Want to know what life is like on a working conventional onion farm, and the day to day musings of a real life onion farmer? That's what you will read about, plus posts for music, weird news clips, and stories about my lobbying in behalf of agricultural public policy!
I'm a 4th generation onion farmer married to a wonderful wife named Eve and father of two wonderful boys named Caleb & Jonah. My blog Muckville.com details what I experience on the farm and is designed to inform and entertain.
Todd Neeley’s fantastic article about my ditch situation has now appeared in print, in the October 2016 issue of Progressive Farmer Magazine. There are also a number of very cool pics as well. Here is the link:
In the article there are some comments made by Orange County Legislator Paul Ruszkiewicz and Town of Warwick Supervisor Mike Sweeton I’d like to address. I’d respond to the NYSDEC but they refused to provide the reporter with any comments on the article or issue. Very sad, but not unexpected. It is NYS you know.
My responses to what Ruszkiewicz and Sweeton said:
The “dispute between two farmers line” is simply untrue and a complete copout. What’s at issue here for him is how the NYSDEC is not enforcing the black letter NYS Environmental Conservation Law on basic drainage ditch protections in a drainage district and he is DOING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT IT! He was part of an email I sent out in late January or early February where I spelled out very clearly that the NYSDEC is no longer enforcing that part of the law. He said and did nothing. Yes, he has no regulatory authority, no one said or ever implied that he did. But he could have made a huge stink about it with NYSDEC and other agencies.
To emphasize, no one claimed the Drainage Association he chairs has any sort of “regulatory authority.” But he has “bully pulpit” authority which he can and should use. This is not a simple “grower versus grower” dispute. One grower filled in a main drainage ditch in clear violation of the very specific state law designed to protect these ditches and formed the very association he currently chairs. The other grower wants to maintain the drainage and more importantly protect the principle of drainage. These are not equal positions. If Ruszkiewicz doesn’t stand for the protection of drainage, what the heck is he there for? The fact he did absolutely nothing to stand for the drainage protections is quite frankly, disturbing and appalling.
Sweeton’s line about the drainage changing over the years is straight from my neighbor’s mouth. And it is categorically false. The ditch has been where it is for over 100 years. It has not moved or changed, apart from when the forerunner of the NYSDEC worked on and expanded and codified it back in the project done in the 1930’s. What he didn’t say is that Rogowski has not been maintaining his portion of Ditch #32/Jack’s Ditch that borders his land. If he did the water upstream heavily comes my way. One farmer upstream did call the NYSDEC repeatedly to complain about this and what was done to my ditch but Tim Eidle, the attorney at the NYSDEC who I spoke with repeatedly, would neither take or return his call. That farmer left multiple messages on Eidle’s vm asking when his land floods because of this who should he sue?
Other neighbors aren’t weighing in because they are afraid of Rogowski and Osczepinski, period.
Years ago Rogowski’s father and uncle tried to sell the water from the aquifer under much of the black dirt to the Town of Goshen. It directly affected only a couple of growers but the PRINCIPLE affected everyone (the aquifer under much of the black dirt was threatened) and the local Vegetable Grower Organization at the time (of which then I was a Board Member, Ruszkiewicz wasn’t, and Ruszkiewicz is now President of) hired a lawyer to oppose the selling of the water and the Rogowski’s actions. It wasn’t merely “farmer vs farmer” then and it isn’t now.
Sweeton should not hurt himself patting himself on the back. The Town of Warwick held a private meeting with Rogowski, where we the land owners were not included, after Rogowski illegally tried to fill in the ditch with no permits. The Town then allowed Rogowski to ignore his submitted and approved (in 3 days) engineering plans and the Flood Plain Permit to build this unnecessary road in the dead center (versus side of ditch as the permit allowed) of the ditch. The Town Engineer came out and allowed it. The Wall is built unsoundly and every other contractor and engineer that has examined this has said it is not a matter of if but when it will collapse. The Town allowed this construction to take place although the land owner did not approve of it. This was not clearing some sticks or debris for a pre existing road. This is construction of a road that never existed in a main drainage ditch that cost nearly $100,000 to build.
And the easement wasn’t granted in 1930. It goes back farther than that. The actual easement as a road or path has never existed and there is no evidence that it ever has. In my research of it, it appears it goes back to the previous 2 land owners in the late 19th century, pre dating my great grandfather. It seems it just was never removed from the older deeds.
He had a right of egress/ingress where the right of way was (which was mostly in the ditch), not to build a massive wall and fill in my ditch, on my property, against my wishes. We dispute that.
Kudos to Senator Gillibrand’s office and Assemblyman Skoufis and his staff in particular, along with State Senator Bonacic’s office who worked on this. Especially Gillibrand’s office who did all they could and then some.
And thank you to FEMA for now taking an interest in this and investigating it. They are taking it very seriously and I am cautiously optimistic that they will be the much needed “adult in the room” to see to it that the Flood Plain Permit and relevant rules, regulations and vital protections are enforced.
Shame on all of the various regulatory and oversight agencies, especially ACOE, EPA and the NYSDEC. The EPA and ACOE is pure cowardice but the NYSDEC’s actions are inexplicable. I am still deeply concerned about some of the changes in the CWA and the revised rule. But that being said, I don’t approve of no regulations or chaos. We have to have sensible rules and protections, and those charged with enforcing them need to do their jobs.
