Friday, August 31, 2018

The Fast and the Oblivious

Driving home from work a few mornings back, my chief goal was to get cleaned up, eat a quick breakfast, and go straight to bed. The main reason I felt an urgency to get my daily routine done quickly was because it had been steadily raining since midnight and the weather report was giving every indication it would stay that way for several more hours. Nothing helps a weary night-shift worker get to sleep like dark clouds and steady rain in the morning. The only problem was the clever little gas gauge on my car's dashboard was flashing a warning light saying I was getting dangerously low on fuel. The last thing I wanted to do was stop and get gas, but at that very moment I was approaching one of the better convenience stores in the area and decided to get the chore out of the way.

By better convenience store, I mean one that is clean, has well maintained gas pumps, and more importantly is on the opposite side of town from where I live. Few things bother me more in the morning than having to carry on socially-obligated small talk with one of the locals who really doesn't like me but knows my wife or one of my kids. Being that the normal people were heading out to work at that time, past experience has taught me that on my side of town there was a better than average chance of encountering one of those creatures.

So, I turn off the highway and pull under the shelter providing cover for the gas pumps. I go through the motions of navigating the touch screen on the gas pump choosing my method of payment along with declining both to have my car washed at the on-site automated facility and the offer on a new zero-interest credit card. After getting those slightly irritating issues out of the way, I insert the nozzle in the tank and lean against the side of my car waiting for it to fill.

There were four or five other customers under the shelter with me doing the same, all obviously preoccupied with their own morning agendas. Like I wrote, bone-weary people such as myself are not looking for conversations so I was enjoying quiet anonymity and the sound of the rain. At some point though I began hearing a low roar off in the distance, one whose intensity grew so quickly it overwhelmed the sound of the steady rain. It was easy to discern the direction of the noise, it was coming from the western side of the highway.

Frankly, the noise sort of reminded me of a low flying jet fighter. Back during my air defense days in the army, we'd have training sessions where we tracked aircraft flying extremely low to the ground. Those training sessions happened in the deserts of New Mexico, such a thing occurring down a usually well traveled highway in South Carolina was ridiculous. Whatever the case, I began looking in the direction the noise was coming from figuring it would pass my location soon enough.

Except that the noise, only grew louder with no source in sight. As the seconds ticked by my curiosity grew as well, so much I began to feel an illogical trepidation. This noise was now officially weird and on the way to slightly bizarre. Just when I began to believe the source of the noise would never appear that's when it came into view.

It was one of those new Dodge Challenger sports cars and while my days of interest in such vehicles are long past, it was blindingly obvious that the driver had the engine red lined. In fact, it wouldn't have surprised me to see the engine explode in the couple of seconds it was in my view. I'm terrible at guessing the speed of moving cars but that Challenger was easily pushing over one-hundred miles an hour, probably far more. Whatever its true speed, that car was going so fast down the highway it had a long misty tail produced from the rain flowing around the body. Once out of view, while the pitch of the Challenger's engine change as it passed my location, the driver hadn't eased off on pushing the car to its extreme limits.

“An unmarked cop car?” The person at the pump in front of me asked aloud.

“Probably,” I responded, “but I didn't see any flashing lights.”

South Carolina cops love unmarked police cars, so much that once while driving near Charleston, I saw the Highway Patrol had turned a nondescript, certified mom-type Chevrolet minivan into such a cop car. I was traveling west on I-26 and saw these thin, horizontal flashing blue lights on the lower left and right side of the van's back window, which was stopped on the side of the road. The strange part came with the, “My son is an honor student” bumper sticker stuck between the two flashing lights.

Traffic was backed up, so everyone was going slow allowing me to see the gray uniform of a Highway Patrolman exit the vehicle and almost goosestep to the driver side window of the car he pulled over. As I passed the driver's side of the van, it was then that I noticed it lacked all identifying decals. All things considered, if a minivan pulled up behind me flashing blue light from behind its grill, I'm not sure I would believe it was a real cop car.

Whatever the case, given the safe assumption the Dodge Challenger was an unmarked cop car responding silently to some pretty bad shit, I expected to see other law enforcement types follow in its wake. Which was sort of what happened, not thirty seconds after the mysterious speeder burned pass us, a deputy sheriff vehicle lazily pulled into the convenience store parking. The one problem though was this law enforcement vehicle came from the opposite direction the Challenger was traveling. It goes without saying there was simply no way that deputy could have missed seeing, and hearing, the speedster as it continued down the highway.

