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Just In A Slump? Are You Sure?

September 14, 2018

If you’ve followed along here for very long, you know that I have multiple artistic interests.  Sometimes I don’t feel like painting, so I pick up pencil and pen and do some sketching.  I may work on storybook art, or draw an old barn or conjure up an image of an old gnarly, twisted tree. Maybe work on one of at least two books I have in mind. If I don’t want to do one thing I do something else. My mind rarely rests and I’m always working as an artist in my head. But recently something had changed.

I had been told that, after my heart surgery it might take a year, but I would feel much better than before, I’d be a new man.  At the one year mark this past June I did feel pretty good. Then things started to go downhill. Not dramatically, not instantly, just a gradual awareness that the renewal had been a bit short-lived. Our trip to Ohio during the summer included a day trip to Chicago. Hoofing it along the Miracle Mile was difficult. I chalked it up to just not quite fully recovered yet, even after a year.

In the last month or two, I’ve felt my creativity slipping. There was an occasional burst when I produced a nice piece of art or two, but in between those I struggled to maintain interest. Sometimes even sketching didn’t give the result I was used to.  I began to feel that old artist nemesis The Slump rearing its ugly head.   Maybe I just needed a change of pace, a new interest. I had finally replaced my electronic keyboard while in Ohio.  A few years ago I had learned a few chords and was able to play a few old standards, even wasn’t too bad at improvising some jazzy blues stuff, purely for my own entertainment. Then I had given my Yamaha keyboard to one of my grandsons when we moved into the first motorhome and after several years I had recently begun to miss picking out a tune. So I bought a new keyboard while in Ohio and have been relearning some things. YouTube is a great resource for just about everything and I have found musicians posting all kinds of “how to” videos with just what I need.  At the same time, I dug out a Blues Harp harmonica from the back of a cabinet. It’s still shiny and new. Again, more videos, especially some that might teach me to bend notes.

Still, although the learning process was beginning, I found I was spending more time watching the videos than I was actually playing.  And while I had a full stock of sketchbooks, watercolor paper, pens, pencils, paint and brushes, I couldn’t conjure up anything exciting to work on. I also began to find myself getting a bit winded when I did little things that really didn’t require that much energy.  And my legs felt tired at times.

Saturday, a week ago as of this writing, Nell and I went to the grocery store.  Back home, I carried the groceries in while Nell started putting things away. Three trips to and from the car, five steps up and down… and I was exhausted.  In fact, I had to sit down. I was out of breath and my limbs felt heavy.  After a few minutes things settled back down.  On Sunday morning, I decided that my problem was that I had not been exercising, not even doing much walking, and I needed to get back to it.  So we went to the gym to put in some treadmill time. I set the treadmill on my usual incline and speed and started walking. In less than five minutes, I was out of breath and getting dizzy. I stopped and climbed down off the treadmill and quickly made it to a machine with a seat. I felt like I needed to lie down, but I was afraid to. My body just didn’t want to function. Nell looked at me closely and said I was gray. “We’re going to the emergency room.” She announced.  After a few minutes, I was able to walk to the car and we headed to the hospital. All I could think of was that my afib (atrial fibrillation) had returned.

All a person has to do in an emergency room, especially a nearly 75 year old, is use the words “short of breath” and “dizzy” in the same sentence and one is immediately whisked off to an examining room. An EKG showed a good sinus rhythm with no indication of afib. I think the ER doctor keyed on the fact that I had a history of heart issues. Even when an x-ray showed nothing and the EKG was normal, I was considered a cardiac patient. I was quickly admitted and installed in the cardiac wing of the hospital. I was hooked up to monitors and the usual blood tests were run. We were at Seton Medical Center (Williamson) so I knew I was in very capable hands and my cardiologist’s office was in the building next door.