Article 15 Water Resources, Title 19 Drainage, of NYS Environmental Conservation Law (ECL), and specifically § 15-1947 which is entitled “Unlawful interference with drainage works” deals with drainage protection in a drainage district.
This section of the law states in part the following: “2. It shall be unlawful for any person without authorization to interfere with, fill up, alter or change any drainage ditch or other structure constructed under the provisions of title 19 of this article…. 3. It shall be unlawful to build or maintain across or in such drainage ditch any bridge or culvert which unduly impedes the flow of water in such ditch.”
If you don’t enforce this law you cannot farm on muck soils. It is critical for drainage protection and basic flood control. It is black letter law.
The DEC told me they have no instances of enforcing it. That is untrue. Tom Sobiech of Pine Island had a similar circumstance as me in 1998 and DEC personnel came out to his farm in 1998 and enforced the law. But even if that wasn’t true that is no reason to not enforce it now. The reason there are so few instances of enforcing it is because virtually every farmer is scared to death of running afoul of the DEC. If word gets out the DEC is no longer protecting drainage ditches, especially DEC Commissioner Ditches like mine form the 1930’s project, then all bets will be off. Farmers will block ditches, pipes, drainage and flood their neighbors in the process.
The Wallkill River Watershed Conservation and Management Plan states: “Essentially this entire 16,000 acre region was designated as an Agricultural Drainage District by the State of New York in the late 1930’s. Not only did this designation allow for the planning and construction of an ambitious network of drainage channels, it established legally binding requirements for the maintenance of these channels. The overall purpose of the District is to ensure that landowners within its boundaries have the drainage and flood protection necessary to allow for agricultural production.”
My very awesome cousin Natalie Vero, who will be graduating this May from Penn State University (of the Big 10 of course) has just posted her video project about our farm and my life. It is extremely cool!
I was told to “not think about it” but when your property is being wrongly violated by someone right in front of you it is very difficult to “not think about it.” Hence, the metoprolol. A side effect though of this medication has been that it has made me a bit lethargic, fatigued and lacking energy.
Our case is proceeding forward and our next court date is January 28th. I will continue to post updates. I will also next week post some recent media pieces I’ve appeared in over the summer.
If so inclined if you can support our cause my family would be very appreciative. We need help in supporting our legal fight to restore our ditch and reverse this violation of our property and threat to our drainage. Any help is much appreciated and if people can spread the word we would also be very appreciative! Here is the link for our GoFundMe campaign:
Things have been awful crazy on the farm. Not only did we have another busy growing season, but, I nearly died from a 95% blockage in my LAD and my neighbors have been violating our land. Oh, this past September 23rd was Eve and I’s 25th wedding anniversary and the Iowa Hawkeyes as of today are 12-0, ranked 3rd in the CFP ranking and playing Michigan State for the Big 10 Championship on Saturday night!
As work for the 2015 growing season continues to wind down I will have some more time to blog. Hopefully in the next few days I will post some of the media pieces I have appeared in the past few months and some more pictures from this season and this horrible drainage ditch situation with my neighbors.
Regarding that drainage ditch situation, our family has hired famed civil rights attorney Michael Sussman to represent us
Wow … that’s some kind of title! It’s a very long and complicated story so please bear with me …
This season we’ve had an ongoing dispute with our neighbor, S&SO Produce over their right of way through our property. It is now escalating into the absurd. So far it seems it is perfectly legal to build a 700 ft road over a 10 ft deep, 100 year old main ditch that drains hundreds of acres of black dirt underneath Pulaski Highway. They have no permits, no engineering plans, nothing. And, so far, no government agency wants to step up to stop this.
They are building this road as fast as they can without permits or permission running under the credo that it is better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Last night they laid the pipe; today they are dumping dirt in. The Town of Warwick has finally said they will issue a stop work order pending review of the town board but until they issue it and the police are officially told, they are building as fast as they can.
“BEGINNING at a point in the center of the Pulaski Highway, said point being in the center of a small brook ….”
That “small brook” is no longer a brook. Over time it has become a main drainage ditch. In 1937 it was dug and codified as a Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner’s Ditch. It is “Jack’s Ditch” or Ditch #32.
According to this document this ditch drains at least 175 acres:
Back in 1938 less swamp had been broken and converted into farmlands. It is probably far more.
This ditch is now a main drainage ditch. It drains hundreds of acres on a handful of farmer’s land. It drains into a 60 inch in diameter pipe that runs under Pulaski Highway and eventually connects into the Quaker Creek. The Quaker Creek is a main tributary of the Wallkill River.
My dad recently found a photocopy of a map which includes the right of way. Interestingly it is dated in 1921, 2 years before Frank Pawelski sold the property to the Osczepinski family.
So the right of way predates the sale. Since the term “a small brook” is used we believe the right of way probably goes back to the middle to late 19th century. The bottom line is this, it has not existed for over 100 years. It is now mostly a drainage ditch that drains hundreds of acres of farmland and helps prevent flooding.
The original Osczepinski land was for many years owned by Ludwig Osczepinski’s daughter Alice and her husband John Labonowski and their son John. During the years the Labonowski’s would sporadically cross over onto our property but they were not using the right of way. My family would allow it, so as to be good neighbors. The Labonowski family never allowed Ludwig’s son Stanley and his son Stanley Osczepinski (S & SO Produce) to use their land to cross over ours. The right of way was essentially never used.
