On the Thursday before Easter Dale Erb and his wife, Maria, were making a beeline for the Kansas Heart Hospital in Wichita.
A few hours earlier, during a checkup with a visiting cardiologist at Allen County Regional Hospital, Erb learned that his heart — which an echocardiogram revealed working at only 20 percent capacity, and on the downslide — was in need of rapid medical attention.
“Dr. Reusser left the room and my wife and I tried to compose ourselves. Out in the hallway, [he] stopped us and he looked at my wife and he said, ‘Is there any reason you can’t have Dale at the Heart Hospital tonight?’ ‘No,’ she said. But she asked, ‘Why tonight? Why not Tuesday?’” Erb was already marked down for a heart catheterization the next week. “His answer was: ‘I cannot guarantee that Dale will be alive on Tuesday.’”
ERB HAD come down with a slight cough the previous fall — a cough that persisted well into winter. By March, indications were that it was more than a common cold. Erb was referred to a pulmonologist, who, finding fluid in the 59-year-old’s lungs, insisted that he meet with a cardiologist.
In 1997, Erb, who has a family history of heart trouble, underwent a triple bypass. “The surgeon that did that told me: ‘I will see you back on the table in five years.’ He said that is the average. That was 18 years ago. But, trust me, for the last six months of that five-year-plan, I was watching the calendar. ”
And so, last spring, when Dr. Reusser described the grim read-out of his echo test, Erb felt all his thoughts being swept back out to sea, “to the point where I was just like: ‘Is this real? Is this actually real?’”
But he quickly buried the thought. ”The doctor wanted us at the Heart Hospital that night. So, you know, we processed it, and decided at that point in time: I’m not done. We are not giving up.”
AS THE ERBS neared Wichita, a storm was brewing in the winds. Dark clouds churned above the city and the air around them grew quiet. They had reached their two grown daughters by phone earlier, to warn them of the sudden swerve their day had taken.
“And then it hit,” said Erb. “That was the night the big storm came to Wichita, knocking out power as it went.” The blackout fanned out across the east side of the city. Streetlights on both sides of the road were going dark. “We were seeing them go out as we passed.”
By the time the pair reached the hospital, the power was out there, too. The life-support machines in each room continued to pulse throughout that night, thanks to building’s backup generator — but Erb’s catheter test was delayed until Monday, and the couple spent Easter in the hospital’s care.
“A [cardiac catheterization],” said Erb, “is when they go through your groin with a long tube, and go into your larger blood vessel. They go up with a camera and look at all the veins, vessels and valves of your heart.”
The results of the test showed a heart long-assaulted by a severe viral infection. While Erb did not require a second bypass, he was judged to be at high risk for sudden cardiac death, and was outfitted with a special — wearable — defibrillator, a Zoll Medical LifeVest.
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