Saturday, February 24, 2007
A Death's Door Experience - 2nd Anniversary
Some time well past midnight, I started to suffer from severe chills and nearly uncontrollable nausea. After a short trip to the bathroom, I realized that I was going to pass out. Since I didn’t want to wake up face down on the floor, I hurried back to bed. There, my shivering awoke my ex-wife, Kelly. The rest of the story is all second hand, because I was unconscious for most of the next sixteen hours. In any event, I blacked out and went into a seizure.
It’s at times like this that I was thankful that Kelly, at that time my wife of more than fifteen years, was cool and composed under pressure. Once she saw that I was having a seizure and was not actually conscious, which was just a couple seconds, she got the EMT’s on the way. They were in my bedroom within five minutes. Although, I’d recovered consciousness by this time, I really wasn’t in my right mind and tried to talk them out of taking me to the hospital. My ex-wife’s cooler intellect prevailed and soon thereafter we were both riding to Vanderbilt hospital.
At the hospital, I went in and out of consciousness and, at least once, had another seizure. The monitors showed clearly that every time I had a seizure, my heart and breathing completely stopped for about fifteen seconds. Well, I can tell you that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was only blackness. I was totally unconscious. It was the lack of oxygen getting to my brain that caused the seizure. That was also the reason why my normally good reasoning was suffering during those moments when I was awake and aware.
The doctors at Vanderbilt are among the best in the country. After several hours, they got me stabilized and into a gradually improving pattern. You can imagine the amount of intravenous fluids I was given. By dinner time on Monday, I was awake more than I was unconscious and was able to take my first drink again. By dinner time on Tuesday, I was able to keep down some food for the first time in a few days.
The most clinically interesting thing about this experience is the reason I experienced zero heartbeat. The doctors were emphatic that I did not have a heart attack nor did I suffer any damage to my heart. What I experienced wasn’t analogous to a hard disk crash (heart attack), it was more like a networking bandwidth bottleneck. As it turns out, almost all autonomic body functions (the automatic functions of the body including breathing, heart beat, digestion, blinking, etc.) are managed by the vagus nerve. (See http://www.cardyn.com.au/clinics/hrv_doctor.htm for more details.)
As it turns out, the vagus nerve can be overwhelmed with a single function (in my case, gastrointestinal problems) at the cost of ignoring other important functions (like breathing and heart beat). My vagus nerve simply couldn’t carry the load of an overactive stomach problem and the routine functions of heart and lung. You'd think that your body would know that the heart and lungs take priority over a churning stomach and bowels, but that ain't the case. Bizarre! The doctors assure me that this shouldn’t be a big problem in the future.
You can imagine the anguish this ordeal was causing my ex-wife at the time, but she stuck through it like a trooper. I’m just thankful that my kids were sleeping during the worst part of it. It’s at times like this that you should stop and reassess your priorities. What do you think you’d do at a time like this?
I've got a follow-up appointment with the cardiologist on March 27th. I'll let you know how it goes.