The deputy sheriff, a guy so young I would have bet money he was only a few years out of high school, casually strolled into the convenience store seemingly oblivious to the world around him. Looking through the store's huge windows, I watched this young Barney Fife walk to the Krispy Kreme donuts display and stare longingly at the offerings. If a cop's future career success can be discerned by his profession's stereotypical worship of donuts, this kid would make county sheriff before his thirtieth birthday. Despite it all, it was a safe assumption that the Dodge Challenger was a law enforcement vehicle on its way to something dangerous. For whatever reason though, the powers that be saw fit not to invite young Barney to the party.

This posed a huge question, on the off chance the driver of the Challenger was just another of the many deluded A-holes of this area pushing his expensive toy to it limits, why hadn't young Barney done his public safety duty and gone after him? It was a question that I wouldn't ever get an answer. With my gas tank finally filled, I drove off for home with my ultimate destination being my warm bed.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

John McCain 1936 - 2018

Putting the bitterness and inherent divisiveness of politics aside for the moment, I have to clearly state that John McCain was a genuine American hero and patriot. I am not saying he was perfect or that I ever really agreed with his political positions. The truth of the matter is that back in 2008 when McCain was the Republican nominee for president I cringed at the thought of him handling the financial meltdown should he win the election. And to be honest, I thought the man had lost his marbles picking Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Despite the fact that I couldn't ever support Senator McCain's positions on most issues, I never for a minute doubted that he always had the best interests of the United States as his ultimate goal. Politics is a dirty game that at times forces good people to say and do things that they would otherwise refuse to take part. The best we can hope for in democracies like ours is that the people elect decent men and women who can come together and forge a compromise that ultimately advances everyone's' interests. I honestly believe John McCain the vast majority of the time was one of those decent people.

Now it's easy to scoff at politicians of all stripes and yes, elected office does seem to attract the lowest common denominator types looking for an easy way to gain power and influence. But in John McCain's case, no one can question his devotion to the United States given what he endured as a prisoner of war. Did he come from a privileged background? Yes, in a way since being the son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals surely wasn't a hindrance to personal achievement. But the thing no one can deny was that he honorably served his country, whereas many children of powerful people just live off their trust funds or skate by doing as little as possible avoiding danger and commitment at all costs.

No, I didn't agree with John McCain on a lot of things. I personally feel some of his positions were backwards and outright dangerous given the world we live. But the thing is I believe that if a person agrees with any elected official one-hundred percent of the time they very much need to reexamine their way of thinking. John McCain was just a man, prone to mistakes like us all. But he was a good man who truly loved his country and will very much be missed.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

More Cardiac Adventures-The MRI Incident

After recuperating from my cardiac adventures, I went back to work last week, on day shift no less. The temporary reassignment was something my boss wanted. At first I was hesitant, but a couple of hours into my first day back last Monday, I quickly realized it was a good idea. It took me at least to last Wednesday to find my groove again. Upon returning home and after getting cleaned up I pretty much crashed on the couch until it was time to go to bed. So, what that means is that I don't really have anything to write about other than my encounter with the MRI machine during the time I was a patient in the hospital.

Magnetic Resonance Imagining is one of those technologies that would border on magic to anyone from the early Twentieth century and before. Sure, they had X-ray machines back then, which were wonders in their own era. But X-ray images never approached the level of detail and information a MRI can provide. The only problem with MRI's is that they are not as flexible or as easily deployable as the much older X-ray machines.

Essentially, MRI's to me look like a huge, glossy plastic barrel with a narrow center. Throw in a futuristic table, which slides the patient laying on top into that narrow center and that describes nearly all of those machines. Even with the advantages offered by MRI's, problems begin to emerge as soon as anyone comes close to to them.

The first being the overwhelmingly strong magnetic fields an energized unit produces. I've heard horror stories about careless orderlies rolling metal beds or stretchers into the room where the MRI's magnetic field “grabs” them after it is activated and causes some major destruction. The second issue come into play when the patient has some sort of metal implant in their body. Let's just say when that is somehow overlooked and the patient is placed inside the unit, and the magnets are energized, things can get messy really fast.

My encounter with the MRI machine revolved around a completely different type of problem. See, I'm a big guy and the center of the machine where they insert the patient is quite small. Yes, that means claustrophobia, something that for me usually involved the feeling of being overwhelmed in a large and loud crowd.

The cardiologists working on me wanted a detailed map of the problem cells causing my heart to race uncontrollably. Such information would allow them to home in on those nasty buggers and literally kill them with small electric shocks. So, I was wheeled down to the MRI and placed on the table. As that is happening, the technician is telling me I can't move during the procedure and that I would have to hold my breath periodically.

