Life in the Real Desert: Pilgrim’s Progress

Author photo March 2013
Finishing my first cup of tea and ruminating over the past few days events has left me with an epiphany of sorts. Let me explain: Back in 2012 while I was in Basildon Hospital, in the UK, and recovering from the dual surgery that saved my life, I got a visit from a lovely lady who worked in the medical facility. She warned me that one day, it would all sink in about how close to death I had been. “It is usual for survivors to experience crushing depression,” she said.

Well, it is now over two and a half years since that fateful day; where my universe shrank down to a tiny space of unbelievable pain, and that depression has still not made an appearance. Certainly I do feel down sometimes, these happen at the oddest times as well. Yesterday, for example, had this new desert dweller becoming the recipient of not one, but several acts of kindness. Yet when arriving back home, I was caught up in a blue funk that lasted till sleep.

Most of that was from being overly tired. My only mechanical mode of transport was out of commision for a few days, requiring a back inner tube, so it was two days of attempting to patch said tube and one day of angrily marching a total of 3.5 miles only to realize that by the time I got to the store it would be closed. It was then a much slower trip home as the anger was spent and I was tired, after all the wasted adrenaline drained away.

That walk, although not too hot according to the thermometer, beat the hell out of me and for the next two days I hurt everywhere. Lesson learned: Do not storm off on a moderately hot day in a foul mood.

This pilgrim’s progress has been slow and not just to adjusting to life in the desert here in the southwestern state of Arizona. The reason for this slow acclimation to things since that August day where I should have died not once, but twice, came to me this morning after an odd dream in the wee hours just as the sun was peeping over the mountains in the east.

Sleeping fitfully, I moved between dozing and wakefulness, I thought, all night. As the sky began to light up, I was laying on my left side, half-awake and grumpily cursing the doves and their annoying nest noises; they stomp on the brittle twigs making a sound like people walking on gravel which is very disconcerting when half-asleep.

As the birds settled down and began to make their cooing noises, I felt the cover beside me move. Four little feet made their way to my back and a small warm body then lay carefully next to my upper back. I could “feel” a bushy tail move up near my neck and could “smell” a fusty fur smell. I instantly relaxed, although in the back of my head was the awareness that there are no animals in the place, and felt totally at peace as sleep reclaimed me.

That this was a dream became apparent later when I had an amusing thought that I could well have a wild skunk lying right on top of me and I turned to see what was snuggled against me. I found a rag doll in the shape of pointy nose elf-like creature with a sewn on striped cone hat. We conversed, as one does, with no words but in our heads.

I did actually wake up at that point and found that I was alone and pondered the doll thing that my mind had dredged up. It made no sense, after all why would a two-legged doll walk on all fours to get across my cover. It was a surreal moment and the realization that it was so brought on my epiphany.

Speaking to someone a few days ago, I mentioned the forecast of massive depression from the medical lady in the hospital and said that I was still waiting for that shoe to drop. My “light-bulb” moment this morning was that this will not occur. What has happened instead is a constant state of surrealness, if you will.

I left Basildon Hospital (the cardiac section) four days after one of the most invasive surgeries one can endure, the first surgery should have been so routine that it was boring, and everything, it seems stems from that time. My second surgery took a long time, during which I was “technically dead.”

A machine kept my blood pumping and my lungs breathing while the doc’s stopped my heart to perform the aortic dissection and bypass, this after they whipped a vein out of my right leg, and the estimated time I was “dead” was around eight or more hours. Now, if you had asked me after I recovered from this procedure how long I was “out” or how long I was “dead” no answer would have been available. A lot of remembering had to happen before I could recall and this only happened after I asked my daughter, who had to live through all this.

The point being that from the moment I was moved from ICU to the recovery ward, everything has seemed surreal. You could even argue that my waking up during the first surgery, when they discovered that my aortic arch had been perforated and most of my aorta was split open, and managing to talk around the tube in my throat started the whole thing. This also is the reason, I believe, for the “gravel” in my voice since the surgery.

Sidenote: To the family who were staying in Basildon Hospital with their own medical emergency, “Thank you for the kindness you showed my child who had to deal with all this on her own.”

