Wednesday, 7 November 2012
Walking to a Standstill
Later that day I had to take Mum to see her Cardiologists, one of either Dr Alton or Dr Braniff, at their private consulting rooms for her treadmill test. Apart from determining the damage to her heart and to see how Mum had recovered since her Heart Attack, we also needed approval for Mum to fly, firstly to the Bay Area and my home; after further recuperation she’d then fly back to England. We drove to their offices and a very nervous Cynthia Weaver got out of the car and we walked into the reception. I announced our arrival to the Receptionist and we took seats and waited, Mum was fidgeting about with her bag, then her hair, then her nails, not talking very much and I knew she was worried, as neither of us knew what a treadmill test involved. Dr Alton appeared with a nurse at his side and introduced the nurse and himself again to Mum and I. We walked through the offices to a room that had a curtain down the middle, a desk, an examination couch and three chairs. Dr Alton asked Mum to go behind the curtain and to gown up and then he took her pulse, blood pressure and a small amount of blood that he passed to the nurse, who disappeared with it.
He explained that he wanted to test her blood for enzymes that indicate heart damage and whether her levels had returned to normal or nearer to a normal reading as could be expected. He then addressed the treadmill test and pulled apart the curtains to reveal a large treadmill of the kind found in most gymnasiums those days. Mum was to start on the treadmill at walking pace and after a short while once she was comfortable, Dr Alton would incrementally increase the speed of the belt to the point where Mum would be walking fast, (which actually turned out to be the understatement of the week). She could ask him to stop at any time and he would be in control of the machine making sure she could manage and was not in any pain. She would need to be linked up to monitors and he commenced by placing sticky pads on her skin around her chest and back. He then linked cables to these pads that led to the monitors. Mum looked across to me and I tried my best to be positive and smiled back, saying things such as “You’ll be fine Mum,” and “I went on one of those once, they’re great fun!” Twat that I am!
Mum manoeuvred around the treadmill and gingerly stepped onto it, placing her hands on the side rails and walked to the very front of the pathway wearing a gown, her own purple tracksuit bottoms and a pair of trainers. Dr Alton asked that I remain seated during the test, so I nodded my head and then once happy with Mums positioning, he turned on the treadmill and the recording began. Mum began walking forward quite at ease with herself, Dr Alton checked a number of the dials and referred to numbers being printed off as her progress continued. After a few minutes he informed Mum that he was going to increase the rate of speed slightly, that she should step up her pace to match and that she should tell him whether she felt any discomfort. Mum said that was fine and continued walking, my perception being that she had only increased her speed slightly. Once again, after a few more minutes he said the same words, he’d be increasing the speed and she’d need to match her pace to the treadmill, but this time there was a noticeable speed increase at which Mum said “oo-er!” but she carried on, her breathing becoming slightly more exaggerated but still not too concerning. After a few more minutes the pattern repeated itself and the speed increased again, Mum now progressing at a good rate and starting to show the effects slightly as she gripped the handrails more tightly. I looked across at Dr Alton who catching my stare shook his head as if to say, ‘don’t worry’. This speed remained in place for around five minutes and then increased again; the notice given by the Doctor and the change made. By now Mum was really striding purposefully along; her breathing clearly audible and her face flushing as she chased along on top of the treadmill. Every now and then she would make a noise similar to her earlier “oo-er”, I would look at Dr Alton and he’d shake his head.
Eventually Dr Alton said he was going to apply a final speed increase and did just that. Mum gave a little 'shriek' but stayed upright and her pace was a very fast walk indeed. She had started to perspire; her hands gripped the rails for support, not just for the purpose of reassurance and comfort and she started to say that she did not think she could carry on much longer. I looked at Dr Alton with some alarm but again he shook his head (Mum being unaware of our quiet communication) and he gave her words of encouragement whilst hastily making notes and marks on print outs. The nurse standing to the other side of Mum was offering her own words of support but I was sure that at any moment Mum would give in and I had vision of her being flung across the room backwards, straight into Dr Alton and his machines and monitors. Her little feet were a blur as she walked faster than she’d walked for many a year, left after right after left after right, on and on and on. I saw her pretty face flushed and sweaty, the gown billowing as she surged along, her breathing getting heavier and harder. I wanted to shout out “C’mon man, stop the thing, stop her walking now, that’s enough”. I was really worried, but was caught between jumping up and staying put as ordered.