Everything is good to go up until the technician starts telling me how cramped and confining the inside of the machine will be. I'm okay up until the point she starts telling me about how I might react once I am slid into the center of the machine. She pretty much hit every raw point that could trigger my latent claustrophobia in the space of twenty seconds. Of course, never having a MRI scan before all her words were pretty abstract concepts up until I was actually laying inside the machine.

Long story short, I lasted about fifteen seconds before I started squeezing the hell out of the little plastic ball on the end of long a cord which signaled to the technician I was in full panic mode. Even though I knew everything was okay and that just a foot away from the top of my head was the other opening on the back end of the MRI, I felt entombed.

Personally, I think the one aspect that really got to me was that the opening was so confining. My shoulders and arms were pressing tightly against the inside of the opening. What didn't help at all was that my nose was just an inch or two from the top of the opening. Truthfully, thinking about it now still bothers me quite a bit.

Luckily, the technician slide me out quickly and was able to give me medication that more than tamed my claustrophobia. The procedure then went on as planned, which lasted about an hour. Once it was over, the MRI technician did try to put a positive spin on my record breaking panic attack once I was out of the machine. Apparently, other patients panic much later during the procedure, which forces an abort and them having to do it all over again later. Somehow, I found that information small comfort.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Transdimensional Day at the Beach

The lesson every sane human being who has the privilege to go on a vacation in these near feudal times should understand is that a bad day at the beach beats the living hell out of a good day at work. As dogmas go, it's far simpler than most, if not all religious or philosophical tenets that force people to jump through complicated hypocritical hoops and twist themselves into self-deceiving pretzels. Life began in the seas and while our amphibian ancestors crawled out of the salty waters and began the conquest of dry land are now calcified fossils, we hairless primates still have some sort of instinctual connection with the ocean.

Now it is true that this connection is stronger in some and weaker in others. One of the most bizarre statements I ever heard spoken was some dude telling me that salt water made him feel dirty. That he preferred swimming in fresh water lakes and ponds. Yeah, I adhere to the idea that we all have to true to our basic nature but I couldn't help but feel a bit of disgust at that individual.

My connection to the ocean first developed on the shores of Pawleys Island, South Carolina back in the late 1960's. While not really able to swim, kids my age would slowly go deeper into the water until it was up to our necks and we bobbed like corks in the gentle swells with our toes only occasionally touching the sandy bottom. Given the fear and paranoia the movie Jaws spawned a few years later, by all rights at least one or two of my fellow kindergarten age adventurers and myself should have ended up as a snack for some shark.

During those strangely backwards and progressive times, our parents didn't have a clue as of our actual whereabouts. They were hanging out on shore drinking themselves into a early afternoon stupor. They were satisfied in the knowledge that their children were somewhere in a half mile radius of their beach chairs and beer laden coolers. This wasn't child abuse or neglect, parents simply didn't feel the need to hover over their kids like overprotective angels. It was a different time, whether such parental behaviors were better or worse is a debate outside this scope of this story. No, there were absolutely no professional lifeguards anywhere to be seen back then, it was strictly swim at your own risk. Somehow over the years though, us kids learned the nature of currents, and waves along with avoiding jelly fish and knowing to get the out of the water if someone started bleeding.

I still retain a fondness for Pawleys Island, even though it lost most of what made it special for me due to the relentless encroachment of real estate developers. The south end of Pawleys Island once had an isolated feel, with the quite nearby mainland devoid of any of the gross McMansions that began popping up in the 1990's. The beaches I get to mostly these days are those off Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. A place that is far more developed and frankly pretentious than the permanent residents of Pawleys could hope to achieve, despite their best efforts. But being true to my central beliefs, it's still a beach and you have to work really hard to not enjoy the sun, sand, and ocean.

Last month I was doing just that, we were staying at Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort with my wife and I spending the day on the beach. It was mid-morning and after both of us had spent some time in the ocean she had gone back to sit under our rented umbrella and read a magazine. I decided to stay in the ocean and continue to float on my back and relax in the calm and cool waters.

Given the public location and that it was summertime, several groups of people were nearby me as I floated idly on the water. One was a large family throwing what looked to be a Nerf football to each other. There was also a relatively young couple with the wife/girlfriend quite pregnant. No expert here, but having already seen her on the beach earlier, I would have guessed she was seven to eight months along. The husband/boyfriend and her were playing quite closely with each other in the water making me uncomfortable given my relative nearness and overactive imagination.

So to solve the possible issue of seeming like I might be intruding on either group, I turned myself around so that I was looking out at the horizon. Quite frankly it was a brilliant move, not only was it now clear that I was not eavesdropping on either group but it promoted a sense of solitude in an otherwise crowded shore. Here's where things start to get sort of weird.

