Thursday, March 29, 2012

MY FIRST HEART ATTACK


            Shame. I'm ashamed of growing old and ashamed of the vulnerability that being older entails. I never realized how vulnerable I was, until I had my first and very own heart attack on 9-11-09.  It creates a divide. Suddenly you realize the absolute truth of not being young anymore and you are hit with the double whammy of both your own mortality and your fragility. That steel strength you thought would never fail you, has jumped ship. You're sucker punched, then wired to an infinite web of heart monitors all connected to other coronary care patients, all beeping their warnings of irregular heartbeats, highs and lows, like electronic frogs calling out to each other in the hospital dark.
             Maybe it was all a nightmare, maybe I just dreamed I was a prisoner in a sterilized chain gang of crispy sheets and pillow cases, being needled, pricked and monitored by prison guards with warnings of death sentences on their lips for one long, hellish weekend. Some of these things and more were a part of my experiences in September of 2009. I record them here to remember, maybe to help others or perhaps as a fragmented wake-up call to myself. 
I am now fifty-seven as I write this from notes gleaned from my four day stay in Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, which began on 9-11-09. How fitting that I should have been admitted on the anniversary of one of the most stressful events that ever happened in my New York life.  Again, the ghost of 9-11 haunts me. This discourse is, in many ways, about stress, that badass motherload that erupts when dreams don't match reality and broken hearts aren't just some twenty-something songwriter's lyrics about angst and nihilism. Stress happens and sometimes may even be measured in traces of troponin in the blood. Troponin is the chemical the heart muscle secretes when it dies. So let me begin. Maybe it will entertain you. Or maybe it will give you an idea of what's it like when you have your first heart attack.
            The intense pain started about 11 a.m. on 9-9-09. That first day, I was nonchalantly sending letter out to agents. Letters with my picture and resume, that never seem to get answered. There, maybe that was the beginning of the stress. Might that have been the beginning of the stress? The unhappy career that never reaches fruition in the impossible world of show business, New York City. The thankless world. The world where they all love you if you make it, and don't want to hear about it if you don't. Anger, irritation, rejection, lack of compassion, sterile nothingness; all the red lights for stress. Those letters were like flowing grains of sand. They were the symbols of my own pipe dreams, disappearing into the black hole of ignored talent, daily and yearly. But I digress, I was writing letters to agents and I felt a pain. "Gas"? I thought. It hurt like hell, like an alien gnawing inside my chest with every heartbeat. I wondered if some beats were more painful than others and the degree of pain I was feeling was somehow connected to my thoughts? Think a negative thought, the pain seemed harder, more intense; a positive thought, the pain softer. Or maybe this was wishful new age thinking ala the old mind over matter tap dance routine? It was as if my body was giving me biofeedback for mental instruction beat by beat, moment by moment. "Oh--it's going away now...thank God" I kept looping to that thought. But it didn't go away. Gas, I thought, it has to be gas. I went to the drugstore on Avenue A and got the strongest over-the-counter anti-acid they sold. Then, I called my German chiropractor Dr. Koenig, who pooh-poohed the idea of a heart-attack and assured me "you're not having a heart-attack! --it's just a hiatal hernia. Drink lots of water and jump off a chair; you will then force the hernia down and that will stop the pain." I did the water, then dragged a chair out into our tiny coop garden in the back yard and jumped off like a cartoon character some five times. The pain stayed, then, a few hours later stopped.
On the second day, it began again around the same time and it was even more intense. I did the anti-acid tablets again and a Motrin. The scratching throbbing beat-ache clicked on and on. I lay in bed.  I got up out of bed. I stretched. I paced from room to room pleading to the air for it to stop. I was swinging my arms in a combination of Hitlerian rage and supplication for release. I lay back down...I cried...I hugged a pillow...paced more...stretched, this way, that way, front and back. I cursed, prayed, and pleaded with God to make the pain stop. I bargained with God.
"God, I'll do anything, anything, if you just stop the fucking pain, please! I will never whore again, oh please Sweet Jesus!"
That had no effect, so I prayed to die, to just get it over with. I was begging God "Take me now, take my soul and be done with it damn you!" Then I took more Motrin. After about three hours, the pain stopped.
