Someone else was on the line. "Your husband has had some sort of problem. It seems he had some kind of seizure and his heart stopped. He's in the ambulance right now on the way to the hospital." I was at the pay phone in the K-Mart parking lot. Sean and Brendan, 7 and 4 years old, were standing next to me. Michel was 37 and had just been resuscitated by paramedics from “sudden death.” I was dumbfounded.
I was beginning to learn how life can change entirely in just a matter of seconds. We were in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida, along the Intracoastal Waterway, anchored at the Waterway icon known as Dragon Point. It was very near Melbourne in Central Florida, at the southern tip of Merritt Island, home to the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral. We arrived in June 1985 under less than ideal circumstances. Michel had a broken finger from our recent anchoring mishap in the Caribbean, and was physically compromised with a bothersome hernia. To top if off, the boat’s engine died (never to live again) the evening before our final entry into the port of Cape Canaveral. We had sailed back to the States by way of the Caribbean, coming up from Cayenne, French Guiana, making stops in Martinique, Dominica, The Saints, Guadeloupe, and a few other overnight anchorages before a final passage from St. Martin directly to Cape Canaveral.
It was becoming clear that we needed to tend to some housekeeping issues during this stay in Florida: Michel needed an operation for his hernia and it seemed we were faced with buying a new engine for our boat. Multiple diagnoses from several mechanics, as well as following some subsequent procedures of elimination, determined that Cowabunga's engine had seen its last days. The only viable and most prudent solution was to buy a new one. Even though we rarely used engine power for navigation, it was still necessary for safety and living purposes, anchoring maneuvers, docking maneuvers, charging the boat’s batteries, etc., but just up-and-buying a new engine wasn’t that simple. We were running out of money.
Consequently, we reassessed our situation, options, plans of action. It was time to put our travels on hold, settle for a while, find some work, solve these problems, and put the boys in school. For what was originally intended as a quick stop in Central Florida to visit Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center, it eventually stretched out to a three-year hiatus, whereupon we made lifelong friends and became fully integrated into the community.
Michel found architectural work almost immediately with NASA-affiliated architectural and engineering firms. There was an elementary and pre-school just a short dinghy trip up a canal in the Waterway near where we were anchored, and after several months, I found some part time work teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at the Florida Institute of Technology, as well as freelance writing for the local newspaper.
While still living on the boat at anchor at Dragon Point in the Intracoastal Waterway, we settled into a fairly predictable work-and-school routine. By optimizing a Christmas jaunt to France, Michel was able to alleviate his hernia issue with an operation, and we were also able to purchase and install a new engine thanks to a loan from my sister. It was urgent that we install a new engine as soon as possible because being at anchor during hurricane season could be a dangerous situation if we lacked maneuverability.
We had actually been in Central Florida for almost two years when I was hit by this news over the phone in the parking lot. We were just getting back on our feet again, paying our debts, putting some money aside, and looking at being able to continue our travels again. At this point in 1987, with cell phones still the stuff of fictional James Bond gadgetry, I was in the habit of checking in with Michel about once a day at his office from a local pay phone. It was during one of my regular “check-in” calls that I was transferred to a colleague in the architectural firm BRPH where Michel was working at the time.
I heard the words but I wasn’t listening. It wasn’t sinking in. How do you die of a heart attack at 37 years old? Was it a heart attack? What did it mean “sudden death”? Of what? It was surreal. This happened to other people I would read about in the newspaper.
The person on the other end of the line told me that another colleague was on his way to our boat to pick me up and take me to the hospital. I hurried back to the boat with Sean and Brendan in tow. To get to the boat, we had access down a private dirt road on the very southern tip of Merritt Island, where we would tie up our dinghy to a dock at the rundown “Shack,” as it was known to locals. We had become friends with Susan, who lived just two doors down from the Shack, and her little boy was good friends with Brendan. She saw me running down the road and she quickly called out that a black car was driving around looking for me. I very hastily told her the little I knew of what was going on. Then I ran into Bill (another neighbor-become-good-friend and in front of whose house we were anchored), who was also frantically searching for me to give me the news. This news was traveling fast and I still didn’t really know what happened or what was going on.
Susan instantly took the kids, and the black car driven by Mike, one of Michel’s colleagues, caught up with me; off we went to the hospital while he gave me a brief synopsis.
