Let me start by saying that Lee had a mild heart attack but is OK. As of this writing he is home and doing fine. I decided to write about the incident because I think it is really important to share what happened. As you probably know, Lee smokes, is a little overweight, and has a terrible family history of heart problems. His risk factors for a cardiac event were really high and the choices he made led directly to it happening. It’s OK if you judge us for that, hell I do, but please keep in mind that people have heart attacks all the time who don’t have these risk factors. I personally know four different people who have had heart attacks since we started full timing four years ago. Two of them never smoked and one of the four was a woman. This truly could happen to anyone and I think walking you through the incident may help someone if it happens to them. That is why I am sharing this story. I will ask in advance that you keep any post comments positive. I am quite aware that there are many things we could have done differently and I am going to talk about those as I go through it.
To set the stage, we have been working on a gate about 2 hours south of San Antonio. The gate has been pretty mellow and the day was just like any other day. Around 10am, Lee ate some lunch and almost immediately started to feel bad. He was nauseated, his left fingers were tingling, and he has sweat on his upper lip. At first he thought it was food poisoning and then maybe the flu. When he woke me up at 11am (my regular time) he really was feeling bad. When he mentioned the numbness I had him take a baby aspirin and go lay down. I’m not even sure why I did that. I have had baby aspirin in my RV since a friend of mine had a heart attack but we have never used it. I didn’t really think he was having heart issues at that point, but thought just in case it couldn’t hurt. Turns out that one baby aspirin could have saved his life, or at least mitigated the damage. The first thing the Squad personnel did was give him more baby aspirin.
He was laying down for less than 10 minutes when he said I needed to call 911 because his chest was hurting. In 30 years of marriage, Lee has never asked me to call an ambulance, and I did it immediately. The problem was the closest small town was 20 miles away and all they had was a rural health clinic. I briefly thought about driving him there instead of calling, but because we were working the gate and I wasn’t 100% sure where to go I just called. Again, this was a split moment decision and it turned out to be the right one. During this vehicles were continuing to go through the gate and I was running back and forth and waving them through. I stopped one and asked if anyone back in the oilfield had medical experience, and he said no and I should drive Lee into town.
That felt wrong to me and since at this point the chest pains were much worse, I wasn’t even sure I could get him in the truck. I sat there holding his hand watching him writhe in pain and was sure he was going to die. That feeling of helplessness will stay with me the rest of my life. I need to do something, so I called my brother (who is a doctor) and he immediately took my call. I asked him if there was anything else I could do and he said no, just baby aspirin, and felt I should wait for the squad. That calmed me down enough to call 911 back and they said they were less than 5 minutes away. The fire department did call me because they couldn’t find our gate and as I was outside trying to get my bearings a truck pulled in and said he had seen them down the road and immediately turned around and went and got them and led them to the gate. There were three vehicles that arrived and it was all less than 20 minutes from when I called, which is amazingly good response time considering how rural it is.
They used a portable EKG to verify he was having a heart attack and gave him some nitro which provided some relief. They also determined he needed flown to a hospital and had a helicopter en route. I cannot say enough about the professionalism and expertise of these young people. Our RV bedroom is very small but somehow they managed to fit four people in there and be extremely effective. The unusual circumstances didn’t bother them in the slightest and they had the situation well in hand. While they were with him I couldn’t fit in the room and took that opportunity to call my boss. He was on a conference call with all of the supervisors and they had someone there to cover before the squad left. This was important because it was a one lane gate and at this point it was completely blocked by the squad vehicles. The oil company and the gate guard company managed traffic somehow and made sure there wasn’t an accident.
I am not sure how this happened because I kept running into the bedroom to check on Lee. He was extremely upset. He kept saying he couldn’t leave me, that he had to take care of me, and I had to keep assuring him I would be OK. At one point when I was out of the room I heard him say he didn’t want to die and I almost lost it. My falling apart wasn’t going to help anything and I was ruthless with myself as I started putting a plan in place. I had the dog, I was 2 hours away from the hospital, and I couldn’t go with him on the helicopter regardless. The thought of him being alone until I got there was awful so I called my friend Cori. Cori was staying north of San Antonio and as soon as I told her what was happening she and Greg got into the car. They didn’t even have a location yet because I wasn’t sure what hospital but she brushed that aside and said she was on her way towards town. She said to meet them at the hospital and bring the dog and they would make sure Jack was taken care of. Since I had no idea how long I was going to be gone, I knew I couldn’t just leave him.