            That night I went to Wendy Dillon's Voice Over class. In the beginning of every class, we did a kind of go round in which every performer shared the highlights of his or her auditions or acting or voice over jobs for that week. I was always the one who treated it way too much like group therapy; talking about my health, massage clients, alcohol use, my energy level that week and on and on.  The other actors shared about meeting this or that important casting director; or cranking out this audition or getting that job. The other actors were slicker than me. I was the orphan child and the odd black sheep. I always felt like the odd man out of the group, the non-pro (or the feelingful puffta). I so wanted into that slick, non-feeling elite group of the elite, the working actors. Fate would have it otherwise...
"Well" I said when it was my turn to share "I'm sorry to share this but ah, well I'm wondering if I'm having a heart attack. I've been having this intense chest pain for the last two days."  Deborah, a sweet, attractive 40-something producer-Long Island Jewish type who always sounded the same no matter what copy she read or how she read it, piped up. "It's probably just a rib, you probably slept wrong. You can pull ribs ya know." "No" I replied "it doesn't feel like a rib." Months later Wendy would remark, slightly drunk, over cocktails after one of the last classes I ever attended, "And this man had a heart attack in my class!"
It's still hard for me to fathom I ended up spending like $6G studying with her. You'd think she could have at least called me when she heard I was in the hospital. But no, hey that's Show Biz. At first what appeared to be a lesson in professional boundaries now just seemed cold indifference on her part and culminated in a sense of being used and disposed of on mine.
But we had no contract. It was my choice to study voice overs and spend all that money on her training and on my demo. It was fun, a skillful challenge. Was it a hobby? It's hard not to be bitter when the business side of show business, without fail ends up fucking me in the ass via my wallet with no little or no reward but the bleak and vapid satisfaction of saying hey, I tried. Wendy warned me when I began studying with her that she made no promises about work. She was totally honest that way. But she should have made it clear she seldom made referrals of her students to the major talent agency that represented her, for she was a name in the N.Y. world of the working actor (a very, very small world). She was also a fair teacher. She charged huge fees but you got something for your investment. She taught you how to sound like you when you read copy, not like some phony actor reading copy in a make-believe voice over fantasy voice. I just never got the work I thought I would for sounding like Steve Orr! Chalk it up to experience. About six months after that final class, I called her and told her how let down I was when she didn't call me in the hospital or in the weeks afterward. When I expressed my disappointment at her non-concern for my health, there was a pause, and then she said in that sexy smoky contralto of hers (she smoked so much she was practically always hacking non-stop in class), "I failed you."
"Well, yeah you did, you were my mentor after all," I said.
Back to the heart attack, that next day, Friday, 9-11-09 at about 1:30 in the afternoon the pain came again while I was taking a shower. OK, I thought, I'm going to the hospital. This is not gas or a hiatal hernia. Around 4:45 or so, I left my apartment. It was a gorgeous day, so I biked up First Avenue on my trusty old rusty, red bike with the old-school chopper handlebars. I locked it by the side of the E.R. to a pole the same as I'd locked it to thousands of poles throughout my N.Y. biking days before. I walked up to the front desk. They were changing shifts so it must have been just before 5. "Can I help you?" said the clerk behind the glass. "I, ah think I'm having a heart attack" I said calmly.
            Whoosh. I was behind the closed door and on a gurney in a second. You know it's bad when they don't keep you waiting in an E.R. in New York. Lying down, blood test, blood pressure, more lying down, table transfer, more blood testing; then more waiting-in-line while lying down. I was one in a series of beds behind a not-so-private curtained compartment. Strangers surrounded me. We were prone neighbors now, all with various medical issues. One nerdy looking guy with three friends had fallen during an epileptic seizure. His doctor was asking him if he knew what day it was? I was in denial, taking it all in half-seriously. Surely they would give me some aspirin, deduce a muscle sprain and send me home.  I don't belong here. Then, my blood test results came back. The dying heart muscle cell chemical troponin was found. I was indeed having a heart attack.
I yelped when the short, handsome resident told me. "Why?" was all I could blurt out in a high-pitched kid's voice. "Sometimes there is no answer, sometimes we just have to accept," he said, gently touching me on the shoulder. I appreciated his touch. A few moments later he was running an ultra-sound and invited me to watch as my fabulous, sensual strong but hurting heart revealed itself dancing and beating its way on and on like some struggling fat man or jellyfish on the sooty chiaroscuro of the machine's screen.
