I was crushing it on the morning of May 17, 2020 during my virtual workout. The kettle bells somehow felt a little lighter that Sunday, even as my trainer, who I have worked with for a decade, was driving us a little harder that morning. Three times a week my classmates and I gathered online for this punishment. It had all become part of the COVID-19 lockdown routine, along with all the bread and cookie baking.
But later that morning, I developed some discomfort horizontally across my chest that I thought might just be muscle strain. While this sensation abated by midday, I also started to feel nauseous, had a headache, and would later develop the chills. These symptoms led me to bed for the next few days. My wife and I wondered about COVID, but by Thursday of that week, all the symptoms had gone. However, I was now feeling a new chest irritation – more centered in my chest than across my chest as before.
My wife’s cousin, a nurse, had sent us a list of updated COVID-19 symptoms and encouraged us to call Ontario Telehealth and walk through the screening questions. The nurse asked me all the COVID questions, but was most interested in me describing the different chest pains I felt that day and five days earlier. Then, in a decision that I believe may have saved my life, she told me she believed I had suffered a heart attack and was ordering an ambulance.
I was taken to the COVID-19 emergency intake at Trillium Health Partners, Mississauga Hospital just a 10-minute drive from our home. I was swabbed and blood was drawn for a battery of tests. At one point in the afternoon, a doctor came to see me and said I’d likely be sent home and asked to self-isolate until they called with my COVID-19 test results. But he first wanted to conduct a couple more blood tests for specific heart attack indicators. I was arranging pick up with my wife when he returned a little later and told me, “Mr. Diehl, you’ve had a heart attack.”
Later that evening, the cardiologist paid me another visit to mention that one of the scans indicated nodules on both of my lungs which would need to be investigated. That night, it all caught up to me. Alone in an isolated room (my COVID test result was still pending), no visitors allowed, and news of a heart attack and “some other problem” in my lungs bouncing around in my head, I cried for some time in fear and shock. I had been exercising regularly, had never been under treatment for high cholesterol, and I was not a smoker. What the hell just happened?
By Sunday morning, I arrived on the cardiac floor. My COVID-19 test was negative (I’d have three more negative tests before leaving the hospital). My angiogram was scheduled for the following Tuesday. A respiratory doctor had come in to talk to me about the nodules on my lungs, explaining that they could be a number of things, some more worrisome than others. At this point, no one had said the word cancer, yet there it was taking up residence inside my thoughts. But for now, we’d all focus on the heart. My angiogram revealed I would need at least four bypasses as some of the plumbing feeding my heart had blockages ranging from 30 per cent to almost 100 percent.
My surgery was rescheduled for Monday, June 1st. Because of COVID-19 protocols, visitors were not allowed at the hospital. The only exception was that my wife was permitted to come pre and post-surgery for a brief time. So, the fact that the nurses especially took time to check in on how I was feeling and share a kind word or two really meant so much.
That Monday, when I woke up from the surgery, I learned they did a quintuple bypass and my ace surgeon also removed the larger of the two lung nodules while he was in there fixing my heart. The following Saturday, he shared an initial pathology report which unfortunately confirmed cancer – adenocarcinoma non-small lung cell cancer. There was still the smaller nodule on my other lung, but he’d refer me to oncologists who would take over from there. The next day, 16 days after the Telehealth Ontario nurse had called the ambulance for me, I was released and happily headed home.
The next six weeks should have been focused only on recovering from the surgery. But, understandably, no one wanted to wait too long to start meeting with the oncologists – all three of them. At first, it seemed either the radiation or surgical oncologist would lead my care with the need to deal with the remaining nodule. But a PET scan later revealed there was significant spread in the area where the first nodule had been removed, including lymph nodes. Put another way, we learned my cancer was not Stage 1 or 2, but most likely Stage 4. It was a real kick in the teeth.
The medical oncologist took center stage. Over a couple of visits, he had me undergo some more scans and bloodwork. He put me on a third-generation targeted therapy that was designed to treat my specific kind of lung cancer. Osimertinib, also known as Tagrisso, has only been available for a couple of years but results have been very encouraging, we were told.
As the year winds down, I am doing well. I am walking as much as 10 kilometres per day. The formal heart rehab program in my region is still suspended because of COVID-19, but I’ve been seeing my cardiologist and going for occasional tests. On the cancer fight, I am taking the targeted therapy pill every day and will be monitored with monthly bloodwork and quarterly CT scans. Other forms of cancer treatment may yet be in my future.
2020 has earned quite a reputation. In spite of my personal health challenges, the year has provided its share of highlights as well. In February, I celebrated my 60th with a big party in support of a favorite local charity I’ve supported for years. Then my wife and I flew to Hawaii to join some of my high school friends for a joint celebration of our six decades – a trip that was five years in the planning and completed before the pandemic was declared.
Even the medical mess I went through in the early part of the summer left me with plenty to celebrate. Had the Telehealth Ontario nurse not called that ambulance and I continued on with my life, the two ticking time bombs in my body may never have been discovered until it was much too late. I am in for a tough cancer fight, but better that it begins now than a year from now; and thank goodness there’s a treatment that’s been showing such promise.
None of us know how long we have with the ones we love, to do the things we love to do, and to lift up others where we can. I’m grateful for every day. I’m grateful for the healthcare system provided by the imperfect country in which I live and for so many magnificent healthcare professionals. I’m grateful for a lifetime of friendships, new and old. I’ve grateful for a big, boisterous, supportive family, including my 90-year-old mom (herself a quadruple bypass survivor), my three wonderful sisters, two sisters-in-laws and two brothers-in-law, my mother-in-law and oodles of nieces and nephews. I’m grateful for three loving adult children and my partner of 32 years who’ve all been forced to deal with all the stress and anxiety right alongside me.
Thank you 2020, for putting all that in focus for me.
Darin Diehl is a content marketing thought leader who has helped some of Canada’s leading financial services companies connect with their clients and prospects with engaging, educational articles, videos and infographics. A journalist for many years, he later built and led content strategy, writing and social media teams at numerous financial entities.