Feeling a strong tug on the leash of life

Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop

It wasn’t my idea of the best start on the new year. Here I was, feeling on edge on the edge of the examining table in the Rockingham Memorial Hospital Emergency Room. At 4:30 a.m. With a stabbing pain in the right area of my chest. My blood pressure reading an elevated 154/90.

Something was dreadfully wrong, but I didn’t know what. All I knew is, the throbbing pain that started several days earlier as a slight irritation had gotten progressively worse, to the point that my restless, intermittent sleep evolved into a nightmarish vision of the light at the end of the tunnel being the headlight of an oncoming runaway locomotive.

At 4 a.m., I roused wife Anna and told her we’d better go to the hospital. Dazed and confused, she had no idea what I was talking about, because I hadn’t told her about the mysterious ailment. I’m so stoic, so stupid.

The streets of Harrisonburg seem eerie in the wee hours of the morning. The traffic lights are unsynchronized as usual, a scattering of vehicles on the roadway. What are other people doing out at 4:15 a.m.? I wonder.

The attending nurse checks my vital signs, acts surprised when I tell her my symptoms, and no, I’m not on any medications except for a cholesterol reducer, no allergies to speak of, and I’ve never before experienced anything like this.

I wait with Anna in a small examining room, then wait some more. It’s fairly quiet, except for a maintenance worker guiding a floor cleaner up and down the hallway. Then, a nurse enters, asks questions and takes my vital signs. ER physician Harold Jenkins (he’s wearing a hospital ID) comes in, asks questions, takes notes and tells me I’ll undergo several tests. In quick succession, by different persons, I had X-rays taken, an EKG, and blood drawn twice. A monitor automatically checked my blood pressure and pulse every 15 minutes.

In another section of the room, behind drawn curtains, another patient is being examined. From the muffled conversation, it sounds like the women is having heart failure.

The nurse gave me a Percocet tablet – I’d never taken one before – and I soon drifted into a semi-conscious state. Ahh, this is nice …

Anna leaves to get a newspaper and some coffee and calls her assistant principal to get a substitute teacher. I am grateful for the way she stands by her man.

More time passes. I’m amazed how someone like myself who finds it difficult to wait for anything soon felt a sense of security in being where I am at the moment, attended to by caring hospital staff. It didn’t help the situation that I was scheduled to have two teeth – a wisdom tooth and a molar – removed later this same morning. Instead of sitting in the dentist’s chair looking at a computer screen – a preview of coming extractions – I envisioned myself in a hospital room about to be rolled into emergency surgery.

I kept thinking of Richard Pfmatter, a member of my church and the same age as me who recently died of a sudden, massive heart attack. The mind can really run amok when wrestling with the unknown.

The doctor returns, apologizes for taking so long with the test results, a sheet of figures attached to a clipboard. “We wanted to rule out the life-threatening possibilities,” he told me. “You’re not having a heart attack or a blood clot. Your chest pain has been diagnosed as pleuritis (pleurisy), an inflammation of the surface of the lung tissue. It’s usually caused by a virus.”

A feeling of relief swept through me. Dr. Jenkins wrote a prescription for pain medicine to be combined with over-the-counter ibuprofen. By the time I was discharged, my blood pressure was 128/70, about where it should be.

I went home, showered and shaved, and was able to keep my dentist appointment. The extractions went better than expected, but I wouldn’t want to endure that procedure without a nerve block.

By noon, I was in my office, wading through scores of e-mails and awaiting projects after having been out on our Christmas-New Year’s break. I was amazed how quickly the medication kicked in, and that night, I slept soundly until the alarm broke through my reverie.

The next day, over lunch hour, I stopped at Klines Dairy Bar in town, intending to only buy a couple gift certificates as door prizes for our next Leather and Lace dance. I pulled into a parking space and behold, the special flavor was raspberry, my favorite. A good omen? I couldn’t help myself. I bought a dip of raspberry in a waffle cone, sat at a table, wrapped my tongue around the confectionery delight, basked in the unseasonably warm January sun … and celebrated life.

Lord, it feels so good just to be alive, licking and kicking.

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