Recently I had some tests run: a sleep-test to see if I have sleep apnoea (which means I stop breathing while I am sleeping until the body’s stress manages to jumpstart the respiratory mechanism again); an echocardiogram to check the functioning of the heart muscle; and an echo Doppler to see if the carotid arteries were clear. These are things one only does as life progresses into the later years.
Usually, sleep apnoea is detected by your sleeping partner when your spontaneous (after about 30 seconds) gasp for air wakes them up. My sleeping partner, as everyone knows, is Salomé and there was no way she could let me know that she had sat there for over 30 seconds waiting for me to breathe and thinking I was dead (my mother used to do that with my father and that is how I know about it). So I never would have suspected I might have the same syndrome as my father if I hadn’t awaked from sleep one night with all systems shut down and gasping for air. When I mentioned it to the doctor he said it was serious (apparently it can cause heart attacks and strokes) and set me for the corresponding study. It was the neurologist who suggested the other two.
For the sleep study, one must pass a night in the hospital wired up as if for electrocution and one must sleep. Considering I was connected by some 20 electrodes –mostly on my face and head- and that the wires were either tickling my nose or pulling on my scalp and hair, sleep was not easy. I did manage, finally, to drop off around 2 a.m. so the study was valid. The nurse, of course, could not tell me the results so I asked the only question I believed she could answer better than Salomé: Do I snore?
I do. But then so does Salomé, although in a soft sort of purring kind of way which I am sure is not like me. The nurse knew because it registered on the chart and the sign she made of its register was big enough for me to believe it was a real snore. Anyway, the rest of the test results won’t be ready until the 18th of next year. If they are positive, I will be fixed up with a machine that will be attached to my nostrils during the night. If at any time I spend more than 3 seconds without breathing, the machine will shoot oxygen into my nose and do the job for me. Sounds like fun, but then it isn’t fun to have a heart attack or a stroke either.
I passed the echocardiogram with flying colors so the ticker seems to be doing ok, but then that has never been the problem of the women in my family. It has been the men (maternal grandfather and father) who have succumbed to heart failure, so I was more interested in the echo Doppler or Carotid ultrasound because my grandmother had a stroke and my mother suffered from senile dementia. Sleep apnoea is actually one of the causes of plaque in the carotid arteries because of the toxins produced when oxygen is not available.
The test was actually very simple; all I had to do was not talk while the doctor (a young lady) ran the gel and her instrument up and down my throat, first on one side and then on the other. Afterwards she did the same right in front of the ear and got my sideburns all gooey.
When she was finished I asked.
“The left carotid artery is fine” she said, “but you have a very ugly plaque in the right carotid.”
And there it was. I was surprised not to feel anything emotionally, especially with the “very ugly” added to the diagnosis.
“What caused it?”
“Oh, any amount of things: high blood pressure (not my case), diabetes (not that either), smoking (uh-oh), alcohol consumption (double uh-oh), diet… Do you smoke or drink?”
“Haven’t for 24 years.”
“Well, when you smoked, how many cigarettes a day was it.” I really wished she hadn’t asked that question.
“Two packs a day” I said, smiling sheepishly.
“And drink? How much did you drink back then?”
Oh, God… could I make it into a joke? “Would you believe about ¾ of a bottle of vodka a day and maybe ½ a bottle of sherry at noon?” I didn’t need a doctor to tell me where that nasty little plaque had come from… and to be truthful, it’s ok.
I have been thinking for years that it is some sort of miracle, after the way I mistreated my poor body, that I hadn’t a liver problem, a lung problem, a heart problem a stomach problem… Soooo, an ugly plaque in just one artery is to be expected. Strangely enough, my mother who neither over-drank nor smoked, nor ate in excess or had any of the other supposed ‘causes’ of plaques, and did plenty of exercise because she played golf three times a week, had senile dementia caused by a narrowing of her carotid arteries by plaque.
“These days you operate on those things, don’t you?” I queried, remembering my 83- year-old neighbour who had both carotid arteries operated on and was still going strong at 86.
“It isn’t important enough yet to operate; the blood flow to the brain isn’t affected.”
“Ok. What about strokes?”
“Well, that could be a future possibility, so I am going to give you a treatment.”
Aspirin. 100mg of aspirin. A pill that is smaller than the nail on my little finger, and an even smaller pill to control cholesterol (although my ‘bad’ cholesterol is within an acceptable level).
When I came back to Salies, I began thinking about what could happen if I had a stroke so I decided to tell my downstairs neighbour about the results. We agreed that if anything happened (and I wasn’t dead) I would bang on the floor rhythmically so she could tell it was different than just a normal dropping something. That settles that: if I’m alive I will bang on the floor and no problem; if I am dead there isn’t any problem anyway because after 12 hours of not seeing Salomé leaving the building she will know what happened.
So, why am I writing this? Because today (a week after telling my neighbor) I ran into her while hanging up the wash on the community clotheslines. After the usual niceties of the season, she asked me if I was worried about… and she pointed to her throat. I smiled.
“No” I said, “why should I be worried. It certainly doesn’t do any good and it would make me miss out on all the beautiful things happening now, in this moment.”
“I know,” she said, shaking her head, “but the thoughts… you know, they just come.” (At right, me at the age of 3)
“Ah,” … I had given her Byron Katie’s book, Loving What Is (in French), some time ago and I knew she hadn’t really read it. “If I have a worrisome thought, I question it: Is that true?… and immediately I know that no thought can be true. It’s in the book I gave you.”
“Yes…” she looks at me, “I gave the book to my daughter. I guess when she comes back next summer I’ll borrow it to read,” she gives me a nervous smile.
And there it is. We have the medicine in our hands for all that worries us and we don’t take it, we give it away to our children, to our relatives, to our friends and, as we have given it no importance, they don’t either. So our lives fill with stress and pre-occupation about things that might never happen and, if they do, will certainly not be as terrible as our imagination can make them. We do this without realizing exactly how senseless it is. To occupy myself with something previously to it happening is insane to say the least and certainly worse for one’s health than a simple plaque that has built up in an artery perhaps 24 years ago and so far hasn’t let out a peep, much less a clot. If I hadn’t had the study, I wouldn’t have any reason for pre-occupation, I would feel in perfect health, enjoying this marvellous body which has taken such a beating and still held up so well. I would continue to believe myself to be soooo lucky. Given that I feel exactly the same as I did before, why in the world would I be worried unless I believed terrible thoughts about what is going on in my carotid artery????
So now I have had the study and have been told there is a plaque in there. Is that true? Do I actually feel any differently than before I knew? Not in the least. But knowing makes me responsible, so I ask what I can do. Aspirin, 100mg a day taken always at the same time, either in the morning or at noon. Ok. Anything else? No. So what should I worry about? Let my doctor worry if she wants to, it has nothing to do with me. What I could do, I have done. My job is finished so it is time to enjoy my noon meal, which is exactly what I am going to do now without a PRE-OCCUPATION to disturb my appetite.
And in case you didn’t guess, this is me at 6 months old, not a worry in the world!