My dog saved my life
It was eleven years ago today that I woke up confused. I didn't understand what was happening, yet I was not alarmed, but quite content to lay in my tiny bed hidden within a secret studio where I slept inside my machine shop.
I had given up my apartment to focus on my work, which could be considered an obsession at the time. My studio "apartment" contained a bed, a wardrobe, microwave, hot plate, bean bag, space heater, and a video monitor cycling through cameras inside each CNC machine and the entire shop. Oscar, my 5-pound dog, slept with me every night to stay warm since Minnesota winters could get down to sixty below zero. On some nights, the temperature in my studio was below 40 degrees fahrenheit.
Laying there in confusion, I began to notice I was slipping away mentally. My perception of what was happening was from a completely different perspective than a normal person. I could feel my mind drifting into a new world of carefree solitude. Then I realized that I need to let Oscar down from the bed, which I had built over a storage space approximately four feet high. If I died, he wouldn't be able to get down. Who would find him? And would he survive until someone noticed I was missing? Oscar became my focus despite most of my mind wanting to drift away.
My arm didn't move. My leg didn't move. I began asking my arm and leg to move, but nothing happened. They seemed invisible in that moment. Then I remembered having very bad chest pains the night before. So bad that I had violently sat up in bed in the middle of the night in terrible pain. Why won't my mind recognize the left side of my body? How will I save Oscar. It was clear to me I was not going to survive more than a few minutes. All I could think of was Oscar.
That's when I realized that my right arm was working! I grabbed Oscar and tossed him over my body and onto the floor. I hope he is alright. To this day, he has been suffering hip and knee issues, maybe from May 11, 2012. This is when I realized that Oscar was still in trouble. The false wall that was actually my studio bedroom door was very heavy. I designed it with a magnetic spring lock system that required much more force than Oscar could exert. I needed to get on the floor and open that door for him, so he would be found and not starve to death in my room.
We all learn from our mistakes, and as a designer, I have learned my fair share of lessons. On this morning, I discovered a major design flaw in the bed frame I had built. I had cut a piece of plywood to fit the length of the bed from a 48" x 96" stock sheet. I left the original stock 48" width and made that the height of my bed out of convenience to save extra cutting. My actual mattress sat down approximately 6" below that external frame, which now acted like a wall holding me in the bed.
With only my right side working, and the only exit from my enclosed bed also on my right side, I was having major issues getting over that 6" design flaw. Without the use of my left leg, it seemed impossible to push myself over the edge. Shapes of objects were becoming less important, and I felt like giving into the freedom of not thinking about it anymore. Then I noticed Oscar. He was whining in a way that made me very concerned. While laying flat, and looking straight up to the ceiling, I used my right arm and leg to pull myself over the edge, back first. I fell onto the step stool I regularly used to get in and out of bed. Oscar ran up to me and licked me incessantly.
As I laid on the floor, I realized I could not save Oscar. My phone had fallen out of bed with me, and I held it in my right hand for awhile wondering what it was. A strange glassy black object that is thin, but relatively heavy. It was a wonder. A light on the phone blinked. I said out loud, "Oh, this is a phone! I can use it to call for help." But what I heard made no sense at all. I could no longer speak. How can I call for help if I can't talk? And who will find me here behind a false wall in a machine shop? All the doors to the shop were locked, and each was more than 100 feet away from my hidden location.
I attempted to send a text message to Jen asking her to find Oscar and help him, but I didn't realize at the time that she was on vacation with her boyfriend many hours away. She sent a text message back, and I realized I couldn't read it. In fact, I couldn't read my own message to her. What is wrong with my phone? Maybe they aren't used for words? I should just go to sleep.
I awoke to Oscar licking me and whining. He seemed so upset, so I made an attempt to open the massive false wall door, which was easily 6 feet wide and 7 feet high. I crawled to the door and pushed. It opened easily, but Oscar wouldn't leave. I thought, If I could get to the front door, I could let him outside. The floor was like sand. Moving in the correct direction was an impossible task. All of my effort moved me just a few inches. "Why am I so weak?" My speech was garbled.
I have no idea how long had passed from when I awoke until I made it over 100 feet to the door, but I got there only to realize the door lock was too high to reach. After numerous attempts, I stood up on one leg and leaned into the door, unlocked it and got outside. My Tahoe was right there! I could get help by driving to the hospital. Oscar would be okay.
