Monday, April 20, 2009


An Open Heart Journal
Living in the Valley of the Shadow of Death
April 20, 2009

“Anthony Kim made Masters history on Friday with a record 11 birdies in his second round and said that reading about the death of baseball player Nick Adenhart had changed his mindset.

The Los Angeles Angels rookie pitcher was killed in a road accident in California on Thursday just hours after making his Major League Baseball season debut.

Kim, one year older at 23, said he had been upset after a disappointing opening 75 on Thursday but had put things into context after reading a newspaper report of Adenhart's death on Friday morning.

"The last line in the story was: 'You never know what can happen, even at 22. You have to live every moment of every day like it's your last.' “

In 2005, while living in a small town where television stations were as rare as snow shovels in Miami, I was “forced” to spend my weekends watching PGA golf while receiving my IV rounds of Amphotericin B or just resting from the affects of Histoplasmosis. Of course, my roommate called it “watching fresh paint dry” but I was finally beginning to understand the incredible science behind hitting a ball in such a way the golfer actually knew where it would land and where it would magically stop rolling. I found this ability very intriguing and my Saturdays that were once filled with walks, and enjoying gardening or yard work were taken by my sitting in the recliner watching men and women become my heroes of golfing prowess.

The morning I saw this opening headline I was immediately drawn to read about this record-breaking feat at the Masters which didn’t feature Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, or Vijay Singh. In fact, none of my favorites were even in the top ten right at this point. Instead this story was about a mostly unknown 23 year old golfer who “put things into perspective” after hearing about the death of a 22 year old baseball rookie.

Why was this article so important to me? Because it said what I’ve had to learn to do this week - to live each day to the best of my ability - like it’s my last - but to not be driven. There is delicate balance here and frankly I’m lousy at it.

When I first found out I had heart disease I thought I would make a comeback to rival all the other times in my life when I was told I would not survive. I went back to work just three weeks after my first bout with congestive heart failure and ended up back in the hospital and having open heart surgery. Then I returned home after the surgery only to discover I couldn’t make it across the room to the bathroom, couldn’t open the refrigerator by myself and couldn’t even make a peanut butter sandwich for myself. I was devastated and wondered if recovery really was even in my future. I know now I should have listened more to my roommate (a Cardiac RN) instead of my doctor when I made the decision to come home rather than go into a rehab facility.

Nearly two months later I was finally able to begin cardiac rehab and found myself back on the treadmill and exercise bike like “old times” but this time 5 minutes was a monumental goal. Then just one day after being released to drive again and return to work I was falling off the exercise bike after only three minutes and hearing nurses and EMTs shouting my name, shoving aspirin and nitroglycerin tablets into my mouth and being rushed to the ER with all the signs of a serious heart attack.

It has now been 31 days since I left the hospital after being in three different facilities over a three and half month period. I have one goal these days - have a “good” day. For me a “good” day is one where I’m not in the hospital and I’m alive. No more dreams of returning to 40 hour work weeks or 10 hour days. I’m not entering the Senior Olympics when I turn 55 in June and I’m not even thinking about returning to Cardiac Rehab. I have to focus on one thing right now - or I might not survive my next big “drive” to do more that I should.

The problem is that my mind hasn’t changed with my heart. And I have found myself trying to do more than my heart wants to do because my head says I’m not doing enough. I’m having to come to the painful truth that my head is a liar and is out to kill me. In fact the harsh reality is that my head would cause me to self-destruct if I let it. And I’ve not yet figured out how to make it shut up.

Example: This week I vacuumed my bedroom and that was okay. No furniture to move - just a basic square room. Then I cleaned the kitchen floor - again, very small area, not bad. But then I went to start the living room. This is a room where plants have been turned over, grandsons have eaten, the cat has - well, what older cats do - and it required the moving of a chair here, picking up a table here, etc. Within 30 seconds of moving the vacuum cleaner I was grabbing my chest and looking for a seat that wasn’t buried. I kept my cool, started breathing deep diaphramic breaths but the pain was a huge reminder that I wasn’t the same person who used to vacuum the entire apartment with ease. Fortunately I’ve come to understand the difference between my spasmodic heart pain and an actual heart attack but pain is pain and I didn’t like this at all.

It took nearly two hours before I was able to skim through vacuuming the room and put things back in order because I had to rest every two minutes of exertion. The last thing I wanted to do was tell my roommate what happened but when she asked how my day went that night my “Fine” wasn’t very convincing and she eventually heard the truth.

Three days later she finally scolded me for doing more than I am supposed to. And then she asked me two questions, “Are you afraid to die?” and “Are you afraid to live?”

the first question was an easy “no.” I’ve come close too many times just this year that it really didn’t scare me. But living - that’s a different story. All the tears I had been holding in all week came flooding and I began confessing that I had found myself afraid to make plans even for the present day let alone for a month from now. And that the joy of dreaming of a future had become a painful nightmare. I was torn between wanting to plan my 55 birthday party in June and afraid to make plans because I “might” end up in the hospital two days before the celebration and everything would go to waste.

You see, my closet is presently filled with all the makings for dozens of Christmas cookies that I never got to make. My “Birthday Book” has birthday cards for friends and family for January through April that I never got to send. I didn’t even get to vote in thee Presidential Election because while on the way to the Early Voting Poll I ended up in the hospital! My mental “Day Runner” is filled with things I never got to do because a trip to the hospital got in the way.

I’ve come to a place that most heart patients come to - afraid to live. Unfortunately my response to this fear is to do the very opposite of what I should. I returned to my “driven” ways in order to make myself feel productive and useful. I cannot seem to grasp the concept of “rest” and in not doing so I could easily end up in the very place I’m trying to avoid.

For me, learning to rest, comes from realizing one thing - I am not my own and my life is not my own. When I have spoken about my close encounters with death (to the point of finding myself standing next to myself watching nurses trying to “bring me back.”) I have been asked “were you tempted to not come back?” My answer has been, “I didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t my decision to make.”

I am here because God has kept me here - not because I willed myself to be here. And I need to keep THAT in mind when it comes to how I treat this life I’ve been given.
My roommate told me that the doctor who put in my seven stents said he only had one hope for me after my heart attack in January - that he could somehow give me “good” days. And that is what I need to aim for each morning. “Good” days are when I can take care of my personal needs, maybe drive myself to the store, tend to the cat, and write a few more paragraphs. This doesn’t sound like much but it’s a lot more than those in the medical profession who have seen my heart thought I would be doing.

Living this way is the opposite of what the world says is success and even some of my friends would rather see the overly optimistic overcoming attitude they’ve seen in me in the past. But I have to deny myself that way of life. Why? Because I need to be content with one thing right now - having “good” days. Days where the pain in my chest is somewhat tolerable, days when I am home and not in the hospital, days when I accomplish just one thing above and beyond the five “must do to live” things required every day.

This might not sound all that encouraging to you and might not seem like I have that same overcoming spirit I’ve displayed in the past. You might even be thinking I need a little more “conquering” spirit. But I now know there is one thing that I need more than a conquering spirit and that is contentment. It is contentment and rest where my life needs to be. And as long as I can be content with “good” days I won’t find myself doing things that will put me back in bed or into the hospital.

I wonder if this is where Paul had found himself when he said “I’ve learned that no matter what state I am in to be content.” So today on my “To Do” list is one more important item: “Be content.” Maybe if I put it on my list I will remember to do it. And if I put it on the list everyday I might just reach a place where I do it without being reminded. I could be content with that.

From the heart,