Saturday, November 6, 2010


Yesterday I had my nine-monthly pacemaker check up. It’s working fine. It was a shame to spend a glorious warm sunny day in the cardiology waiting room but at least one aspect of my health care is functioning well.

I received the pacemaker in 2005. Earlier that year I began to have an occasional dizzy spell. After routine checks my doctor decided he was over-medicating me for my blood pressure so he lowered the dosage. But the spells continued. He gave me new medication and made arrangements for me to have a check-up at Wellington hospital.

I got an appointment, centuries ahead. After a particularly bad turn, I went to the doctor again – his surgery was just around the corner – and very quickly I found myself on a stretcher in the emergency ward. But even as I lay there I felt the spell passing. By the time they’d wheeled me through to see the doctor all systems were back to normal. So I was sent home.

But by being admitted temporarily I was now on the administrative conveyor belt. The cardiac unit strapped a 24 hours monitor on to my chest. It revealed a problem that had not been picked up before - my heart was having slow-down periods and for that I needed a pacemaker. The operation would not fix the dizzy spells, originating from the electical circuitry. The medication I needed could not be prescribed until a pacemaker was in place.

While I waited for the operation I had increasingly more and more dizzy spells. The hospital advised me not to drive. I felt grounded and frustrated and my productive life seemed to be grinding to a halt. I smiled wryly at an email from Roger in New York with an attached cutting about a gorilla in an American zoo, being given a pacemaker.

To my surprise I enjoyed the experience of the operation. I never dreamt I’d ever say that but it proved an interesting event. Up early, feeling hungry, we were at the hospital by 7 30 but I had a wait for I was the second up that morning. A nurse prepared me, blood pressure check, ECG, a rapid shave of the left side of my chest - (“you’re not very hairy are you?” Was that criticism or merely factual. The mind is an amazing thing. To consider being affronted not long before the surgeon takes a knife to you.) - and then the insertion of a needle in the left arm. It was comforting to have Anne sitting beside me reading the paper. I developed cramp in my right foot so I had to hobble around the corridor to restore circulation.

I was wheeled to the theatre at 10. Anne went home. Careful explanations and information were given from all concerned. I was very definite that I didn’t want to watch on closed circuit TV. The first injection was a mild sedative. Then antibiotic. Then local anasthetic. Then theatre - soothing music, banter of the team, further explanation (“you’ll feel me pushing”), a further sedative, (“you’re too chirpy”). While we waited for that to kick in we discussed Labour Day holiday arrangements. Most of the team were going away. Obviously I wouldn’t be.

I liked the way the surgeon explained every step as he did it. When the two wires were inserted through the veins into the heart he put the battery in. I was back at the ward at 12 20. After a while they brought me lunch, two sandwiches and a cup of tea. My room-mate hadn’t liked the surgeon telling him what was happening. “Rather not know”, he muttered. I didn’t argue but I felt pleased – at least I knew what was happening and why.

I rang Anne to her surprise at 1 30. They wheeled me down to have an. X-ray. Anne arrived at 4 30. I got home in time to watch the TV news. The day before we’d discussed what I wanted to eat on such a night. I asked for simple, comfort food, tarakahi, asparagus and mashed potato, followed by raspberry jelly and ice-cream. No wine. Nothing like hunger to sharpen the taste buds. The next day the pain kicked in, but not as bad as I’d anticipated.

As anticipated the dizzy turns continued even though I was pleased how quickly my body bounced back from surgery. When the pacemaker was checked it was working well, indeed even recording the time when I had my dizzy spells. In consultation with the surgeon they decided I should go on to betablocker tablets straight away. When I complained to the young doctor prescribing them that I felt I was a walking pharmacy he said if he got to my age and was only taking five tablets a day he would count himself lucky. The medication worked. Thanks to the wonders of modern science I was able continue my life productively again. What I didn’t know was my muscular degenerative illness was already lurking in the shadows.

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