"The Ritz Carlton with Drugs," AKA "That is Not Compatible with Life."

[This post was originally written by Bill on April 10, 2021 and was edited /re-published by Laura on July 6, 2021. Scroll down for Laura's additions to the story.]

It's quarter 'til 11:00... On my fourth day of another stay at the "Ritz-Carlton with drugs," aka Novant Presbyterian hospital. 

This time I had a chauffeured ride with four burly dudes dressed in blue. They carried me out of my home and onto a stretcher and rolled me into their limousine with lights and sirens. We hauled ass to the hospital.

The reason for the trip was that when they arrived, my blood oxygen level initially was in the 60s. When we got to the hospital, it was 43%. It rose to maybe 47, 50 low 50s etc. 

At one point before they arrived, I had three nasal cannulas shoved up my nose. One from a big oxygen concentrator, another from a tank, and yet another from a small portable oxygen concentrator I had just purchased. That didn't help. I have a picture of me trying to get two of them stuck up my nose but the picture is too disturbing to share.

Fuck it. There it is. 

That's me about as close to death as a guy can be.

I got to the emergency room and really don't remember all the details of what went down. I do remember them telling me that they're going to put me on this machine called a BiPAP and then it would be difficult for me to get used to. They took off the traditional oxygen and put on the BiPAP machine which forced oxygen into my lungs. It was like a gust of air. I instantly felt relief and knew, "Okay, I'm going to make it." Up until that point I really thought it was over. Especially back home before the EMTs showed up.

The EMTs And the BiPAP machine saved my life. A blood oxygen level of 43 cannot sustain life. 

This being my fourth day at the Ritz-Carlton with drugs, I've had various doctors come and tell me stuff that I forget and then they leave. But a cardiologist just came in and mentioned that my whole heart is not pumping properly. apparently when you have a heart attack maybe only a half of your heart is affected, but with this he thinks the chemo has degraded my entire heart.

That makes sense. I've really had trouble just doing things that are normal to everybody like walking across the room. I get winded just walking to my bedroom or getting into bed. And I've had these episodes like I had Wednesday morning (3:00 a.m.) Where I am waking up completely out of breath as though I've just run a mile at full speed panting for dear life The last two times I was able to get it under control and calm myself down. But this time, this last time there was no way I could do that.

I would have croaked if it wasn't for the EMTs and the BiPAP.

[The following is Laura's story of this event in Bill's and our lives.]

I'm not usually a great sleeper. I toss and turn, waking up every time I roll over. I might get to sleep pretty well, but lord help me if a cat jumps on the bed in the middle of the night, or I have to get up to use the bathroom, or if Nugget starts (loudly) lapping water just downstairs. When any of those things happen, I might be awake for an hour or sometimes more, wrangling around in my head, trying to get back to some semblance of sleep until morning.

But on the night Bill's burly dudes dressed in blue paid us a visit, I happened to be in a rare stint of sound-asleepness. 

As always, my phone was charging by the bed. Normally, because of the aforementioned sleep issues, I always left the sound off to avoid being waken by notifications dinging in. In those days, though, Bill's health was so precarious, and to assuage his inclination to feel like a burden, I'd told him over and over, "Don't worry...call me ANY. TIME. I don't care if it's 3:00 in the morning. CALL. I'll come right out!" 

All of which meant I had to remember to turn my ringer ON before turning out the lights. 

And dammit if this wasn't one of the one nights (actually, the last night) I forgot to do that.

So, what to make of the fact that after falling into deep sleep, I found myself jerked out of sleep, suddenly wide awake, sitting straight up in bed? And that I happened to turn my head to the right and see two things: the time was 3:47 a.m., and Bill was calling. No sound, no ringer. I "just happened to wake up", and sit up, and look at my phone, in that particular moment.

"What's going on?"

"Help! Help!

"Help" was Bill's code word. Since his diagnosis, he never, ever "cried wolf" or used the word jokingly or lightly. It was our code RED word, actually.

I flew down the stairs, out the door, across the yard, and into his RV. My heart was already pounding, but the sight and situation I saw flung my nervous system into near-panic. 

His face was white, ragged, and his eyes huge. He had two oxygen-delivering cannulas shoved up his nose with two oxygen-delivering devices on full blast. My brain couldn't process what was going on as he barked orders.

