Jan 23

Heart failure: Decline and ER

I promised to use this blog to provide updates on my health — specifically, the ongoing testing and treatment for my congestive heart failure. I expect to have some new information soon, but in the meantime, I want to write a summary of how I got here.

I can’t point to a specific point at which my troubles began, but over the course of 2021, I gradually began to notice some ill effects. Mostly, I was losing stamina and becoming short of breath more often. I chalked this up to my obesity and advancing age, but that didn’t really explain what was happening. My weight wasn’t changing significantly, and I wasn’t aging at an accelerating rate, but I found myself getting tired more easily and having trouble with physical exertion because of shortness of breath. This wasn’t happening all the time, but Bob and Ben can confirm that when I tried to go on long walks with them, I would have to stop and rest frequently, and I still couldn’t keep it up for very long.

It was depressing. I felt like I was getting old prematurely. Things that had been a normal part of my life became more and more difficult. Doing laundry, for example. My apartment is on the third floor, and the laundry room is on the first. Carrying a basket of laundry up and down those stairs hadn’t been a big deal a couple of years ago, but now it was becoming an exhausting ordeal. Even climbing the stairs without a burden was tiring. During the pandemic, I had become more reclusive, going out rarely and relying on grocery and takeout food delivery. At first, that had been more of a convenience; now it was a necessity, because leaving my apartment was a challenge that I was reluctant to face.

Around the beginning of December 2021, the deterioration seemed to accelerate. My weight had been slowly decreasing in November — not a lot, but definitely moving in the right direction. In December, it started increasing, and at a disturbing rate. Between late November and late December I gained 15 pounds. I couldn’t figure out why. I hadn’t gone on an eating binge; in fact, I had cut some things our of my diet to reduce my caloric intake. It didn’t make sense.

Since being diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis (basically, the formation of blood clots) in 2019, I had experienced some edema (swelling due to fluid retention) in my lower legs and feet. This tended to come and go over time. Sometimes there would be no noticeable swelling at all. But in late 2021, the swelling was as bad as it had ever been. And I noticed that my abdomen seemed to be bloating as well. The shortness of breath and fatigue got worse. On recent attempts at long walks, I had been able to walk or speak, but not both at once. I simply couldn’t get enough air for that. And I was tired all the time now, with no energy for anything but basic activities.

I noticed that breathing was more difficult in some positions than in others. It was easiest when I was sitting or standing upright, and most difficult when I was lying down. This made sleeping a challenge. I have an ordinary flat bed, not the kind that can raise the head so that you’re sitting rather than lying. (If I owned a recliner, I would have tried sleeping in it.) I had to carefully control my breathing (in through the nose, out through the mouth) and focus on relaxing in order to fall asleep. And I still wasn’t sleeping very much or very well.

I decided to defy my limitations in order to go to a theater and see Spider-Man: No Way Home. I had been hearing very good things about it, and I was worried that the longer I waited, the greater the chance that I would encounter spoilers. A day or two in advance, I reserved a seat at a showing on Sunday, December 19. But on the morning of the showing, my left foot was so swollen that I didn’t think it would fit into a shoe. I requested a refund for the ticket, and I didn’t go.

By this point, just getting out of my chair and walking across my apartment would cause me to be out of breath. On those occasions when I couldn’t avoid going up or down the stairs, I would have to stop, rest, and catch my breath several times en route. It felt like I was slowly dying. When I turned 62 years old on December 20, I felt 30 or 40 years older than that.

It occurred to me that I might just be sick with an infectious disease. Shortness of breath and fatigue are among the symptoms of COVID-19 and flu. If that was the cause, then eventually I would recover from the disease and get back to normal. I had never thought I would actually hope I had COVID, but that’s how desperate I was. I called my primary medical practice and scheduled a COVID test.

The test took place on December 22. The physican assistant who administered it told me that I would have the results the next day. But I didn’t. When I called the lab company to ask, I was told that it could actually take up to three days. Of course, the third day after the test was Christmas, and it was in the middle of a long holiday weekend. I had planned to visit Mom in Rock Hill for Christmas, but that didn’t seem possible now. I canceled the trip and, for the first time in my life, spent Christmas alone. (Marie had Christmas dinner with friends, and she was kind enough to bring me several plastic containers of food, so I did have Christmas dinner.)