There was my heart. There was something so explosive about it. So naked. It was violent in its power to beat, doing its only job, pumping and pumping. But it was hurting. I saw its movement as a struggle to live. So, I wasn't superman. It looked so complete in it's passion and desire. Its will to survive a movement like two huge Sumo wrestlers locked in a takedown embrace. To just beat. On and on, its only purpose. My heart was strong, but it was flawed, dying even. Age, death. The thought of cleaning out came to me; the throwing away of old stuff and furniture that didn't work or wasn't necessary anymore.
Journal entry 9-12-10
Now I lie here. This is my second night in the Coronary Care Unit on the Ninth floor of Beth Israel Hospital in N.Y.C. I'm thinking about all the promises I want to make to God in this, my very own dark night of the soul (Thank you Carolyn Myss and St. Teresa of Avilla). Three days of pain.  The promises I am making in a desperate deal to escape from the biting, burning, monstrous pain that manifested and raged in my chest like the rage I have so often felt about so many things in my life.  The rage that propelled me onward until my own fragile physical flaws knocked me on my ass; the rage I had inherited from my Father. "What are you so angry about?" I ask myself. It's the question of the year! Dates used to ask me that. One younger pup, back in the 80's, even said, "You're an accident waiting to happen."
In Kelly Kimball's acting class weeks ago, there was another actor whom I thought had to be gay.  He was a former dancer type.  He looked like a hot Italian detective on Law and Order, until he opened his mouth and a bitchy Zach-from-A Chorus-Line-voice came out.  He would simply stare at me in awe and fear whenever I took to the stage in class to do the work. "The rage" I heard him whisper once out loud, as I walked up the steps to the elevated platform. I could always feel my heart jump climbing those stairs. I took it for granted this was a natural adrenaline-type response, much like riding a bicycle on a New York Street (but much safer). In class, Kelly even called me a threat type, though an unearthly, beautiful one.
The second day of pain had been on day nine of my new sex plan, courtesy of Sexual Compulsives Anonymous.  Looking back on my entire relationship with that group I do not believe I am a sex addict, but that I simply attended meetings in order to reach out, to connect with people.  New York can be the most gut wrenching, harsh and lonely place on earth, especially if you are a body worker. As Natasha, a musician who got sober then moved to L.A. said to me once when she came back for a visit "God, this town!  You can't even wipe your ass here without a problem!" 
I remember praying during the pain, before the hospital, while still at home.  "God, please take the shadow out of my heart."
I'm dozing off, trying very hard to romanticize or objectify this experience but there's nothing to add to the heroism I have experienced here. I'm seeing the grace that every day people can show in their job of caring for other people. This is the best that humans have to offer each other and the world. Now boy, did I get a taste of it. I still burn to start acting class on Tues. I called Kelly Kimball and left a message at her studio. "Hi Kelly--this is Steve Orr and I, ah, had a little bike accident so I won't be able to start the new class as soon as I wanted, but this coming week I should be back."  Ambition shines from my hospital bed even. It's so funny I should be feeling it now with such a force. I love my actor's physical self and life, so much; I cling to it as fiercely as my heart continues to beat, ripple, dance and explode on that sonogram screen like those big, fat, lusty, Sumo wrestlers fucking or fighting in some weird ecstatic cosmic dance.
 Maybe I was making promises to my soul? The humble, quiet soul that merely animates the meat of my body. What have you been searching for, my dear, dear friend as you have lived through this lifetime of 55 years?  How many lifetimes were there before this one? And what is this karma I need to work out? Falling again and again into countless lovers' arms as if this one--no no, this one is the answer! Is it that every man I make love to, is the manifestation and expression of my soul's love for man, or am I seeking God in every pair of eyes I see; every body I lay on?
Sometimes, while fucking one of those men who keep their eyes so tightly shut, I need to stifle the urge to yell "Open up your eyes and look at me for God's sake!" It's all in the line of bodywork. All the eyes (even the closed ones) and all the bodies are flickers of God's beauty and power. Just as the soul seeks out its own reflection in the cave of warmth or under the open sky mind. I see myself standing, staring into the sun, and feeling the rays on my body's skin.  I'm singing I love you to the Father who loves his son, and that son is my soul. I can sign it with such passion that it illuminates a galaxy of worlds and stars with rays of light shining infinitely.
