When I said that our Peru trip was going to be unforgettable and an adventure of a lifetime, I had no idea the extent to which those words would describe our experience.
(Flying over Yosemite. The last picture I took before all hell broke loose.)
To explain, I have to begin at the end of our journey. After an amazing, intense, and life-changing 8 days in Peru, we were contentedly making our way back home to Vancouver, unaware of just how crazy the trip was about to become. On the final leg of the trip, the flight from LA to Vancouver, Len suddenly turned to me and said he wasn’t feeling well; he had a sharp pain in his left shoulder and was having trouble breathing.
After calling the flight attendant over, things started happening in both rapid speed and slow motion at the same time. Rapid because suddenly Len was put on oxygen, and two doctors who happened to be on the plane were attending to him. The slow motion part was how I felt. It was as though I was having an out-of-body experience. I can’t even put into words the thoughts and emotions within me at the time. Bewilderment, fear, disbelief. And underneath it all, a sense of panic that I was desperately trying to suppress.
The doctors, after asking where we’d travelled, originally thought that Len was experiencing altitude sickness from all the changes in altitude we’d experienced in a short amount of time. And thankfully, Len started feeling a bit better after they put him on oxygen. But after monitoring his heart, I saw the two doctors look at each other and say “I think it’s the heart.” I felt fear grip my own heart. And then all we could do was wait. And pray. And pray I did, desperatedly, and intensely, with every fibre of my being. I squeezed Len’s hand and told him that he was going to be fine.
Looking back now, I can kind of laugh about the surreal situation. It was just so dramatic! They kept announcing all through the flight that there was a medical emergency, and asked if there were any medical doctors on board. One of the two doctors was actually a psychiatrist who’d had some training in internal medicine. He and the other doctor joked about how they could be a package deal, with one analyzing Len’s childhood while they were at it. I would have laughed if I’d had the mental faculties to comprehend it at the time. Then when we landed, the pilot asked everyone to stay in their seats while the paramedic team came on board and tended to Len. We then got escorted off the plane first, with Len in a wheelchair, while the entire plane looked on as we made our way down the aisle.
I felt a little breath of relief when we landed and the paramedics took over. It seemed to me that no matter what happened next, at least we were on solid ground, with relative quick access to hospitals, instead of being trapped on an airplane, at 34000 feet in the air!
My little breath of relief was short-lived, however. I was soon informed by the paramedics that Len’s ECG showed abnormality, and that meant it was possible he was having a heart attack.
A what?? The disbelief and panic rose sharply.
Before I had a chance to process anything, Len was speeding away to VGH in an ambulance, and I was following in another ambulance. I realized that I had better call my mom, who was expecting my call to come pick us up from the airport. I took some deep breaths, and fervently hoped that my voice wouldn’t shake as I spoke. My poor mother–she answered the phone with a cheerful, “so, you’re back, are you?”, and then I had to break it to her that we were headed for the hospital. I said nothing to her at the time about heart attack, afraid that she’d panic and I knew she was home alone. I just said that Len was feeling ill, and that they were taking him to the hospital to check it out, and not to worry. She totally saw through my words, however, and ended up reassuring me not to panic or worry too much. I promised her I’d call again once we got to the hospital.
That ambulance ride was hard. A million thoughts and emotions raced through me, and I was busy stamping out all the worst case scenarios that kept popping up in my mind. The paramedic was very nice though, and talked to me a little to help keep me distracted from my own thoughts. He also explained what would most likely happen once Len got to the hospital, and the tests that they would probably do. He also explained to me that “there’s no such thing as a heart attack”, in that there are many reasons why the heart would suddenly function abnormally, and that the usual reasons like blockages, are not the only explanations for the condition. But that when they see those abnormalities, they have to respond as though it was the worst case scenario, and then go from there. This was somewhat comforting to me, but I still silently willed the ambulance to go faster.
As we pulled into the ER, the thought did run through my mind that I was getting to know that particular ER way too well, as that was where we’d taken my mom a number of times in the past half a year. I was a thankful girl when I finally got to see Len again, and he seemed to be doing ok, not any different than when I had last seen him at the airport.
And then the breath of relief came back when the ER doctors indicated that they didn’t think it was a heart attack due to blockages, but rather, they suspected a viral infection that was causing inflammation to the heart. The doctors explained that they were taking Len’s case more cautiously than they otherwise might have done due to his Kawasaki’s disease as a child, but that they thought he would be fine.
They then did a catheterization procedure, where they stick a catheter in the thigh, up through the femoral artery, and up all around the heart to check for any blockages. The paramedic I rode with had explained all this to me, and described it as something “incredible, like straight out of Star Trek!” When he said that, I almost smiled, thinking how Len would get quite a kick out of that. Anyway, they found no blockages, and remarked that it was such a pleasure for them to see such a healthy heart, as they usually get older patients with all kinds of heart conditions. Len was the youngest person by far in the cardiac unit, where he ended up staying for a day before they released him.
It wasn’t until about an hour or two later, when Len was back to his joking, cheerful self, and had ordered me to go home and rest, that I was able to fully take a deep breath and let the waves of intense thankfulness and relief break over me. As I waited outside the ER for my mom to come pick me up, I suddenly felt so tired. We had already been travelling for over 24 hours when the whole medical emergency hit (it’s a freakin’ long way from Peru!), and I hadn’t eaten anything for many hours by that point. I was a thankful girl when my mom pulled up!
So turns out it was pericarditis that Len had. Basically, it was a viral (or bacterial, we’re still not sure and will probably never be) infection that made its way to his heart, causing the pericardal sac around the heart to be inflamed. This, in turn, was squeezing upon the heart muscles, making it difficult and painful for him to breathe. This produces symptoms that are similar to a “heart attack”.
Len is now on the mend, still on aspirin, but feeling ok for the most part. He’s still more easily tired, but has been back to work for two weeks now, and keeping up fine with everything. He will follow up with the cardiologist in a few weeks’ time, but the doctor had indicated at the time that it was unlikely that there would be any permanent damage to the heart. We don’t know how exactly this happened, but the doctors are relating the infection to the gastrointestinal issues Len had while on the trip.
As for the impact this has had on us, I think we’re still discovering the full extent of that, and probably will for awhile to come. In the first few days after Len came home from the hospital, I was an emotional wreck. My emotions were so on edge, and the slightest thing would set me off kilter. I’ve since calmed down, but it was definitely a wake-up call, for both of us. It’s true that this could have happened to anyone, for any number of infinite reasons, and it’s not due to any error on our part that brought this about. However, it has caused us to examine our lives and habits more closely, seeing ways we could improve our well-being. There are definitely things we could change and improve to strengthen our bodies and immune systems. I know we could be the healthiest person alive and this might still have happened, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t swing the court in our favour by doing everything in our power to be the healthiest we can be.
Some of these thoughts had already begun to take shape in my mind all through the trip in Peru. Being unplugged (for the most part) from my usual world and away from the usual daily stresses, I had a lot of time to think and reflect. I came to some very important realizations and epiphanies, especially while on the Inca Trail, long before all this craziness happened. The trail was more than a kick in the butt in that respect, and was a big part of the life-changing events of this trip.
But this post has been insanely long already (is anyone still with me?), and the bed is calling my name. In the next Peru post, I will return to chronological order, and share with you the experiences and photos from the first part of our trip–the polar opposite cities of Lima and Cuzco!
Here’s another sneak preview: