2 The Price Is Right

The beginning scene of my very own Stanley Kubrick movie featured a curious character who entered the waiting room. I’m sure she had a purpose for being there. She had to have a purpose there! To show up at a hospital waiting room for anything else other than to get health care help is so contrary to my mind that the thought has no ability to be even allowed. But this character, a lady who appeared to be in her late 50’s had come in to our area of the waiting room looking for a remote control for the televisions that were up on the wall of the waiting rooms. Neither of them were on, but she was determined to find a way to turn them on! And fortunately, she was no discriminator of persons. She made sure that everyone was invited into the search for the remotes, regardless of their apparent malady. I’m not sure the lady with severe abdominal pain was really up for the search, or the disruption.

No remotes! Anywhere! No matter. Televisions can be turned on and channels changed with buttons on the body of the TV. But it’s not straightforward for everyone to figure out. Our waiting room companion was just such a person. Buttons that don’t work can be assisted with smacks to the side of the TV. Questions about the process don’t have to stay in the mind. They are even better when muttered as though a curse out loud for all to hear. What could be so important that the TV needed to be on?

Thankfully, there are always plenty of staff standing around doing nothing in an emergency waiting room, and one such nurse saw the critical problem that needed to be solved.  She came over and assisted our new waiting room companion with finding a way to get the television going without the use of the remote. A chorus of angels sang as the apt nurse pulled it off! TV on! Channels changed! Just in time for a new car!

How excited we all were when everything happening on the television was repeated by our new friend. With enthusiasm. Her concern was evident as she repeatedly asked in a loud voice if the TV was too loud. And don’t worry, the downtime between exciting drama was filled with arcane personal questions of anyone who was near.

I didn’t realize then that the waiting had just started. After the confirmation that I had a stroke, I didn’t get admitted… I got sent home. Cut loose. There was an appointment for the end of the week set up, at the TIA clinic. There was supposed to be an assessment at that appointment, and more information would come. But no admission.

1 Admission

The Monday afternoon when things started revealing themselves, there came an admission. My admission to Sharon. I told her that I thought something bad was happening. I told her of my symptoms and I used the “S” word for the first time. The fear that had been solely mine to this point was now shared. I could see it walk across her face and stomp the “everydayness” of the moment right out of her. Her response was immediate and expected. “Let’s go to the emerg” right now!” What does a man who hates going to the doctor say to that? Of course you know! I told her the plan was to go to the emergency in the morning. It was a very un-Christmas like silent night.

After the night of somber second thought, the morning of discovery came. For some reason, Sharon didn’t want me to drive to emerge on my own. My constant companion of 30 plus years had to come with me to find out what was going on. More evidence had arrived on Tuesday morning. Weakness on my left side made walking slow, and my back uncomfortable. But I was still able to walk myself across the parking lot into the emerg. There was no rush, no hustle, no real reaction to me describing my symptoms. Maybe it was because I didn’t show any traditional symptoms strongly enough. In looking back on it, maybe I should have put on my best hypochondriac.

Things from this point took on the hallmark of my life from that point on. Slow motion. I waited for the CAT scan, I waited for the doctor, I waited for any kind of information. All the while, my speech became more difficult, and my left side was falling asleep. Finally the doctor met with us to do some final confirmation tests to make sure that I had had a stroke. At that point though, he was calling it a TIA or ministroke. That almost makes it sound cute, like a box of Kellogs ministrokes that go good in a bowl for breakfast. But it was a hidden monster inside my head that was chomping through precious real estate. At least the doc gave me a blood pressure pill and sent Sharon and I to the waiting room once again. There was a CAT scan in there somewhere as well. I’m sure of it. They had to confirm that there was damage. No one needed to convince me anymore. I could feel the strength draining from my arm and leg on the left side. From there, it became my own personal version of a surreal and twisted Stanley Kubrick movie.

The Beginning Of Things

Finally! The parking lot. I had made it all 5 kilometers back. And although I felt like I had just gone on a substantial hike, everything was feeling pretty good! A man can convince himself of almost anything that doesn’t include picking up after himself. In the moment, I had come to my very own personal conclusion that everything was alright and in fact I would be able to handle the upcoming hiking trip. No problem!

