I wasn’t sure where Diane would stay when she arrived in Tampa. Some things were necessarily left to figure out as we came to them. While we had no family in Tampa, my great ex-wife who lives in Sarasota offered Diane the use of her nearly new vehicle for the entire time Diane was in Florida. My son also lives in Sarasota, about 1.5 hours away but had no extra space for Diane to stay and it was a bit too far for a daily commute.
Apparently, the story of how I flew from Mexico and took a shuttle/taxi to the hospital emergency room, in the midst of a heart attack, made the rounds. Various nurses and technicians would come into my room and ask if it was true. One such nurse asked if my wife was coming to be with me for my bypass surgery and wondered if she had a place to stay. I said yes, Diane would be with me in a day or two but had no place to stay. In less than an hour, a hospital Social Worker met with me and offered the use of the Fisher House for Diane.
I learned that Fisher Houses are absolutely gorgeous, large homes with private suites and private baths like a fine hotel. They have a large communal, fully stocked kitchen and dining room along with living rooms for visiting. The Fisher House organization is a non-profit charity that builds these very large, beautiful homes on or very near VA Hospital campuses across the country and overseas so that family members of hospitalized soldiers and veterans, who live some distance away from the hospital, can stay nearby. There is NO CHARGE for their services.
Wow!!! Diane would be staying in the equivalent of a 4-star hotel, only yards away from the hospital and there would be no charge. We were completely overwhelmed; first by the use of my ex’s car and then by the offer of Fisher House! Diane was able to spend hours with me each day in the Critical Care Unit (where I spent about one week) and could then go back to her room and rest in complete comfort, fix a meal in the kitchen if she wished and take a hot shower. I didn’t have to worry about her only steps away!
The kindness and love extended to both Diane and me throughout this ordeal has been very humbling. We had recently made some new friends here in Cancun; Canadians who were taking about 4 months off before returning to their lodge management positions on a wilderness lake. They fed and supported Diane while I was in Florida and when Diane needed to come to Florida, they took Carmine for the 3 weeks until we returned to Cancun. They took care of our house, cleaned out our refrigerator and made sure we had some wonderful homemade food waiting for us when we returned. They even picked us up at the airport.
My entire medical team was spectacular but as all nurses know, it is the nursing staff in a hospital that provides the primary care for patients. Yes, I saw many doctors each day but only briefly on rounds as the nurses and residents (The VA Hospital in Tampa is a teaching hospital associated with the University of South Florida Medical School) advised them of my condition and test results. While the entire nursing staff was awesome, several nurses went far and beyond the expectation.
While in Intensive Care, the nurse to patient ratio was one to one. Each nurse only had one patient per shift. For twelve daylight hours, I would have one nurse whose portable station was positioned directly outside my door. The next nurse would work the twelve nighttime hours. I received the best possible care! Indeed, I felt pampered if that was possible! Both of my Intensive Care nurses were amazing! They were highly skilled and very compassionate, providing a level of care that tended, not only to my medical needs but also to my humanity.
Once out of Critical Care, I was “stepped down” to the 6th floor cardiac unit where I had begun. It was on that particular unit where I remained before and after my attempted stent procedure and while waiting to be scheduled for my bypass surgery. I was able to walk around as much as I wanted as my portable EKG transmitter would send wireless telemetry to the technicians and nurses who sat in a small room filled with computer monitors. I didn’t have excess energy and after a lap or two around the floor, I wanted to return to my chair. Nevertheless, I was able to visit with the nurses and learn a bit about their jobs and how they liked working for the VA system.
One very special nurse, who has subsequently become a friend to both Diane and me, brought me a plate of home-cooked food for the holidays. Wow, was it ever delicious! Several of the 6th floor nurses came to visit me in Intensive Care. I was a very lucky guy!