The epiphany this morning has been that I have never really gotten over the surreal stage of this whole heart attack malarkey. My brain seems to be operating in a sort of fugue state of semi-awareness with small moments of clarity. At times I can almost react to things normally but there is still that feeling of unreality flitting around the edges.

I find myself unable to function properly in social settings. The actor in me puts on a good show, but basic things like exchanging phone numbers while interacting with another person who has just asked for mine go by the wayside. Just trying to remember to thank someone for a good deed or act of kindness is also fraught with inactivity or at least poor responses.

Anyone who has known me well can tell you that I have a radar that can tell when a person is on the level or not to be trusted almost seconds after meeting them. That ability seems to have been left on the operating table along with some of my common sense. How else can I explain being taken in by a con artist so completely that I moved in with the bugger, and his wife, and only woke up after it seemed I was about to be made a patsy? (And upon learning that he was a “wanted” felon.)

There are a long list of things that all point to my mind still existing in this surreal state. A place where my subconscious is attempting to get round surviving back in 2012 and despite my resolute marching forward to this new beat of the drum, I am struggling. Not desperately, but just enough that my thinking is affected.

Everything happens for a reason. I firmly believe this, just as I believe that my “pilgrim’s progress” here in the desert is needed at the point in time. A step back from busy society and a chance for me to get my soldiers back in step. This quiet time is needed to help me get back on an even keel, or at least recognize that moving back to the foreign country I left so long ago is either my new “normality” or just another turn of the screw in my current directionless journey.

Time will tell and at least now I can realize where my “head is at.” Even if it took a two-legged dream doll to point me in the right direction.

19 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Remembering a Year Ago Today

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My body remembered, even if I did not. While setting up my calendar for appointments next week, I forgot to set the calendar back that resides on the front of my fridge. Being naturally scatty sometimes (Sometimes? I hear you cry. Only sometimes?) I glanced at it on Thursday and decided that today, Friday, was the 27th.

I decided to do yet another blog post on my 30 August experience on the actual day. I even had a title for it. Anatomy of a Heart Attack. Catchy, no?

But even though my conscious mind had made the anniversary date two days in the future, my body did not. I actually called it an early-ish night. Stopping at around 03:30 in the morning. I finished up some projects that I was “multi-tasking,” or attempting to. I shut everything down; locked the downstairs windows; double-checked the doors and took myself, the iPad and the fan upstairs.

After checking all the windows upstairs, I then went to bed.

I was tired.  I had walked over five miles yesterday at varying paces and had written five articles. Feeling both body and brain tired, I started that pleasant drifting off feeling that usually preempts my entry into the land of Nod.

Suddenly, at around 05;45,  my stomach decided to swell and cramp with a combination of indigestion and gas. The end result was up and down to the bathroom the remainder of the early hours of the morning. I finally gave up trying to sleep and went downstairs. Turning on both laptops, I then went to make a coffee and start writing.

After the coffee had been sorted, I sat in front of my MacBookPro and signed in. The first thing I noticed was the date: 30 August 2013.

I suddenly got very tired and shut everything down again. I left the coffee and went back upstairs. It was 07:45, the exact time that I woke up last year on the 30th and went downstairs to wait for the electric chap to come fit a new meter.

I lay back down and drifted off to sleep around 08:30, waking up about one-ish. Fully awake now I went back down to make another coffee, make breakfast and remember last August when I almost died.

Twice.

As I said before, I’d set my alarm for 07:45. The electric guy was coming around between eight and a twelve to hook up the meter. I went downstairs in a pair of sweat pants and put the kettle on for a cup of coffee. While it boiled, I turned on my old laptop to check my emails and my blog. A few days previously I’d been Freshly Pressed and I wanted to see how many views my post was getting and to answer any comments.

Once I made my coffee, I lit my first cigarette of the day and stood in the back garden drinking coffee and smoking. I then went inside and sat in front of the laptop. As I reached for the keyboard I experienced pain in both of my hands. The best way to describe the pain is to liken it to how your hands, and arms, feel after doing a particularly heavy session with weights. Like when you’ve really crunched out a set of arm curls.