9:02 p.m. 9-13-09
There's no need to reason or seek an answer if every action is approached as a prayer of the body-soul to God, for then all answers are given.
I can't condemn all my years of bodywork. I need no confession. Every man I was (or will be) with is a sort of seeking out of another soul in order to form a union with--therefore, there is divinity in every coupling act. It's not just lust, is it?
Are you he?  Are you them?  Is it YOU my angel?


SAIL

My soul's burning desire, through the looking and feeling and touching and being with all the men and women, all the bodies, was, I believe part of an infinite search for itself.  Now, I am exhausted to discover my friend, my very own soul anew. And I'm so grateful I've been given more time.  Maybe my soul can be free now to rest, I wonder, in this time of my own dark night?  Or free for what?  Perhaps just to rest and contemplate, as once I contemplated a sheet I used to cover my massage table for a client about to arrive.
I had stolen the sheet from the cancer hospital where I worked doing massage one day a week. Sometimes, attached to these sheets were the remains of bandages, vomit, or dried shit. People died on these sheets; they shit, their flesh rotted, they breathed their last breath.  And here beneath my hand was one, replete with half a bandage still stuck to it. One sheet from the dead, about to receive a body full of life and lust and yearning and needing to be touched and touch. How perfect. The paradox of sex and death. The digitized essence of humanness. Ones and zeros, life and death. And here was the evidence, like fossils, traces of the full circle right here on my massage table like cave drawings.

10:18 p.m. 9-13-09
Third night at the hospital.  I missed two clients today.  I just did a mini-workout in the bed and smell a bit.  Told yet another client "I was away and will be back on Tuesday."  Feeling client stress now (I'm not working)!  Tomorrow angiogram...should reveal something.  I must leave here by Tuesday.  I must work on Wednesday, back to the cancer hospital.  Back to Calvary.
Perhaps I should really consider moving now?  Of course, they want to put me on a million drugs.  Nichola, one of the nursing assistants who works here was going on and on about the Video Music Awards.  I should watch them, just to see how fabulous, but the egos are such a turn off.  I'm jealous too.  I have great music in me, but I will never be a part of that world.  Where do I belong if NYC has become a suicidal dead end?  I wish I could simply hear my sweet soul's answer.... maybe I'm not listening hard enough...
ONCE IN A LIFETIME--GOD...=---prayer
PRAYER--GOD--Listen...
Prayer--God--Listen
Monday 9-14-09
God, I'm still in Beth Israel.  And another client just called.  He wanted it now.
I am the freakishly in-shape man on the 9th Floor of the Coronary Care Unit.  Nurses come by to stare and me and sometimes pet me when they take blood.  Nichola-bless her soul said "Oh my God!" when she saw my naked body as I washed myself this morning.
My beautiful dear body has served me well.  I still want my talent to fly--though I know it's a pipe dream.  Alone with soul, in a quiet room now.  None of this matters.
My first and basically only roommate was a charming and complaining old Jewish Social Worker named Marty, the patriarch of a large family.  It was stressful and fascinating to hear them all altogether divided only by a large curtain that didn't close all the way.  They had no sensitivity to me and they were as loud as hell replete with grandchildren.  Such a heterosexual clan really exacerbates the gay thing.  You know absolutely how alone you are next to a family tribal unit like this.  At one point I began fiendishly exercising in order to cope with the noise of their warmth and their affection.  Listening to their complaints, their chiding and laughter, I feel excluded, like a ghost, from their world.  That world of family, never able to join in.  Their banter went on and on endlessly.  No easy trick doing Pilates mat exercise on a bed hooked up to various heart monitors and IVs without pulling out all the wires, tangling them up or pulling the fucking needles out of your hands and arms.
"Mr. Orr, you've got to stop!  You're here to rest!"  One of the nurses chides me, hands on her hips in a Caribbean accent.