"Get the big tank! Get the key to it! Turn it on! Hurry! I need more oxygen!"

He was directing me to the largest oxygen tank he had as he grabbed a third cannula and tried to make room for it in his nostrils. My hands were shaking as I tried and tried to do what he was asking, but nothing was working, and he was losing it.  Finally, somehow, my rational brain clicked into gear. 

"Bill! We have to call 911!

He agreed immediately. I called, grateful for the calm, steady, kind voice on the other end of the line. Within a minute, it seemed, we knew the ambulance was on its way. That didn't do anything to change the critical, panicked situation we were in, but in the back of my mind, it was the tiniest relief, as I knew more capable help was coming. 

One of the worst parts was that between calling and the burly dudes arriving, I had to leave Bill to sprint to the house, wake Robert, make sure the dogs were secure in the house, and then meet the EMTs to explain the situation. If I could have torn myself in two at that moment, I would have in an instant. Knowing he was panicking and alone (again) was torture for this little sister/ caregiver. 

As all EMTs are trained to do, the dudes walked slowly from the fire truck and ambulance to the RV. I was grateful for their calming presence but desperate for them to hurry and get to Bill! What if he died because they didn't run? 

But they got there, and he was still with us. Given their burliness, there wasn't room for me once they went in and took over, so I sat outside, trying to get my own breath and gather my scattered wits. 

A respiratory therapist told us the next day that Bill did exactly the right thing, using the multiple cannulas and trying to force as much oxygen into his system as he could. When he left the house, his oxygen was in the 60s, and whatever oxygen-delivering device they had in the ambulance must not have produced the same amount or pressure as his cobbled-together cannula trick, because, indeed, when they rushed him in to the ER, his oxygen was at 43%. Later that day, when I talked with Dr. Ogbata (his amazing, wonderful oncologist) and told her that, she gasped and exclaimed, "That is not compatible with life!"

After the ambulance took off and the firemen went back to their fire house, I called our sister, Liz. By this time it was only a few minutes after 4:00 a.m. Turns out, Liz was lying in her bed, 3.5 hours away, wide awake for no reason. (?!?!) She answered on the first ring. 

Some of you know Liz had been in her own long care-giving journey with our mom, and over the previous few years, the two of us had fallen into a steady habit of communicating. We gave one another emotional support, thought through decisions and situations together, conferred on next steps, and kept one another in our mutual loops. One of the things we'd both had to learn over and over was how to care for ourselves along the way, and in this moment, I remember asking a little desperately, "Do you think it's okay for me to make a cup of coffee before going to the hospital?" 

Most of me wanted to throw myself into the car and speed down highway 16, looking for the ambulance driving away from me with Bill inside. But a small, wiser voice was saying, "Hey, it's going to be a while until you can get in there anyway. Breathe. Drink some water. Take care of yourself first, then pack a little bag and head out." Liz's reassuring voice echoed that rational path, and it was invaluable in that moment.

Travel mug in hand, I got to the ER about 45 minutes after they got Bill there. His shirt was shredded and there was trash on the floor from the doctors and nurses ripping open various things they needed to get him stable. It felt like walking onto the set of a TV show where they'd just filmed someone almost dying, and the fast-paced, urgent, do-whatever-it-takes things that happen, like ripping open shirts and flinging trash onto the floor, had just occurred.

My brain couldn't quite process that that had just happened to our Bill. 

That he had just whistled by the graveyard. 

That if I hadn't "just happened to wake up" at exactly the moment he was trying to call (for the 6th or 7th time), he might not be there at all. 

I do believe that in extreme moments, we can reach one another. Not on purpose, and probably not consciously, but things like that have happened enough that I think there's something to it. Maybe it's a pulse of energy from one person's system or spirit or psyche to another's. Maybe we really are all connected. Some might say it was God. Others might say one of our beloveds who'd already passed on woke me up. Who knows? 

All I know is that whatever it was, it worked. And we couldn't explain it. And thank you, thank you, thank you. We couldn't have known then that Bill had less than two months left to live, but one thing I know for sure: if you'd asked whether we wanted that "extra" time for him, the answer would have been a resounding YES. 


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