My discharge orders came a couple of days earlier than most expected. I’d like to think it was the extra walks I took, shoving my wheeled walker ahead of me, walking longer and farther than asked. Perhaps it was the extra effort I put into my breathing exercises to satisfy my demanding respiratory therapist. Several docs felt like the good shape I was in prior to surgery was a large contributor. Or maybe it was simply my body doing its own thing. In any case, one morning around 7 o’clock as the docs were making rounds, my primary surgeon asked if I was ready to go home. It was a rhetorical question as every morning I had greeted him by saying, “Get me outta’ here!”
Diane took the news differently than I expected. An early morning call from me to her room at Fisher House had to go through the hospital switchboard and sounded understandably ominous as she answered. Then, when she learned I was being discharged, she suddenly felt the entire weight of my care shift to her. Until that moment, she had complete confidence in a modern medical system with superior staff to keep me alive. Now, in her mind, it was up to her. She had a moderate freak out which lasted about half a day. She finally had to accept the fact that she was not…COULD NOT be responsible for my ongoing health. I was okay! I would need time to recuperate but I would be fine.
After discharge that afternoon, I had several follow up appointments for lab work, X-rays, doctor visits etc. over the next ten days. The hospital social worker, once again, made arrangements for us to stay in a beautiful place (again at no charge) while we tended to the scheduled appointments.
For our last 3 days in Florida before flying back to Cancun, we stayed in the beautiful lake home of a friend. They use this home only in the summer months although their adult children sometimes crash there. It was a peaceful, quiet place. We returned my ex’s car and caught a jet back to Cancun.
I had been gone a bit over one month and Diane had been gone for slightly over 3 weeks. Carmine, our beloved Chihuahua, gave us the most amazing greetings when we returned. I am not ashamed to say I love that little dog!
I think that’s about enough. Writing has always been my outlet and with all the emotions I’ve experienced over the past month, I now feel a bit guilty puking this entire experience out to you.
There is one final incident worth relating. I was on the cardiac unit on the 6th floor waiting for my surgery. Diane was in the room and it was, perhaps, 8 or 9 PM. We had said our farewells as I would be wheeled into the surgery suite very early the next morning. The surgery was antiicipated to take about 6 hours. I should be out of surgery by about 1 or 2, they said. Just as we were saying our goodbyes and Diane was fighting back tears, we heard a loud “thump” just outside our door accompanied by a woman’s wailing. A very large male patient who was scheduled for a heart procedure the next day had collapsed just outside my room. His wife was sobbing the words, “Wake up, Baby…Wake Up!”
Across the intercom came the words we’ve all heard on television. “Code Blue, 6 South. Code Blue, 6 South” The nursing staff had gathered ’round the patient. We could clearly hear their voices. “No Pulse…begin CPR” In less than one minute, an entire team of doctors and specialists swarmed around this patient, starting IV lines and injecting drugs directly into his heart. The level of activity and professionalism was amazing.
This was not the best thing for Diane to see hours before her husband was headed into open heart surgery. We returned to my room where we held onto eachother as the graphic scene played out only a few feet away. After some 20 minutes of intense life-saving efforts, the patient was loaded onto a rolling gurney and moved elsewhere, his wife still sobbing. We could see one of the doctors on top of the patient performing CPR while a nurse was bagging him, forcing air into his lungs.
I assured Diane that his situation was not and would not be my situation. We clung to eachother a minute more before Diane returned to Fisher House and a sleepless night. I subsequently learned that the patient did not recover.
I want to end where I began.
Those considering the life of an expat must consider how to deal with serious medical issues while abroad. Not only must you determine if your chosen country has quality care but you must determine if you will have ready access to that care and how it will be paid for. Being able to accurately communicate with your medical professionals is also crucial, particularly in critical care situations.
The Haley Veteran’s Hospital in Tampa is a regional poly-trauma center, one of perhaps 4-5 in the nation. This is where our young soldiers come after they have been terribly wounded in battle. It is staffed by the finest physicians in every specialty caring for our wounded warriors. It is also a training hospital for cardiac surgeons going to other hospitals as well as operating a very active Medical Residency program for students. While there are certainly those who will complain about the VA system, I am not among them.