Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Heart to heart

Frank Buchar
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

I had a heart attack on Valentine’s Day. What are the chances? Later, when I thought about the funny parts, like the undershorts I happened to be wearing, it struck me that you can find humor, like tragedy or farce, anywhere if you choose to, if you attend closely enough.

My brush with death was a little disappointing. It was not sharp and dramatic like a Hollywood action movie. It was all very pedestrian and common, ordinary and forgettable. I did not realize I was having a heart attack because there was no chest pain, no tingling numbness in my arms, no shortness of breath, none of the common signs you hear about. I felt discomfort in my chest at times, as if a careless Sumo wrestler gently placed his knee on my chest and pressed down a bit, and then let up. There was also a nausea that crept from my upper chest to my throat, a physical nausea, debilitating and dreadful. I thought I was having a panic attack, especially when flooding in my basement took place the evening before. Flooding, imagine that.

I was rushed by ambulance, lights flashing and that insane siren sounding, to a nearby hospital where I was taken to surgery. Do not ask for whom the siren sounds. But on the way there, I looked through the window and my eyes beheld the familiar streets and buildings. Despite the feeling of an oppressive weight on my chest, I was positive and hopeful. The ambulance people were cheerful and upbeat, the weather a mite cool. I was not experiencing pain, I told them. It was discomfort I felt.

But when the emergency crew asked me to remove my pants, I remembered with some trepidation that I was wearing Valentine’s Day shorts, by accident and not by design, on Valentine’s Day, on this, my personal heart attack day. I kid thee not. My wife, protective as always, asked them why it was necessary for me to remove my pants. The crew explained their preparatory procedure, watched as I removed the superfluous pants, and then stifling a laugh when they spied my printed crimson hearts, asked slyly if I wore the shorts only on Valentine’s Day. I told them it was just the pick of the draw from the drawer. They chuckled and wrapped me in a pink blanket, also not by design.

Oddly, I did not experience fear during the emergency ambulance ride to the hospital. Before all of this happened, I would have thought that fear would be the predominant emotion. But the emotion that rode shotgun with me on that Valentine’s Day was a slow and steady wistfulness. Wistfulness, imagine that.

En route to the hospital I felt a subtle, tender bond with the passing streets I had walked so often. More memories and images from the past merged with the streets flashing by. I remembered a time, decades before, when traveling from Calgary to Banff National Park I had seen two chipmunks on the shoulder of the road. One was obviously dead, just recently dead, and the other tentatively, carefully, sadly, used its paw to try to raise the paw of its mate but to no avail. It was just an image by the side of the road for a second or two as I flashed by, and then gone. But I never forgot it, though I cannot remember a single thing about the rest of that trip.

In the nineteenth century it was fashionable to keep a human skull in your study as a reminder of personal mortality, of the inevitability of death. My version of this practice is slightly different. In the upper cupboard of my basement kitchen, just at eye level when you open the cupboard, I keep a framed photograph of a gently smiling Nepali woman selling trinkets and souvenirs. I took the photo at the Pashupati Temple on the Bagmati River in Kathmandu where corpses are cremated following traditional Hindu rites. I can still recall the fetid smell in the air that hit me in the pit of my stomach. Later, I associated the picture of the woman with my own mortality. I would often be surprised when I opened the cupboard door and saw the curiously gentle smile on the woman’s face and beyond her, far below, the smoking corpses in the water. Sometimes, beneath my breath, I would mutter “not yet” upon closing the cupboard. That element of grim surprise upon opening the cupboard was similar to what I experienced when I was told I was having a heart attack and that a special procedure, an angioplasty, was necessary at once.

Isaac Asimov remarked that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That is how I thought about angioplasty, the procedure of choice to repair an artery of mine that was ninety per cent blocked in one area. Imagine. You are lying down, pleasantly sedated, with a partially shaved groin on an operating table. A little needle puncture is made into the groin, Cupid’s beneficent arrow, and the magic begins. Once the narrow area of the artery was identified, a catheter carried a deflated balloon to the exact position required. A stent, a small, reinforced tube, was crimped into the balloon catheter and then inflated until the artery was opened. As the balloon expanded, the metal mesh of the stent pushed against the wall and was left inside the artery. The entire procedure took less than an hour and then I was whisked to a cardiac care unit where I was monitored and checked. Zip, zap, zoop, and it was done. In a few days I was home and recovering.

Since then, ten years later, as part of my cardiac treatment monitoring, I regularly have echocardiograms, an ultrasound procedure with much ado around breathing. Small intakes of breath, large intakes of breath, holding it, and letting it go. It reminded me of a different procedure I had experienced years earlier, before smoking became a non-starter for me.

Smoking a joint entailed a similar procedure of breath intake, holding it, holding it, holding it a bit more and then letting go, and passing the joint. The technician laughed when I explained the similarities. And all the while, as part of the echocardiogram process, I could hear my heart sloshing about. Really, sloshing is the word. At one point I was told to lift up and extend my chin for closer monitoring of the chest. I did so and felt oddly like Mussolini, the pictures I had seen of him, with his chin jutting out like the boot of Italy.

But when I think about that special Valentine’s Day, I smile. There was the banality of the hearts on my underwear and the everyday chitchat of the ambulance staff, the moist, serious eyes of my wife as she came into the emergency room, and the engaging wistfulness of feelings as the ambulance rode with blaring siren and flashing lights through the familiar streets of my city.

Ah, the sweet uses of adversity. We stand on the shoulders of our toughest experiences, and sometimes are rewarded with a good laugh. When I think about it now, I realize that around me, around all of us, always, there exists this comic banality that is readily accessible, and wistfulness in the realization that there is great beauty and grandeur in the passing day.

FRANK BUCHAR is a senior writer of fiction and non-fiction who enjoys delving into the mysteries of the universe through the process of writing. His purpose in writing is to enable the reader to view our common world through reflections on the human experience. Publishing credits include both fiction and nonfiction, over many decades, in North America, Europe, and Asia. Frank’s working life as a Management Consultant has exposed him to different cultures and diverse points of view, providing grist for the mill of his writing.

Summer 2021



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