For those friends who didn’t see it on my Facebook Feed or catch up with me by other means, I’m now a month past the massive cardiac arrest and nine-minute death I suffered on landing in Hawaii February 27. I’m extremely lucky to be alive and with all my senses, much less at home comfortably recovering in full health. I am fully mobile, talking and gesticulating in my usual animated way and traversing the public streets daily, not blabbering, bedridden, hunched, crippled or blind. Still as feisty as ever. And celebrating with a glass of pinot. No one can yet piss on my grave.
The story is a wild one, full of drama, pathos, a few heroes and a life renewed. It was my fifth near death experience having lived through a heart attack with three reboots on my deathbed in 1987, a stroke New Year’s Day 2015, a couple of car wrecks and the cardiac arrest capping off a trifecta of heart crises. But obviously my work is not done here yet because they keep bringing me back!
This one started out innocently enough. I’d been to all my docs in Coffs and my blood showed me clear of excess sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides or any other bellweather of a circulatory danger. I was fit from daily long walks along the beach and foreshores ready to pound the streets of New York and Austin followed by SFO, Oregon and Maui on this six weeks work holiday going to South by Southwest again with 750 delegates and up to 40 bands. I felt on top of the world as I boarded the flight to Honolulu anticipating a two day break there before another overnight flight to NYC. Hopping off the plane I felt refreshed from a long sleep and I hopped on the Alamo bus for the short ride to the rental station.
Getting off the bus, I felt weird for only two seconds and then promptly dropped dead, right in front of the Alamo greeter who was opening the station’s door for me. Thank God it didn’t happen five minutes later as I was adjusting the car seat to pull out of the lot or even worse, deadheading down the H-1 into other vehicles. Everything went black–no trip up the long crystal tube, no heavenly chorus to other spiritual experience. Fortunately, the greeter lady reached out as I fell to the floor and just caught my head before it would have bounced against the concrete. Her name was Terri, a single mom and the first angel I encountered in this drama who helped save my life. I didn’t see her then but I would a few days later. She stroked my head, cried out for help, squeezed my hand and comforted me as I lay deader-than-a-doornail.
My second angel rushed out of the bus that was about to leave as she saw me fall and made the decision that she would try to do something rather than turning away and finishing her holiday on a high note by not getting involved. She was a young woman from Virginia at the end of her first Hawaiian vacation and fortunately, she had taken a full CPR course in the past year and was ready to revive her first corpse. Her name was Beth Hansen and I didn’t see her either as she flipped me over on my back and started pounding my chest. I was clinically dead and she wasted no time nor energy in bringing me back from Club Dead.
Beth knew that the right rhythm was 100 BPM to the tune of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and she also knew how much pressure to use on the downstrokes. In fact, she fractured three ribs and bruised another five in the chest-crushing compressions that kept my blood flowing to the brain and rest of me within seconds of my electrical outage. It wasn’t a heart attack where a clot plugs up the plumbing, keeping blood from the heart, or a brain clogging stroke, or pulmonary blockage. The circuit breakers that kept my heart pumping had freaked and gone out leaving my heart a chattering mess in non-pumping fibrillation–an electronic short circuit. I was getting blood flow by Beth’s constant pounding on my chest but I needed air.
Up to the plate stepped a tall, heavyset, dreadlocked Hawaiian construction worker from across the hall who immediately cleared my throat and started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in rhythm with Beth’s strokes and that got the air to my brain, saving it. Although I found the later mental film of getting mouth to mouth from another hairy guy a little ‘Eeewww!’. I’m nonetheless happy that he sprang into action and didn’t hesitate to give me the ‘Kiss of Life’. All this time, a crowd gathered around the scene unfolding in front of them, no doubt taking pics for the folks back home of their real life and my real death dramas.
