The things that can happen to one!

A date with a pacemaker leaves Anne Abayasekara recalling an old prediction, Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

There was this grand-uncle of ours who had a reputation as an accurate reader of palms. We young ones would beg of him, “Uncle Sonny, please look at my palm and tell me what you see.”
One day he did take a look at my outstretched hand and the first thing he said was, “You will have seven children.” “You’re mad!” I exploded indignantly: “I’ll never let that happen.” Unmoved, he said, “You asked me to read your palm and I’m telling you what I see there.

Do you want me to go on?” I nodded. “You will cross the seas many times.” I beamed approvingly – this was more like it. “You will also go under the surgeon’s knife many times.” “What?” I asked in disbelief once again. “I’m sorry, but you asked me.” I walked away angrily from him. And then I forgot all about it. At least, until I found myself with seven children several years after the prediction. By this time, I had also started on my journeys across the oceans and felt pretty pleased.
The thought that nemesis might be lurking round the corner, with that nasty third prediction also being fulfilled, was quickly suppressed if ever it crossed my mind.

Even when I went under the ether for the first time for a minor op at age 28, I didn’t let it bother me. Four years later, I again went into an operating theatre for minor surgery and I was still unperturbed. Even a major abdominal operation that became necessary a few years on, didn’t ring any alarm bells. I took it in my stride, my surgeon was pleased with me – and so was I! I had one cataract operation followed, six years later, by the second.

Then in 2004, minor surgery again to remedy a Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, but under an anaesthetic and involving an overnight stay in hospital.

Only when it became necessary to have a knee-replacement operation at age 80, did I recall that dire third prediction of Uncle Sonny’s with some unease. Anyway, that too passed without too much pain or discomfort and although I used a walking-stick, life resumed its normal happy course.
I flattered myself that I had now circumvented the perils and pitfalls of surgery and it was unlikely that I would have to see the inside of an operating theatre again. And then, two months before my 85th birthday, in February of this year I discovered a lump in my left breast.

But I don’t need to bore you with that story, since I related it in full in this very paper earlier in the year (“The Lump and I”).

Okay – the dreaded “C” word didn’t terrify me as much as it might have done if it had happened to me when I was a few decades younger. I didn’t feel traumatized by the lack of a breast and really didn’t feel diminished in any way. That’s it! That had to be the final bit of surgery, surely? So, once more, I went merrily on my way.

A dear friend from Brisbane, Australia, came to visit me in August and I was seated talking with her and with another friend when, without warning, the world went dark for an instant and came back to normal again, without either of my friends realizing that anything untoward had occurred.

I persuaded myself it was a momentary aberration that wouldn’t happen again. However, the next day, August 20th, I had that sudden infinitesimal blackout before I rose from bed. I cautiously wore my housecoat and walked to the dining room and had my morning cup of coffee. Then it happened again – just for an instant, as if an electric light went off for a second and then came on again.
Then these episodes began to occur with alarming frequency and when I fell backwards and got a big bump on my head – nothing worse, thankfully, - I was whisked off to a doctor by my daughter and son-in-law.

The long and the short of it was that I found myself in the ICU of a private hospital, needing to undergo a full investigation into the possible cause of this sudden disturbing disruption of the even tenor of my days. So I had ECGs, Echocardiogram, Doppler, chest X-rays etc., none of which cleared the mystery.

Finally, the Holter test which necessitated my wearing a contraption of wires and discs fitted on to my upper front region and which I was required to keep on for 24 hours, during which period any changes in my heart-beat etc. would be recorded. Since no “blackout” occurred at all during the 24 hours in which I wore the ‘Holter Monitor’, I presumed that nothing had shown up on that device. I was mistaken. When I went back to my cardiologist with the results of the Holter monitor, a (61-page document of what to me were hieroglyphics), the doc perused it quickly and turned to me with a grave expression. “You need to have a pacemaker installed at once,” he said. “For the time being, we’ll fit you with a temporary pacemaker and tomorrow we’ll instal a permanent one.” If I got it right, there was some irregularity in my heart beat that momentarily cut off the blood supply to my brain and it was necessary to rectify this quickly.