In 2008 Stanley’s daughter Alyson and her husband, Mark Rogowski, bought the Osczepinski homestead. Mark is actually a descendent of Ludwig Osczepinski too. His paternal grandmother was another daughter of Ludwig. After they bought the property Stanley Osczepinski and his son began to divert much of their farm traffic unto our property. In fact, more traffic from their farm passed over our property than our own. Their farm, S & SO Produce (https://www.facebook.com/ssoproducefarms) grows a number of greens and sells a number of products in the NYC Greenmarket system (http://www.grownyc.org/greenmarket/farmers).
For 40+ years S & SO Produce functioned fine without crossing over into my property. But now Mark Rogowski wants to build a large barn structure on the lot associated with the homestead connected with the right of way. Now the property is not landlocked. There are 2 other right of ways for this property. One is a 10 foot right of way on Quaker Creek Lane that takes you to Pulaski Highway. The other is a 20 foot right of way behind his house and property that runs from Big Island Road to Mount Eve Road, where most of their farming operation is located.
There was a pipe and bridge at the juncture of the Rogowski/Osczepinski land and the 20 foot right of way in the back dirt but Mark Rogowski pulled the pipe and bridge out. Why? As he told Eve and I about a month ago “he didn’t want the Mexican farmworkers driving by his house.” So instead over the last 3 years they have diverted that traffic past my house.
But now Rogowski and Osczepinski have decided that their other right of ways are not enough. They want a “straight shot” to Pulaski Highway. So they have decided they are going to put a small pipe in this ditch, fill it in, and create a road that has never truly existed.
You read that right, they are going to fill in a major drainage ditch. A ditch that drains hundreds of acres of black dirt, including some of their own. They threaten us with potential flooding. They started tonight, October 23rd, to put in the pipe and eventually fill in this ditch. they have no permits, there are no engineering studies, nothing. They are just doing it.
The Town of Warwick Building Department initially put a stop work order on this insanity but then rescinded it and called the situation a “civil matter.” But late this afternoon the building department called me and told me that Rogowski was ordered not to do anything and wait till the Warwick Town Board met. That order was never conveyed to the Warwick or NYS Police so they were unable to act and stop Rogowski and Osczepinski, who totally ignored the instructionsThis ditch is part of the DEC system. No aspect or division of the DEC has assumed responsibility to put a halt to this. They are considering what authority they have but have done nothing to protect this drainage and waterway.
But the worst agencies, the agencies that have essentially committed regulatory malfeasance are the Environmental Protection Agency (http://www3.epa.gov) and the Army Corps of Engineers (http://www.usace.army.mil). Why those agencies?
Truth be told, I went on Capitol Hill and spoke with many offices about the revised rule and my concerns regarding it. Many feared it was a major step of overregulation and farmers would be threatened in how they properly managed waterways in and around their farms. My concern was my ditches. I feared that I would be prevented from digging and maintaining them.
The pushback from big agriculture was so severe it has left EPA and the ACOE extremely fearful. The revised rule actually deals with this very issue, that of covering over a waterway and making it a road. There is within the rule a very very broad exemption for agriculture called the 404 Exemption. But, within that very broad exemption there are a series of regulatory exceptions. What Rogowski and Osczepinski propose to do calls into question, if not clearly violates these exceptions. Here is the rule:
In the rule it states in part for the farming exemption of roads to the new rule to apply to the roads the following criteria must be met, including in part:
* “are constructed and maintained in accordance with best management practices (BMPs) to assure … these BMPs which must be applied to satisfy this provision shall include those detailed BMPs described in the State’s approved program description pursuant to the requirements of 40 CFR 233.22(i), and shall also include …”
My question, who does that determination and how is that determination made? Is it simply waived? On what basis? I don’t see where it is waived so how is it determined the road is constructed and maintained according to BMPs?
* “Permanent roads … shall be held to the minimum feasible number, width and total length consistent with the purpose of specific farming …”
Again, a standard is mentioned. If so, what is the standard and how is it determined the standard so as to qualify for the exemption? It simply can’t be the farmer’s say so, correct?
* All roads … shall be located sufficiently far from streams or other water bodies … to minimize discharges of dredged or fill material into waters of the US”
What is “sufficiently far from other streams or bodies of water” and who and how is that determined? 50 feet, 500 feet, 1,000 feet? Other major ditches and tributaries of the Wallkill are all around this ditch. Further when the Wallkill floods the field essentially becomes a huge lake for weeks at a time and the material if it happens again will get picked up by the flood waters and taken back into the Wallkill as the River eventually recedes.. It has happened 7 times since 2005.
* “The road shall be bridged, culverted, or otherwise designed to prevent the restriction of expected flood flows”
This is a HUGE issue, considering the Wallkill has not been maintained and we have had 7 “50 year floods” since 2005. How on earth is this determined? A 300 foot culvert that is 18 inches in diameter will eventually silt up and get blocked, causing the restriction of regular flows, let alone flood flows.
