Dave Nichols: After open heart surgery, thankful to be back, thankful to be anywhere

May 4—You may have noticed (or not) that my byline didn't appear on these pages for the better part of four weeks in March and early April. There's a reason for that, and I'm a very lucky guy to be sitting here typing these words.

No — I wasn't suspended, and I wasn't on sabbatical. Nor was I on extended spring break in some tropical paradise, in Arizona at baseball spring training or following a rock band across the Pacific Time Zone. I would have gladly taken any of those. I can joke about it now, but at the time it was no laughing matter.

On March 14, I underwent emergency double bypass open heart surgery.

First, the grizzly details: the large artery on the left side of my heart was 80% blocked, the one on the right 60%. They were both bypassed and now functioning at 100%. My surgeon had hoped to do two more bypasses on the back of my heart, but the two arteries — which were 100% occluded — had "crumbled" according to my surgeon and no longer candidates for bypass.

As I said, I'm lucky. I was a massive coronary waiting to happen.

I was in the hospital for a week, then released into the care of my wife Cheryl and my brother Jim, who came out from West Virginia to help me get settled back home.

I am happy — very happy, in fact — to announce that my doctors expect me to have a full recovery and resume my normal, hectic lifestyle.

You aren't rid of me yet.

The purpose for me writing this is two-fold. As a person who makes a living communicating though words, the process of telling my story in a public forum will help me continue processing everything that has happened — and how much is still to come.

The other reason is that if these words help one person take better control of their health situation, then my ordeal will have more than just personal meaning in the bigger scheme of things.

How we got here

I started having mild symptoms in the fall of 2021. It wasn't pain, really. It was more like an occasional, slight discomfort right behind my sternum. I chalked it up to be overweight and out of shape from sheltering in place for 16 months during the early days of the pandemic. That's what it felt like, anyway — just lightly winded from activity. Whenever I stopped moving, it went away. I didn't think much of it.

I put up with that for nearly a year. I know. In retrospect, I ignored early warning signs. But it wasn't debilitating, and it would go away.

During the summer of 2022, it started flaring up more often, and worse. I finally talked with my primary care about it, and she sent me for a cardiac workup. In early September I went for a stress test but couldn't go more than 45 seconds on the treadmill. I was supposed to have a follow-up for a drug-induced stress test (which would have found the problem) but for whatever reason, that never happened.

Here's where it gets sideways.

In October, I was helping Cheryl with a photo shoot at a sorority in Pullman — carrying and setting up lights and other equipment. The discomfort behind my sternum flared up again, but I would rest and resume. That went on all afternoon. It flared up pretty bad as we were packing up and I fought through it, figuring it would calm down on the ride home.

It didn't.

I drove the entire way back with it "acting up," and we went straight to urgent care. They gave me an EKG and did bloodwork, which both came back normal. After about two hours the doctor gave me some pink liquid to drink — and the pain went away. It was a numbing solution and he told me I had esophagitis and to follow up with my primary care.

For a full year we treated this as a G.I. problem. I had an upper endoscopy in May of 2023, which came back normal. That December I had an esophageal manometry test where they stick a probe through your nose, down your esophagus and into your stomach to test the swallowing strength. It was horrible — and again, it came back normal.

In the meantime, my original primary care left the practice, and I started seeing someone else — Aaron Drapeau, ARNP at Ironwood Family Practice in Coeur d'Alene. It's sounds dramatic, but he saved my life.

The revelation

I have Type 2 diabetes, so I get bloodwork every three months. At my normal appointment in January, Aaron says, "It doesn't sound like the heartburn treatment is resolving the problem. Let's talk about your chest pain."

So, I essentially told him the same story as above. When I got to the part where I said, "When it flares up bad the pain goes up into my jaw," he visibly winced and said, "That's not heartburn, you have a heart condition," and he immediately sent me across the street to the emergency room. Once again, the EKG and bloodwork came back normal. The E.R. doctor wanted to admit me for further testing, but I declined and set up an appointment to do it as an out-patient instead of at the hospital.

Big mistake.

So, I finally got the drug-induced stress test on Feb. 14. The results were entered into my electronic chart later that day and before the cardiologist or Aaron had a chance to call me, I went online and read it. I came across a phrase that I'll never be able to forget. "There is a large area of severely decreased perfusion, mostly matched throughout the entire inferior wall, suggesting a scar from a prior myocardial infarction."

Yup. At some point over the previous two-plus years I had suffered a heart attack and didn't even know it. I never had that "holy (blank), I'm having a heart attack" moment.

That triggered an office visit with cardiologist Mark Troiano, D.O., on Feb. 20, who scheduled me for an echocardiogram and heart catheterization.

In the meantime, I went to Tacoma the first weekend in March to cover state basketball, organized our spring high school sports preview, got all the spring sports schedules loaded into our database, planned our Spokane Indians season preview, and was in the process of pulling everything together for the S-R Showcase all-star basketball games.

I even shoveled a few inches of snow on March 4. Hindsight, right?

On March 12, I went to the hospital for the echo and cath. Going into it, Dr. Troiano explained there were three most likely scenarios: 1) We could treat the problem with medications; 2) I might need a stent or two and he would place them, and I'd be held overnight for observation; or 3) I may need to be scheduled for more invasive surgery.