The task of driving myself, my son, and the new kid back home started without a hitch. Well, other than the fact that I had sweat so hard in my shirt and even though it was fresh out of the laundry, I smelled like a bag of rotten onions, so I was focused on doing everything with my arms down as close to my side as possible. Every time I would raise them a little, my eyes would start watering from the fumes comin’ out of my pits. It’s not very often I have pits that smell so bad that they could gag a maggot.

Thinking back, although I’m freaked out when I think of it now, my fine motor skills were starting to be affected. As I was trying to drive with my arms down to avoid what I thought would be a small personal embarrassment, I noted that my steering was choppy…jerky. It wasn’t Mario Andretti for sure. My motions were mostly normal, but there were signs that I can only see in retrospect. As we drove and during drop off of our passenger, I remember now that my voice seemed hoarse, and my words were choppy too. But the regular recognized signs of something else were totally absent. I was for all intents and purposes a walking time bomb. The slow slide down had started, but no one, not even I knew.

Once we got home, there was the regular chatter about our experiences of the day as our family dug in to one of our standard health food suppers (hot dogs). When your wife works at a bakery, there is always a chance to have the freshest of hot dog buns for putting some freshly smoked hot dogs into. They are so good! Other than the feeling I had which I keep describing as tired, I don’t remember any other issues. I do know that I showered and went to bed early. It’s the thing to do, after all…..when you’re tired. I had passed the window of opportunity to use  the new miracle clot busting drugs that can totally reverse the symptoms of stroke without the slightest clue that anything like that could have been happening. You already know what I blamed for anything that could have passed for a symptom. And I was looking forward to a good nights sleep to shake off the feeling.

Morning came. Sharon (my wife) had gone to work at the usual early hour and the boys had gotten up to go to school. I drove myself to my clients house to install some landscape lights. What else do you do on a work day? I climbed the ladder to work on the wiring and mounting of the lights on the house by the front door. It completely got past me when I was clumsier than usual. I honestly couldn’t make the connection at that point, and I’m not talking electrical connection. That happened. Seeing my clumsiness as an effect of a stroke is the connection that didn’t get made.

My client came over to where I was working, and as had been the case throughout the summer during the big landscaping job I had been involved in, he had questions for me. He asked, and the impact of what had been happening silently inside my skull came to light. I swear that I’ve never worked as hard on any Friday night (some runaway wine tasting shall we say) to make my words understandable. My words were slurred, even though I pulled out all stops with muscling my words into existence. I was slurring! Immediately my mind recognized what could be happening. If I would have had a mirror, I’m sure that I would have been the color of ash again, because the fear had cracked open and was dripping down on me like a broken carton of molasses.

As the fear oozed in and began to choke me, I switched it off in my mind and hastily made an exit plan. The phone rang, and I struggled through the call, with a demanding customer pushing me to act right away on the issues they wanted me to solve for them in that moment. Normally I would have seen that as business as usual with that customer, but in my crisis of that moment, I used placating words to push the issue off, and not be stressed by the demands. More questions from my customer, which I answered with as few words as possible. Pack up my gear. I had to go.

Knowing that there would be ongoing demands on me if this thing that was happening turned out to be something that would hinder work, I ran a couple errands after I had dropped the service van off at home. Some friends had asked me to take a look at a basement suite for their son to move into while going to school. I decided I couldn’t blow off my promise to do this for them. Thankfully, the vendors of the suite were a very gracious little old Italian couple. I’m sure my speech sounded like I was speaking with a strange accent. I knew I was slurring, but they seemed to understand what I was saying and it didn’t phase them. I even came away with fresh garden tomatoes and clusters of grapes. I walked through their garden while he talked about his batches of homemade wine.

While my mind raced to the realization of what the possible problem was, I was no longer tired. I had eyes as big as saucers. Scared like a cat dropped in a room full of rottweilers. I had no idea how this would turn out. Unaware of this at this time, I was further along than the erasing drugs could be used, but less than 24 hours. And no where near the bottom of the hole I was falling into.

I Get Knocked Down

For the first time in my adult life, I was disinterested in trail food! It always tastes like a chef poured their heart and soul into it when you eat it on the trail. But the lunch I packed for myself may as well have been chalk with a side of mould. I lost interest after the first bite, and rationalized any further attempts at eating with the perennial favorite, “I don’t need it anyways”. At least I was distracted from how exhausted I felt when it was suggested that someone in the group take out their campstove and light it. After the attempt didn’t go so well (I won’t say failed, because it really wasn’t a complete bomb), thoughts turned to the trail back to where we came.

