Mister Chakrabarty, this is Mary from Doctor Barry's office. Please prepare to go to emergency, but wait until I work out the details.' I was listening to a message on my office voice mail. It was Monday, 20 April, 2015, the start of a new work week in Calgary, Canada. From the tone and tenor of the message, I sensed what was in line. Another setback in a setback-riddled life of mine!
I rushed to the basement in my office building. I needed a run, my saviour from a setback since I had first tried it at 13, rather instinctively, while growing up in rural Matlab, Bangladesh.
In less than two hours, I was in the Rockyview Hospital emergency. There, lying on a narrow adjustable gurney, with my torso and head raised a little, I glanced at the moving lines on the monitor attached to a stand. Standing nearby, each wearing a face of worry, were my wife and son.
Amidst irksome groan of the conscious and worrisome silence of the unconscious, I lay conscious, with all the faculties still functioning. I was also calm like a one-legged Matlab coconut tree standing stock-still under a grey sky, before being ravaged by a not-so-distant storm, brewing in and gathering lightning and thunder, branch-severing wind, and tin-roofed-house-pounding downpour from the Bay of Bengal.
Seven months earlier, I was on the grounds of the Sydney Opera House, a white shell-shaped architectural beauty shining under an azure sky by the Sydney Harbour. I had just crossed the finish line of the Sydney Marathon. Friends and colleagues, especially those from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), were following my progress on Internet or through emails. They had a reason to. A fellow alumnus had just finished marathons in all seven continents, the first to do so from BUET and Bangladesh.
Whereas in down under Sydney, I was at the top of the world, at Calgary's Rockyview Hospital, I was in an abyss of despair. Thoughts of some recent setbacks crossed my mind: a treadmill test a year earlier, following which the concerned female nurse verbalized that she was relieved for not being my wife, knowing I was on my way to run the Antarctica Marathon, one month later in March of 2014; the chest congestion over the first four months of 2015; and the computerized tomography scan (CT scan) three days earlier, the result from which I was yet to be apprised of, but was the reason for the message from Mary.
I felt dejected thinking that I might not be able to run again, let alone all those amazing vacation-marathons: through architecturally endowed cities, like London or Paris or Barcelona or Berlin; through naturally endowed forests, like those in the Redwood Parks in Eureka in northern California, or in the Entabeni Game Reserve in South Africa; along the captivating coastline of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, or along the Pacific coastline of Big Sur, California; on the heart-stirring Inca Trail to the Machhu Pichhu ruins, once so remote and so secluded even the occupying Spaniards could not access to discover; the awe-inspiring rock-strewn, rugged trail from the ice-sculpture-adorned Base Camp to the blue-tin-roof-dominated Namche Bazaar in the Himalayas; or in out-of-this-world pristine Antarctica.
A man in a blue suit --- the head cardiologist of the hospital (HCH) --- stomped in. 'Who told you to run marathons with this?' HCH asked in a prosecutorial tone, stressing the word 'this'. 'This' was a chart with up-and-down lines along a horizontal axis, an electrocardiogram (ECG) of my heart.
'I,' I answered his rather cryptic question with one letter. 'You could have been a widow, you know,' HCH proclaimed looking at my wife. I felt obliged to elaborate. I shared that: I ran 29 marathons since 2000, four of which were over six months in 2014; I had a so-called 'athlete's heart' (enlarged heart); none of my cardiologists were against my running and, in fact, both (one retired) encouraged me to do so. Looking at HCH's face, I could figure that those were what he did not want to hear. (Two weeks later, I would know better. My new cardiologist Dr Barry and HCH had 'agreed to disagree on the topic of running by their patients'.)
Night fell, ushering in cold air to the private room. Wife and son left for home. A young night-time Calgary Florence Nightingale entered. She did not have to hold a lamp; her smile brightened my bed. She was a runner as well. We kept talking about marathons until she realized there were other patients to attend to. She gave me a sleeping pill before turning off the lights. The hospital bed, with all its patient-friendly gadgets, felt more comfortable than the one I have at home. Present comfort of the hospital bed was soon replaced with a feeling of ill-at-ease, when its history crossed my mind. A long-forgotten Matlab superstition of lying on a bed, on which others had passed away, surfaced. In the silence and the darkness of the room, I thought heard someone's laboured breathing. I was relieved to figure that it was mine. Then I felt a definite squeeze on my right arm! Before I freaked out, I figured that it was the blood-pressure monitoring device around my arm, squeezing and recording readings periodically. Not long after, the pill started lulling my fear-imagining tired brain to sleep.
Morning dawned, bringing in a tray of breakfast. Wife and son returned with smiles and left with long faces, not knowing where I was in the queue. As they were leaving, I could feel a touch on my right leg. It was my son's. I took it as his way of saying good-bye, in case I went to a deep sleep for good.
I was in a queue for a procedure in the Foothills Hospital, 12 km away from the Rockyview. Patients, who were in immediate danger or had already suffered heart attacks, were allowed to jump that queue. The Foothills did not have the rooms to hold me, 'before' and 'after' the procedure; the Rockyview had the rooms, but not the facilities required 'during'.
Seriatim of patients for many resource-limited tests and procedures is common in the Canadian public health care system. For that, physicians have to make judgment calls. An outwardly healthy marathon runner like me did not fare well in their rankings. It did not matter that: both my mother and brother had died of strokes; the troubling treadmill test in 2014 was already hinting of a not-so-distant storm; my marathon finish times since 2013 were getting much longer than ageing could account for; and I was complaining about chest congestion for the first four months of 2015. Still, I was placed in 'priority 2' for a CT scan. (Mr Barry would divulge two weeks later that if I were in the US, in a private health care system, I would have been sent for the CT scan, at least a year earlier, perhaps soon after the treadmill test.)
The day after the procedure, as we were leaving, HCH looked in the direction of my wife and delivered a stern sermon: 'Make sure he does not run another marathon again,' stressing the word 'again'. To her respite, he did not utter the ill-omened 'widow' word again.
Feeling numbness, pins and needles here and there, and after making two more emergency room visits, I had to make a choice between living like a patient and attempting to rebound from the setback to live an active life.
A stroke specialist and a new cardiologist, both former marathon runners, encouraged me to continue running. One even suggested that, if I wanted, I could aim for a half-marathon, sometime in September of 2016. I should ease into it, though, he cautioned.
On 22 December, 2015, I registered for a marathon. Like the first, my 30th will be in Vancouver, Canada. It was dedicated to the Association of BUET Alumni (ABUETA).
Rebounding from a setback by running is something I had done in the sixties. In those formative years, psychosomatic illnesses --- feeling spasms, squeezes, twitches all over the body and in the brain --- due to stress and lack of nutrition, were interfering with my studies at Matlab High School, where maintaining top class position was my 'priority one'. But there were no doctors in the village. And even if they were, my widow mother could not have afforded them. I had to come up with my own coping skills. I ran short distances and played football (soccer) that required running. I drew inspiration from a phrase 'Man can work wonder' I had written down, using a white chalk pencil, on the upper interior door panel of my house. I tried to push away the recurring troubling thoughts, uttering phrases like: 'These are temporary feelings caused by bad nerves; they'll go away.' (The remaining segment of this article will appear tomorrow.)
Tapan Chakrabarty --- a BUET chemical engineer with a PhD from the University of Waterloo, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor, an innovator, and a columnist --- writes from Calgary, Canada. (In the article, Mary and Dr Barry are not their real names.)