"I can't help it" I respond firmly, my legs high in the air in the middle of a Jack-knife Pilates sequence. "He's got the family--I've got the body!" Hoping they will hear.  I count loudly to myself.  I hope my voice cuts through their endless chirping and squawking.  I can't stop exercising.  My neighbor indeed does have the family.  He is the seeding heterosexual assisting in overpopulating the world.  His essence will live on long after he dies.  Mine will end right here or die with me.  All this beauty.  Something tragic about that.  All my uniqueness, and so few of me, PHFT-!  Gone...and all his mediocrity here to stay.  So goes the world.  He has raised his brood well.  I have perfected my body way beyond his.  But he has the support, the loving-complaining Jewish wife, and sons, grandchildren fresh from a Yankees game.  I have good abs., a few calls from strangers.  We are both New York cliches.
 How bizarre doing the Spine Twist in a hospital bed, while allowing for just the precise range of motion of my arms, so that I don't disconnect myself from the beeping web.
I don't hate my roommate.  Know your enemies, make friends with them.  At one point I introduced myself even.  He was cool.  When we said goodbye he said I was a very unusual man.
Now there's more intensity, I exercise even harder.  I feel my lonely heart pain receding.  I'm loving the tiredness in my muscles--and prefer to feel it than the pain of loneliness.
"Mr. Orr-please stop.  Rest!", the nurse again.
I'm doing the whole Abdominal series now.  I had to prop several pillows under my butt for leverage.  The sheets are beginning to get damp.  I'm working up a sweat.
A year later I relate my "He's got the family--I've got the body" story to a female musician I meet on a Buddhist retreat at the Garrison Institute.
"Well" she responded, "He must have appreciated that."  Why are women so quick to judge?  She misses the point completely.  My intention in saying that wasn't to harm or demean--it was to give myself comfort, empowerment and recognition in light of feeling totally engulfed by his large, boisterous family's conventionalism--so full of life and love for him, my fat old neighbor, the royal patriarch.  I needed an affirmation of my existence, for I was drowning in a sea of humans celebrating his!  We cling to things that comfort us when someone holds up a mirror revealing our vulnerability; our weakness or ugliness and we can't get away.
A night later Marty had an attack of dementia, pulling out all of this IV's and monitoring wires.  They have to call security.  He imagines that there's a secret entrance behind my curtain...maybe what he's seeing is real--and I'm the delusional one...the guards struggle with his fat, nude body.  It's quite a drama.  I'm enjoying it, but feel sorry for him too.  Shall I help him?  I choose to leave it alone.  He didn't give a shit about me, the lone stranger behind the curtain when his Grand Central Family was here cavorting with him.
Before I was transferred to another floor on my last day, I got to visit the Donna Karan Zen Room--a fabulous sanctuary away from the endless mechanical drone of the sterile hospital functions.  It was too warm and airless in the room with the doors thick as a Zen chapel wall, great for blocking out noise but not-so-great for creating a cross breeze.  There were giant pictures of burnished gold horses on all the walls.  Weeks later I emailed Donna's Foundation asking to do work or volunteer for them.  It must have gotten lost in someone's spam folder.
The angiogram which Dr. Gupta performed on Monday, revealed a kinking in one of my coronary arteries.  The procedure itself was actually performed by the gorgeous but extremely cold young East Indian female Resident or Intern.  God knows what her name was.  It seemed like it was her first.  If you have Medicaid, the interns are always learning from you, learning on you and in you.  In fact, they seem to do most of the procedures, only being guided by their teaching doctors.  The patients aren't really informed of this, it's part and partial of your treatment.  This beautiful, cold, young female doctor-to-be, wore a color-coordinated faux leopard-skin radiology-shield apron and mask.  It was the most fashionable uniform I had ever seen.  I wanted one. 
As I stated, the procedure revealed a kinking in one of my coronary arteries.  This anomaly could only be treated with medication.  Gupta prescribed a calcium channel blocker named Cadizem, which I took for about four days, beginning the day after I was discharged.  On the fourth day, I couldn't stand the gas and nausea anymore so I stopped. 
They also prescribed a statin.  Another big young Indian Resident or Intern, Dr. Barhiya, came by one day and said "If you don't do these medications--you will be dead in two years."  After taking Zocor for five days, I had such extreme muscle, back and kidney pain, it rivaled the heart attack pain itself!  I could barely get out of bed, so I stopped taking that too after the fifth day.
