Cannon survives open heart surgery

Sunday, October 2, 2016
Cannon was given this pillow at Saint Thomas to squeeze when he coughed and felt pain after surgery. (T-G Photo by John I. Carney)

A year ago this month, Calvin Cannon was mowing his lawn, trying to get his place ready for a party with some old classmates.

All of a sudden, he felt pressure and pain in his chest.

"It stopped me in my tracks," he said. He thought it was a panic attack.

It went away after a few minutes, and Cannon went back to his tasks.

Over the next few months, though, he noticed that ordinary tasks, like carrying a load of laundry, made him more tired than in the past. He would have weekly or biweekly spells, and had a couple of anxiety attacks.

He still wasn't ready to admit that the problem was his heart.

"I pretty much self-diagnosed myself as severe anxiety," said Cannon. But he knew something was wrong.

Cannon, who is an interior designer and operates Torso, a men's clothing and formal wear rental shop, didn't have a primary care physician -- and, for a while, had trouble finding one that was taking patients. Then, he took his aunt to a doctor's appointment and she came out with an application to fill out. Her doctor, William Sanders, took Cannon as a patient.

His first appointment with Sanders, on July 6, came two days before one of the biggest dates on Cannon's calendar each year -- the International Chili Society cookoffs and First Square Fair which Cannon organizes on the courthouse lawn.

Sanders performed an EKG and listened to Cannon's heart. He told Cannon to come back the next week for a stress test and blood work, and started him on cholesterol-lowering medication.

As a result of the stress test, Sanders referred Cannon to a cardiologist. Cannon asked for a Shelbyville doctor, and so Sanders sent him to Dr. Ifeoluwa Okusanya. She looked at Cannon's stress test and EKG and wanted an angiogram.

"This all happened that quick," said Cannon, "from the 6th [of July] to the 26th."

Cannon was admitted to Tennova Healthcare -- Harton in Tullahoma. If the angiogram revealed nothing, Cannon would be released. In what they thought was a worst case scenario, stents would be put in and Cannon would be kept overnight.

But Okusanya woke Cannon up after the procedure to say that Cannon had three blockages, and that he had signs of heart damage from a heart attack in the past. His mind flashed back to the incident in the yard.

"I knew that's what that episode in September was, immediately," said Cannon.

Surgery ordered

Okusanya said Cannon needed heart surgery -- the sooner the better -- and gave him a choice of Saint Thomas Hospital or Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Cannon asked if he could go home and think about it. "No," the doctor said. She told Cannon he stood a better chance of getting immediate attention if she transferred him from Tennova than if he showed up on his own -- and he might have another heart attack at any time.

Cannon knew he had a tuxedo order due the next day for a wedding. But the doctor told him he needed attention. They waited until a bed opened up at Saint Thomas, and one did a short while later. As the hospital personnel were moving Cannon onto the ambulance cot, he started to tear up.

"I told them that I felt like crying," he said, "and they told me to go ahead."

Over the next few days, Cannon received tests like an echocardiogram and X-rays. He was not optimistic.

"I pretty much knew that I was going to die," he said. His brother had died at age 32. He'd also lost his mother at 68, which he considered too soon. Cannon told a cousin that if he saw his mother and his brother in a dream, he would go with them.

On his second or third night at Saint Thomas, he did have a dream. His mother was behind a closed door; Cannon couldn't see her.

Life in future

"I was not supposed to open it -- I was not supposed to see her," he recalls. He took it as a sign; now was not the time to die. The very next day, even though he hadn't yet had surgery, the hospital's rehabilitation team began working with Cannon, and he began focusing on recovery, on life rather than death.

In Tullahoma, Cannon had been given a blood thinner, and his platelet count was too low for surgery. It took several days for it to come back up again, during which time Cannon's case passed through the hands of three different surgeons. Cannon met the first surgeon only briefly. He never met the second one at all. He was assigned to a third surgeon, Dr. William Glassford, who impressed Cannon with his bedside manner.

"I felt very comfortable with him from the get-go," said Cannon.


Cannon had arrived at Saint Thomas on July 26, but it was Aug. 5 before he finally had his surgery, which turned out to be quadruple bypass, not the two or three bypasses doctors had anticipated in advance.

Soon after the surgery, they had him sitting up in a chair, even though he was still hooked up to various tubes and wires.

"They want you up and moving as quick as possible," said Cannon.

Cannon said the most painful part of the experience was having the tubes removed before he was moved to a regular hospital room. He had a variety of emotions -- guilt, strangely enough, over no longer feeling pain; curiosity, wanting to see the scar; and a fear of getting up out of bed. The rehab team got him over that last one, walking him two times a day.

He was eventually released on Aug. 10, five days after surgery. He couldn't drive for several weeks, but he managed to make an appearance at the second-Saturday cruise-in he helps organize.

Since the surgery, he's had followup visits with his primary care doctor, his cardiologist and his surgeon. Everything has been going well. Cannon has adopted a low cholesterol diet and a walking regimen. He'll take an aspirin regimen for the rest of his life.

Business keeps going

Cannon, a small business owner, said it was hard to be away from his business for that long. He called upon some trusted former employees to help out, and Merle Norman on the square helped by receiving packages such as the tuxedoes for that wedding party. He said six different people played a hand in getting those tuxedoes to the people who needed them.

"I just put faith in a handful of people that I know," said Cannon.

Cannon said he's gained a great appreciation for the role played by nurses.

He learned something about himself, in the way he was able to shift his attitude and think about recovery rather than death. And he's learned to take symptoms seriously.

"Heart attacks happen differently in all people," said Cannon. Symptoms need to be reported and checked out.

Warning signs

According to the American Heart Association, heart attack warning signs can include:

* Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

* Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

* Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

* Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Call 911 if you feel any of these warning signs. It could mean the difference between life and death.

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