Ending Up in the ICU

On Tuesday, August 1, 2017, I received my third dose of chemotherapy. Everything went well and the next day I was feeling excellent, although some of that can be contributed to the steroid pre-medication. As an added plus, I was looking forward to having family in town for the weekend. Life seemed pretty good.

In the back of my mind, I knew that I likely hadn’t reached the nadir, or lowest point, in my blood counts from the prior chemotherapy. As such, there was a possibility that I might not be feeling 100% for my visitors.

Sure enough, by Wednesday evening I started running a mild temperature. No big deal – it was below the 38 degrees Celsius (°C) cutoff for an “official” temperature. On Thursday I wasn’t feeling energetic and napped most of the day. Then the real fun started.

My temperature rose Thursday evening and the physician-on-call at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) recommended that I come to urgent care to get things checked out. So, Lorie and I made the drive from Bucks County, PA to New York City for the third visit to urgent care within the past three weeks! We debated taking the train as opposed to driving, which would have been faster.

By the time we arrived at MSKCC, my temperature was above 39 °C and I felt the familiar muscle aches and general fatigue that I associated with influenza. Coincidentally, it was the diagnosis of influenza during my first week of chemoradiation in early 2016 that resulted in my first trip to MSKCC’s urgent care facility.

Flu season doesn’t usually begin until October, so this time concern focused on bacterial infection. With my white blood cell counts negatively impacted by chemotherapy, it was possible that my body couldn’t fight off an infection in one of my chest tubes or another location.

I was triaged with the usual battery of blood tests and a chest x-ray before being placed in an exam room. Urgent care was very crowded and I was just happy to have a bed and looked forward to resting horizontally for a while.

I sat on the bed, preparing to relax when I clutched my chest from a sudden, stabbing pain. Lorie could tell from the expression on my face this was no ordinary situation and called for the nurse who arrived immediately to assess the situation. As various cables were connected, I felt my heart racing and Lorie was shocked to see my pulse was 225 on the computer monitor.

Normally, the heart beats about 60 to 100 times per a minute at rest. But in tachycardia, the heart beats faster than normal in the upper or lower chambers of the heart or both while at rest. The episode ended within a minute or so, but tachycardia can disrupt normal heart function and lead to serious complications, including heart failure, stroke, and sudden cardiac arrest or death. Patches were promptly applied outside of my chest wall, which could be used if needed to provide a brief electric shock to the heart to reset the heart rhythm back to its normal, regular pattern.

My heart wasn’t the only one racing as the medical team placed a crash cart outside my door and a sense of urgency filled the room. The contents of a crash cart vary, but typically contain the tools and drugs needed to treat a person in or near cardiac arrest. I was sure that the end was near.

Michael Becker in MSKCC’s ICU

Fortunately, no further cardiac events occurred and I was admitted to MSKCC’s intensive care unit (ICU), where seriously ill patients are cared for by specially trained staff. While I have never had the misfortune to be admitted to an ICU in the past, I was amazed by the both the medical staff and technology used to monitor my condition and knew I was in good hands.

I was placed on an antibiotic and medication to stabilize my heart rate while the team worked to determine the source of the tachycardia and whether or not my episode had caused any damage to my heart. Preliminary assessments ranged from one of my tumors or chest tubes rubbing up against the sensitive tissue surrounding the heart to low electrolyte levels, which are important minerals in your body that have an electric charge. Maintaining the right balance of electrolytes is key for your body’s blood chemistry, muscle action and other processes.

On Friday, my temperature returned to normal and there were no further cardiac events. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps it was time to contact hospice and let the cancer take its course. I had faced my share of obstacles since being diagnosed with cancer in late 2015 and three recent trips to the hospital resulted in further erosion of my quality of life with two chest tubes, being back on chemotherapy and its side effects, and now the prospect of potential cardiac issues. Lorie and I discussed the topic of hospice and she rightfully pointed out that such a decision shouldn’t be made while sitting in the ICU.

I shared my thoughts about hospice with one of nurses while he assisted me with walking a few laps around the floor. Much to my surprise, he shared with me that it was about 11-years ago that he underwent a bone marrow transplant at MSKCC and how it caused him to pursue a career in medicine. He discounted my outlook on hospice, stating that I was young, up-and-walking, and seemed otherwise quite capable of enjoying further quality time with my wife and daughters. When my quality of life truly diminishes, that would be the time to consider hospice.

Our daughters, Rosie and Megan, traveled by train to NYC and were able to visit me briefly in the ICU. However, they all stayed overnight in a nearby hotel thanks to my father and step-mother. Being in the ICU wasn’t conducive for the planned family visit, which unfortunately got cancelled.