Then the ICU nurses went expertly into action to prepare me for the procedure of having the temporary gadget fitted. Goodness me! Such shaving, scrubbing and washing of every part of my anatomy.

An antiseptic was applied to my chest and abdomen. I now had to wait a couple of hours fasting, until the Catheterisation Laboratory (Cath Lab), was free. In my ignorance I thought catheters had to do with passing urine!

Catheters can, apparently, be inserted into other parts of the body, in this case, presumably, my heart. Now that was a long and tedious process.

I knew that all the action was visible on a computer monitor because my cardiologist kept asking his team to watch the screen. An incision was made in my right groin and the catheter was inserted into it and gently guided along the right path by the doctor’s hand, with an occasional “Ouch!” from me and a quick “Sorry!” from him. Then, to my dismay, I heard him say he couldn’t proceed because he had come up against a block of some kind.

After making one or two more attempts, he said he would try my left leg. So there we went again and once more there was a repetition of the same, an obstruction at some point. “It may be due to your Scoliosis,” pronounced the medico. (I looked up `scoliosis’ in the dictionary later and it means “lateral curvature of the spine.”) So that was that.

The only alternative was to go for the neck. Another incision, on the right of my neck and thankfully, after what seemed ages to me, the temporary pacemaker was in place. I had entered the Cath Lab (on a stretcher, of course), at 9.30 a.m. and emerged at 12.30 and my anxious daughter and s-i-l who waited outside were vastly relieved to see me.

It was then that I suffered an indignity which infuriated me. Once I was back on my narrow bed in the ICU, I found myself lying flat with my legs apart and my thighs being firmly pressed down by two men, and no sign of a female nurse.

Presumably, the pressure applied on my thighs by these unwelcome hands was to prevent bleeding. I felt furious, but impotent. They departed only after they fixed a thick dressing on each thigh. Then the bed rails were put in place and I was told I had to stay flat on my back for SIX hours. This was real penance.

Oh the blessed relief when, at 9.30 p.m., I was told I could now turn any way I wished! The next morning, Sunday 22nd August, I had to submit again to the whole works of meticulous scrubbing and cleaning and was once again wheeled into the Cath Lab where, this time round, a very pleasant cardiac-surgeon who had seen me early in the morning and explained what he was about to do, awaited me with his team.

I was given a local anaesthetic somewhere below my left shoulder and a green cloth was placed lightly over my face to obscure the view, before Dr. S. went into action. Once again, the jugglery went on for what seemed an interminable length of time and I thought Dr. S. had forgotten my request to him to show me the device that would keep my heart beating according to regulations! In between, I could hear snatches of conversation between the surgeon and his assistant and nurses – a casual request for a scalpel made me wince!

Just when I thought it must all be done, Dr. S. asked the nurse to lift the cloth over my face so that I might have a glimpse of the pacemaker. It was a small, shining, silver disc which seemed to me not more than a little over an inch in diameter. Soon it was painlessly in place and sutures were put in by the young doctor who had assisted. The temporary pacemaker was removed. The only restriction was that I should not raise my left arm or move it around too much for 24 hours.

Two more days in hospital, happily in a room now, but with more ECGs being taken. Thankfully, I was allowed to come home on September 1st, with a large dressing over the left side of my chest, which I was cautioned not to wet. After five days, I had to go back for another ECG and then see the surgeon. He removed the stitches and a smaller dressing was put in place. I have to see him again in three days’ time.

So here I am, looking like a war veteran with scars all over my body. However, I greet each new day with a grateful heart, thanking God for modern technology and advanced surgical procedures, for the skill of doctors and the kindness of nurses and, most of all, for the Tender Loving Care and generous support lavished on me by my family and friends.

But I’d like to send a message to my grand-uncle up there that enough is enough!

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