I spoke with Brian Orzel of the NY Regulatory Branch of the ACOE (http://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Missions/Regulatory.aspx) last month. He sent me the pdf file of the pertinent section of the rule you see above. In our phone conversation it was very clear he did not want to get involved in this matter. He frequently brought up the 404 Exemption but admitted there were certain exceptions. I pointed out I wasn’t asking for an arbitrary or capricious stop order from the ACOE or EPA. I was only asking they would do their jobs, ask the questions I asked above and protect the farmers from flooding. He was very candid with me. He said that his higher ups in Washington DC would “not want to act against a farmer.” I pointed out to him, over an over again, that what this person was doing in covering over this ditch was not about farming. In fact, in doing nothing and allowing it the ACOE and EPA were hurting many more farmers by allowing a greatly increased future flood risk.
Here is the deal, EPA and the ACOE are terrified. They are terrified if they act, apply the rule, and potentially stop this lunacy, that protesters will come out of the woodwork screaming “OVERREGULATION” and claim both agencies are out to hurt farmers.
here is my first major complaint. Neither Brian Orzel nor anyone else from either the EPA or the ACOE have bothered to get away from their desks and actually drive out and see this in person. Not a single individual has done this. They have arbitrarily decided to do nothing without even looking at the situation first hand. Orzel is only about an 1 hour 15 minute drive away.
They are so terrified of protest they are willing to allow a number of farmers to flood. No farmer is going to protest the EPA and ACOE over their enforcing the appropriate regulations in this matter. One sacrosanct principle for people farming in the black dirt on muck soils is this: THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO DRAIN. Without proper drainage you cannot successfully farm this ground. Worse, we have experienced 7 50-year floods since 2005 and the ACOE and the NYS DEC have done virtually NOTHING to help mitigate or prevent future flooding. nothing.
To then step aside and allow someone for no good legitimate reason to fill in a ditch and cause a situation that will lead to potential future flooding is unconscionable. Again, I’m not asking for an arbitrary stop. I’m asking for the ACOE to ask where are the engineering studies that show putting in a18 inch diameter pipe that will feed into a6 0 inch pipe under Pulaski Highway won’t:
* Eventually silt in and cause massive flooding
* In a major flood situation blow out the 60 inch pipe under Pulaski Highway as the water recedes and undermines, if not collapses Pulaski Highway
Where is any engineering study on this? Where is any study or permit? The decision to act or not act in terms of “would be exempt from regulation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act as long as the provisions of that section are complied with, including designing the road to be the minimum width and length feasible and that it not restrict potential flood flows” and to or to apply the basic rules, regulations, guidelines and restrictions I highlighted above is essentially a political one. Orzel made it perfectly clear to me during our discussion. Because of Agriculture’s big objection to this new rule EPA and ACOE are extremely reluctant (he kept saying DC or Washington) to pursue any actions against farmers. As I said to him though, while essentially sitting back and doing nothing, allowing this farmer to do what they essentially please (for not an actual legitimate farming reason), with not even a cursory check or regulatory compliance or even sort of hoop at all or even questioning it, that may be good for that single farmer who wants to fill in the ditch, to give him a right of way that he doesn’t need, but it may severely and negatively impact a dozen farmers and hundreds of acres of ground that drains this way.
Late this afternoon (10/23/15) the Town of Warwick Building Department called me to tell me that Rogowski and Osczepinski were notified this afternoon that they were ordered to do no action regarding this road and they had to wait until the Town of Warwick Board and Supervisor met to discuss it. I was told if they started construction I was to call the Town of Warwick Police and notify them of this and for them to call a certain Building Department employee who would convey this. With this knowledge law enforcement could then act and remove them. That word never got to the Town of Warwick Police.
At about 5pm Osczepinski and Rogowski arrived with a number of their employees and began placing 18 inch pipe in the ditch.
And no government entity or regulator agency wants to act. they all point the finger at everyone else as to who holds the authority. I’ve had Town of Warwick Building Department personnel, Orange County Department of Public Works personnel, and various law enforcement officers who virtually all f them has said this action is crazy and potentially dangerous. They virtually all agree this will create a greatly increased flood risk and could in a flooding situation like this (https://muckville.com/2014/03/26/hurricane-irene-and-tropical-storm-lee/) undermine if not cause the collapse of Indiana Road.
Where is the EPA and the ACOE? Are they really that frightened by a potential protest that will never happen and big agriculture in general that they will sit on their hands and allow a main ditch waterway to be covered and made into a road for a right of way of luxury, not necessity?
If that’s the case why do we even have an EPA and ACOE?
This has been an incredibly busy September. September is the peak month of our harvest season, so it is probably our busiest month as well. Further, every September I typically make a trip down to Capitol Hill for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Ag Advisory Panel Meeting and NY Farm Day Celebration. I typically schedule numerous meetings with a number of offices while I am down in DC. This year I was down from September 7th till September 10th. I hope to blog about that very eventful trip soon, which included:
a number of very productive meetings on Capitol Hill and at USDA
my getting a massive headache forcing me to leave the Farm Day reception early and vomiting in a DC cab
my return Amtrak train striking and killing a person who committed suicide outside of Philadelphia
… amongst many other events. Look for that blog entry eventually.
But in the meantime, allow me to share what happened afterward. I finally got home about 12:30am on Friday. I went back to work on the farm that Friday morning and by 6:30 or so I was out the door. I worked on the farm (obviously) all day Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. During that period I drove the forklift in the barn as we packed onions, the windrower to prep the fields for harvest and the big field forklift as we harvested. My days were pretty busy, typically working from 6 or 6:30 in the morning to 7:00 or 7:30 or later each night.