Your arm muscles and hands feel like they are going to explode. If you look at them after the set, they look bigger because they’re full of blood. My hands felt like that, but worse. It was incredibly painful. I sat looking at my hands as I opened and closed them. Making a fist and then releasing, like that would help the pain go away.

I stood up and walked out to the back garden and lit another cigarette.  While I pondered this pain, I finished my coffee and the second smoke and went inside to boil the kettle again. I had an earache in both ears and thought that I might be getting a sinus infection.

Second cup of coffee made and back down in front of the laptop. Reaching again for the keyboard  the pain returned, this time not just in my hands but in my forearms as well. The pain has cranked up a few notches. I went back out to the  garden, coffee in hands that felt like they were going to explode, along with my forearms. Lighting my third cigarette. I decided to “wait out” the pain.

In my mind, the entire time,  I was  thinking I had done something like pinched a nerve or  somehow strained muscles  and that this would  pass.

I finished my second coffee and checked my cell phone, I’d gotten a text from the electric guy. While going to make my third and final coffee, the pain came back. This time it is in both arms and spreading towards my chest and back.

I stand there in agony and wonder, “what the hell is going on?” I’d had my arteries and heart checked out a year or so before and everything was “normal.” So I’m thinking, “It cannot be my heart…So what the hell is it?” The earache has returned and I’m having trouble thinking.

I then realise that I must be having a heart attack, or something very close to it. The pain was now so bad that I cannot stand. I crawled up the stairs to my daughter’s bedroom and knock the door open with my forehead.

She sits up in bed, eyes wide and startled.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m, I think I’m having a heart attack. Call 999 and tell them to get here.”

She grabs her cell phone and calls. She talks to them calmly, only a slight tremor surfacing in her voice. She turns to me and asks what are your symptoms? I try to explain and offer to take the phone.

The emergency operator, says no, sit down somewhere and wait for the ambulance.

I went into my room and got dressed in my summer trousers, after putting on underwear as I had not been wearing any, (my grandmother would have been proud as they were a freshly cleaned pair)  and put on socks, shoes, and a shirt. I got my wallet and went back down the stairs by sliding my ass down over each step till I got to the bottom.

I unlocked the front door and went to  sit on an armchair.

45-0605b-ambulance

The ambulance arrived and the two paramedics came in. By that time, I was sitting   on the floor as I felt like I could pass out. I was not that lucky. The pain was increasing steadily and I have never felt pain like it. Sweat was pouring out of me like some kind of comedy skit with freshets of the stuff spurting out of my pores.

One of the paramedics asked me if I could sit in the chair. Out of breath I answered no. He stopped, confused, “Does it hurt you to sit in the chair””

I replied, “No, but it’s a lot further to the floor from the chair if I pass out.”

He nodded and  started trying to attach the sticky pads to me to get an EKG or EEG or whatever they call it. I was sweating so profusely that the pads would not stick. They could not get a reading.

Everything became a blur. My world had shrunk to just me and the pain and the sweat. I concentrated on trying to make the pain go away. At no time did I not believe that they wouldn’t  have something in their ambulance that would give me relief.

They did not.

On the way to the local hospital, they give me shots of morphine and “spritz” nitro-glycerine under my tongue. Nothing helps. My daughter watches me with eyes the size of Texas.

We get to the hospital with sirens wailing, that to me, sound very far away. We get there and I’m carried quickly into the emergency room. A lady doctor comes over and after what seems like hours, the sweat drys sufficiently to get the pads to stick. I’m asked to “breathe normally.” I want to laugh at that, but I’m in too much pain to do more than snort.

They get their reading and ask if I’d rather go to Papworth Hospital at Cambridge, an hour and a half away, or Basildon. I don’t care either way and the decision comes down to lack of bed spaces at Cambridge; so it’s off to Basildon.

I find out later that the drive should have taken over an hour and twenty minutes. We got there in 45 minutes. Meg, my daughter, told me that they drove through the thunderstorm from hell. Sirens screaming as they swerved around traffic. On the way, they gave me some sort of gas.

It was magic. Unlike the morphine or the nitro-glycerine, this stuff makes the pain bearable. So bearable that I am able to breathe somewhat normally and the sweat begins to dry up. When we arrive at the hospital, I ask everyone if I can have some more of that magic gas.