Being that I was further out in the water than anyone else in sight, from my point of view the universe had narrowed down to two distinct infinite planes with the ocean and sky meeting at the horizon. Adding to this psychedelic effect, the sky that day was cloudless and the ocean was so calm the shore resembled more a slightly disturbed pool with no real waves. Now throw in my ability/talent to ignore most of the crap human beings say to each other and I became a bit transdimensional floating in the placid waters leaving the normal space-time continuum.

Relaxing while playing with such a mindset, my imagination tripped out jumping from idea to idea, all pretty weird. During this indeterminate time, I remembered a science fiction short story from the 1980's that involved a crewman on a U.S. bomber. Blown out of his plane by attacking enemy aircraft as intense lightning flashed in nearby clouds, he finds himself falling between two infinite planes. This character, a theoretical physics major in college before the war, figures the intense lightening ripped a hole in local space-time casting him out of the normal universe. While he falls, the main character remembers several lectures he had with his favorite professor on fringe physics.

As science fictions stories went, it was okay. No huge revelations on the human experience or the nature of the universe. The dude eventually “falls” into the other dimensional plane with time then reversing and him rejoining his damage aircraft which comes back together. Once back at his duty station inside the bomber, the main character shrugs off the entire episode as a combat-induced hallucination.

The bomber lands safely back at the airbase with the flight crew heading off to the officers' club to get heavily drunk. The only thing big reveal of the story comes as all the other guys on the bomber crew notice the main character, someone who they have lived and worked closely with for years, is now right-handed. As opposed to the person they always saw using his left hand for everything. Yeah, nothing really earth shattering, unless you have lived and worked with someone for such a long time that they know you intimately and can anticipate most of their actions.

After chuckling at remembering that story, my mind drifted off to other subjects. Funny thing happened after that, since I was staring off at the horizon and relaxing for so long, I either dozed off or entered a semi-hypnotic state where I wasn't really conscious. I liken the semi-hypnotic idea to the story I've heard about cross-continent highways down in Australia. When those highways were built they made them close to absolutely straight given the continuous flat terrain. What I've heard is that you can go for hours without a curve, a dip, or hill to break the monotony. Combine that with the low volume sounds of tires rolling on the highway and it reported drivers can become hypnotized to the point that they can fly off the road if they encounter something that changes the path of the highway.

Whatever the case, something eventually shook me out of my stupor. I didn't look at my watch before turning away from the other people in the water. But my best guess was that I had zoned out from reality for about thirty minutes. That's when I got a bit of a shock when I turned and faced the beach.

The structures in the back ground and the array of people occupying the shoreline with tents and umbrellas were totally different. Looking around in the water near me, the family throwing the Nerf football and the pregnant couple were gone. A completely different group of people were now in the places they once occupied.

For a couple of seconds I was having a full-fledged and certified Keanu Reeves' “WHOA” moment. I simply didn't know where in the hell I was located. Of course, my bizarre mind quickly thought about that science fiction story I remembered earlier while floating and staring off at the horizon stuck between two the ocean and the sky. The question as to whether I had somehow slipped the bounds of normal space-time and entered a different dimensional floated around in my head during that brief time. This left me with an intense eerie feeling of unease that I mostly blame on being out in the sun too long.

After those disorienting few seconds, that small piece that is my rational brain kicked in to reconnect me with reality. Remembering one of the first things I learned about the ocean shore, despite the seemingly placid ocean, there was still enough of a current to take me down a significant stretch of beach. Feeling slightly ashamed, I shook off the majority of the eerie feeling and began walking back to the shore.

Still being morning, the near talcum white beach sand of Hilton Head had not heated up significantly yet. This allowed me to divert to an already open tiki bar located at another resort instead of returning directly to the rented umbrella my wife and I shared. Yes, the tiki bar's philosophy was summed up on the sign mounted on a pole supporting the thatched roof that read: “It's always five o'clock somewhere.” For me though, nothing washes away internal embarrassment and the feeling that you may have slipped into another dimension like that reassuring potion made up of tequila and margarita mix.

“It's awful early for a margarita,” my wife said as I plopped into the chair next her. This bit of spousal semi-disapproval didn't stop her from gesturing that she wanted a sip or two or what really turned out to be a small gulp.

“Don't judge me,” I quipped taking back my expensive, morning alcoholic treat. Just to totally make certain I was in the right dimension though, I had to ask her one thing. “I've been right-handed for the entire time you've known me, right?”

