Editor’s note: Louis Mayeux is a veteran Atlanta journalist. This is his first-person account of his stroke:
The speed of the attack surprised me. One moment, I stood in the Lenox MARTA Station, reloading my Breeze card. The next, I couldn’t understand the machine’s instructions.
My mind had blown a fuse, unable to process the letters and words that had melted into dark, fuzzy lines.
Confused, unable to speak. I turned to a couple behind me, They tried to help but seemed alarmed and distressed by my plunge into childlike incomprehension. I stumbled to the other side of the platform, and leaned against the concrete barrier. Two MARTA attendants rushed toward me, peering into my face and grabbing my arms. I mumbled something, and tried to walk back to my car and drive home. One of them told me not to move, and the other said he was calling an ambulance that would rush me to Grady Memorial Hospital.
I had suffered what a doctor later identified as a transient ischemic attack, a minor stroke.
Broken thoughts flashed through my mind, thoughts that I was unable to articulate. As a longtime Atlantan, I knew Grady as the “charity hospital” for poor, uninsured people, the “trauma center” where gunshot and auto accident victims were taken. I was discovering that Grady also handles those who suffer strokes.
I struggled to tell the MARTA guys: “Please, please, don’t send me to Grady; I want to go to Piedmont or Northside, nice middle-class hospitals.” But I could not manage to say anything. I was headed to Grady.
Somehow, I handed my IPhone to one of the MARTA attendants who seemed of higher rank and pointed to my wife’s name in the contact list. After calling the ambulance, the man reached my wife, who was having lunch with a friend.
Throughout the event, I’d felt no pain. A beatific light illuminated my mind, and I had plunged into a strange movie, falling away from my normal life.
During the years I’d worked downtown at the newspaper, I’d taken MARTA every day. Now I felt a deep gratitude at the transit system and its attentive workers.
The ambulance arrived, and the two EMTs lowered me onto a stretcher, carried me down the familiar train station steps and laid me in the back of the emergency vehicle. One of them gave me a shot. In a moment, we were hurtling toward downtown Atlanta, and through the window I could see Atlanta landmarks I had passed countless times flashing by.
After they wheeled me into the me emergency room and I was admitted at the busy desk, a woman examined me and asked my birthday. The familiar date flashed across my synapses, but I could not shape the words. Some kind of animal croaking came out of my mouth. Immediately, I was placed at the top of the triage list, and a friendly young neurologist was examining me.
Besides the TIA, another problem was discovered: an arrythmic, rapid heartbeat.
My wife had appeared, and I was grateful to look up and see her gazing down at me against the bright overhead lights.. I was given another shot, and in an hour or so, my speech returned. A nurse let me walk across the crowded room to go to the bathroom, drawing the ire of the alarmed chief neurologist. I was handed a glass flask in which to urinate. Other attendants came by to tell me I would be given a room in the hospital.
They gave me stroke tests — follow the doctor’s moving index finger, smile, repeat a sentence, count numbers. I was thankful to pass them all. My heartbeat was still rapid and out of rhythm. After an hour or so, my wife left the room, and I was wheeled into a curtained-off ER cubicle. Despite their assurances that I would be given a room, I spent the night in the cubicle, fully clothed, in the competent care of a grizzled male nurse in white T-shirt and white pants.
Throughout the night, he entered my cubicle to check the electronic monitor attached to my arm through an IV. My heartbeat kept registering an irregular wave swerving across the screen, while the heartbeat number clicked higher. A young cardiologist came in and said I had been diagnosed with arterial fibrillation, which had hurled a blood clot into my brain, causing the TIA. Throughout the night of fitful sleep, my heart kept up its rapid-fire drumming, until finally the nurse gave me a shot, and the number plunged. At about 2 a.m., I was wheeled down hallways and into an elevator to be given an MRI by a shy, diminutive young man who said he’d come from Kenya. He was one of several medical personnel I met from Africa.
The next morning, when a new shift arrived, I witnessed a nurse rousting a ragged homeless man from the bed upon which he had spent the night. He profanely resisted for several minutes, as the nurse grew more and more insistent. At last, with a security guard hovering near, the man rose and staggered into the bright, chilly sunshine. I lay back as another nurse, who said she was an Alabama Crimson Tide fan, ran a few more tests. A technician came in to give me an EKG. The neurologist returned and said my heartbeat was now normal, thanks to the nurse’s predawn shot. The doctor told me that about a procedure called an ablation in which a wire would be inserted into a vein at my groin and pushed into my heart, which would be shocked to stop the irregular heartbeat. I agreed to undergo the procedure the next day. At last, in late afternoon, I was wheeled into a private room in the neuro ward, with a huge window that revealed Atlanta’s downtown skyline.
Grady is a teaching hospital, affiliated with Emory Healthcare, and my ablation was performed by a doctor in training. As I lay half-sedated, I heard his mentor berate him for not performing the incision correctly. Taking charge, the more experienced doctor also had trouble. At last, they were able to get the wire moving toward my heart, and complete the procedure to prevent my heart’s flutter condition.
Back in my room, a lovely young nurse from Ethiopia cared for me. Once, when my heartbeat sped up again, and I lay back, upset. she told me in a stern yet soothing voice that I was not to worry, that all would be fine.
The new course: Medication. Throughout the night, new nurses brought me pills in small white cups with ridges on the sides. I had learned to unplug the wires connecting me to the monitor so that I could to walk to the bathroom. That made the nurses nervous; they were afraid I would faint or suffer brain damage. Buzzing with anxiety, I was unable to sleep. I clicked through TV channels via the remote control throughout the night. Finally, daylight began spilling across the downtown towers, sparkling against the State Capitol’s Gold Dome.
Teams of doctors — the neurologists, the cardios — kept coming to my room, as if wanting me to join their fraternity. I kept passing their stroke tests. They sent me to another MRI to make sure the ablation trouble had not been caused by another blood clot. I was found clot-free.
At last, after another day or two of monitoring, I was allowed to leave. Various doctors, pharmacists and nurse practitioners came by with exit instructions. Grasping a fistful of prescriptions, I was placed in a wheelchair, taken through a warren of hallways to the elevator and pushed through the glass doors into the busy sidewalk. My wife was waiting for me in my car, and we threaded our way north toward home.
Like most fairly well-off Atlanta residents, I never thought I’d be taken to Grady.
When I needed it, the hospital was there, along with MARTA. My years as an Atlanta citizen had been repaid.
Louis Mayeux is a veteran reporter and editor. His 26-year career at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution included service as a copy editor, assistant city editor, bureau chief, sportswriter, letters to the editor editor, and book and theater reviewer. A longtime resident of Atlanta, he is married to Dr. Anne-Marie Meehan, a clinical psychologist. They are the parents of three children.