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Rusty Saber

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by Joe McAdoo

I suppose someone with a warped sense of humor might ask me, "Except for the little matter of open-heart surgery, have you had a good summer?" I don't think I'd appreciate the humor; it would be like asking Mrs. Lincoln, "All things considered, how did you like the play?"

This is the first chance I've had to write about how I spent my summer vacation: Believe me, surgery can put a damper on any season.

I'm no Johnny-come-lately to heart problems. My heart arteries gave way 23 years ago, which led to my first surgery experience.

I thought I was a one-trick pony in the open-heart surgery arena. Earlier my doctors had said my heart was so beat up from past problems that another bypass was not a good option.

My, how things change.

The message first came to me in the form of distinctive chest pains early on a Saturday morning: "Get thee to a hospital." I was too macho to answer the message.

My response to chest pains for years has been to down a Nitrostat tablet or two, and go on about my business. My wife had the good sense to call 911. She always does the smart thing.

When you call 911 for an ambulance, you get a fire rescue unit and an ambulance. An early morning visit by these vehicles is the neighborhood social event of the day. In my case, the bedroom was suddenly filled with people who knew exactly what they were doing, and they were doing it.

The moment a technician slipped an oxygen mask over my face, I realized how close the Rusty Saber was to becoming extinct. I had not been doing much breathing on my own. All I could think of to say was: "Thanks. I needed that." (Not particularly original, but fitting.)

The ambulance took me to St. John's Emergency Room, which, I'm happy to report, is a lot more calm than the TV program "ER."

Face it, when people go to the hospital, most believe they'll be going home soon. I did. I thought I'd be examined in the ER and dismissed. Looking back, with my history and symptoms, there was as much chance of that happening as me winning the lottery. Since I've never in my life bought a lottery ticket, my chances were slim, indeed.

Once settled into the cardiovascular unit, I underwent tests that required them to take more blood than Count Dracula on a feeding frenzy. That was fine, because as soon as the tests were finished, I'd be dismissed. Sure.

The test results didn't turn out like I thought they would. After they were known, instead of being dismissed, I was scheduled for surgery.

Gone was the talk of surgery not being an option because of scar tissue on the heart. The surgeon said the magic words which have been capturing the attention of patients for as long as there have been patients and surgeons: "You don't have any other choice."

To myself I thought, "I suppose this means I won't be going home today."

What I've learned about open-heart surgery after two flings with it is that it isn't any fun. I doubt very seriously that you'll ever hear a joke begin: "There were these two patients who met in the Cardiovascular Surgical Intensive Care Center ... ."

Trust me. That won't be a funny story, no matter how well it's told. There's too much cutting and pasting going on for there to be anything funny about the actual surgery.

Coughing is a big part of recovery. You must cough to keep the lungs from filling up. You get praised a lot for coughing. Forcing coughs is a tough job, but someone has to do it. "Good cough, Joe; let's do it again. Let's have one more big old good cough ... ." At this point, the "good" cough is roughly equal on the human pain spectrum to a fall from a five-story building.

From the moment the ambulance arrived at my home until I actually did go home, some mighty fine medical professionals took care of me in one way or another. I appreciate every one of them.

Another thing I've learned about open-heart surgery is that it takes a long time to completely recover. I'm in the process of doing that now, and I'm well supervised. Remember, I told you that my wife always does the smart thing.

(Joe McAdoo is former chairman of the communication department at Drury College and a Springfield public relations consultant.)

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