I’ve had almost three months now to put my heart issues in perspective, to analyze how the experience has changed me, and to figure out what if anything I’ve learned about myself or anything else. So here’s a quick summary:
- I am overwhelmed by feelings of embarrassment and shame for not having taken care of myself. I knew all about heart disease before this happened, heck, I saw my dad through two surgeries before he finally died from congestive heart disease in 2011. Yet I continued eating fast food, ignoring what I knew about its fat content, and I didn’t get enough exercise. As the great Stuart Smalley often said, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”
- I’ve led a pretty damned good life. Okay, it’s a little short on adventure and heroism, the kind of things that make one stand out among a crowd, but I’ve been blessed with the love of friends and family, an abundance of laughter and joy, and a minimum of regret. I think, in general terms, I’m a good man, and I’ve tried to learn from the many mistakes I’ve made. I’ve been a good husband and father, and I’ve made more people laugh than I’ve made cry.
- I’m not ready for death ….not just yet. There was about a fifteen minute period on a Monday morning in Intensive Care, before the surgery and after my stress test, when it felt like the elephant playing the grand piano on my chest was going to kill me. It was a surreal time, as from my bed I could see the understaffed ICU nurses responding to multiple emergencies, code blues and stats, literally running from one emergency to the next, and I laid there, my light on, waiting for more morphine to ease the pain that was unlike any I’ve known before. And I laid there, my heart about to rip through my chest, thinking, they don’t see me, I could die right in front of them. I began to panic, then, after a minute or two, I started to calm down, not because the pain had lessened at all, but because I’d asked myself, what if I die right now? And the answer I came back with was as surprising as it is difficult to describe. It wasn’t acceptance, I never came close to that, it was more like resignation. I remember thinking, if I were to die right now, if this all came to an end, there isn’t a whole lot I can do about it. I’d made my bed, it wasn’t anybody’s fault but my own that I found myself in this predicament.
- Health care workers are my new heroes. Whenever we talk about heroes, we (rightfully) start with the veterans who have served so bravely and humbly to defend our nation. Well, right behind them are the nurses and doctors and therapists who work around the clock to care for us when we are sick. In addition to the glamorous life-saving surgeries and treatments, there is the dirty and disgusting and thankless work, such as changing my sheets twice within a thirty minute interval after two urinal malfunctions (in my defense, Parkinson’s often makes for slow and uncoordinated movement). They changed my bedding and my gowns and cleaned me up quickly, efficiently, and sensitively, all the while preserving more of my dignity than deserved to be preserved. They are under-paid and overworked, and under-appreciated … until you need them.
- Loneliness is an epidemic. Nowhere is lonelier than a hospital at three A.M. One of my night shift nurses was a late twenties, dark haired and bright eyed woman, thin but “plain.” She obviously loved her work and was very good at it, telling me in great detail what to expect in the coming days and weeks (which was incredibly helpful). She was so excited because the next day, a Wednesday, was her birthday, and she had the day off. I asked her what plans she had and she said her father was coming down from Green Bay and taking her out to dinner (he was a big fan of the Golden Corral buffet). I couldn’t help but fall a little bit in love with her.
- Exercise really is the best medicine. I work out three mornings a week at the cardio rehab at the hospital, and I always feel better afterwards. Even my Parkinson’s symptoms are more under control on the days I work out. Not a big surprise to most people, but for one who used to hate working out, it’s been a major revelation.
- I’ve changed my eating habits, cutting way down on the amount of fat I consume. So far, thanks to the new diet plus the exercise, I’m down twenty pounds from what I weighed before the surgery. I weigh less than I have in years, and while I’d like to drop five more pounds, my real goal is permanent changes in diet and activity, not short term weight loss.
- I am getting my strength and stamina back, but even better I can feel my energy levels rise.
- I am so grateful for my life. The debt I owe Dr. Stone, my heart surgeon, and all the nurse and practitioners who cared for me can never be repaid. Same goes for the love of family and friends. I value you more than words can describe. Above all I am grateful for my wife. She’s made every day in the past thirty four years worth living, and I’m a fulfilled and better man for her love. It’s for her that I pledge however many days I have left.