On early Tuesday morning I had an appointment with my neurologist who has been treating me for my headaches, Dr. Uri Napchan, of Middletown Medical (http://www.middletownmedical.com/services/specialty-medicine/neurology/). I brought with me a 50 lb. bag of yellow onions for Dr. Napchan and his staff. I carried the bag on my shoulders from the parking lot up to his office … no sweat. My appointment was my 3 month check-up as well as my quarterly botox shots (I get them for headaches, not for looks, though Eve says I look like a Klingon afterward).
Well, the visit went well, my vitals were fine, etc ….. After the visit I returned to the farm and windrowed much of the day into the evening.
Here are a few pics taken that day:
In fact, I even shot and eventually posted a video on YouTube of windowing:
Around 7:00pm I switched to the next field. It is a very wide field and I had to walk the width to count the beds to determine where the center is.
It’s a wide field, about 50 beds or so. And as I walked the width of the field I started to notice slight discomfort, almost a feeling of pain in my chest, around my heart. This struck me as odd because by this point in the season I’m at the peak of my physical activity and should feel any discomfort after walking a few feet. I filed away what happened, said nothing to Eve later, and continued to windrow for another half hour or so.
The next morning I woke, had breakfast, viewed my weather video, drank my coffee and got out the door at about 6:30am. The first thing I do in the morning, every morning since late April, is take care of our employees’ drinking water. The 5 gallon jug is typically left in the barn. I carry it, with whatever water is in it, to the faucet outside my house, dump the old water, fill it with fresh water and ice, and then take it to the barn.
I grabbed the bucket and carried it to my faucet. By the time I got to my faucet I experienced sharp and pronounced chest pains that dropped me to my knees. I also could not catch my breath. I literally crawled into my house. Eve was still there, had not left to work. She obviously was a bit freaked out and wanted me to call our doctor. After 5 minutes the pain subsided and I could breath no problem. I assured her that what happened was some sort of anomaly but it wouldn’t happen again. I then went outside, emptied then filled the bucket with water and ice and proceeded to carry it to the barn.
And when I got to the barn I once again was dropped to my knees by the very intense pain.
I crawled into our farm office where my dad was sitting. He nearly panicked, telling me to call the doctor. After about 5 minutes the pain subsided and I felt fine. I told him if something like that happened again I would definitely call the physician that treats me.
I then went out to the field to windrow, which I did from about 7 until about noon. Since I never experienced pain like that I decided to tweet about it. At 9:08am I sent this tweet:
Medical question: I had chest pains this morning that knocked me to the ground. Eve says anxiety. Anyone else have that?
Most of my tweets automatically get posted to my Facebook page. I assumed, after I tweeted and it was posted, that most of my social media friends and followers would say:
“What complaining about you slacker? Get your tail back to work!”
That’s not the overwhelming reaction I received.
Both on Twitter but primarily on Facebook my friends overwhelmingly urged me to seek medical attention IMMEDIATELY. Dozens of person told me that what I experienced was not typical or usual and I should seek help immediately.
I didn’t take it seriously. At that point I had roughly $150,000 in farming expenses for the season and roughly $20,000 in sales. i attributed it simply to some form of anxiety or stress, not physical. As I was finishing windowing I watched as my father, who is in his mid 70’s, skipped his lunch to rake onions over to prepare for harvesting.
How can I stop working over my situation when I see that? I proceeded then to drive the tractor back to our property that is between my house and my parent’s house, park it, and I then walked a few hundred feet back to my house.
And when I got to my house I felt very noticeable chest discomfort that one could characterize as pain. And at that point I knew something was up. I called Eve at work and she was adamant I had to call our primary care provider. Because of her insistence (and because of the overwhelming response on social media) I agreed to give our nurse practitioner Vicki Rheaume at Horizon Family Medical a call (http://www.horizonfamilymedical.com/locations/florida/). When we spoke I related my conditions and what I had been experiencing, including on the field Tuesday night and I asked her “don’t you think Vicki that this all might be stress or anxiety?” She paused for a second and said that she would not say that and she insisted I either go to the ER or call my cardiologist asap. That surprised me a bit. I really expected her to say it was stress or anxiety. Or maybe that’s what I wanted to hear.
I then called my cardiologist’s office. It had previously been part of Horizon but was now called the Hudson Valley Heart Center (http://www.hvheartcenter.com/index.php). When I called I detailed my symptoms to the scheduler and asked if someone could see me. The scheduler responded “we do have a space in about an hour and half if you can come in.” I sort of grimaced and replied “well … I’m all dirty and we’re harvesting now, do you have any time tomorrow?” I still wasn’t taking this too seriously. She said they did have time available at 4pm the next day. I said I would take it. I wouldn’t see the doctor I saw last time, this time I’d see Dr. John Portelli.
I then proceeded to continue to work as we harvested till about 7pm or so. I started to notice that when I would exert myself a bit I would start to feel some chest discomfort. But as Eve and I laid in bed that night I continued to insist it was obviously stress or anxiety over what was turning into a not so great season on the farm.
The next morning I worked as I normally would on the small barn lift as we graded and packed onions. Then at about 10pm a contingent of USDA employees from the Risk Management Agency came to my farm with local Cornell Cooperative Agents for a tour and discussion about crop insurance.