At this point they had Lee stable and were moving him into the ambulance and driving him down to the helicopter, which they had landed in a patch of the oilfield. Again the team they sent was amazing, because they figured out the logistics of where it would land very quickly. The only thing they didn’t know was which hospital he was going to so I had to sit and wait until the helicopter took off. That was the worst part and seemed to take forever. It was just the logistics of moving him into the copter, but it felt like forever and I was sure the worst had happened. During this period my sister called me and said all of the right things. She is a nurse, and reassured me I had done the right things and then asked if she could pray for me. I said I would appreciate that and she said if it was okay she wanted to say a prayer with me right then and there. More than anything else that act calmed me down and right after we finished the prayer the helicopter took off. I even had the presence of mind to take a picture of it taking off through the window, more out of amazement than anything else.
Although I was calm I really wasn’t thinking very clearly at this point. I felt like I was on autopilot and in retrospect what helped me was the fact that I had thought about this scenario in advance. Because we were in a remote location, I had thought through the basic logistics of a medical emergency. Turns out there were lots of details I didn’t take into account but at least the basics were covered. I spoke to the medical team as they were leaving and got the name of the hospital and then immediately texted Cori. She was able to get there right before the helicopter landed and was in the ER with Lee ten minutes after he arrived. That was a huge blessing and knowing she was there I was able to not be so frantic. I talked briefly to the relief supervisor and then packed some things for the dog and jumped in the truck. Here’s what I didn’t take. No coat for Lee (it was very cold) or any other clothes. Nothing for myself in case I wanted to spend the night. I grabbed the book he was reading and then left it on the table and he could really have used that. I was fixated on the dog and got his leash, bed, and dog food, but nothing for myself or Lee. I did make sure I had a medical card, my purse, Lee’s wallet, and some cash, all of which was important. The emergency squad got his insurance information before he even got on the helicopter, so I knew I would need that.
At this point I got in the truck and started driving. The hospital was on the north end of San Antonio and with traffic was roughly 2-1/2 hours away. I really focused on staying calm while I was driving and even drove through a McDonald’s to get a quick sandwich because I hadn’t eaten anything. It helped that Cori was with him and I knew he was stable. They were running tests and the worst thing I could do was get in an accident. We knew it couldn’t be that bad or they would have rushed him to surgery and what I learned later was his enzymes were very high indicating something was wrong, but the EKG results were inconclusive. I spent the time thinking and calling some people. I called Lee’s mom first and then I spoke to his Dad, and my Dad. My Mom is on a worldwide cruise and in Australia so I didn’t reach out to her, but I did follow up with my brother. I also called Bill and Bryan, two of Lee’s best friends. I tried to think of the people that absolutely needed to know, and when I was almost at the hospital I called Linda. She was on my mind and I knew she loved us and wanted to give her a call. Everyone was really great, but I want to give out a piece of advice here. Anyone you notify, you will need to get up to date throughout the event and that can get a little overwhelming. Texts were better and group texts were the most efficient, but some people I needed to speak to one on one. Just think about that when you start notifying people, because once they know and are involved you have to keep them up to date.
I intentionally didn’t call my girls because I wanted information before I did that, and I knew those were all individual phone calls. When I arrived at the hospital, Cori sent Greg out and he took the dog and got the truck parked in a safe spot. I went back to the ER and it took forever (it seemed) to get back to him. Three hours had gone by at this point and I desperately needed to see my husband. He was doing OK, but he was in some pain. Nowhere near the level of pain he was in during the event itself but it wasn’t going away and his enzymes weren’t going down. Not long after I got there the ER cardiologist came in and asked a series of detailed questions. Based on that conversation she determined she wanted him to have a catheter that evening and left to get it scheduled. Cori was amazing during all of this because she asked all the right questions. I come from a medical family, I know what to ask, but seeing him laying there my brain totally froze up. She took notes and made sure we had all kinds of information and never left my side.
One thing did occur to me after the cardiologist left and I realized this was the point where I was supposed to be my own financial advocate. Thankfully, we have insurance, but like many others it has a huge $7200 individual deductible. I told Cori I know I am supposed to bargain shop around at this point on procedures, and even decide whether or not to get it done, but in an emergency situation like this how the heck was I supposed to do that? I get how that works in an outpatient situation (in theory), but if these doctors weren’t in plan or the procedure wasn’t covered for some reason it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered other than Lee not being in pain anymore. We both knew the helicopter ride would have been expensive, Lee even said in the midst of the heart attack in the RV “we can’t afford that”, but what should I had done? Said, “No, don’t send the helicopter, we will drive the two and a half hours and see what happens.”? No way. Those thoughts briefly crossed my mind and were immediately set aside. I would deal with the bills when they came, and I was so thankful that despite the occasional urge to get rid of insurance and roll the dice we never did that. It is likely because we made so little last year they will forgive some of the debt, but even if they don’t there is a big difference between $10K and $100K. I’m guessing here, and we will see how it all plays out long term but the idea of my trying to manage the financial aspects in that moment was just ridiculous.