It seems Michel literally collapsed in the office while walking down the hallway. Someone performed CPR immediately, which as it turned out, literally saved his life. An ambulance on a training drill just happened to be right in the neighborhood, arriving on the scene within minutes. The paramedics dispensed a couple shocks from the defibrillator paddles and Michel was no longer dead to the world. But that didn’t solve the initial problem of what exactly happened and why.
I found Michel in the emergency room, hooked up to all kinds of equipment. I was frightened, he was frantic. Clipboards were thrust at me: sign this, sign that. He kept asking me over and over again: What happened? and didn’t remember asking me the same question just several minutes before. He didn’t understand where he was; he had no memory of what happened. All he knew was that he was suddenly in an ambulance. I wanted to break down and cry but I couldn’t for his sake. I was just as confused as he was, and terribly afraid of what would come next. Did he have heart disease? Would this, could this, happen again? Would our boys be without a father? Would I lose him? Did he need an operation? Were we through sailing forever? How much was this going to cost? Everything ran through my head—and in no particular order.
The months that followed were full of uncertainty and a lot of waiting. After a few initial days and a gamut of tests conducted in the hospital in Melbourne, it was determined that Michel actually had a very healthy heart: no disease, no blockage, no high blood pressure, no cholesterol. The doctors’ best guess was that Michel most likely had an electrical impulse problem and in order to properly determine this, he should be transferred to a specialty unit at another hospital in Lakeland, two hours away across the state. There was an enormous amount of logistics involved with Michel being in Lakeland: my going to visit him, the kids and school, a decent car for me to get there...We could never have managed without our good friends and neighbors Susan and Patrick, and Bill and Josephine. Their solidarity and unflinching support got us through this. Susan and Patrick took care of Sean and Brendan and fed us. Bill and Josephine loaned me a car that was in good working order for the almost-daily two hour trek to Lakeland (as opposed to our $500 1970s era jalopy that couldn’t be counted on to make the trip).
Dr. Kevin Browne, the head of the electrophysiology unit at the Lakeland hospital determined that Michel’s problem was ventricular fibrillation. He conducted test after test on Michel’s heart for one month, determining at what speed of electrical impulses his heart would essentially just “snuff out.” They would electrically incite his heart to beat at such a rapid pace that it couldn’t handle it anymore, and just quit. Apparently, normal hearts can handle great speeds, Michel’s couldn’t. Dr. Browne’s final prognosis was that Michel could greatly benefit from an “implantable defibrillator”—today a common item as small as a pacemaker (and in many cases, even combined with a pacemaker). In 1987 it was still experimental, and a unit as big as a Walkman (for those who remember this from pre-iPod era, a personal, portable music player), or the size of a small hand, to be implanted in the abdomen, with lead wires going up to the heart.
Dr. Browne couldn’t confirm that this device was the end-all or ideal solution for Michel, or even that he could or couldn’t die without it. Michel’s heart could have another “sudden death” episode, or it could never happen again. We could take our chances of having it implanted, or living without. “Implanting” involved being on a waiting list and eventual open heart surgery, and all the discomfort such a major operation entailed for convalescence. Now things were getting even more complicated, scary, and financially out of hand. We had a last resort option to go back to France to try to sort all this out, which we decided to do.
Through a French medical travel insurance we had at the time, a doctor and nurse were sent to us in Florida and acted in a “medevac” capacity to Michel as they escorted us back to France. There were too many unknowns in Michel’s condition to allow him to be isolated from immediate access to medical assistance should the need arise again. It took another two months in France of exams, confirmations, wait lists and a multitude of other complications before surgery was finally performed. As in the States, all this was a fairly new and experimental cardiac treatment and procedure in France, and is it turned out, Michel was only the second person to have an implantable defibrillator in France and among just a handful in the United States at the time.
After almost a total of four months after Michel’s initial episode of sudden death had occurred in March, we came back to Florida the following July, morally exhausted, financially wiped out, and in debt. We would have to start all over—again.
My husband used to joke that even though he never saw the storied “tunnel of light” often associated with a near-death experience, he does lament his lack of foresight in not founding a “born again” church. All profits would have been tax-free—as is often the case for churches—and perhaps we would have avoided some of the money woes that dogged us for some time after this experience.
As it turned out, Michel only ended up keeping the defibrillator for three years. It was rather cumbersome and uncomfortable to live with, and not an ideal solution. Following a subsequent surgery three years later to change the battery, massive infection set in, and for a second time, Michel was on death’s doorstep. We opted to have the device completely removed and live with the risk. As I write this today, almost 30 years later, he has never had another bout of “sudden death” and he is alive and well—as I tell the tale.