Wednesday, November 13, 2013


If I was a superstitious person I would look at the 13 in 2013 and nod my head meaningfully and say, "Yep, 13, what would one expect during a year blighted by such a numeral? a win on the Lottery? not likely " ......Well.......... I will return to the theme of the lottery later.

On the 21st of February 2013 I had a heart attack at my place of work. I was rushed in an Ambulance to Whangarei Base Hospital. When I arrived, there were 17 hospital emergency staff waiting - I know this because my workmate Stacey came in the ambulance with me, comforted me and counted them.
I owe my life to this team of people who with other teams and individuals worked quickly and skillfully.

After being stabilised and with various tubes and other medical paraphernalia poking out of me I was flown by emergency helicopter about 100 kilometers to Auckland Hospital. Along with the doctor and nurses I was accompanied by my ashen faced wife Christine who overcame her fears
("me in a helicopter, not bloody likely"). I was thankful she was there with me as I lapsed between, vomiting, convulsing and unconsciousness.

Helicoptering is a noisy, bumpy and vibrating way to travel but we soon arrived and landed on the roof of the Auckland Hospital where another team of people were waiting for me. I learned that being close to death enables one to jump the queue and not wait around. Two 'stents' were placed skillfully into the arteries around my heart which had a pretty miraculous effect on me. Unblocking arteries is a bit like unblocking drains - what needs to flow, flows again and life recovers its equilibrium.

There is a 'Golden 90 minutes' between a heart attack event and getting the blood flowing again. Longer than this amount of time and serious heart damage or death can occur. Time and great surgical skill was on my side, thank God.

Between the stent operation and June of this year I had a variety of tests which showed that I was a candidate for 'By Pass' surgery and on the 21st of June I had a quadruple heart by pass. I was discharged from hospital on the 26th of June (my birthday) and sent home to Whangarei to recuperate.

The mechanics of by pass surgery are well developed and a large team of people do what is now a very common operation. Simply put, the sternum is cut, the rib cage opened up, the heart is stopped by injection and the patient is kept alive by a heart lung machine. When the blocked arteries have been bypassed by lengths of vein taken from one of the legs the heart is restarted by injection, the chest cavity close and the sternum tied together with stainless steel wire. This operation takes about 4 - 5 hours. Deaths are rare at about 3%, complications 5 to 10%. I was one of the lucky ones.

It is now 11 months since the heart attack and 5 months since the by pass operation and I am doing well. Much of the 'doing well' part I put down not only to the skills of the surgeon and his team, but also to the huge amount of post operative care I received both in the hospital and when I came home. One week in hospital after such a serious operation wasn't really long enough and I was sent home for the same reason everyone is - the hospital needed the bed as they continued their conveyor belt of heart operations.

The first week home was pretty tough. I felt dazed, I wanted to sleep in a fetal position all the time but couldn't because of the pain from the cut sternum. I spent over 3 months sleeping on my back. I found it difficult getting from my bed to the shower or to anywhere in the house. Small things like dressing myself were difficult.

Sometimes there are experiences where you can draw a circle around it and say, "well that's what happened" - not with this one. I couldn't see the borders of it let alone draw a circumference. It was all too large, too overwhelming and too painful - During the first week at home I found myself often cowering and crying in the shower like a wounded animal.

But help was at hand from my wife Christine and without putting too fine a point on it, I know that if I had not had her there to  care for me I would most likely have died. She deserves my heart felt thank you for the care and support that she gave me. All of this has not been easy for her either.

Someone once said that imminent death focuses the mind. I remember two emotions. The first was, 'This is bloody serious and I might die very soon'. The second was at the height of the pain and distress when I thought, ' I want this to stop right now, I have had enough, why the hell don't they just give me an anesthetic and put me out to all this'. These thoughts are reactive and understandable and totally non reflective.

The reflection comes quite a bit later when the border of the overwhelming event shrinks in the mind to a manageable size. There is much I have reflected on and could write about (a large book in fact) and some of that would be about how lucky I have been. Not long after the operation I talked to an ambulance driver who told me that less than 40% of people who have a heart attack such as mine actually make it alive to hospital, most of them die. Many who do make it have so much heart damage that their physical ability is impaired for the rest of their life.

Later while I was thinking about what the ambulance driver had said I saw on television the advertisement for New Zealands Lotto. There was a very big emotional reaction from me while watching this as I realised that I had in fact won a bigger kind of lotto and I declared then and there that I would never buy a lotto ticket again, that I had won first prize - my life.

With the odds stacked well against me, I am alive.

So as the Pohutakawas start to bloom and a warm sailing wind starts to call to me here in Northland, has it been an Annus Horribilis? or an Annus Mirabilis? ...... It is hard to say. All of life is good, both the good and the bad. Both these aspects provide learning, awakenings, resolutions, insight, endings, beginnings, thankfulness, pain, tears, suffering..... life itself. So.....

.....The truth is that both these notions belong together in a paradoxical non duality - If both the good and the bad, the light and the shadow are held together and honoured fully, they form part of a whole. Heaven and Hell belong together, each contrasts and defines the other. Opposites belong together, Yin and Yang. This is the Jungian depth psychological world view and one that I have lived during 2013 - a point of view which will do for now.


Katherine said...

As you can tell, I'm moving backwards through your posts.
I've just got here. And I'm very ... moved. Life/ death, as you say, are just sides of the same coin...

I came close to leaving this life almost exactly three years before you. Not the same way - much less dramatic, less fearfully, less painfully. I simply got a blood infection and was drifting away at home when someone saw that I needed to get to a hospital....
It's a good life, the one we have both been given 'back'. Three cheers!

And a very happy summer to you Alden.

Alden Smith said...

I am glad you are ok. Yes it IS a good life and to say every day is a bonus is a cliche but nevertheless very true. The responsibility is to live it to the full. And yes "Three Cheers" I agree with that> :>)

Ben said...

Well written terrifying story, that appears to be reality.
Congratulations with your first prize.

Alden Smith said...

Thank you Ben. It was a big prize to win :>)

Life is very good and I have a lot of things to do, ocean miles to sail, places to visit and friends to see before I leave.

Christian May said...

Hi Alden. What a thought provoking and moving piece. I did wonder about the radio silence on your blog for the past 12 months as I am a regular visitor and always enjoy your writing. So glad to hear that you're on the mend. Best wishes from me to you and your family.

Alden Smith said...

Hi Christian, Thank you for your comment, and how nice to think that you read my blog - I don't get a lot of comments but that's ok, I use it more these days as a kind of diary.

Yes it has been a bit of a tough year, but it is now 6 months since the operation, I am doing well and looking forward to the holidays. Drop me line either here or on my email and tell me all your news : > )