and get to the bathroom by myself any time I need to,every body hsve a great weekend….every day is a little better ……….without my wife I would be fead now she has been a rock sence the first day and has been here taking care of mr 24\7 every da since it happened.