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Illustration by Drew Shannon

“We don’t want you walking alone anymore,” my kids said to me recently. The comment took me back to when I was courting their mother and our song was You’ll Never Walk Alone by Gerry and the Pacemakers. That summer, we saw the band perform live at a nightclub in Winnipeg where my wife-to-be fell down some stairs without spilling a drop of the two pints she was carrying. She was a keeper. And so I was able to agree with my children: “With a wonderful wife and great kids, I’ll never walk alone.”

Unfortunately, they weren’t speaking metaphorically.

In the fall of 2020, I started getting sudden dizziness and shortness of breath when I moved my left arm all the way across my body. Now this particular movement is only required for two things: buckling your seatbelt and washing your right armpit. There are workarounds for both. So, I didn’t take the new symptoms as seriously as I should have. In my defence, as a person with heart failure, I’m short of breath all the time on exertion. What’s a little more? Besides, I didn’t want to catch COVID-19 by going to the hospital.

At the end of December, things got weirder. I was alone in the basement when I heard a loud Amber Alert. The TV was off and I spent a few minutes looking for a cell phone in the seat cushions. When I went upstairs, my daughter said her phone wasn’t downstairs and she hadn’t heard the alert.

An hour later – there it was again! I started looking around again when my daughter shouted, “Dad, it’s coming from your chest!”

I got my first pacemaker in 1992 at the age of 30. In 2002, I got my first combination pacemaker/defibrillator, which required the insertion of an extra wire, called the “shocking coil.” By the time of this mysterious, hideous claxoning, I was on my fifth pacemaker. I never knew my implanted device could blare out an Amber Alert, let alone what that meant. And so I gave in to the natural impulse that arises from hearing a loud siren coming from your chest – I freaked out – then headed to the emergency department at Toronto General Hospital.

The time elapsed, from emergency to hospital admission to the operating room, was about 36 hours. What the Amber Alert had been trying to tell me was that the shocking coil had cracked. Not only was it not going to shock me out of any dangerous heart arrhythmia, but it had, on dozens of occasions, momentarily disrupted the regular pacing function that I’m dependent on. You guessed it, these were the seatbelt and armpit reaches! These particular movements were apparently bending the shocking coil at the fracture point and causing momentary short circuits. Thus was solved the mystery.

Clearly, the old shocking coil had to be replaced by a new one. But after 18 years on the inside, the wire had become very attached to me – again not speaking metaphorically – and it had to be lasered out. The surgery went smoothly and so, on the last day of 2020, I became the proud owner of a shiny new shocking coil. They also threw in a new pacemaker, my sixth. That gave me, as of that date, as many pacemakers as Tom Brady had Super Bowl victories.

Out for some exercise in late January, 2021, I walked down my street and was circling a parking lot prior to heading back home. All of a sudden, I felt severe chest discomfort and nausea and my next memory is waking up on the ground with a sore and bleeding head. The world was spinning. Some good Samaritans – at a safe COVID-19 distance, God bless their souls – were looking down at me and telling each other to call an ambulance.

Back at Toronto General, after tests relating to my obvious concussion, electrophysiologists were called to carry out what is called an “interrogation” of my new pacemaker. The interrogation involves placing a magnet on the chest whereupon the device below spills all its secrets onto a portable computer, a process much more efficient than any good-cop/bad-cop routine and much more humane than water-boarding. It was determined that my heart had gone into ventricular tachycardia at 218 beats a minute before my defibrillator kicked in and delivered, in the understated words of my cardiologist, an “appropriate shock.” The doctors were clear that I’d have been dead without the internal defibrillator; it saved my life.

That’s when it hit me. If this had happened, say, back in November of 2020, when I was futzing around with workarounds for armpit washing, I’d be dead. My death would have fallen in the not-easily-quantifiable-but-likely-far-too-large category of indirect COVID-19 deaths, fatalities caused by other conditions that went untreated because of the fear of catching the virus at the hospital. I was fortunate that the otherwise lethal arrhythmia postponed its arrival until I had a new, properly functioning shocking coil with my pacemaker. I was lucky to have had only a near-death experience. My message to others is not to roll those dice. Get your problems seen to.

Sadly, in between my two cardiac emergencies, Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers died. But it’s clear he’d want me to “walk on through the rain,” and the freedom to do it solo, on my timetable, is one I value greatly. I fully intend to live long enough to get as many pacemakers as it takes to keep up with Tom Brady.

Perhaps my kids, both in engineering, can design me some headwear that’s more protective than, but as fashionable as, my Winnipeg Jets tuque. With their hat on my head, I’ll never get concussed alone. Again, not metaphorical.

Rudy Buller lives in Toronto.

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