Fortunately someone had the presence of mind to grab the portable defibrillator off the wall and bring it over to my three minute gone body. Charged up and triggered, it whacked me with a voltage burst that just wasn’t enough to get my heart started again. Beth and my archangel went back to work on as the ambulance rushed towards the airport and resumed their life-giving exercise. Six minutes in with no sirens, the defib was charged up again for another jolt. But no luck…. Back to work they went as the whine in the distance came closer. The crowd had pretty much given me up for dead at the nine-minute mark but Beth and the trade had a belief rather than merely an interest.
As the ambulance roared up to the front door and the two paramedics rushed to my side, their world class American made heartstarter machine was applied to my chest, as the staff cleared and the smoke of burning hair rose with a ZZZZZAAAPP!!!!! I spluttered and gulped in my first breath as my heart started beating on its own, weakly at first but then with more vigour. I was loaded onto the stretcher and moved into the ambulance where I was hooked up to a drip and an ECG monitor. That’s the moment I remember coming back to the world–upside down with a great pain in my chest from the broken ribs, a BarBQ smell from the burnt chest hair and a hazy in and out passing as the vehicle roared and veered to the nearest hospital.
Kaiser Permanente is an upmarket private hospital usually only used for members of their HMO plan where the general trauma and accident victims are usually carted to the Queens Medical Centre public hospital in town. But since it is the closest to the airport, that was my destination and lucky I was. In addition to having state of the art facilities, it’s where the elite medicos practise who have opted to live in Paradise in Hawaii rather than practise in Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Fortunately, I was wheeled into the ER on a mid-weekday when the best of the best were on roster and not practising their slices on the golf course. As it turns out, my cardiologist for the day is one of the best in the West and as it turns out, he’s a top surgeon too.
After a CAT scan, ultrasound, MRI, innumerable blood and ECG tests and an angiogram sending a line from my groin artery to my heart with a dye to contrast the arteries, the doctors took about five hours to verify that it wasn’t a clot or heart attack, but in essence it was my circuit breakers that gone awry and stopped my heart. I didn’t need stents, open-heart surgery, a bypass or any other clot-busting invasive procedure. But I would probably benefit greatly from a new technological device that would restart my heart with a major shock if it sensed a failure and/or restore a regular rhythm if it detected what is known as tachycardial arrhythmia–which is in essence when the drummer misses beats or overplays.
I was lucky. They had the best brand and model in stock. The surgeon had stopped counting after he had implanted maybe a thousand of them a few years back. It would only require a six inch slit across my upper chest which I could watch happen as they inserted the flip phone sized silver device with its four lines spread across my heart’s arteries. It would only take an hour in surgery which they fortunately had an opening that day. I was healthy enough to take the strain and my chemistries were good. Plus, my travel insurance had me covered not only for the $45,000 medtech device but also the $400,000 bill that I would run up with a three day stay in Intensive Care and one day in a private room before hopefully being discharged. The ICU room and staff averaged out to $2000 an hour and I was assured that I would feel no pain from the billing department. Just sign here.
Ooh! And I’d get to take Michael Jackson’s favourite drug, Propofol, by IV to give me that twilight anaesthesia that would get me through the critical pain of being chopped into and sewn up without undergoing a general. Being under a set of surgical lights like an episode of ‘ER’, surrounded by doctors, surgeon and techs as a painless and precise incision of my chest is made, substituting some fat for a mobile flip phone size medtech device was a real eye-opener though I was paralysed at the time watching this as hot-wires were threaded into my arties to kickstart me in case of a latter failure. In and out within an hour and then wheeled into the lavish and high-tech ICU room with a private view of paradise in the distance. I was all set up with a 15″ laptop, iPad Pro, US cellphone, Australian cellphone, iPod and Bose headphones so I was going to take advantage of the narcotic haze.
Hospital room with a view.
I was wired up to an ECG, had three lines into me with various bags of fluid and canulas in my veins in each arm for the constant flow of Fentanyl and other painkillers/anitbiotics/insulin. Three nurses were in and out of my room every few minutes and a parade of doctors as well as students came in to see the ‘Miracle Man’ who had vastly outlived the odds. I didn’t quite understand what this meant until ‘quiet time’ after rounds and lunch when the ward of 12 private rooms was deathly quiet, punctuated by what seemed to be ghosts exhorting “Squeeze my hand!” “C’mon, open your eyes.” “Raise your arm for me.” “Can you hear me?”
