My Heart Disease Story
By now, most of you have probably heard something about the health issues with which I have been dealing, which resulted in quadruple coronary artery bypass surgery on Friday, June 22. The short story is that this is true and that I am recovering well at home now. However, I think there is a longer story that might benefit some, so here it is.
On May 11, 2012, as had been my previous practice, I went into my primary care physician's office for my annual medical screening exam. I had done the lab tests prior to the exam. As in previous years, everything looked fine except for marginally high cholesterol (my total was 224 this year). But I mentioned something to my doctor that started wheels in motion. Whenever I was exercising (I was going to the gym at least three times a week for aerobic exercise and weight machines), I noticed that the muscles in my arms started tightening up after about 5-10 minutes on the bike. It was a minor irritation for me - it was not debilitating, and I was not experiencing those dreaded things called "chest pains." My alert doctor decided I needed a stress test. Since Vera and I were already scheduled to go to California on May 16 to take care of our three granddaughters while their parents went on vacation, we settled on a stress test date of June 5, three days after returning from California.
So on June 5th, this "fine specimen" of good fitness routines, healthy eating, and a generally risk-free lifestyle went down to do this "piece-of-cake" stress test. It was the first exam I flunked in my life! In a meeting with my new cardiologist the next day, Vera and I were told that my EKG showed "dramatic abnormalities." That was not pleasant news. He said that my heart itself was strong (based on a simultaneous ultrasound that was done) and that there might be nothing wrong at all, but he decided I needed a heart catheterization to determine the real situation. For the uninitiated, a heart cath, as they are commonly called, is nothing more than a "colonoscopy" of the blood supply system. They enter an artery (the femoral of your leg in my case) and send a catheter up to investigate your coronary arteries. For minor blockages, they can do angioplasties at the same time, where they inflate your artery and install a stent to prevent the artery from collapsing. My heart cath was scheduled for June 12.
On June 12, upon waking up from the heart cath procedure (they put you under for this very much like they do for a colonoscopy), I was greeted by the face of my cardiologist telling me that I had one complete blockage and two other very bad blockages, and that I would need to have coronary bypass surgery soon. He had the x-ray pictures in hand to show me to verify all this. He explained that coronary artery disease (CAD, in my increasing medical lingo) was incurable, but that its effects could be mitigated by proper surgery. So off we went to the heart surgeon's office at Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs on June 14 (Flag Day in the U.S., but for me, it was a different kind of flag - a red one). When we got there, I looked very out of place. Everyone in the office waiting room was either in a wheelchair, was on oxygen, or was very obese. "I should not be here," I kept telling myself. But the facts were different - June 22 was the day set for my scheduled open chest surgery for a quadruple bypass. I had a week to look "forward" to this event that now rocked my whole life.
It was not fun waking each day knowing I was one day closer to the surgery. By now, I had told and retold the story to many family members and friends via the phone or email or in person. I think we have had several hundred people praying for us from all over the place - many of whom, we do not even know - simply friends of friends. God's word, like Psalm 23, was certainly reassuring to us, but nevertheless, the day was rapidly approaching for the surgery. We showed up at the hospital and walked in the front door at about 5:30 a.m. (no traffic problems at that time at least). Two hours later, after a tearful goodbye to Vera in the pre-op room, I was rolled off to surgery. The next thing I remember is waking up about 4:30 p.m. with a breathing tube down my throat and some pain in my chest area. The surgeon told Vera and our daughter, Terri, that the procedure had gone very well and that he expected a rapid recovery.
As I write this essay, it is now almost exactly seven days ago that I was wheeled out of the operating room into the intensive care unit. I have been recovering at home for the past three days as I was released on June 26 at about 4 pm. I am gradually getting stronger and feeling less pain, and in the long run, I have much to look forward to with the excellent prognosis from my surgeon.
So that is the longer story, but I learned some lessons from this whole ordeal, which I wanted to put into writing while they were fresh in my memory. So here goes again:
1. Believe what your body is telling you; this is especially true for men like me. I was smug in my belief that I did not have any risks factors; I thought it would simply not be macho (do they still use that term, or am I already dating myself) to admit to some minor muscular tightening. Bottom-line: Get an annual health check-up and tell your doctor honestly what is going on. My quick recovery is due to the fact that I walked into the hospital on my own accord on June 22 and was not driven there in a gumball lighted van later.