I called again on December 28, the first normal workday after the holiday, and was told that the lab company had no record of my ever having taken the test. Apparently, they had lost it. I would have to retested. I was stunned. But before I could schedule another test, I suddenly received an e-mail from the lab company with the results of the test. They didn’t say how this was possible when they had told me a day before that they couldn’t find it.

I read the results. I was negative for COVID, for both of this year’s strains of flu, and for respiratory syncytial virus. Good news, right? Not at all. In fact, I was frightened by the news. It meant that my symptoms were not going to go away on their own, because I wasn’t sick with a virus. Something else was causing my shortness of breath and fatigue. And at this point, my lung capacity was barely enough to keep me alive. If I did catch something that compromised it further, like COVID or flu, it would probably kill me.

I realized that I had run out of options. I had to go to the hospital. That evening, the night of December 29, I drove myself to WakeMed Cary and parked outside the entrance to the emergency department. Unfortunately, I had to park on the far side of the parking lot. It wasn’t a large parking lot, and had I been in good health, I could have walked to the entrance in a minute or two. But I wasn’t in good health, and I also had some things to carry. Knowing that I would probably be admitted, I had packed a gym bag with a few necessities. And I had the messenger bag that goes everywhere with me (basically my version of a purse). So I slung those bags on my person and started the trek to the entrance.

In my memory, that walk across the parking lot is the emotional low point. It seemed to take forever. I couldn’t move very fast, and I kept having to stop and catch my breath. Would I even make it to the door? Or would I collapse and die in the parking lot? That sounds melodramatic now, even to me. But it’s what was going through my head at the time.

Finally, I reached the entrance, approached the front desk, and explained (stopping frequently for breath) why I was there. Almost immediately, I was helped into a wheelchair and rolled into a sort of anteroom where I answered a bunch of questions from a nurse. Then a doctor checked my vital signs and reviewed what I had reported about my symptoms. On the basis of my difficulty breathing and the recent rapid weight gain, I was taken into a room in the emergency department for treatment.

In my next post, I’ll try to summarize my experience in the hospital and the events that followed.

Jan 16

Winter storm, January 2022

Barbara suggested that I revive this blog and use it to provide updates on my health to family and friends. That is an excellent idea, and I’ll be writing those updates as time permits. But right now, I want to use the blog to provide an update on my status and Mom’s in the current winter storm. (I started writing this as an e-mail, but I realized it would work better as a blog post.)

After Aunt Carol’s visitation, the other Berrys all were safely at home by Friday evening. But my plan was to drive Mom and Pete home on Friday, spend the weekend at her house, and then drive home on Sunday afternoon.

Well, Sunday is here, and ain’t nobody goin’ nowhere.

We drove back to Rock Hill as planned on Friday. Since the route took us through the Columbia area, we stopped at a Lizard’s Thicket for lunch. That was mostly because I never pass up a chance to eat at the Thicket, but also because I wanted to introduce Mom to it. I figured she would like it, and I was right. (She is now lamenting the lack of a Thicket in Rock Hill.) I had country fried steak, mac & cheese, squash casserole, lima beans, cornbread, and sweet tea. Everything was delicious, of course.

We got back to Rock Hill without incident on Friday afternoon and unloaded our stuff from my car. We were both tired, so after a light supper, we both went to bed early. (I had thought I might try to get some work done Friday evening, but postponed that to the next day.)

It wasn’t until Saturday morning that I became aware of the predictions of a major winter storm on Sunday. At that point, I had two options. I could either cut my visit to Rock Hill short and head back to Cary on Saturday. Or I could stay in Rock Hill with the understanding that I would have to delay my return for a day or two. I chose the second option. I had originally planned to visit Rock Hill for Christmas weekend, but I had to cancel those plans because of my illness. This was my second chance to spend a weekend with Mom, and I wasn’t going to give it up if I didn’t have to.

Being forced to extend my stay in Rock Hill did not present much of a problem. I have my work laptop with me, so I can work from Mom’s house as easily as from anywhere else. I’m on multiple medications following my hospital stay, but I loaded up my pill minder last Wednesday before leaving home, so I have all the meds I need through the morning of Wednesday, January 19. As long as I get home by Wednesday evening, I won’t have to miss a dose of anything. I only packed clothes for four days, but Mom is doing laundry this morning and offered to toss in what was in my laundry bag, so that helps.