It wasn’t ghouls, just the nurses trying to rouse any signs of brain life from the unresponsive bodies in the adjoining rooms. It was horrifying when when the fog lifted and I realised that most everyone else was either permanently brain-dead or heavily damaged from the same thing I had just survived. Two out of three that have a public cardiac arrest die on the spot. Of the one that survives of the trio, half are brain dead, 40% of the rest are between 20-70% brain damaged and of the total, only 2% come out the other end as I did, whole, with all four limbs active, able to see lightning, hear thunder and remember Obama is the serving President. The rest are human waste.
Three days of ICU, one day of a private room to monitor me and I’m ready to be discharged. I will really miss the kind nurses who attended me and the heart-wrenching visit from Terri, the Alamo greeter who caught my head before it bounced off concrete. She found out what hospital I’d been taken to by a bit of sleuthing, took two buses there from home on her day off (her car had been wrecked by her post-teen son) and brought me a box of chocolates, candy coated mac nuts, three books on Hawaii and the Aloha Spirit as well as a 2XL bathrobe she had bought knowing i’d be in a slit backed gown. That was so kind and unforgettable.
I was still drugged on Oxycontin painkillers for the crushed chest I’d suffered at the hands of Beth (doin’ it right cracks eggs for an omelette!) and still opiate clogged in the nether regions waiting for that Hallelujah Moment when the intestinal cable spool was to unreel. But first things first. Have to call an Uber to transport me outta here and to my hotel to dump my baggage as well as having a great salad and udon soup at my favourite lunch stop–Alan Wongs Pineapple Room in Macys at Ala Moana Mall.
It was here that the third little miracle happened. Halfway into the salad, a little guy with a familiar Island giggle sauntered up to the table and sputtered, “Mr Tripp! Howzit cuz?” I kinda recognised part of his face and that giggle was familiar when it dawned on me. This was one of my three nurses keeping me alive over the past few days in ICU and the kindest of all. Mike was only partially recognisable because he was always in blue scrubs with a beard mask and a a hair beanie. But here he was a day later in a hidden part of an out of the way restaurant in a bright red T-shirt, happy to see me still alive. Out of a million Hawaiians on the isle of Oahu, he had found me…
My hotel was just a few blocks from Ala Moana Mall where I got a new Macbook Pro to replace the ageing laptop I carried and my friends at Aqua Palms Hotel arranged for me to have the disabled suite with massive walk in shower. That was a welcome relief to one who had not bathed in nearly a week so as not to get the wound wet. You can’t appreciate a disabled room until you really need one and that padded flip down bench, long hose shower, endless space and tall toilet hit all the bells. That Hallelujah Moment hit almost a week late and I was like a bear scraping my itchy back against the room’s corners for a five day rest before the big flight back.
After a major logistical effort with two massive bags, electronics galore for the cabin and a fraught battle with TSA to not scan me because their magnetic wand would knock out my implant (as would the big scanner), I was finally wheeled on board to the front seat of Hawaiian First Class and settled in for the flight back to Brisbane where my mate Darren had bussed up to pick me, my car and parrot for the long drive back. Another set of angels!
Darren transporting the corpse home.
My new green scrubs nurse with his claws over my heart-hole..
And now after a little more than a week home, a couple of celebratory dinners (I cooked) a lovely visit from my mates Keith Welch and Roger Sommers mastering of the public transport system while my drivers license is under suspension, I am pretty much back to normal except everything looks sharper, smells more luscious, tastes better, sounds more intense and feels softer. I’ve been given my life back through the grace of God (probably a redheaded woman with a great sense of humour) and I’m ready to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.
Napili Kai Resort, Maui. One of my favorite places in the world.