2. I had not properly prepared Vera to handle the financial details of our lives if I was not there to manage them - that was my fault. Once I started seeing doctors about serious medical surgery, I wrote everything down in a MS-Word file covering everything. I just started listing major topics and filling in the details: income, investments, credit cards, checking accounts, charitable contributions, taxes, insurance, regular bills, etc., etc. By the time I was done, I had a 10-page document. I had Vera read it to be sure she understood it. If I thought of new things, I added them. This was the way it was in our home; I am sure every home has parallels where some good communication is needed.
3. I knew the following lesson before, but in a situation like this, the whole thing is amplified and reverberated a bit more. God uses the encouragement and prayers of family and friends in very special ways. Hundreds were praying for us at various times during the whole process, and by praying, I do not mean "check off the list once." It was and still is steadfast prayer, for which I will be ever grateful. And for the work-aholics among us, during my time waiting for the surgery, I was trying to connect with family and friends, not reliving some Air Force flight or some Purdue professorial accomplishments. People matter.
4. If you are living in the Colorado Springs area and have to deal with a surgical problem like mine, I highly recommend the cardiac surgery center and cardiac care center of Penrose Hospital. They have very high ratings in general, but the thing that convinced me was their patient care. Everyone from my surgeon and operating room nurses, to my pre- and post-op nurses, to my nurses' aides, and even to the food person delivering menu options for the day were professional, polite, patient, and personable. They worked on my time schedule, not the other way around. You definitely felt cared for.
5. I am sure that everyone has had close family loved ones or dear friends who have gone through this kind of experience. Vera and I certainly have. Every time it happens, the issue of our mortality raises its ugly head, despite our best efforts to subdue it. However, there is nothing like getting slapped directly in the face with your very own mortality as something that might just be in doubt. We easily amble along thinking that tomorrow will be "fine, just fine" because yesterday was "fine, just fine." But then comes a simple factual description - I have CAD and need four bypasses - I have an incurable heart disease. That gets your attention rather quickly! Vera and I have been followers of Jesus Christ for quite some time, and some simple truths reassured us. First, we were surprised by the diagnosis; God was not. He has cared for us long before we even knew my CAD was a problem, and He will continue to care for us in subsequent days or years. Second, we will all live eternally - the only question is where - heaven or hell? Mankind has a lot of bogus ideas about how to earn one or the other. The Bible says none of us can earn heaven. We all have an incurable spiritual heart disease; it's called hardness - being insensitive, resistant, even rebellious to the loving commands of a holy God. And just as it was easy for me to disregard the warning signs of my CAD for a while, we find it very easy to hide the symptoms of our spiritual heart disease. Some of us may be better than others (or at least think so), but none of us are perfect. Surely, we think, God won't send everyone to hell - after all He is a loving God. Yet, we all have that innate thing called a conscience, which periodically is telling us something is not right inside us - revealing the symptoms of heart hardness. God is perfectly just and will not tolerate any violation of His own righteous laws (that's actually the way we prefer it, I think, because we are very critical when justice is not meted out fairly in our society). Eternal life in heaven can only be a gift. The simplest idea that helps me get my head around this concept is that I cannot even keep my own arbitrary behavioral standards, never mind the perfect ones of God. Jesus Christ willingly and purposefully died on a cross in my place. He rose from the grave to prove His authority over death. By trusting in these simple ideas and asking for God's forgiveness for our own faults, we have confidence that "in my Father's house are many dwelling places . . . I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also" (Jn 14:1-3). That takes faith you say. Yes, you are right, but even the most ardent atheist must begin with faith in something. This lifetime is a span of but a few years - the one to come is for eternity. My CAD is incurable for the few years of this life; my heart hardness has been cured for eternity by the one and only Savior.
If this story has prompted questions in your mind, I would be more than happy to talk.
Home Phone: 719-505-8597
Click here for a MS Word copy.