It also helps that Monday is a holiday for TE Connectivity, the company I work for. (I previously told Bob that it wasn’t but I had misread the list of holidays.) I still plan to do some work, but nobody will be expecting me to deliver anything or respond to e-mails until Tuesday.

On Saturday, we did some grocery shopping and made sure that we have everything we need to weather the storm. I found time to do some work. Then we went to El Cancun for dinner. Everything was delicious there as well, but you already know that if you’ve ever eaten there.

When we woke up Sunday morning, the ground was covered with sleet and snow.

So Mom and I are snowed in for a while, but we have everything we need. The biggest concern is the possibility of a power outage, but the house has two gas fireplaces with pilot lights (meaning that they don’t use electric igniters and will work without power). Even without electricity, we won’t freeze. As long as we do have power, I can work. And we have plenty of food. We’ll be fine.

Looking at the weather forecasts, I think I’ll be able to drive home on Tuesday or Wednesday. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy some extra time with Mom.


We lost power at 2:45 p.m. It was restored less than an hour and a half later, at 4:05 — not even long enough for the house to start feeling cold. Kudos to the Duke Energy repair crews for getting the power back on so quickly. Mom and I had a nice, quiet day, and I even got some work done.

The forecast says Monday will be clear and sunny, with temperatures above freezing from 10:00 a.m. until sunset. No precipitation, which means further power outages are unlikely. Some melting will probably occur, but what’s more important is that the clear and sunny weather will allow the SC Department of Transportation crews to clear the roads and apply salt and sand as needed. I may be able to drive home on Tuesday. We’ll see.


The roads were clear on Tuesday, and I was able to drive home without any difficulty.

May 02

Farewell, Mike

Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins died a few days ago at age 90. He was the command module pilot for the first lunar landing mission. In honor of his passing, here’s something that was posted on Twitter several years ago. The folks at @_Bands_FC saw a photo of the Apollo 11 crew and commented: “They looked like they could be coolest freeform jazz trio ever, so we made it into an album sleeve for them.” Here it is.

Dec 03

Millidyne

I just noticed that it’s December 3, which means that exactly thirty years ago, I was laid off by Millidyne Inc., my employer at the time. I’ve been laid off numerous times in my career (it’s just a fact of life for technical writers), but this particular layoff stands out in my mind because it holds the record for short notice — just three hours.

Millidyne was a small startup company in northern Raleigh, and I had been working there for a year. I had actually landed the job by responding to a Help Wanted ad in the newspaper, the only time that has ever happened to me. (In 1989, the Internet as we know it didn’t exist, and neither did job-hunting online. So reading the classified ads was actually useful.) During that year, I was the only full-time technical writer.

I was doing my work on an IBM PC running DOS, probably version 4.01. (Windows 3.0, the first version of Windows to achieve significant sales in the business market, wasn’t released until halfway through 1990.) It was my first job using a desktop publishing application (Ventura Publisher), and while I had used laser printers in previous jobs, they had always been shared with many other users. This was the first time I had a dedicated laser printer connected to my office computer. And since I was the sole custodian of it, I was also responsible for its care and feeding. I learned how to clear paper jams and replace toner cartridges (which involved ordering more cartridges and disposing of the used ones).

Like many small startup companies, Millidyne fell on hard times financially, and this led to a layoff of about 40% of the employees on December 3, 1990. At 9:00 a.m., every employee was handed a manila envelope by their manager. When you opened it, you found a letter inside. Some employees got a letter telling them that their jobs were being eliminated. The others got a letter announcing the downsizing of the company. I was in the first group, of course.

The laid-off employees were asked to leave the premises by noon — three hours notice.

I was asked to bundle up all of the documents I was working on and transfer them to my boss, who would have to take over the technical writing work. I don’t remember exactly what that entailed, but it probably involved handing him a stack of 5.25″ floppy disks, because that’s what we were using at that time. I do recall that three hours wasn’t enough time to get it done. Fortunately, they didn’t throw me out of the building at noon. I was allowed to remain long enough to complete the handoff process, which took until about 4:00 p.m.