About a month after being discharged, I went to see my Medicaid assigned cardiologist, a young Asian named Dr. Lee, for the second time. The first time, three days after I was discharged, we got on quite well. This visit however, I began by expressing my dissatisfaction with the drugs prescribed. At the time, I had no idea there was even a beautiful new Cardiac Rehab Unit on the 3rd floor of Beth Israel, nor did Dr. Lee ever mention it to me. Looking back, he should have told me about it on that very first visit; going there would have been a prescription-drug-free and integral part of my cardiac therapy. A place for me to heal.
I was expressing my dissatisfaction with the drugs and asking about the use of red rice yeast as a natural statin herbal alternative to the Zocor when suddenly Dr. Lee freaked.  In an almost sneering voice he said "Mr. Orr, I am not here to educate you about your heart attack! Yes, yes I know I know! You feel you are healthy and you work out a lot.  So? Stop asking so many questions, or I'm going to call security! Do you know how many patients I have waiting to see me today? I can't spend any more time on you."
I sat in silent shock. Did he just tell me to shut-up? Any more time? I must have been with him about five minutes before his outburst. Now, with a smirk on his face, he moved in closer to me. He began listening to my heart with his stethoscope. At that moment I began to think how can I let this cunt near me? Let him touch me after he's thrown shade at me?  The bitch just yelled at me! My mind was reeling, but my body was passive and did nothing. For the doctor always knows best.
Coldly now, he continued. "Do you have AIDS?  Do you have Hepatitis?" adding insult to injury. When I left the consultation office with him and went back out into the waiting room, his demeanor completely changed. So nice to the staff, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Cock sucking asshole! One moment, in private with me, the bedside manner of a used tampon; the next Mr. Nice Guy. Was it because I was handsome, middle-aged and white?  Was it because I was gay?  Was it because I asked too many questions about red rice yeast?  And why the meds they had prescribed all made me sick?  And why I was feeling like I needed warmth and compassion from somebody, not a lecture and a put down?  I was the patient for Christ's sake. He'd basically told me to shut up. He made me feel like a nothing, a no one. What a change from the hospital. It was then that I reflected on another possibility. Did this experience have to do with being on Medicaid?  So, you really do get what you pay for, at least when you're out of the danger zone of that dark night of the soul. Then you face the true horror, follow up care, or "Take the drugs, shut the fuck up and go away."
A few moments later when he disappeared back into his consulting room with another patient, the tears began to fall down my face. I was shaking. I asked a secretary, my voice trembling, where to go to file a complaint. There was a moment. Her eyes got wide and she directed me downstairs. Before I left, in the middle of the waiting room I screamed "I am not a piece of shit!" I doubt if anyone but the employees understood. English is not the first language of the cardiac patient demographic at Phillips Ambulatory Care, Beth Israel, Union Square, N.Y., N.Y.
A few weeks later, I filed a complaint about Dr. Lee to the hospital and to the State of New York.  The hospital sent me back a Xeroxed letter with my name spelled S-T-E-P-H-E-N.  In it, there was no apology for Dr. Lee's behavior but an assurance that "he would be instructed on how to deal with patients in the future to avoid a repeat of the incident that had transpired between us".  The reply letter from the State said that after a careful review of my case, they had found "no medical malpractice had taken place."  In fact, the letter advised me to "take an educational course in Health if I still had questions about my disease and/or condition."  I now understand why in almost every show, Kenny always gets killed off in SOUTH PARK--simply said, he's the poorest one in the show.
Now, prescription-drug-free and deepening my peacefully-abiding meditation practice daily, I believe I'm recovering my heart health. Or I hope I am.  I don't think I take stress quite so hard as I used to.  But New York is a stressed out town, when you're a working class, educated and poor, gay white male, such as myself.  How do I deal with the stress differently? I try not to fight my own demons. When I feel the hating come on, I first try to watch myself, watch my feelings before acting out; and then draw upon loving kindness and compassion toward the person or situation. I try to see uncomfortable or disagreeable situations as interesting opportunities, places wherein I can really see my clinging.  I try to say "Ah, interesting" or "I don't know" rather than my former habitual auto-heart-pain-knee-jerk hate back effect.  Ignorance in others is my greatest teacher. I want to live more and evolve more.  I chose my battles more carefully.  Having a voice helps. Have a keyboard and page to type my history, even better.
My dream of life continues...




1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a frightening experience. You didn't tell me about this. So much pain. Why are we still here? I don't know.

    ReplyDelete