After they left I graded onions and then had lunch with my friend Chris Olert at the fabulous Quaker Creek Store (http://www.quakercreekstore.com). I then went back to work and worked until 2pm grading onions.
During the day I continued to notice if I moved to quickly or attempted to lift anything heavy like a bag of onions I would feel noticeable chest pain. Again, I continued to assume it was stress. i showered and drove to the heart center’s office in Chester for my 4pm appointment. After filling out some basic paperwork a nurse took my vitals and then Dr. Portelli came in to examine me. they did an EKG which I believed didn’t show anything unusual or remarkable and I believe my vitals were also good (my blood pressure is typically low). So after explaining my symptoms and examining me I asked the doctor if it was probably stress or anxiety causing my symptoms. Dr. Portelli said “no, I’m saying heart. This sounds like heart.” He diagnosed me with exertion angina and he then ordered an immediate stress test. He walked me out to the scheduler and stood by to ensure that I would be the first person seen the next day. The scheduler remarked later “he is taking this very seriously, he usually doesn’t stand and wait like that after asking for the appointment to be made.” He prescribed for me a beta blocker to slow don my heart and nitroglycerin tablets. That shocked me.
When I arrived at my pharmacy, The Florida Pharmacy, Charlie the pharmacist came out and handed me the nitroglycerin tablets and said< “this is to be taken seriously, this is life or death serious.” He then gave me the very specific instructions as to when and how to take the nitroglycerin tablets.
I still felt this was all stress or anxiety induced. I firmly believed that. One reason I waited almost two days to actually see a doctor was because I didn’t want to bother very busy people with very important jobs treating persons with very real illnesses. I didn’t want to waste their time or divert their energies and attention from where they should be directing their energies and attention.
The next morning I took it easy. A Facebook friend of mine from Long Island, Laura Di, came and visited the farm. She had a blast and it was great to meet in person someone that I really admire and respect. She has fought very hard for her community after the destruction of Superstorm Sandy.
(above pics of Laura Di. Dad wanted pics and a hug)
Eve came home from work early and she drove us to the office in New Windsor for the stress test. Very quickly we were taken to the room by 2 nurses to be set up for the stress test, which is basically running on a treadmill. As they were applying the electrodes all over my body they asked how I was feeling. I said, “well, I actually have had all morning a minor level of discomfort that feels like heartburn. I had breakfast but I don’t typically get heartburn.” I then added, “I didn’t poop this morning. Is that important?”
Eve rolled the eyes to the very top of her head and told me to shut up but the nurses just laughed and one replied “don’t worry, I have one like that at home too.” After all of the electrodes were applied I stepped on the treadmill. Dr. Portelli came in at this point to monitor the test.
I lasted all of six minutes. After a mere 6 minutes I was totally gassed and out of breath. I should have lasted longer than 6 minutes. Again, by mid September I’m at the peak of my physical activity. Even in the middle of January when I am far more sedentary I should be able to last longer than 6 minutes. The test did not initiate the sort of pain I felt after carrying the water bucket but I did feel some pain, just not as severe. I did have noticeable pain in my left arm thought the test. My right arm felt fine but not my left. I kept saying to the nurse that was taking my blood pressure during the test “I have pain in my left arm. Is that normal? Why do I have pain in my left arm?” As soon as the stress test was over the pain in my left arm disappeared. No one said a word and I had absolutely no idea what it meant until we got in the car ride home (https://www.sharecare.com/health/heart-attack/does-left-arm-pain-mean-having-heart-attack).
Dr Portelli asked his nurse to get me a nitroglycerin tablet. I said I was fine and I was really reluctant to take it. My pharmacist warned that potential side effect was a headache and I already have enough problems with a headache. I believe he said though my EKG was fine my symptoms continued to indicate some sort of cardiac problems and he ordered a cardiac catheterization early on Monday morning.
I was stunned and bummed. The upcoming Wednesday, September 23rd, would be our 25th wedding anniversary so we planned on spending the upcoming weekend in NYC, We had punched incredible seats to see “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, planned to be joined by good friends of ours from Connecticut for dinner at Ben & Jacks and maybe check out the naked painted ladies of Times Square (http://gothamist.com/2015/08/17/naked_times_square_struggle.php). Well … maybe we weren’t going to do that as we celebrated our 25th … but we would be in Times Square. then we were going to stay the night at a very fancy hotel and have brunch on Sunday before we came back home. Dr Portelli strongly discouraged me from going and added “do you really want to have a heart attack and be stuck at some hospital in NYC?
Good point doctor!
So, we decided to follow my doctor’s advice and we bagged the weekend anniversary celebration get-away. On the plus side, I was now going to be able to watch my Iowa Hawkeyes take on the Pitt Panthers in Iowa City Saturday night.
The reason he said that was because earlier in the day I got very angry over a couple of know-nothing blowhard idiots on a Facebook page. i got so upset I started getting strong to severe chest pains. So strong they started going into my left arm and underarm. And despite walking away from the computer and sitting on the couch for a few minutes the pain only intensified. So intense I had to actually take one dose of nitroglycerin. And after 2 minutes it actually worked and the pain subsided.
I still didn’t believe it was anything more than stress or anxiety.
