I have much to be thankful for after a weekend scare and unexpected stay along the Charles River.
By Bob Socci
The simple pleasures in this life start most days with the morning paper and the first pour of fresh-brewed coffee.
Never have I enjoyed that initial sip more than Tuesday, after stepping into the brisk air to grab The Boston Globe from our sidewalk. It was the first time I’d gone through the front door since being carried out by paramedics roughly 75 hours earlier.
That was sometime around 3 o’clock Saturday morning. I had awakened while my wife was searching our medicine cabinet for Aleve. Knowing that I keep some in my work backpack, I hurried downstairs to retrieve it. As I quickly returned upstairs and handed her the bottle, I suddenly felt light-headed and nauseous.
In the middle of saying so, I collapsed. The next thing I knew, she was leaning over me, holding a phone to her right ear. Blood dripped from my left ear, which could hear the kids calling out from our bedroom. By then, my complexion had greyed, a 9-1-1 call had been placed and my son and daughter had huddled together under a blanket.
They were as frightened as I was confused and — as much as anything — thirsty. I wanted up, and I needed water. My mouth and lips were dry as desert sand. Just as I took a drink, medics appeared. They buckled me up, and off we went. I was jolted to my senses first by the cold air and repeatedly along the way on the bumpy ambulance ride from our home in Milton to Dorchester’s Carney Hospital.
Two weeks earlier an EKG as part of my annual physical exam at Massachusetts General Hospital revealed an “abnormality,” leading my doctor to schedule a follow-up echocardiogram later this month. It hadn’t worried me too much, because to date I’d led a pretty active life symptom free.
I worked out fairly regularly during football season and more routinely of late. Usually by doing a lot of cardiovascular work. Since that exam, for example, I went running six-to-seven miles at a time; churned out half-hour stints on the stair master, elliptical machines and Peloton bike; and even hit the cross-country skiing trails of Bretton Woods (N.H.) a few days in a row.
As someone who typically chooses steps-over-escalator and salmon-over-steak, I felt great most of Friday. In late afternoon, I walked from the Hynes Convention Center to the Park Street subway stop. A few hours later, I ate a healthy dinner and a couple of hours after that retired to an early bedtime.
Then I woke to a weekend of tubes, tests and restless hours in a hospital bed. Not long after arriving at Carney, being fed an IV, hooked up to a monitor and queried about the sequence of events; I was transferred and admitted to MGH.
Doctors were concerned my fainting could be related to my recent EKG. My heart rate and blood pressure, already low to begin with, dropped considerably. Priority one was ruling out a congenital heart issue known as Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy that results in arrhythmia and often causes even top-conditioned athletes to collapse.
Doctors scheduled a stress test followed by an echocardiogram. Instead of undergoing the latter as an outpatient, as originally planned, I’d get it as an inpatient. But I’d have to wait until Monday.
As you can imagine, the next day-and-a-half left me with a lot to think about, as I experienced a wide range of feelings.
Among them, guilt. Particularly as I thought about my wife. Herself a physician at MGH, she had just written her first book: Healthy Habits for Your Heart. And here I was, my chest dotted by patches connected to wires (more on those in a bit), worrying about the irony of her husband potentially dealing with — you got it — an unhealthy heart. And there she was, on-call for her practice from home, taking care of our 7- and 8-year olds and bracing for an imminent winter storm.
It figured. We have a running joke in our house that I always seem to be away when the worst of winter reaches Boston’s South Shore. It started in February 2015, when I avoided a blizzard while at Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona. More recently, I dodged a snow-and-ice storm during the AFC Championship played in Kansas City. Now this. Luckily, I have awesome neighbors; a saint for a mother-in-law; and a beautiful, smart and tender-yet-tough wife who powered through the weekend after a hectic, stressful week of her own.
Above all, I sensed — in equally-overwhelming parts — mortality, humility and gratitude.
One hospital official inquired about a “health proxy.” Another asked, essentially, if I wished to be resuscitated in the event of cardiac arrest. It was incredibly sobering.
Whether lying in wait on a gurney in an emergency room bay or on a 10th-floor bed, I saw and heard things reminding me of how I good I’ve had it all my life and, frankly, making me somewhat embarrassed by my blessings.