There was originally a 4-foot high loading dock at this door, as this was an industrial building originally used to manufacture the monitor displays for NASA Apollo missions in the 1960s. Back then, components were heavy, and those monitors were small, but thick and heavy, so I guess they made a lot of them and loaded them into trucks on this dock. I've seen the original Apollo and other NASA monitors and devices made here, as the owner of the building has a small repair shop where they still service them today in the building next door.
The good news is that there was a railing along the edge of the original dock, and the dock had been filled in with dirt years ago to form a ramp so we could use a forklift to load our CNC machines into the shop space. That railing is barely reachable from the front door, and my Tahoe was parked on the ramp. I stumbled with one leg and one arm to the driver side door and found the key in my pocket. For some reason, I had gone to bed in my clothes with my keys, wallet, and phone in my pockets. Maybe I wasn't feeling well the night before? I don't recall.
Once in my vehicle, I thought I would drive to the hospital. After some serious difficulty trying to enter "hospital" into my phone GPS, I started driving. The GPS showed an arrow to make the next turn. Now does that arrow mean go left or right? What is left? What is right? What is an arrow? It was too late. I had lost all ability to read or interpret simple symbols like arrows. The concept of one way or the other was no longer part of my reality.
I drove and drove and drove until I found a red cross symbol on a sign. I believe it was the red color that made me believe it would be helpful. Today, I know firsthand why hospitals around the globe use that recognizable red cross symbol. Eleven years ago, it was the only symbol that meant anything to me. I had taken an exit following the sign, but could not find the hospital. What is a hospital? Why am I going there? Who am I?
I continued driving around and saw another red cross symbol on the top of a building. I was so tired. Maybe I should close my eyes. Are all of my limbs missing? Or just some of them? Confusion was my reality, and I was slipping away. I drove directly towards the red cross sign. Later, I learned that I had driven over medians, bushes, grass, parking blocks, and anything in my way to get directly to the door of the building with the red cross symbol.
I crawled to the door and it opened automatically. I asked for help. A nurse ran to me and helped me get into a chair. She asked for my insurance. "What is insurance?" The nurse realized I could not talk. I closed my eyes.
I believe Oscar saved my life on this day, eleven years ago. And today, he's laying right here next to me at my desk, sleeping contently with sore knees and hips. I am forever grateful for so many blessings in life, one of them being my best friend on four legs. He'll be thirteen years old in July, and I'm starting to see him show his age. I celebrate May 11th every year. And I always imagine today is "Oscar Day" since he is very likely the reason I didn't slip away that morning.
There's obviously much more to this story, and yes, it is all true. I was born with a large hole between my left and right atrium that caused dozens of strokes and heart attacks throughout my lifetime. This particular stroke followed a heart attack the night before, and resulted in me losing all of my memories from before that event. My life as I know it began that morning at 37 years of age. I was also born with only one carotid artery, which was a contributing factor, and explains why all of my strokes were left side only.
Why did I share this nearly tragic event with you today? To remind you to take care of yourself and be aware of the risk factors of cardiovascular events like stroke, heart attack, and pulmonary embolism. I've suffered all of these many times, and was lucky enough to survive. But I am the exception.
Please take a few minutes today to reflect on your health and the health of those you love. Ask yourself how you can prevent a stroke or heart attack. Do you know how to respond in either situation? How can you get training that could potentially save a life? Your doctor should be your primary resource for your personal health, but you can also learn a lot very quickly from organizations like the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association.
Please remember my story and share it with others. We all need to feel comfortable discussing health concerns, so that we can be aware, and consciously make good decisions. Learning to recognize the risks and signs of heart disease can save lives every day of the week.
I cannot imagine life without me here today. That sounds funny, but I have literally worked with thousands of trumpet players since May 11, 2012. And all of those people have helped shape who I am today. Maybe I had some impact on them as well.
Since I had my first stroke as a child, I knew there was a good chance I would not live much longer, and that reality encouraged me to live up to my potential so that I could experience and share as much as possible. Today, I'm 48 years old, and I cannot believe that I've lived so long, learned so much, and experienced so many amazing people, places, and events.
Let's all find ways to improve our physical and mental health. And let's do it together by sharing our experiences. Discussing these challenges in a positive way can be the first step to creating a better reality.
Happy Oscar Day!
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Inventor, Musician, Educator and Founder of Harrelson Trumpets, Trumpet Momentum and Harrelson Momentum.