The rest you already know. How close I was to dying. The emergency stents and then stopping everything bringing me back to consciousness and the emergency aortic dissection aka bi-pass.

My sleepless night in the wee hours of the day I had my heart attack a year ago, because of  my “stomach ailment” must have been some sort of “carry-over” from that event. Even though, in my mind, I thought Sunday was the 30th.

Funny how the mind and the body remember things that we’ve chosen to forget, or have forgotten to remember. I hold my hand over my heart (pun intended) and promise that this is the last time, for a very long time, that I’ll be writing about my “life changing” experience.

I decided to chronicle the day’s events as I remembered them. I will point out that I  did relate it in time slots. The time I got up and the time I got the text are imprinted in my memory. I do know that by the time we got to the first local hospital, it was almost four  hours, if not  more, from when I first started having my symptoms.  I also believe that I’ve left a cigarette out…Like I said, it was sort of a blur.

I’ve written the account in both past and present tenses. It seemed appropriate to help get the confusion across that I felt on the day.  I would also like to point out that, at no time did I think of the possibility of dying.  It never entered my head. There were no moments of praying for God, or whoever, to make it all stop or to “spare” me. I just “knew” that the doctors would help me.

And they did.

Michael SmithPhoto on 30-08-2013 at 13.50 #2

United Kingdom

30 August 2013

70,000 and Rising! Thanks!

70,000

This will be a short post. (The idiot that is my sense of humour, wanted to stop the post there!) A lot has happened to me since I started blogging on WordPress last year. I’ll do a very short recap for those of you who came late to the party.

April last year, I started posting on WordPress. I’d been posting things on Blogger and Tumblr but wasn’t too happy with the amount of views I was getting. I switched to WP and the first article I posted (a review of Stake Land) garnered over 2000 views. I knew then I’d made the right choice.

While I’ve never matched that phenomenal view count on any of my other posts, I’ve reached a lot more people and gotten an amazing amount of folks following my little old blog.

2012 was the year of injury and pain. I got injured at work in February after two lads decided to have a fight at lunch time (it was only with extreme self-control that I did not say “feeding time”) and when I attempted to pull the attacker away from his “attackee” and the officer holding him, we all fell to the ground, with moi on the bottom. Cue two more days of intense agony as I shuffled around work and responded to a couple of alarm bells.

Finally, after a 12 hour shift, I drug myself to the doc’s and found I had nerve damage in my lower back. Enter six months of time off work with me hobbling around like a 100 year-old with arthritis.

I then just started back to work and took couple of weeks off for a steroidal shot (two actually) at the end of the first week. Big mistake. The shots hurt worse than the nerve damage and roughly six days after the shot on 30 August, 2012 I had my heart attack. I’ve written all about it in a previous post.

I also forgot to mention that in between the steroidal shots and the heart attack, I got Freshly Pressed! Despite Tyson’s “gut feeling” that the heart attack was brought on by my getting FP’d, I don’t think they are life threatening to everyone!

It’s now going on 11 months since that “life changing” experience (that resulted in two “emergency surgeries” that kicked my arse) and in that short time, a lot of things have changed.

I no longer work in a job where getting assaulted was a daily risk, but I do miss a lot of the folks who I worked with and still feel like a Prison Officer despite my ill-health retirement.  I now work for a Las Vegas newspaper The Las Vegas Guardian Express as the Deputy Managing Editor and Senior Entertainment Editor.

And I’ve just finished a project working in front of the camera for the first time in years.

Thank you all

I’ve also made some wonderful friends through the WordPress blogging community. Natasha “Tash” Harmer over at Films and Things; Meera Daji over at Meera Daji Film reviews & other interesting posts; Katie-marie Holbrookboosh Penniman Jr over at Katie-Marie Lynch (Film Punk), Fiona Lockwood over at Fionalockwoodyr1; Marilyn Armstrong over at Serendipity; Tyson Carter over at Head In A Vice; and so many others that if I mentioned them all, this post would be, if not novel length, at least novella length.