“Since the day we meet at the Jimmy Buffett concert.” She said in a totally incurious manner never taking her eyes off the magazine she was reading. No, she didn't inquire as to why I would ask such a weird question, That's when I realized I was still safely in my home universe.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

My Accidental Cardiac Adventures

Truly ugly
 As usual did this in a rush, will proofread and correct later.

Well, as weeks go this one was pure shit bordering on true hell. The end result, which occurred yesterday with me being discharged from the hospital was sore arms from all the IV's the nurses inserted. There is a little exaggeration involved here but given the number of times I had a needle inserted into the crook of my arms or the dorsal side of my hands I could have money renting myself out as a voodoo doll.

Also during this time a majority of my chest hair was eventually shaved off so the little cardiac sensor pads would stay in place. This shaving only took place after the nurses and technicians spent a couple of days ripping a bunch of them off taking clumps of hair every time. On a pain scale, removing the little adhesive sensor pads were relatively minor although we're talking quantity not quality. The biomedical gizmo they used to monitor my heart took five pads, and if one went bad they replaced all of them.

What put me into the hospital? Well Monday night I was at work doing my usual duties, nothing overly difficult or strenuous, just the same old chores. At some point I began to notice I had about ten-thousand butterflies in my chest having a rave party, there was no pain, although I did feel woozy.

I eventually garnered enough sense to go find some medical personnel to check my blood pressure since after about fifteen to twenty minutes it became clear the butterflies were not about to call it quits for the night. Believe it or not, my blood pressure was fine, it was well inside normal, healthy parameters. My heart rate on the other hand was the cardiac equivalent of a nuclear meltdown.

The person I found to check my blood pressure and heart rate was one of the night shift nurses in recovery. Luckily, her department was empty of patients, so she ushered me over to one of the stretchers and had me sit close to the patient monitor. At first all she did was place the blood pressure cuff over my arm and let the automatic system do its electronic thing. It was when she listened to my heart with a stethoscope that I scared the hell out of her. Not only was my heart rate running north of 220 beats per minute, my cardiac rhythm was pure chaos.

Mere minutes later I am wheeled down to the Emergency Department with a whole host of highly trained and very worried people hovering over me. Their chief objective was to get my heart rate down, it took two sets of drugs to accomplish that goal. Not long after that I am wheeled to a room in the cardiac intensive care unit where I spent the next several days.

Long complicated story short, after an intensive electrocardiogram and cardiac catheterization the good news was that my pipes were clear of all that nasty stuff that causes heart attacks. Yeah, given my habits I was rather surprised at that bit of happy information. The partial bad news was that, without going into complex medical terminology I know I was screw up, my heart was suffering from some abnormal cells who essentially could hijack my cardiac rhythm. After discussing this with my doctors, I realized I had been suffering similar episodes that were far less severe and far shorter in duration for a long time. Given my ass backwards work schedule, and that I was both overweight and out of shape, I attributed these episodes to just being tired.

Further good news is that this condition is curable- the exact word used by my cardiologist. It involves a procedure called a cardiac ablation which was performed Thursday night. Once again boiling away the technical terms that I would misuse in some fashion, the doctors got one half of my heart done. There was an issue as they proceeded with the second half and that got scary for my family and for me once I realized the extent of how badly things went sideways.

I have to strongly state that I do not believe the doctors did anything wrong. As with all medical procedures there is a chance things could go bad. Circumstances just didn't obey expectations but the doctors were able snatch at least a partial victory from the jaws of cosmic misfortune. I came away with just a truly huge bruise around my groin. Seriously, it's so massively gross I am tempted to take a picture of it. Don't worry, I have enough sense to realize that posting such a picture would be the worst form of oversharing.

My intention is to recover and about a month or two from now have the other half of the ablation done. As of right now I am taking medication that should at least partially keep the nasty abnormal heart cells from going terrorist and hijacking my heart again.

Please excuse my usual attempts at humor, as you might expect it's a coping mechanism. I do have to give a huge shout out to my fantastic doctors and nurses that worked hard to save my sorry ass. Furthermore, I have to say my coworkers rallied around me in a way that left me misty eyed a couple of times. They took time out of their busy schedules to come see during me while I was laying in a hospital bed. What's worse for them is that the doctors are forcing me to take a week off to recover. That means my monthly duties falls on them, adding to their burden. That truly bothers me and I hope that at some point I can make it up to them.

Getting kicked in the cardiac ass like I did this week means my lifestyle will have to change. Even though the pipes bringing and taking blood away from my heart are squeaky clean, I'm smart enough to know things there could go wrong in the coming years. That means far less coffee and sodas and somehow I will have to find the time and energy to go to the gym.

As things progress, I'll keep everyone informed.