While spending what I had planned as a relaxing weekend at the beach, I had a heart attack. Unplanned, unexpected and unforeseen, the event changed my universe.
There were no warning signs. No pain, no tightness of chest. No elephant sitting on me. No dizziness. No nausea.
For the previous week, however, I had a nagging dry cough, which I put down to allergies or an emerging cold.
The night before I planned to return home to Birmingham, I got into a coughing fit that left me breathless. So breathless, that I felt like I could not fully fill my lungs.
“Great,” I thought. “The cold has moved into my chest. I probably have pneumonia. I had experienced pneumonia several years earlier and the difficulty breathing deeply felt similar.
Reluctantly, I decided to go to the emergency room to get it checked out. Twelve hours later, Xrays, blood work, a, CT scan, more bloodwork and an EKG later, I was informed that I had suffered a heart attack and would undergo cardio catheterization the next day. The cath would tell the doctors if I needed a stent or something more invasive. I hoped for a stent (the less of the two evils ) but the cath showed that I had 4 severe blockages, requiring by-pass surgery.
The news shocked me at first. I was only 57, and while I was overweight, I walked regularly. But, I was also diabetic, so the truth settled in slowly.
I had the surgery.
I woke to a room full of caring family and friends. Apparently, although my path had not come to an end…it had come up against a steep precipice of which I had to climb to resume my journey.
The first few days everyone and everything centered around the primal need for survival. Respiratory therapists ensured my oxygen reached acceptable levels, nurses constantly checked of all vital signs, and asked constant questions about my level of pain, which was considerable. Morphine kept it tolerable. Yet, despite all of that, I felt an overwhelming gratefulness to be alive.
The first night spent in the SICU, I heard the terrifying call of Code Blue 7 times accompanied by the sound of medical staff mobilizing to bring someone back from death. Each time I heard the announcement, I prayed for the patient as well as the staff attending them.
The next week flew by in a whirlwind of consciousness and sleep. Focusing on sitting and then taking tentative steps became my daily task.
Physically, every activity hurt, unless I took the prescribed opiates. Mentally, I questioned the importance of all my future plans. Faced with the ephemeral aspect of mortality, I questioned meaning. What was the point of pushing forward in a stressful, often thankless profession, and trying to get my doctorate degree when life was so cruelly tenuous? Why not just stop and enjoy the time I had left? Why not stay at home and finally finish my novel? So many opposing thoughts battled for attention and consideration.
Eventually, I was discharged and the recovery process began. Sleep, was fitful and unrestorative. Days slowly dragged into days where television was a barely tolerable distraction and ennui set in, slowly entering my bloodstream like a flesh eating virus. Nothing interested me. I found it all so tedious. My body’s weakness filled me with frustration. Loss of energy was my constant companion. I had stopped taking prescription painkillers. And always, tapping on my shoulder, was the nagging pain in my chest, legs, shoulders as well as the acute awareness of every time my heart skipped a beat.
But, dutifully, as if following orders, I woke up every day, made myself walk, eat, bathe…live.
After a week home, something changed. Slowly, the realization set in that every day those tasks seemed slightly less arduous. The pain, no longer constant, was intermediate. I increased walking time without becoming exhausted. In other words, I was getting better! A new feeling started creeping into my mind…Hope.
My family provided amazing support throughout the entire experience: staying with me, helping me to do things I couldnt yet do for myself. I hated feeling helpless, but their kindness and care made the difference in my recovery.
I woke up today, 3 weeks out from surgery and felt a familiar, but recently elusive, feeling:
I am able to do almost everything for my self now and I am ready to continue down my path towards purpose. The ennui has been replaced with determination to get back to the calling that makes my life worth while.
I walk forward yet at the same time am committed to some significant changes in the way that I walk.
I preach self care to others, yet often pushed myself well past the point where I should have rested. That is a balance I plan to achieve. How can I be of use to help others if I pay no attention to my own needs as well?
Life is fragile and temporary and too short. But a life without purpose is wasted. We all have different purposes. Dont wait for a scare like mine to embrace yours.