I want to thank all you folks that I’ve mentioned and whom I haven’t the room or the time to mention. Misty Layne over CinemaSchminema also deserves a special mention, it was through her I got to write (for all too short a time) for Rogue Cinema, thanks mate, your support has been terrific.

But to Marilyn and her wonderful “other-half” Garry Armstrong – who has met and interviewed the world’s rich and famous, among others, I want to really thank as they’ve both been there for inspiration when my days felt pretty damn bleak.

Tash, Meera, Katie, Fiona, I love you all, you helped an old actor discover he could still do it. (I’ve just re-read that and thought of you guys’ references to another type of short film!) And any time you young ladies need an actor for anything, do not hesitate to call me, I owe you.

Now I must stop this long, and somewhat self-serving, post and get busy. I had many days of “too much time on my hands” and I’ve swung to the other end of the pendulum and now seem to have more things to do than time. I prefer the latter. So in closing, I’ll just say that I’m grateful and pleased and a bit shocked that I’ve gotten as far as I have in the blogging world.

I’ll also leave a link to my employing newspaper, The Guardian Express Las Vegas just in case you’d like to see all the articles that I write for them.

I raise my metaphorical glass to you all, “Here’s to another 70,000 views and posts!” Oh, and I lied about the length of the post…sorry!

My Near Death Experience Six Months On

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It’s been just over six months since my close brush with the grim reaper in the form of a heart attack. I have referred to it as a life changing event and it was. It’s amazing how quickly your life can change so much in such an incredibly short span of time. If I owned a crystal ball, I don’t think even then I’d have believed what was in store for me.

In case you missed the event (or the blog-post I wrote about it) I’ll do a recap of what transpired last year. Don’t worry it won’t take long.

February of last year, the thirteenth to be exact, I was injured at work. I sustained nerve damage in my lower back and was off work just under six months. I had just started back to work (in a return-to-work scheme that allowed me to gradually increase my hours) and had taken two weeks leave to get a steroidal injection in my lower back.

On the 24th of August I had my injections (they gave me two) and on the 27th I got Freshly Pressed. On the 30th, I had a heart attack. I actually had the “attack” for over five hours. I was rushed to one Hospital Emergency Room where they verified that, yes indeed, I was having a heart attack. The ambulance then rushed me to another Hospital for surgery.

While having stents put in, the surgeons realised that my aorta was shot and had to stop mid-surgery, bring me back to full consciousness to tell me that they were going to have to perform an emergency aortic dissection. My daughter was told (and so was I but I do not remember it) that things were going to be very “dicey” and that I might not make it, but, if I did not have it I was going to die.

I almost did anyway.

After my surgeries, I recovered incredibly fast. I was out of the Hospital after only four days. I then started the very slow process of recovery that I am still in, truth be told. Despite my quick recovery, the second surgery kicked my ass. On top of that, the surgeons tore my aorta in the arch close to the heart and it is so damaged that they can’t repair it.

Well, to be more accurate, they could try, but they think that it would cause more damage than what they could fix.

In the preceding time period between the heart attack and now, I’ve been ill-health retired from my Prison Officer job and I still haven’t been assessed for rehabilitation because the folks who do the test are concerned that they could kill me, or at the very least, mess my aorta up considerably and hasten the damage along considerably.

With the absence of proper rehabilitation, I’ve been walking. When I first got out of the hospital, I could literally take about 10 to 15 steps and then I had to stop. Not so much because of my heart, but because of the combination of my surgery and my back which was still playing up. As I got better, the rest stops got further and further apart. I can now walk a fairly good distance without stopping and at quite a snappy pace.

I received my pension “payout” and my last ever pay check from the Prison Service. I also got my first pension payment.

I will admit to being a bit lost during these last six months. The payout, the pay check and the pension payment helped me find my way. At least, it made the whole thing real. I was bordering on depression and the reality of the money and my avenues of options suddenly became clear.

I didn't really need a signpost to tell me I was lost.
I didn’t really need a signpost to tell me I was lost.

Before I left the Hospital, they told me that I would have a moment where the enormity of what happened to me would sink in. My too close for comfort brush with death would, in essence, overwhelm me. I was urged to seek help when that pivotal “epiphany” occurred.