I was released from the ICU to a regular room very late Friday evening. I’ll be here for at least another day or two because the source of the fever still hasn’t been identified. With the fever gone, it appears the antibiotics were successful in treating the infection, but without knowing the source or strain – treatment can be challenging.

Viewing my Twitter feed briefly from the ICU on Friday, I was delighted to learn that Adam Feuerstein, Senior Writer at STAT News (statnews.com), Tweeted that he was dedicating his Pan-Mass Challenge ride to me.

Adam Feuerstein’s Tweet

Each year the Pan-Mass Challenge brings together thousands of impassioned cyclists, committed volunteers, generous donors and dedicated corporate sponsors. Together, they strive to provide Dana-Farber’s doctors and researchers the necessary resources to discover cures for all types of cancer.

“Michael, we love you, support you. Your strength will inspire me tomorrow.,” Tweeted Adam. Well, Adam, your Tweet and the many acknowledgements on Twitter helped brighten my day and I’m still here giving cancer everything that I’ve got. Godspeed on your ride and thank you for an amazing gesture!

And special thanks to all of Lorie’s friends who have helped our daughters get to NYC and/or babysit our small petting zoo while we’re away. It’s a lot to ask, and we’re so grateful for the help since it is one less thing to worry about. Humphrey appears to have made new puppy friends, as evidenced by the photos and videos that I love seeing.

It’s Saturday afternoon as I finish writing this blog update. Lorie, Rosie, and Megan are able to visit longer since I’m in a regular room now. Seeing people in the hospital isn’t tops on most teen’s lists of favorite activities, but it means so much to me having them here.

13 thoughts on “Ending Up in the ICU

  1. Michael, We continue to think of you OFTEN, pray for you, and believe for a miracle. I was so thankful for the nurse who spoke life into you.

    Sometimes when I am praying for you, which is often, I have a “random” thought. One recent thought that popped into my mind were the words to a song I learned in church…….”we’ve a story to tell to the nations”.

    I m not a theologian or a prophet but those words spoke to me…….Michael still has a story to tell. hmmmm, maybe another book. 😀

    Keep holding on and believing…….your healing may just be around the corner!


  2. Hi Michael. You’re in my thoughts and prayers. Hope you’ll be home soon. I once knew a man who was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. He quit his job and started playing golf every day–he never could get enough of his favorite sport. Few months passed, then a recheck of the tumor. Voila!! Nothing!! Doctors couldn’t explain how “terminal” evaporated. There are forces and miracles every day, and I believe you will be one of them too. A friend with confirmed aggressive breast cancer via five (5!) pathologists, including one at Stanford, is alive and well today as well. Humor, optimism and a deep-seated belief have turned the impossible to possible. You’ve got what it takes to give cancer the boot. Take time, take care.

    • I so agree! I have a friend who is more than 5 years out: she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Overian Cancer!

  3. You’re journey inspires me and thank you for writing this new blog! I pray for you and your family and I promise to always be a friend to Lorie, who as you’re all too aware, is an amazing person! Stay strong and hold on – you’re touching so many lives in a positive way. I pray for you and your family always. 😘

  4. Michael, I only recently learned of your situation. Seems not so let my ago I first met you in NJ. It is hard to see anyone suffer and even harder when you have met. I will keep you in my prayers.

  5. Michael, I never forget to read your blogs. Thank you for sharing to the world what you and your family are going through. Hang in there and there is hope. Do not give up! Fight, fight, fight with all your might. Your family and friends are there beside you who love you so much. I’d always keep you in my thoughts. Be well…

  6. GOD bless you Michael, glad to know that you out of ICU. am sure you would be back to sweet home at the earliest.
    Keep cheerful and positive, things will move in right direction.
    Bro, keep posting updates.
    My good wishes & prayers are with you

  7. What an amazing chapter of your story. It’s a tricky disease. What I am learning is how to talk to the patient, my sibling with SCC-H/N, and how to be supportive. But what I am seeing is a guy who is going to give his all to make it, and I, like many others, have that gut feeling that you will win in the end. I know you are more scientific about this, but this is a gnawling gut feeling of super optimism. Never give up. I see you have the inner strength to beat this. Hugs from all of us in my family.

    • “You r going to win in the end.” What a great word of encouragement. I so agree with Mary Simpson! Let’s keep those positive words and thoughts coming to Michael and his family.

  8. There is little I can add to what has been said in the rest of the posts. Just know you and family are always on my mind and prayers.

  9. Pingback: Uneventful Streak Ends | My Cancer Journey

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