The Moose That Saved My Life

posted on March 3, 2017

When I was hunting whitetails in Maine back in 2001, something unusual happened: A cow moose suggested I see a cardiologist. Her intuition was spot-on, and eventually led to my quintuple bypass. I didn’t get to thank her, as she'd left shortly after I spooked her out of a stream from just a few yards away. 

This was in no way bad luck. The great majority of us have our heart attacks before our bypasses, meaning our hearts are already damaged. The bypass mitigates but does not eliminate the damage, making life expectancy shorter and outlooks more limited. With 10 of my veins from 10 to 90 percent blocked, the open-heart surgery I had before I could get to the heart-attack stage equated to winning the lottery. My still-healthy heart and open veins have lasted most of this millennium.

But Madame Moose should not have been my advisor, and I had made several mistakes. 

Here's how it went: About eight of us were hunting whitetails in central Maine. We had around 4 square miles to ourselves, enclosing a mountain that rose about 1,400 feet from the bordering river. I had a map and compass and always knew approximately where I was, having hunted there a few times before. That day I had been dropped off at dawn on a logging road, and had asked to be picked up on another road at dusk. To get there I would “still hunt,” hoping that the party’s random movements in the area would send deer to me.

Around 1 p.m., I was crossing a small stream full of melon-sized rocks, rifle slung. My foot slipped and I made a loud clatter as I regained my balance. In the same moment, about 20 feet away there was a huge commotion as a moose I'd never seen spooked, scrambled up the bank and disappeared. I had never seen a moose so close or moving so fast, nor had I ever heard such thunderous noise in our quiet woods. 

The event provoked what I can only describe as a giant startle that froze me in midstream. In the next moment I experienced what felt like an adrenaline dump, accompanied by an unusual sucking feeling in my chest, a feeling of “not enough.” It didn’t register as pain, but as a feeling that something was wrong. I sat down for a while, then continued my day. I was 55 years old.

Back home, I pondered what Madam Moose had told me, and decided to heed her advice by visiting a cardiologist. From there, events proceeded rapidly from a stress test, to a cardiac catheterization, to having my chest cracked open.

You may have guessed what my mistakes were in those Maine woods. Although I knew where I was, my friends only knew my approximate location, and would not have missed me until which time they could only have found me with dogs. If I had stroked, many of the nonlethal outcomes could have immobilized me. Exposure would have finished me off. A nonlethal heart attack would have had the same result. Even a radio or cell phone would have been useless in that timeframe. 

A friend could have helped me somewhat, but at 200 pounds I would have been too heavy to carry. My hypothetical companion could only have provided whatever first aid he could, then either left in hopes of bringing help or stayed with me in hopes that help could be summoned.

Certainly I should not have been out there alone, but even at 55 I “knew” I was indestructible. (Such delusions are, I think, a downside of “the cult of manhood.”) So Point Number One is that neither you nor I are indestructible, and Point Two is that we shouldn't enter the woods without a buddy system.

Third, I did not know I was a heart risk. So Point Three is that you need to know what I didn’t. I was several hundred miles from my home, and at least 30 miles from reasonable emergency health care. Had I known I was at significant risk, I would not have put myself (and my family) in such danger.

Although there's no way to anticipate all of the risks, there are lessons to take away: Be in good shape. Own up to your limitations. Get a health checkup, know your risk factors, be alert to and examine any symptoms you may be experiencing, and follow the guidelines your doctor gives you.  

The author, 10 years post-bypass, about 3 miles from the stream where he met Madame Moose.


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