When I came out of anesthesia, Dr. Troiano's demeanor had changed. He explained to me that he cut the procedure short since he found so much blockage. Then came the most chilling part of the whole saga. Dr. Troiano said the first available appointment with a surgical consult was March 28, but he was admitting me that day and getting me on the list for emergency surgery because, as he said, "If I let you leave, you might not make it back."

Surgery and recovery

I was admitted to Kootenai Health Hospital immediately and didn't have to wait long to get on the surgery schedule — roughly 48 hours later I was on the operating table with my chest cracked open.

In retrospect, it was probably better that it happened that way since I didn't have that much time to worry about it. In fact, once the course of action was laid out, I was pretty resolute about the whole thing — get it fixed, get out of the hospital, get healthy.

We received a lot of information in a short amount of time from a lot of different sources, and everyone there was exceptionally kind, patient, knowledgeable and helpful.

The biggest issue — at least I made it the biggest issue — during that 48-hour period was fixating on trimming my beard so that they could put an IV in my neck. We went through several stages of cutting it to different lengths and me generally acting like a big baby about it. It was more a coping mechanism — instead of dwelling on the impending life-altering surgery and lengthy rehab, I made a big deal about cutting several inches off my luxurious beard.

On the morning of March 14, I was wheeled down to the pre-operation suite, where I was met by nurse Sydney Tilleman. To take my mind off things, she asked what I did for a living. I told her and she responded, "You must know my husband's cousin-in-law, Madison McCord." Of course, I know Madison. A former full-time page designer and editor at the paper, he's now a part-time editor, correspondent and, not coincidentally, helped with the all-star game stuff while I was incapacitated.

Then, putting two and two together, she said, "Then you might know my husband, Beau Tilleman." Of course, I know Beau, who is the athletic director at Shadle Park. Talk about small worlds. Sydney and I posed for a photo, which we texted to Madison and Beau, then I was sedated and whisked off for surgery, which was performed by Dr. Tori Lennox, M.D. — who I had met just a couple of hours earlier that morning.

Surgery was the easy part. I don't remember a thing from those six hours of my life.

The surgery staff was in constant contact with Cheryl throughout the procedure. After surgery, I was taken to the ICU where I was hooked up to ALL the machines. Cheryl was allowed to see me before I was awake, but she had to leave at the end of visiting hours. I came out of anesthesia late in the evening and my first memory post-op was my ICU nurse on duty, Danny, removing the breathing tube from my throat — then throwing up on myself.

As I laid there, still in the fog of anesthesia and hopped up on several pain medications and with IVs and wires and catheters sticking out of my body, I slowly realized that "Hey, I'm alive." I started to sob, and Danny sat there and held my hand for what seemed like hours — but was probably only a few minutes.

I spent two and a half days in ICU, and another two and a half days in the cardiac care unit. Once I passed all the thresholds (eating, walking, in and out of bed under my own power, bowel movements), I was released from the hospital to come home on March 19, one week after I went in for the tests.

For that first week, I had to rely on Cheryl and Jim for some of the most basic functions of life — cooking, bathing, dressing, lifting anything heavier than 5 pounds. But every time I went to sleep, I felt better and stronger when I woke up.

The pain behind my sternum that put me in the hospital was gone. Completely gone.

On March 26, against my siblings' wishes and my own better judgment, I attended the S-R Showcase at Lewis and Clark High School, chaperoned by my good friend Bud Rasmussen — who drove me chauffeur style over from Coeur d'Alene and acted as my bodyguard so I couldn't bump into anything or anyone. It might have been early in my recovery, but I thought it was important to go, and it was great to be out in public and see everyone there.

While on the subject, I would like to publicly thank the Greater Spokane League athletic directors, Lewis and Clark staff and administrators and Spokane Public Schools representatives for making sure the second annual all-star games went off without a hitch.

My recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. I have bounced back much quicker than I expected or feared. I was cleared to come back to work on April 5, cleared to drive on April 16 and covered the entire Spokane Indians homestand that week in person from the press box.

It's a long walk with a lot of stairs, and my legs felt like jelly the first couple of days, but I made it from the parking lot to the press box without having to stop. I couldn't have done that eight weeks ago. Everyone with the team has welcomed me back and made sure I had what I needed to be comfortable, and I can't be more thankful.

I have a long way to go yet. The doctors say it'll be eight months or so before I feel "normal" again, or at least what passes for my normal. I have a few weeks left before my sternum — which is being held together with stainless steel wires — is fully healed, and I'm not going to be able to play golf this summer. But barring any setbacks, my annual hunting trip back east in November with my brothers and lifetime buddies will be a "go."

I started contemplating this column the day after my surgery. We started a list of all the medical personnel that helped out on my journey, but it just became too long to maintain or to share here. But I would like to thank everyone at Kootenai Health — doctors, nurses, technicians, therapists and other staff — that got me through some of the toughest days of my life. I am alive and thriving due to your exemplary efforts.

I'd also like to thank everyone at the paper for their understanding, flexibility and support. It means a great deal to know they were in my corner through the ordeal — especially sports editor Ralph Walter, who emphatically forbade me from working before I was officially cleared. One of the toughest parts of all of this was knowing that my work wasn't getting done, and I'm happy beyond words to be back in the saddle again.

It beats the heck out of the alternative.