Early December is a lousy time to lose your job. For my family, it wasn’t so bad, because Marie was still employed. We were able to pay our bills while I hunted for another job, and we had a more or less normal Christmas. But it was tough for some of my coworkers. Millidyne had planned to hold an offsite Christmas party for the employees. A committee of my coworkers had been planning it for months, arranging the location, the catering, the entertainment, and so forth. After the downsizing was announced, the party was canceled.

The announcement caught us by surprise, but of course it hadn’t happened suddenly. A layoff of that magnitude takes weeks or even months of planning. I don’t know why the executives of the company chose to keep the whole thing a secret until the last minute, but they knew the Christmas party would never happen. In order to keep the secret, they let the committee members carry on planning it until the morning of December 3, and then pulled the rug out from under them.

That seems cold to me. I guess they felt it was the best way to break the news, but I’m glad I didn’t have to help keep that secret.

As I recall, I was able to find another job pretty quickly in early 1991. I think that’s when I went back to IBM for my second term as an 18-month contractor. More than half of my career has been contract work, and one of the advantages of a contractor’s life is that you usually know about when your contract will end, and you can plan for it. (Not always. My job at Alcatel around the turn of the century was open-ended. It was technically a one-year contract, but they kept renewing it year after year . . . until they didn’t. Still, they kept me employed for five years, and I’m grateful for that.)

Most of the times I’ve been laid off, I was given a week or two of advance notice. Sometimes it’s been less than that; when Alcatel laid off my whole team, we had until the end of the day to clear out. Other times it’s been more; in 2002, IBM laid off a bunch of employees, and it gave us two months notice. But thirty years later, the three-hour notice I got from Millidyne is still the shortest.

It’s a very bad sign when a company lays off 40% of its people in one day. I figured that Millidyne was in deep financial trouble and would not last much longer. And I’m afraid that I was right. A year or two later, I ran into my ex-boss at a restaurant, and he told me that the company was gone.

Ironically, that same ex-boss had received the longest notice of a layoff that I have ever heard of. He had previously been a college professor, teaching courses for a specific degree program. The college eventually decided to eliminate that degree, which meant that his services would no longer be required. But although no new students would be allowed to enter that degree program, the ones already in it would be permitted to complete it. And some of them were freshmen. His teaching position would not be eliminated until the last of those students graduated. So he was given four years notice that he would lose his job.

I’m not sure I would want to know that far in advance.

Oct 20

Job titles

I’m starting a new job tomorrow, and I noticed with amusement that, at least on paper, I have been given a job title that makes no sense. I am a technical writer; I write and edit documentation for computers and software. And in most of the jobs I’ve held, my job title was Technical Writer or something similar. But not always.

When I was hired by IBM a couple of decades ago, I was given the title Staff Software Engineer. Of course, I wasn’t writing computer programs, and I wasn’t really an engineer of any sort. But that’s what the paperwork said.

My most recent job ended a couple of weeks ago, and my official title there was Engineering Planner II. I’m not even sure what that means, but I still wasn’t an engineer, and I wasn’t planning anything except my own work as a technical writer.

And now I have a new job, where my title (according to the paperwork I’ve seen so far) is Manufacturing Engineer. Needless to say, I will not be going anywhere near a factory floor. I’ll be writing technical documentation at my dinner table, since this is a remote job.

I have no explanation for any of this. It’s probably the result of administrative or HR issues that I know nothing about. In any event, I’m not complaining. They can call me whatever they want, as long as I get paid on time. But I think it’s funny.

Oct 08

Polling place

When I lived in Holly Springs, my assigned polling place was Holly Springs Elementary School, less than a mile away from home. The first time I voted there, I made the mistake of driving, only to find out that voters were not allowed to park in the school’s parking lots. Along with a number of other people, I ended up parking on the side of a residential street in the subdivision across the road from the school (which I’m sure was not popular with the people who lived there).

After that, I made a point of walking to the school on Election Day. Google Maps says that it’s a 19-minute walk, but it probably took me a bit longer than that to get there on foot, because the path to the school is almost all uphill. (And downhill on the walk home, so I probably did that more quickly.) I didn’t mind the distance, because it was always a pleasant walk. I lived in Holly Springs for 18 years, and in all that time, it didn’t rain on Election Day even once, and the temperature never required more than a light jacket.