One other thing I want to mention here is I truly believe that at this point they could have released him. If he had downplayed his pain, if we all weren’t so engaged, or if we weren’t honest about his risk factors, they may have sent him home. The EKG wasn’t showing a heart attack and for some reason they didn’t see the EKG from the oilfield. The doctor made sure he got in though, and they kept a doctor late to do the procedure. We stayed with him in shifts, taking turns eating and during all of this Cori had her sister come and pick up both dogs. That was incredibly nice of Sherry because she drove an extra hour round trip to make that happen. I though at this point Cori and Greg might take off but they made it clear that wasn’t happening. They were absolutely amazing, and I can’t say enough how lucky we didn’t have to go through it alone. Without them I would have had to try and find a boarder for Jack and probably would have left the hospital to do that. Best case I would have been running outside periodically to check on him which would have been more pressure. Not to mention how much the moral support mattered and not feeling alone in a strange city with no family nearby.
It’s tense being in an emergency room and the fact that we didn’t know if they were going to do the procedure didn’t help. Lee did decide to call each of his daughters individually just in case something happened during the procedure. They were thankfully all available and they all handled it very well. They took the time to make sure I was OK as well, which I thought was incredibly sweet of them. Finally a couple of nurses came in and started his prep. They took him upstairs and put us in a waiting room and told me it would be about an hour. That wait was incredibly long, because we had no idea what they would find when they went in. At the hour and a half mark I was really starting to get jumpy when the doctor finally came out. Up until this point, every single person was nice and professional but this guy really rubbed me the wrong way. He acted as if he was annoyed he had to stay late to complete the procedure and explained that one very small artery was entirely blocked. He stated it was too small to stent or bypass so they used a balloon to open it, but he shrugged and said it may not last. Some other arteries were 40% blocked, but they don’t stent until a vessel is 75%. They were just going to treat it with medication and lifestyle changes. Finally he said, “He needs to stop smoking.” and wandered off.
At that point I was enraged. The procedure may have been routine for him but it certainly wasn’t for us, and only the fact that Cori and Greg were there with me kept me from going off. I went and called Lee’s Mom immediately to give her an update that he was OK and just as I was finishing the nurse came out. She was wonderful. she took us back to see him even though he was still in the operating room, and then showed us before and after pictures. Her explanation made sense and she was very caring and Lee was alert and largely pain free.
I found out later after talking to my Dad, who is also a doctor, that the heart often does a natural bypass in situations like this. Blood over time will flow to different areas, which probably happened in this case which minimized the damage to the heart. Without a stent there was no way of knowing if the plaque would continue to move and another event could have happened at any time. They actually kept Lee in the hospital for two days to observe him, which my Dad felt was a good thing, and administered medicine and monitored his enzymes while he was there.
We all waited until Lee was settled into his ICU room and made sure he got something to eat. He was starving, which I thought was a good sign and since it was late they fed him jello and turkey sandwiches. I offered to stay, but he said I didn’t need to, and Cori offered to get me a hotel room with points she had. At that point I had no clothes or toothbrush and just wanted to go home. Greg was coming down first thing in the morning to help me move the rig and I just wanted to go home. I made the very long drive home and ended up arriving at 1am. I talked briefly with one of the gate guard supervisors (four of them covered our gate in shifts until they could get a permanent replacement) and then started to clean the house. It was absolutely trashed and I couldn’t even start buttoning things up until I at least did the dishes and picked some things up. At 2am I went to sleep and set my alarm to get up at 8am to start the move process.
I’m going to stop this post here and I’ll talk more about what happened in the next post. Again, Lee, is doing well, and we are putting a plan in place for lifestyle changes that I will cover in more detail during the next post. I am incredibly grateful for all the love and support we have gotten from the people in our lives, and from strangers. Once again I will ask that you limit your post comments to items that are constructive and/or positive. It was difficult reliving this again to write this post, but I really felt that it was important to share. I also recommend that you read a post written by Les and Sue about their experience. He was very healthy, had regular exams, ate well, had excellent blood pressure, good cholesterol, and didn’t smoke and he had a major heart attack while living in his RV. When I was going through our experience, I remembered some of what she had written months before and I found it very helpful.
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