Just as Mum was almost at the point of collapse Dr Alton began to reduce the speed, I wanted to get up and help Mum but as hard as it was, I remained seated. In slow stages the speed of the treadmill reduced to a slow walk and then stopped. Mum hung onto the rails to stop herself from sliding to the floor. “Well done” said Dr Alton, “Really, very well done Cynthia, you did better than I expected”. I said much the same thing as Mum with the aid of the nurse, clambered off of the apparatus and stumbling over, took a seat next to me. Looking at her, I could see tears forming in her eyes, but she was a tough customer and would not cry even when pushed to the limit physically or mentally.
I held her hand and once more felt the tough skin between the thumb and index finger on her left hand, where she’d scalded herself many years ago. The skins natural stretch lines had hardened into stiff ridges that no amount of moisturiser was going to soften but I found that with continuous massage, it would become more pliable and tender. Her face was bright red, her freckles more pronounced and her eyes, whilst full and watery with the stress, only projected her spirit and inner strength as she smiled as though delighted by the fun of it all. The kind of strength that comes from being mother to five children, two who had grown up with serious illnesses, whose husband had worked so hard he’d died of a cardiac arrest at 53! Looking back I wonder whether the fear I saw in her during those weeks, had been amplified by the memories of her husbands loss when he was so young and it was so unexpected.
Dr Alton sat down in his swivel chair and spun himself around to face us both. “Cynthia, that was excellent! You walked far faster and further than I would have thought possible given your recent heart attack and can tell you that it is very unlikely that you will ever exert yourself to the extent of the test in future”. I smiled at Mum and said that that was great news. “Your heart is almost as strong now as it has ever been Cynthia, you are at very little risk of another heart attack. However you must make some changes to diet and exercise if you are to ensure you remain fit and healthy, the nurse has some pamphlets for you to take away, Nurse?” To which the nurse then handed me a large A4 sized envelope stuffed with information. Mum had by now caught her breath and was able to speak up. She asked Dr Alton when she could return to England and he advised that she would be able to fly back to San Francisco within a week, as the flight would travel at a lower altitude than a large inter-continental airliner and that after another few weeks in San Francisco recuperating, she would be well enough to fly home. “Mum cannot fly home on her own”, I said “but the Insurance Company will not meet the cost of my flight unless specifically told by her surgeon that she cannot fly home unaccompanied”. “Ridiculous isn’t it” said Dr Alton, “I’ll write you a letter, you can collect it anytime after tomorrow”.
Mum went behind the curtain and emerged looking like she had never taken the test. Her hair was combed, her make-up re-done and her face shone with a bright smile. Mum turned to Dr Alton and taking his hand had thanked him for care and asked him to pass on her regards to Dr Braniff. In the future, whenever we spoke of those days in Santa Barbara, Mum would speak of the two Cardiac Surgeons as though they were saints. I suppose they were to her and we certainly owe them and the entire medical services team at the St Francis Hospital, along with the Paramedics in the Ambulance the same level of respect and thanks.
We drove back to our Motel and rested for the remainder of that day. A visit to Rodeo Drive just in case she might see Joan Collins was the order of the following day and another trip out to Solvang and Lake Cachuma rounded off our time in Santa Barbara quite nicely. Mum sent cards to both her Cardiologists and Dr Alton wrote to Mum on a number of occasions over the years, as she would write to him and send cards at Christmas each year.
Written and Posted by Jonathan Weaver