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The Day I Almost Died

by Bill Stephens, Metro News Photographer | Friday, 24 August 2018 | 7:00 pm PT | Evening Edition

Photo Credit: Pixabay/

LAKE GENEVA, WI – It was on July 2, 2013 which is five years, 55 days or five years, one month, 24 days since my life changed. Yes 1,880 days since I almost died.

That morning, I woke up early at my Lake Geneva weekend home to prepare for my return to the Milwaukee Summerfest grounds working as a live performance photographer on assignment. Suddenly, I had trouble breathing. It was rapidly getting worse. My experience as a firefighter told me that my condition wasn’t going to get better without medical assistance. I called a friend a few doors down to help me by calling 9-1-1 as I was so short of breath I was not speaking very clearly.

Within minutes, a police unit arrived and gave me oxygen to try and relieve some of my distress as we waited for the ambulance. This would be the first time I was the patient in the back of the ambulance instead of the other way around. The trip to Mercy Medical Center's satellite hospital just a few miles west was not the smoothest ride I’ve been on. But knowing I was getting help, put me more at ease. The doctor in the ER assessed me and determined within a few minutes that I needed to be transferred to the main hospital in Janesville, Wisconsin for further treatment.

After it was determined it would take longer for the Flight for Life helicopter to pick me up, one more ambulance medic was added to the crew and on the road to Janesville we went. After what seemed like forever, but in reality only about 45 minutes, I was rushed into the cardiac catheterization lab. It was there medical staff determined I had not one, but three blockages of 99%, 95% and 97%. It was the “Widow Maker;” none of the blockages could be relieved in the lab.

Because the thoracic surgeon was already performing bypass surgery on another patient, I would have to hold on for three plus hours while he finished, ate and rested up. The Lab placed a ventricular assist device up through a vein in my leg to relieve stress on my heart while I waited my turn for the operating room.

Eight-and-a-half hours later and a quintuple bypass, I was recovering in the ICU. Once I was awake and was able to speak with the doctor, I found out how bad it was. They needed spare blood vessels to make the repairs. So they took some from my lower left leg and my right forearm. In addition they relocated an artery in my chest. As it was described to me, it was pulled through my chest muscle and used to supply more blood flow to my heart. To this day, my left chest still itches at times to the point of irritation. My surgeon was aware of how active I am so he closed my chest using wire, plates and screws. After talking with other bypass surgery patients, I am glad for this as my chest never hurts when the weather changes.

After six days of medication changes, trips up and down hospital corridors and stairs, I was able to go home with one requirement. Because I lived alone I was to have someone stay with me for at least two weeks, not just for safety, but to keep me from lifting anything more than ten pounds.

Those two weeks really can be an indication of who your family and friends really are. Those that took turns staying with me, taking off work and keeping me in line - you know who you are and I will forever be grateful.

While it took a full six months to recover, I went through cardiac rehab, which was a specialized gym with active heart monitoring. As I mostly sat around those six months, I did do some work, but I also did research. Trying to figure out why I developed this issue. I was told that my blood work didn’t indicate anything like that of a potential heart patient. Then I found it. One little mineral – Magnesium.

While all of my blood work indicated my levels were “fine”, my research found I only had 10% of what we all need in our blood. The rest resides in our muscles and tissues and is needed to conduct nerve impulses and also is needed to activate and use other vitamins and minerals such as Calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin K and others. When we become Magnesium deficient, our body panics and does things it would never normally do.

It starts to pull whatever is left in our blood to the heart to keep things pumping. Doing this also moves normal levels of bad things we all have in our systems along with it. This means you can go from no heart blockages or even restrictions to full on blockages and even missed heart beats.

After my surgery and reading about all of this, I started to take supplements. My occasional skipped beats have stopped and my cardiologist has now ruled out a pacemaker that he thought I might need.

The financial aspect of all that was happening started to take its toll. As we go through life, if we have really good parents or role models, we are taught to have at least six months of savings in case we lose our job or get sick. I ate through my savings and then some! Going back to work was not like riding a bike. It was taking time to get back into the groove. Now here comes the next slam; I started to have other physical issues. At first, it looked like a UTI and after testing ruled that out then my GP thought maybe a kidney stone. Nope! no pain, It took five months to get a CT scan and it was finally located. I had a tumor in my bladder. And yes, it was cancer.

May of 2014 was my first bladder surgery. Ten weeks later, was another surgery to make sure they got it all. After three months of recovery, I was somewhat back to normal - well almost. The surgeries triggered other issues I had never had in my life and I was adjusting to them. A year later I started to have the same symptoms; and yes it was back. I was never much of a gardener, but I could sure grow bladder tumors. After two more surgeries, then I had to wait for six-to-eight months and then have a camera inspection to see if anything was growing back.

While I was waiting, I did more research, this time for bladder cancer; this all while trying to keep my businesses going. Some of my clients felt that me being unavailable for just a few days was unacceptable and they cancelled contracts. This really hurt not only my bottom line, but can really destroy your faith in people. Loyalty surely doesn’t exist any more. While I always give my customers 100%, they don’t seem to believe they need to return the loyalty – truly an indication of the downward spiral we see every day in things like the news.

The year 2017 was the worst. After being found clear of new tumors, my doctor recommended I go through a form of chemo called BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin). It is Injected directly into the bladder to trigger my immune system to kill off whatever cancer cells might be left over. There are three eight-week rounds of BCG treatment with multiple-week breaks in between. My last treatment ended just before Christmas 2017. Because of all of this, last year my income was lower than when I started working at age fifteen. My home of 30 years is in foreclosure. Even when I was granted enough funds to bring my mortgage current last year, my mortgage company refused the payment. Who refuses to get paid?

So, here I sit in legal limbo, paying lawyers to try and get this mess solved so that I may keep my home. Yes, I have tried Go Fund Me, but I guess I am not as popular as that ghetto rapper that wants to fund his first EP or that girl who wants to go on vacation to Europe. There is no assistance available for anyone that suddenly gets sick, or at least I haven’t found any.

So, five years after getting sick, I'm 60-years-old and have slid back financially to my early teen years. Of course my body at times feels like it has gone in the other direction.

If anyone reading this takes anything away from it – don’t get sick! It can be a lonely existence for many people. I can’t remember the last time I was visited by family other than my daughter and she is now moving out of state to try and advance her career. I have friends that call and occasionally stop by, but when you get sick and you don’t have a spouse or significant other, you are alive, but truly alone.

Editors Note: We are thankful Bill Stephens is still with us and we wish him the very best. The "Go Fund Me" page was discontinued in a timely manner and Bill wishes to thank everyone who donated to his cause. Thank you for your consideration and for caring.