When Your Head Explodes -- For Real
Credit: Stock Photo
March 25, 2019

My head exploded on the same day Luke Perry had a fatal stroke, at the exact moment that Rep. Elijah Cummings was making his closing comments after Michael Cohen’s testimony before the Oversight committee. I don’t mean that in an entirely figurative way. One minute, I was typing and clipping and monitoring the hearing, and the next I felt like I had left my body and was looking down on myself. Thinking perhaps there was a carbon monoxide problem, I ran upstairs, opened the windows, and turned to check on Violet who was asleep on the bed.

I opened my mouth to say something to her, and nothing came out. At least, nothing intelligible. Voice and panic rising, I shouted at the top of my lungs, “WHY CAN’T I SPEAK?” I’m told the neighbors heard that shout but it was not easy to understand. All I knew is that I was in a panic. I went to call 911 and misdialed, getting a “call cannot be completed” recording. That finished me. I tapped my son’s number, he called 911 from a friend’s phone, and the paramedics were on the way.

When they arrived, my blood pressure was 212/something (I don’t recall the bottom number). Until that moment, I didn’t know I even had high blood pressure. All I knew is that I was clearly in the middle of something bad, so they put me on the gurney, loaded me into the ambulance and took me to the local Emergency room.

What happened: My brain was being hit with “buckshot” from plaque or other debris shot into my brain through my left carotid artery, leaving tiny areas of damage behind. I didn’t know it then, but an MRI would reveal that I had an ischemic stroke affecting the left side of my brain. It didn’t affect my ability to think or reason, but my speech was slurry, like I had been on a very long bender, my right side had a slight weakness, and I was terrified. I would find out later that there was also some damage to my fine motor skills; specifically, typing and texting. I am re-learning my touch typing skills as I write, and it’s one reason I’ve been so silent on the site.

Ironically, I had resolved to live as healthy as possible in the era of Trump. I quit smoking in April 2017, was walking 4 miles a day at a pace of 4 miles an hour, cut out red meat for the most part and was focused on getting to my ideal weight. I made one mistake: I figured I could do all of these things without an annual physical. I was Superwoman, quitting smoking cold turkey, riding my bike, being well. I didn’t have time for all that poking and prodding, blood draws, and the rest. I didn’t take any medications and I liked it like that.

As a result, my blood pressure was allowed to climb and climb and climb, undiagnosed, until my head exploded. Moral of the story: Get those damn physicals. Don’t ignore them. Just do it.

After six days in the hospital, doctors finally narrowed the cause to a carotid artery stenosis, a blockage likely caused by years of smoking and (also undiagnosed) high cholesterol. Last Monday, an excellent vascular surgeon performed surgery to place a stent in my carotid artery, opening it up and getting rid of the debris still left in that artery. The description of the procedure is terrifying, but it went without a hitch and is successful. I'm told I may have come out of the anesthetic growling "Fck Trump" since he really is to blame for every bad thing. Going forward, I just have a lovely zipper on my neck now, but it’s a small price to pay to have the artery open and working properly.

In the aftermath, I am wearing a continuous heart monitor for the next 2 weeks to rule out atrial fibrillation as a cause. The doctors doubt it, but recommend it out of an abundance of caution.

I will likely be on medication for high blood pressure and blood thinners for the rest of my life. The side effects are a challenge but in the end it’s a small price to pay. Thursday I start physical and speech therapy to fix the remaining speech and fine motor skills issues, which are improving every day but still linger when I’m tired or talking too fast. I’m seeing a neurologist and cardiologist for follow-ups, and an ophthalmologist to evaluate vision changes and fix my glasses prescription.

The way I have been treated is the way everyone’s health care should be handled. From the moment I arrived at the ER through my surgery last week, Kaiser has been in charge of my healthcare needs. Not their bottom line: my needs. If I needed surgery, I got surgery. No fighting, no initial denials. If I needed a test, I got a test. If I needed a specialist, I got a specialist. This is how medicine should work: Doctors healing, health professionals and support staff healing, while the patient does not worry.

In all of my conversations with the health professionals treating me over the past 4 weeks, I realized that one of the reasons for my superior treatment is mainly because Kaiser really knows how to deliver health care, but also because California in particular has higher standards for health care professionals. Nurses, for example, cannot be responsible for more than 4 patients in a hospital. That means they’re available, less stressed, more attuned to their patients’ needs. Several of the nurses caring for me told me they moved here from other states where the standards are far lower in order to feel like they were able to do their best work. That suggests there should be national standards for health care delivery rather than letting some states race to the bottom and cheap it up. (Yes, the states they left were red states. Deep red states.)

Health care needs to be that way for everyone, not just lucky ones with good insurance in blue states. At this point, I don’t care how we get there but we have to get there. Soon.

I am here writing today because I had amazing care, immediate care, and have been bathed in the love of my family. My son’s quick thinking to call 911 from a friend’s phone while keeping me on the line, my other kids' bringing food and love, the amazing doctors and professionals who participated in my diagnosis and treatment, and my husband’s diligence with asking all the hard questions while holding my hand — it all adds up to a great prognosis.

Each and every day, it gives me life to be part of one of the greatest teams and friends on the planet — John Amato, Fran, Heather, Nicole Belle, Susie Madrak, Aliza, Red Painter, capper and Scarce — all of whom stepped up and sacrificed for the last month to fill the gaps I left with my sudden absence.

And you, dear readers. You. Thank you for being here, for supporting the site and for coming back. I will have much more to say in the future about health care and what we need to do but for now, I’m just so glad to still be here and on the mend.

Now it's time to take our country back -- for all the people. I'm here for the fight.

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