Saturday afternoon my good friend Susan McDonald stopped in to visit me and Eve. She wanted to make sure I was doing okay and taking it easy. She really calmed me down and made me and Eve laugh and was a great comfort.
Another person who was a huge comfort to me was my good friend Maria Ingrassia. Maria happens to be a staffer for the Congressman for my district, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (http://seanmaloney.house.gov). But she has been my friend long before she started working for Sean. She is a fantastic staffer and asset to Rep. Maloney and his district team. But she is also a great friend and she gave me a great deal of information about St. Luke’s and their facility and the cardiac team I was seeing that was a huge comfort to Eve and I and source of mental relief. She made sure Eve had her cell phone number and wanted Eve to call on Monday if she needed anything at all while at St. Luke’s.
On Saturday and Sunday my father and brother harvested two of my fields of onions. It totally killed me that I could not work. My doctor ordered me not to work or exert myself at all. I love to work, I love my job, and most important … MY FATHER AND BROTHER DON’T DO MY JOBS RIGHT!!!! Boxes aren’t stacked straight or properly … no straight lines of onion bags, things placed all over the place …a argh! Eve would follow me out in the yard and chase me back to the house, literally at one point throwing stones at me.
(picture below is taken by Eve after she threw stones at me to get back in the house)
When we initially arrived we had to sit outside the cardiac unit in a waiting area. A very friendly and chatty man started chatting it up with Eve. I took his pic and tweeted about him, unbeknownst to him:
We were finally ushered into the unit and I was ordered to disrobe … except my socks. Now, I was officially bummed out because I love getting those little socks from the hospital. It is the highlight of your stay. As I sat and waited for the initial prep stages to start I actually Periscoped from my bed.
Eve wasn’t amused and almost took my phone away.
I must admit though I wasn’t a basket case I was a bit nervous. A funny semi-exchange resulted when the elderly man in the bed next to me, who we couldn’t even see because a curtain separated us, offered his opinion. Here is the tweet that related this:
Me to nurse: "How am I doing?" Very old man in bed next to me: "Ah, you're doing okay."
We met Dr. Gosselin, who along with Dr. Portelli, Eve and I liked and trusted very much. He was warm and sincere and very optimistic and told us not to worry. He then had the nurse give me a Valium and a Benadryl prior to the procedure. Those pills had absolutely no effect. Pic below was taken 15 minutes after I took them:
They then wheeled me into the procedure room across the hall.
As I was set up on the table my right arm was extended out. They said that 85% of the time the catheterization (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardiac_catheterization) are performed in the wrist, 15% in the groin area. They prep both areas in case they can’t do it in the wrist. The prepping process includes obviously shaving the region. As the nurses shaved my groin area I said “well, it’s my wife andI’s 25th next week and I was going to do that as an anniversary present anyway.” They laughed and one quipped “I guess your wife is going to have to reciprocate.” I replied, “that’s in negotiations.” They all laughed again.
They used a local anesthetic at the point of insertion in the wrist and some sort of other anesthetic. You are awake during the procedure but though you believe you are lucid, you really aren’t. I can remember watching part of the procedure on the television monitors above me (they left my glasses on for the procedure) and I think I made the nurses laugh some more, but I have no clue as to what I said. And to me it seemed like the procedure took only 10 minutes when it in fact lasted about an hour and a half.
When I was wheeled out I had pretty significant chest pains. The nurse asked how bad and I said “6.” Eve, who was waiting the entire time in the prep area during the procedure asked “okay, but what level for normal people?” I then said “8.” Eve knows I have a pretty high toleration for pain. I was getting nitroglycerin in my IV drip so the nurse then increased the dosage, At this point Dr. Gosselin emerged and told us that I had a 95% blockage in my left anterior descending artery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anterior_interventricular_branch_of_left_coronary_artery) and that he applied a stent in the artery to open it.
I was in shock. Total, absolute and complete shock. The only blockages in my life I have ever had to deal with typically involved this device:
Even up to that point I was convinced nothing would be found and it was stress or anxiety causing my symptoms. According to the Wiki article above it was this same sort of blockage that killed former NBC newsperson Tim Russert. Dr. Gosselin gave Eve a document which had details on the stent, and it included a wallet size version I now needed to carry at all times. He then said either he or Dr. Portelli would talk to us tomorrow when I would be discharged. I forgot to mention, we were told prior that if nothing was found I could go immediately home but if a stent was placed I would need to stay in the hospital overnight for observation. Then Dr. Gosselin left.
As I was lying in the bed in the prep room the chest pains subsided due to the increased nitroglycerin in the IV, but, the increased nitroglycerin triggered a massive headache. A headache probably as severe as the headache that crippled me nearly a week before on Capitol Hill in DC. The nurses gave me a dose of cocktail of drugs I use for my acute pain relief. But they had absolutely no effect on the headache. What seemed like an eternity but probably was only a half hour or so we waited for my room to be ready. When they finally started to roll me out of the prep room to my recovery room I was hit with waves of pain in my head, chest and an onset of nausea that made me feel like I was going to vomit.
Within a few minutes we were in my room and by then I had totally sweated out my sheets. I was literally writhing in pain and I was unable to sleep or feel any relief. And this lasted for roughly 5 or 6 hours. After 6 hours my chest pains had lowered enough that the nitroglycerin drip could be shut off and I was given a 2nd dose of my headache relief cocktail. I then was finally able to get some sleep.