When I moved to Cary in 2016, that required a change polling place. My new voter registration card indicated that I would be voting at Glenaire, which is a retirement home not too far away. But it was a longer walk than before, and I wasn’t very familiar with this part of Cary yet, so I decided to try driving and see how it worked out. Fortunately, Glenaire has plenty of parking, and voters were not prohibited from using it. So I continued driving there on Election Day.

But now it’s 2020, the Year of the Pandemic, and inviting a large number of strangers into a retirement home does not seem like a good idea. So I was not at all surprised to receive a new voter registration card in the mail, directing me to a different polling place. The new location is Cary Presbyterian Church, which is actually closer than Glenaire. It’s a four-minute drive, but the walk is only 17 minutes, mostly along the Higgins Greenway walking trail.

That sounds even more pleasant than my walk in Holly Springs. I’m actually looking forward to it. I just hope the weather is nice.

Oct 05

The twilight of movie theaters

On October 3, MGM Universal announced that the premiere of No Time to Die, the 25th James Bond movie, was being delayed again. It was originally scheduled to open in April, but was postponed several times. Until last week, theaters were expecting to get it in November, but the premiere has now been pushed back to April 2, 2021 — a full year after the original date.

This was the last straw for Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Theaters. Like other exhibitors, they had been counting on the Bond film to help them move back toward profitability. Several other tentpole movies have been delayed (Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984), failed (Tenet, Mulan), or gone directly to streaming (Hamilton, Greyhound). No Time to Die was pretty much their last hope. With that film delayed until next year, Cineworld has given up. They announced on October 4 that all 543 Regal theaters in the U.S. will be closed next week. Cineworld says this is temporary, but I suspect it may be permanent.

The writing has been on the wall for movie theaters for quite some time. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, their revenues had been declining. The advent of large, high-resolution TVs, home theater sound systems, and streaming services has prompted a lot of people to watch their movies at home. And the pandemic pulled the rug out from under the theater chains. Their theaters were shut down for months, and when they finally reopened, it was at a reduced capacity that makes it impossible to turn a profit.

To make matters worse, one of the other safety measures is to require all customers to wear a mask at all times (except when eating or drinking). That’s a deal-killer for me, because a mask makes my glasses fog up. If I can’t see the movie, what is the point of being there? And I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that way.

That was before No Time to Die was delayed to next year. I would like to believe I’m wrong, but I think the theater chains are doomed. I don’t see how they can recover from this.

After seven months, those of us who used to go to movie theaters have been broken of that habit. We have learned that we don’t really need theaters, and the studios are starting to think that they don’t need them either, with so many people using streaming services. The 007 film title seems ironic now, because the movie theaters do have time to die — and their time may be at hand.

Update: Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune, which was scheduled for release on December 18, has been delayed to October 1, 2021.

Sep 09

Usage note: Line of succession

I saw a blog comment today that referred to the Speaker of the House of Representatives as “third in line” for the presidency. No, the Speaker is second in line. The Vice President is first. The President is not “in line” at all. He is already President. You can’t be “in line” for an office you currently occupy.

I don’t know why so many people get this wrong. Even Babylon 5 made the same mistake, misstating the line of succession for Emperor of the Centauri Republic.

As a professional writer and editor, I have a lot of gripes about English usage. I may as well vent about them here. I thought of categorizing them under Gripes, but I decided to give them their own category.

Aug 29

Dropped from the Dow

I saw a headline stating that Exxon Mobil is being dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and I clicked the link because I was curious to know why. I learned that Exxon Mobil has been a part of the Dow since 1928, making it the oldest member. So what happened?

As I read the article, I realized that I had misunderstood what this means. I was confusing it with being delisted from a stock exchange, which usually means that your company is circling the drain and its stock is almost worthless. (This happened to one of my former employers, Pliant Systems, in 1999.) But the Dow is a stock index, not an exchange. Basically, it’s a bundle of stocks that are selected to represent the American economy as a whole. As such, it needs to be updated as the economy evolves.

This particular update was triggered by an impending Apple stock split, which would alter the blend of manufacturing and technology stocks in the index. So the Dow is adding some tech stocks: Salesforce, Amgen and Honeywell. Also being dropped are the drug company Pfizer . . . and my current employer, Raytheon Technologies.

That was a bit of a shock. I’ll try not to take it personally.