I listened as an elderly man was brought into the ER from an area rehab facility. He was in great pain and, suffice to say based on what I couldn’t help but overhear, seemed to have been neglected for some time. His symptoms were those of countless others in society. If you’ve ever had to look into senior living options, as my family did for my mother a few years ago, you probably know what I mean.
I was then placed in a room with a very young man who’d been at MGH for an extended time, struggling against serious health matters of the heart and more. In my short stay on the other side a curtain, I felt for him and grew to admire his devoted mother and the staff that ministered to him (more on them as well in a bit). I’ll be thinking of them and the higher quality of life I hope he leads for decades to come.
Soon into my stay, doctors determined that I had fainted from a “vasovagal syncope,” usually a benign event not requiring any treatment. Nonetheless, they still needed to explore the EKG abnormality.
Meanwhile, I read a fair amount, followed the NFL Combine on my phone and subjected myself to Sunday’s Celtics loss to the Rockets. With nowhere to go and really nowhere else to turn to on TV, I lay there in my open-back hospital johnny watching James Harden sink step-back threes a half mile away.
As uninspired as the C’s appeared, I was motivated to, yes, show a lot more heart at my stress test the following morning. I laced up my running shoes and waited to hit the treadmill. Strangely — or not, given what I do for a living — I pictured it as my own Combine of sorts. Prospects were running and drilling in Indianapolis striving to impress coaches and GM’s enough to get to the NFL. I was hoping to prove to doctors that my heart was healthy enough to let me go home.
Finally, well after my appointed time, I was wheeled in a chair from the cardiology floor to the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center. Before mounting the treadmill, though, I had to undergo my most painful part of the process. My cardiac pads needed to be switched out.
Placed across one’s chest and midsection, these really — really! — sticky pads are connected to wires leading to electronic monitors that track vital signs like the heart rate. I’d been in two different ambulances, two different hospitals and now two departments of the same hospital. Each of them used different monitors and, thus, different patches.
Perhaps you’ve heard my Patriots broadcast partner Scott Zolak enjoy more than a few laughs talking about my follicles on his 98.5 The Sports Hub midday radio show. To put it simply, I’m a very hairy guy.
In fact, my forrest is probably thickest precisely where those patches had to be placed. Pulling them off left me looking (and nearly screaming) like Steve Correll in the chest-waxing scene in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Thankfully, my showing on the steeply-inclined treadmill went better than the “pre-game” prep. I went as high, fast and long as they asked me to go, as I strongly as I could. The subsequent echocardiogram showed a healthy heart pounding to its own beat. I was approved for discharge, without restriction of activity and exercise.
Not that I’m totally in the clear. Sometime soon I’ll have an outpatient CT scan to examine my arteries. High cholesterol and a history of heart disease — albeit at a much later stage of my father’s life — run in the family. Plus, that abnormality remains unexplained for now.
I realized long ago that no one is infallible, not even doctors. Still, I’m confident in mine — from my primary care physician to my cardiologist to my wife. I also recognize that I’m a lucky one. Insurance and location ensure our family access to some of the best medical care in the world.
Furthermore, I understand that my own experience is unique to me and admit a bias toward the hospital that lured my wife from Baltimore back to Boston and brought our children into this world. That said, I’m truly grateful for the team of MGH doctors, nurses and assistants who looked after me.
Same goes for my caregivers at Carney. The bright young doc overseeing the ER, the aide who kept reminding me to “control (my) breath” and the nurse who knew my name and voice from the radio all made a big impression in a brief time.
They and the technology they utilize only reaffirm my appreciation as well for the immeasurable importance of science. Now more than ever. I feel the same about diversity. Hanging out on a hospital floor, I heard a handful of accents and saw that inside white lab coats and blue or green scrubs are people of every shade on the human spectrum.
Just like a certain football team I watch at work each week in the fall, they are among our best and brightest at the jobs they do. Only in their case, the daily stakes are much greater than in the games people play.
In more ways than the obvious, I’m better today than I was a few days ago for having encountered them. I only wish we met under entirely different circumstances. And I hope not to see them again anytime soon.
I trust they’ll understand.
Monday night my son and daughter were back in our bed, falling asleep between mom and dad. Crowded as it was, I fought to avoid falling off the edge.
Yet, I couldn’t have slept better, knowing that dawn would bring the morning paper, a cup of joe in my favorite mug and the start of a brand new day.