I awoke a couple of hours later to Eve quietly chatting with our good friend Brian who came to visit us in the hospital. His visit was so kind and it really made us feel much better.
A couple of hours after Eve eventually went home Dr. Gosselin came in to check on how I was doing. He then said that Dr. Portelli would see me in the morning and would clear me for release. I then tried to watch the Jets game on Monday Night Football but the woman across the hall was a bit of a distraction. As I tweeted:
Good news/bad news: Good: The woman in the room across the hall from me keeps trying to strip naked. Bad: She's over 80.
Though her hands seemed to be wrapped up like a sock puppet she continued to set off the nurse call button every 2 minutes. It was like being in bed next to a firehouse with a arsonist on the loose.
Now, I must say this, the nursing care and related care provided by St. Luke’s was fantastic. All of the nurses were patient and kindly and extremely attentive and helpful. It was my first visit to that hospital and I must say the treatment and care was excellent.
Eve arrived as I was sleeping early Tuesday morning and patiently read a book until I awoke. She could see I still had some discomfort or pain and not a great night. At about 10:00am or so Dr. Portelli came to visit and put in motion my discharge from the hospital. He told Eve and I that my blockage was near 99%. His office had previously scheduled my initial follow-up with him for Tuesday September 29th. He said a dietician and a cardio rehab person would be at this appointment in New Windsor. Eve said she is definitely taking me to that appointment. I was put on a new blood thinning medication that I would have to take for at least a year connected with the stent and he also prescribed a high dosage of Lipitor. My bad cholesterol levels are always good but my good cholesterol is chronically low and my triglycerides are constantly high. My previous general practitioner had put me on an early generation statin drug years ago but I suffered horrible back pain as a side effect and immediately stopped taking it. I hope this doesn’t happen with the Lipitor. He also said I could not drive for a couple of days and that I should not work until the earliest Saturday. He also said there would be mild occasional discomfort due to the stent and my body getting accustomed to it. He knew it was our anniversary on Wednesday so he cautioned us to take it easy … if you get my drift.
My bed as we left:
Eve on the way home immediately entered dictator mode as to what I was and wasn’t going to be able to eat and drink. “Hold on tiger, we haven’t even spoken with the dietician yet!” She was not deterred.
The past week I was not allowed to work by my doctor, Eve and my father and brother. That was hard. And Eve has already started to impose harsh restrictions on what I can eat and do. Over the week I have experienced occasional minor chest discomfort but on a few occasions I actually had very strong chest pains. We had a brief altercation on the farm where law enforcement was called. As I was standing around I started feeling moderate to pretty strong chest pains. So strong that I was doubled over and considered taking a dose of nitroglycerin. My dad turned to be, semi-nervous and said “walk away … just walk away.” But he then turned to me and asked “but can you fill out a ticket/receipt for the tractor trailer we just loaded.”
Me … clutching my chest and doubled over in pain … “uhm … NO!”
I watched enough daytime television to last me for at least 2 months. I didn’t have enough time to catch up on what was happening in what my grandmother used to refer to as “her stories” on the soaps.
On Tuesday September 29th I had my follow-up visit with Dr. Portelli. Eve and I really like him. We brought him a 50 lb bag of onions which he gratefully accepted and shared with the office. He went over my procedure and explained exactly where the blockage was and what the procedure did. He ordered a follow-up stress test and scheduled my next visit with him as well as pre-visit blood work. He then said that he wanted me to do cardio-rehab therapy. His office would contact them and they would contact me to set up an appointment. They would also have a dietician there to address some of my eating habits. The cardio rehab would help transition back to work more smoothy, though he cleared me to do light work starting today! I can work the forklift and the like, I just can’t do any heavy lifting or strenuous activity. And he didn’t mention any serious damage to my heart so that was great non news! Eve had a list of questions which he answered and the ones he couldn’t he said the dietician associated with the cardio-rehab group would be able to fully address.
As we were leaving the office I thanked him for saving my life. He hugged me. It was a nice moment.
I just can’t emphasize enough how fortunate I am. First, that I showed pronounced symptoms of a problem, when I lifted the water bucket and experienced the severe chest pains. Second, that my wife, all my friends on social media, especially Facebook, and my primary care person Vicki, all urged me to take it seriously and seek medical attention. And finally I happened upon a doctor who didn’t just go by the EKG but actually “practiced” medicine and correctly diagnosed my symptoms for what they indicated, a serious cardiac situation. If I had gone to an ER they might have simply done an EKG and took vitals, saw there was no problem and sent me home. And I would have continued to work and would have probably suffered a heart attack.
It was a fantastic event. My hat is off to Assemblyman James Skoufis for getting the new Speaker to come to his district to meet farmers and discuss important agricultural issues (see: http://assembly.state.ny.us/mem/James-Skoufis ) and to Sharon Soons and James Alton Thomas for the marvelous job they did hosting it and speaking on various agricultural topics. Also in attendance was Dave Cole, John Paul Ruszkiewicz and Lucy Joyce of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Orange County (see: http://cceorangecounty.org ).
Some of the topics discussed:
* Farm labor legislation and related issues
* Ag research funding
* Wallkill River maintenance
* Regulations connection with craft breweries and wineries