I remember the thought process in my mind. I still had no idea the damage that was being done in my skull, with no outward signs whatsoever. Whenever I’ve been faced with any huge task and either didn’t actually have an option to get out of it or didn’t give myself that option, I’ve always done this. It’s like the slow winding up sound of a big engine droning to life. It’s like the calling to all corners of my mind and very being, saying “we shall never surrender!” In total Winston Churchill fashion. All the extra bits of personal fibre are roused from their slumber and called to action. I “mustered”. And it wasn’t so bad. Besides, there was no need to think anything was wrong. Like the Black Knight on the bridge in Monty Pythons Holy Grail, I had had worse.

The hike back was quite straight forward. In fact, I was proud of myself for having less trouble with the downhill grade than my chaperone partner. He had suffered an injury a few years back and needed to be cautious on his feet. His devastating physical injury was one of those very noticeable from the outside injuries. It took a long time for him to heal, and involved major surgical work. He had stumbled on a previous hike, so I understood why he was being cautious. Still, I would have beat him back to the parking lot if it would have been a race. By now, it seemed like I had gotten my wind back, and I was even finding an old familiar pace. Nothing was wrong except that I was out of shape, and that made me very tired.

The Outtrip To Die For

There was no way I was going to let my out of shape old body hold me back from going on this camping expedition!

Our boys were in grade 11, and a part of their schools heritage is a camping trip for the grade 12 students into the backcountry of our national park system. Although the trip is affectionately called the “Lake ‘O’ trip, meaning Lake O’Hara, close to Lake Louise, Alberta, the truth is that with around 140 students participating there is no way that they could flood just one small area of the national park. So there are groups of 8 students with 2 chaperones in many different areas.

The area I was to be chaperone was on the “Ball Pass” route which went up to Egypt lake. Stunning scenery…once in a lifetime chance to spend with at least one of my sons. The other was put in a different group, and that was okay. There are plenty of amazing hikes in the Rockies. Since we had been given maps and information about our routes, I knew that our first day would be a tough slug, climbing almost a kilometer vertical over 12 kms of trail. I was not in shape, but I had been out hiking with small amounts of weight in my camera pack, as much as I could find time and muster the will for. I wanted to prepare. And in fact, the chaperones were responsible for “practice hikes” to discover issues, weed out non committed participants, and get to know the group so we could prepare for what may happen on the actual outtrip. We had hiked a small day hike as a group before, but on September the 11th, I found myself on what was to be my last outtrip with my group.

Filling backpacks, lunches and a last minute add on to our group took up my morning. Finally the drive to the rendezvous point brought us all together as a group and we set out for a hike to go to the peak at about halfway on our trail up Okanagan Mountain. The hike was similar to what we would be encountering on the first day of our trip, so this was a really good sample trail to pick. As expected, the group of kids took off like a shot. The boys seemed like they had to prove how well they could handle the physical exertion of the hike; the girls trailed after them with resolve not to let any boys show them up. The 2 of us chaperones were the fallbacks. Slow and steady wins the race. And for the most part, I was the very tail end. Admittedly, most of that tailing was because of how out of shape I was, but there was a part of me that has always liked the vantage point of the last on the trail. Besides, if anyone would see a cougar, it would be the one at the tail end as the cougar jumps on your back and bites your head. I’ve always loved wildlife sightings.

Our plan was to walk until noon. We had left at 10 o’clock from the parking lot, and lunch seemed like a good break for us at the top of the trail. As we came to the top, where we knew we were going to stop, I lagged even further behind. An overwhelming feeling of exhaustion came over me. It was like a wet, cold thousand pound blanket. After years of determination to push through as much as I could and never give up, I found the strength to walk the last few hundred yards where the group had perched on a rock outcropping to enjoy their lunch. I dropped my backpack onto the ground, looked for a smooth place to sit and let gravity pull me into a resting place. I felt as spent as ash, and maybe that was my color, but no one commented or noticed. That whole lunch break, I had no idea of the damage that had begun to happen inside my skull, damage that I wouldn’t discover for some time to come. Tired was the only thing I felt. So very tired.