I spent last weekend -- a mere 9 days after my 39th birthday -- in the UCLA cardiac emergency center.
Before I go any further, I should say that I'm fine. But at the time I felt three of the five symptoms of a heart attack: tightness in my left chest, shortness of breath and nausea. A bad trifecta of symptoms -- especially with my family history of a grandfather and a myriad of uncles having died of heart attacks.
After feeling these three in combo, I was ready to go. No additional motivation needed...my wife Laura drove me to the emergency room -- which in retrospect was the one dumb move I made...not just dialing 911 mostly out of a sense of pride that I wasn't "that bad" off.
Once there they moved me into the emergency cardiac ward, checked out my blood pressure (which was pretty high, but that is not uncommon during emergency room experiences) EKG, chest X-rays, the whole 9 yards. Nothing definite, but from the first it did not appear to be heart failure...at he first X-ray would show an odd smudge on my heart. They'd need to take another.
To my direct left was a poor older woman who was both a stage 3 chemo patient, and DEFINITELY suffering a major heart attack. To my right was a motorcycle accident victim, who seemed to drift in an out of consciousness, and had many tubes in his mouth and face keeping him breathing.
After midnight I sent an exausted Laura home. She was so tired and brave and scared for me. By 2 AM that morning they decided to move me into a semi private room, that still had nurses watching nearly every minute. I was woke up every hour for a blood test, a EKG, or a blood pressure test.
I shared the room with Carlos who is a 17 year old who was recovering from being shot four times in a gang drive by shooting in Inglewood. Amazingly for him none of the bullets most of which went through his body hit any vital organ critically.
That next morning we shared a TV, I let him choose the TV -- which everything he choose had guns and people being shot: Aliens, Dirty Harry, Platoon. None of those viewing choices really helped my nausea, but I figured the dude had just gone through enough, and I just zoned out from things and tried to sleep.
Shortly I was carted down to take the second X-ray. Before I left I wished Carlos good luck on top of the luck he had already seen. It went quickly --although I still felt light headed a bit even then -- and soon was back resting, as Carlos' parents came to take him home.
Alone for the first time during this whole ordeal: as I just rested, practiced slow breathing, and watched it as the monitor showed the calmer heart rate. I figured the second X ray results would be a few hours away at the soonest. Try to rest. Tried not to worry.
I tried some of the meditation and prayer techniques we did in church: "Breath in Jesus, breath out fear."
At that point something that was a sheer act of grace occurred: a volunteer brought a dog in. The dog's name was Lucy, a rescue Mutt, that was the gentlest and kindest animal.
There were many others like her in the center she said, with other friendly dogs, just visiting sick folks, giving them a dog to pet. After putting a sheet up on the bed, Lucy curled up near my feet. I petted her, and remembered my old family dog. After a long while, I was feeling really tired again and I wished them well and thanked them for such a kind visit.
Not long afterwards the second X-ray results came back fine and they said they would be releasing me to go home. Yesterday I took an EKG/treadmill stress test, that pretty much excluded ANY chance that what I was dealing with was heart related. Could be stress over leaving my work after 14 years, could be a pinched nerve which I may have had -- and does account for each of the symptoms I faced. Everyone all along the line said what a good decision I made to go in, and that for most people the first signs are ignored to their peril.
I'd been to emergency rooms and hospitals before. I was aware of the crisis and pain there, but I hadn't ever been there as a patient.
I slowly got back to normalcy this week, and resurfaced to see Easter this weekend.
It is impossible for me not to think of my wounded roommate, the poor cancer stricken heart patient, or the motorcyclist and think about how fragile a thing it is to be human. How when Jesus became one of us, pitched his tent with us, really experienced what it means to be human, including the suffering and pain and worry and crisis of it...what an amazing act that was.
I also think of the friendly volunteer and her calm happy doggie Lucy. What a gracious, Christ-like act that was. "I was sick and you visited me."
And lastly how great it was to be home that night to see my 2 year old son Cammy and Laura again, and to rest and be well.
Somehow those images seem like hyper-real icons of Easter to me this week. The pain, the grace and the homecoming of it all.