For two years, a tiny device protruded from within my dad’s chest, monitoring his every heartbeat.
I hated the creepy thing for the memories it unearthed. You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to relive the day he had his stroke. But I also hinged my hopes on what it might tell us: If his rhythm was irregular, maybe we could fix it, and maybe we could prevent another stroke from happening. If it could find just one hiccup, one hitch, one flutter, I could sleep better at night knowing we solved the mystery of why an otherwise optimally healthy man had to be rushed to the emergency room.
For two years, the device found nothing but a steady, strong heartbeat. It was removed this week, along with my hope for answers.
Atrial fibrillation is a scary diagnosis, but lack of diagnosis is another demon altogether. My dad’s blood work shows stellar numbers. He exercises religiously. His healthy diet borders on obnoxious. He doesn’t have a family history of heart disease or stroke. By process of elimination, his lone risk factor was the one he couldn’t prevent: aging. Now that he’s had one stroke, a second risk factor looms over him — one-fourth of the nearly 800,000 strokes that occur each year are recurrent events, according to the National Stroke Association.
He could live to be 100 uneventfully, or that second stroke could be hiding around the corner, ready to surprise-pounce on its uncharacteristic victim at any moment.
I dread reliving that day.
My mom called me immediately after EMS and could barely spit out the words. “Megan…Dad!” is all she said, and I knew it was a medical emergency. She’d found him curled in a ball on the shower floor, unable to speak.
When I arrived at the Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas emergency room, doctors and nurses were asking my dad basic questions: “When is your birthday? What year is it? Who is the current president?”
He thought we were still in the 20th century and gave the wrong date of birth. I’ll never forget the look of sheer terror on my mom’s face. I know I mirrored it. This is a man with three master’s degrees. He’s an author, a part-time professor, a 40-plus year newspaper industry veteran and health policy geek, but he couldn’t name our current president. What shook me most, though, was the look in his eyes. It was eerily vacant.
I was impressed with how quickly the doctor came in with images of my dad’s head. There it was: a giant blood clot blocking blood flow to his brain. It stared Mom and I in the face and dared us to deny what was happening. We quickly consented to giving him tissue plasminogen activator, the standard clot-busting medication for stroke patients. Within 30 minutes, the vacant look was gone and Dad was returning to us. He could lift his left arm again – when we arrived, he couldn’t move it and told doctors it was because he “must still be half asleep.”
That statement was a glimpse of things to come. Maybe Mom and I couldn’t deny the seriousness of what just happened, but Dad kept a stubborn stance that this was all no big deal. I wish he could have seen the picture of the monster blood clot.
He now refers to this phenomenon as “optimism bias,” where healthy habits lead you to believe you’re invincible to things like strokes and heart attacks.
Looking back, he now refers to this phenomenon as “optimism bias,” where healthy habits lead you to believe you’re invincible to things like strokes and heart attacks. He thought he was heading home straight from the emergency room. Once moved to a room in the intensive care unit, he embarrassingly asked the doctor if he could drive to Austin on business the following day.
I told him I’d call his brother and sisters to let them know what happened. He instructed me not to. He didn’t want me to “worry them over something like this” (I did anyway, of course).
Two years later, Dad’s denial has mostly lifted. He came out of this scot-free with no lingering side effects, just a prescription for low-dose asprin and a small scar where a creepy protrusion used to live. I thank God every day for the care that produced such an ideal outcome.
I, however, didn’t get off so easy. My lingering side effect is a constant worry he’ll join that 25 percent and the next time I answer my mom’s phone call I’ll hear that familiar frantic voice. If only we knew what caused it.
But tragedies happen without rhyme or reason all the time, as hard as it is for loved ones to accept. What can you do but enjoy every day with them?
My dad wrote a column for D Magazine about having a stroke that can be found here.