It still hasn’t happened. I have come close I think. One night as I lay in bed just starting to doze off, I could hear and feel my heart beating. Everything stopped for a split-second and then as I became aware of the silence my heart started pounding 90 beats to the bar. My chest muscles loosened and tightened in an instant. I had a flash of a thought about almost dying and for that split second I was scared.

But as quickly as all that happened (in the blink of an eye, really) it was over. Everything went back to what passes for normal every night now as I approach sleep. I lay there and feel my heart thudding against my chest and think, ever so briefly, I hope it doesn’t stop just yet.

It is only now, just over six months after the event, that I have realised my own mortality fully. Before, even in the ambulance on the way to the Hospitals, I never thought once of dying. If I could think at all (and it was difficult to think of anything but the pain) I thought of getting to the Hospital and the doctors fixing me up and sending me home. Death did not feel close or even real.

Even after the doctors told me how close it really was and how lucky I was to pull through, it didn’t seem real.

It does now.

And as I said in a previous post about second chances, I acknowledge that Ive been given a second chance at living. God or whoever (if anyone) is in charge of things, has given me another go on the merry-go-round.

So while I decide which carousel horse to ride, I’ll make sure that I try like hell to appreciate this little bit of longevity that’s been passed my way. I think that I’ve had my “epiphany” that they warned me about or at least I hope I have. I don’t want to waste any more time pondering the why’s and where-for’s of my continued existence.

I just hope that the second time that I come face-to-face with my own mortality, I can do it as calmly as I did the first time.

Death
Death (Photo credit: tanakawho)

My First “Real” Thanksgiving in Years

I have not celebrated Thanksgiving for years. Mainly because  I live in England and despite my American heritage, since I don’t live state side, I tend to forget about “turkey day.”

When I was growing up Thanksgiving meant great food and a double celebration. We would go and eat ourselves silly at one grandparents house and then go to the other grandparent‘s house and eat some more.

Each year our family got together with various aunts and uncles and cousins and ate, argued, laughed and lounged for a few hours. But I can honestly say, apart from when I was really young and impressionable, I was never really “thankful” for anything.

This year, though, is different. I have a lot to be thankful for. Even though I’m not living state side, I think I might just drag out some fake meat product and try my hand at making sweet potato pie.

I feel like I’ve been given a huge second chance. Not many people get one of those and I don’t want to waste mine. I just need to figure out how to make the most of it.

I won’t lie, it’s going to take me a while to figure this out. I am still in shock after receiving the news from my surgeon about just how close I really came to meeting the “Big Guy.” And that the resultant surgery that left a tear in my aortic arch is going to put me into a “disabled” category whether I like it or not.

Once I’m done reeling from this information, and the implications of a sudden high surge of blood pressure possibly killing me now or later, I’ll figure out why I was spared.

As you can no doubt tell from my above meanderings, I am still a little freaked out by the whole “tear in my aorta” thing and how my life has changed in the blink of an eye. I have gone from a guy who ran to answer alarm bells and struggled with lads fighting each other or attempting to assault a fellow member of staff to a guy who can barely walk to the Tesco Metro and back.

It is all a little overwhelming and despite all the wonderful folks who’ve been so supportive since this has happened I am still having a bit of a hard time adjusting. It will be worse when I actually start my “return to work” schedule in December. It will be incredibly difficult to watch my friends and colleagues come in and collect their work keys, keys that I can’t use and will probably never get to use again.

The idea of being re-rolled into a job that pays less (a lot less) has also got me freaked out. I won’t, to the best of my knowledge anyway, be eligible for medical retirement. It is notoriously hard to get and you are not allowed to work anywhere else if they decide you are eligible.

But.

Apart from all the “freaking out” and worry about my future employment and my possible financial heartache, I am thankful. Because if I wasn’t here, I would not be able to do or feel all the things that I am currently feeling.

Hell, I’m so thankful  that I might just opt for sacrificing a real bird for Thanksgiving instead of  munching on a meat substitute.

So I’ll close by wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving aka Turkey Day. Enjoy it and appreciate it, because you just never know what’s around that next corner. Be thankful that you don’t.