Eventually, a doctor who is part of the group that includes our primary care physician and which has a strong focus on seniors, came into the room. After a quick introduction, she asked “Has anyone told you that you are anemic?” Now, I must confess that I had always associated the term “anemic” with weak, undernourished and frail.  And while I was admittedly weak at the moment, I was definitely not undernourished or frail. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Your hemoglobin level is at 7.4.” she said. “The normal level for a man is between 14 and 16. Think of it as a car about to run out of gas. If you were below 7, I would be ordering a blood transfusion.” Apparently, I had been losing blood and I wasn’t bleeding outwardly anywhere. I was kept overnight so I could be monitored.

The next morning, my blood level had dropped to 6.5. A doctor with the same group, one who had kept tabs on me after my heart surgery a year ago, came in and we talked. This doctor had given me good advice a year ago and I trusted him completely. I was started on a blood transfusion and on his advice I agreed to an endoscopy and colonoscopy.  The purpose was to find some indication of a cause of bleeding in my gut. I was given two units of blood to replenish some of the loss and an infusion of iron to get my body started on producing more. That afternoon, Monday, I began the dreaded preparation for the colonoscopy.

My blood level went back up to 9.2 and the procedures were done on Tuesday morning. By Tuesday evening I was eating solid food and feeling much better. Wednesday morning I walked around the 3rd floor ring five times. The procedures found no cause of blood loss in my gastrointestinal tract. While that does mean there is still a question regarding the cause, the good news is that a) there are no issues with my heart; and b) there are no serious concerns regarding my colon. On Wednesday I was released from the hospital and while I’m still not 100%, I feel much better and am optimistic about the future. I had a follow up with my primary care doctor yesterday and they took another blood sample. While writing this, I’ve just learned that my blood count is now up from 9.2 to 9.5

Why tell you all these details?  I think it’s important for people, especially creative people to be aware of what their body may be telling them. Blood produces oxygen and oxygen fuels the body. A loss of blood can affect everything from the tips of our toes to our brain. The doctors agreed that this condition was not only affecting my breathing and my extremities, but also possibly slowing down my brain function as well. Ergo… a slump in creativity (and maybe along with it some loss of dexterity).  A huge clue should have been that while I wasn’t feeling creative I also wasn’t feeling like doing much of anything else either. Sure, the flu can do that to us as well.  But in the absence of flu-like symptoms, it just might be wise to visit your doctor anyway.  This may have been happening over a period of time, but when it really hit, it hit fast!  I just thought I needed more exercise when it turned out that exercise was the last thing I needed at that moment. I didn’t have enough fuel to support that exercise.

There is no doubt that we all go through slumps from time to time. I think we artists generally can recognize it for what it is: maybe a little burn-out or exhaustion or distraction. But we also need to be aware that if that slump includes other symptoms, especially loss of energy, it’s time to get checked out. So there you go.  My sermon for today.

I wish all of you good health and creative days ahead. As for me… it’s time to test out my shoulder. I’ve got an acrylic painting of the North San Gabriel River that’s been sitting for months and needs to be looked at and worked on.

Art on.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2018 12:19 pm

    Thanks for the heads up, Ralph. Glad to see you are feeling better.

  2. September 14, 2018 12:22 pm

    This is such an important post. I really appreciate you telling us this story! My husband has a-fib too and, while he’s not the painter in our household (that’s me!), it’s still good to know the signs of something important which we might otherwise ignore or not take seriously enough or chalk up to a “slump” which really isn’t a slump at all! You may be saving lives with this post. Thank you again!!!

  3. September 14, 2018 12:51 pm

    I agree, as a fellow artist, that loss of interest in art must be checked out. I like your art.

  4. Kathryn permalink
    September 14, 2018 1:55 pm

    Thank you for this valuable post. I hope they find out why you became anemic. Love your work and reading about your life experience. Best wishes for good health going forward.

  5. Gary permalink
    September 25, 2018 3:21 pm

    I am one of those that is reaching that age where the warranty is running out on some of my parts.

    It is nice to have reasons to stay healthy, art being one.

    Off topic – I have a great niece that gives “Sherwin” two thumbs up.

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