I have just gotten through what will probably be one of the worst weeks of my life. I have come out the other side a very humble guy. God surly has greater plans for me and right now I am all ears.
I have a horrible family medical history. My father had a major heart attack when he was only thirty-eight. He had quadruple bypass open heart surgery at forty-two. His heart attack jump started rheumatoid arthritis and by the time he had the open heart surgery he was fully disabled. I was only fifteen and very lucky to still have a father.
The rheumatoid arthritis created a laundry list of other health issues, destroying his body slowly and very painfully. By the time he died he had survived six additional angioplasties, three hip replacements, cornea replacements, spinal stenosis and had beaten hepatitis C. He not only endured suffering but taught us how to bear suffering with grace. There was never a doctor, nurse, care giver or fellow sufferer that he did not leave with a smile, a laugh or a pleasant memory.
I lost my father when he was sixty-six. He lost his father to a heart attack when he was sixty-seven. He lost a brother to a stroke and a heart attack when he was sixty-two and a nephew to a heart attack at fifty-six. Like I said, I have a horrible family medical history and this is only the tip of the iceberg. My father constantly warned me to change my ways or I would walk his path. Of course, in my youth, I was superman and nothing could hurt me.
In 2008 I turned thirty-eight and began to notice the symptoms of a clogged ticker. Because of my father my doctor sent me straight in for an angiogram. They found one block that was 50% - 60% closed. They can’t touch a block until it hits 70% so I was sent home with instructions to change my lifestyle. This was also the same year my father died and I got married. I was already dealing with too much emotionally so I didn’t pay the doctor much mind.
Over the last two years I have had an increase in symptoms that are clogged heart related. We were really struggling financially and couldn’t pay additional medical bills so I fell back to VA medical coverage. I complained to them about the symptoms expecting that they would get me in for testing and corrective measures. Year one went by and no response from the VA. I complained louder during my physical the next year and they did another write-up. Six or seven months went by and no word from them. I have been traveling more than usual the past year and the symptoms have really begun to show more and more. I was constantly worried about having a heart attack while on the road so I decided I could not wait any longer for the VA to respond.
I went back to my regular doctors and they immediately sent me for an angiogram. I fully expected that the one block would now be 70%+ and that they would be able to balloon me back into health. Ten minutes into it the cardiologist stopped the surgery and told me I was going to need open heart bypass. The one block that we knew of was now at 75% - as it was expected. What came out of nowhere was that the other two arterial branches were at 90% and 95% blocked. My heart was a time bomb with little time left on the clock. I was devastated.
To look at this from the positive side of the coin we had caught this before any damage was done. I didn’t find out about it by waking up in a hospital in Newark, New Jersey or by collapsing on a plane while flying over Colorado. Given the location and seriousness of the blocks there was a great possibility of not waking up at all. I am also young making recovery an easier proposition. Because it was not an emergency the surgery was scheduled three weeks out.
“He's a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again.”
Rule #1 of blogging – never miss the opportunity to use a good Jaws quote. But that quote illustrated exactly how I felt. I was ok with the surgery, although still a bit shocked by it. But from the time I got the diagnosis to the time everything went dark in the OR I was in fear that this would go from a scheduled surgery to an emergency surgery. Every little pain, ache or tickle in my chest was amplified.
My wife was amazed at how calm I was in the time leading up to the surgery. She was not taking the situation nearly as well. It is times like these when your true faith presents itself. It is that faith that is then tested. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Do you truly trust God no matter what the outcome?
I would receive the Sacrament of Anointing before going in for surgery. My sins are forgiven and I am made ready for the journey if that is God’s will. If I died on the table I would go straight to Heaven, no purgatory. I asked my wife to look at things through my eyes for just a moment. What is the worst possible outcome that could happen? She answered, “You could die.” to which I responded, “No, I could come through this just fine and live another thirty years.” If that was the worst that could happen to me how could I be worried? Trust in God. It works.
On November 12th at 7:00AM I was wheeled into the OR. My wife and I exchanged kisses and “I love yous.” I looked her in the eyes and said, “Have faith,” just as everything went black. Truth be told, my greatest fear was waking up after the surgery with the breathing tube in. I have a bad gag reflex and I couldn’t imagine having a tube down my throat. As the anesthesia wore off and I began to come to I did my best to relax and let the machine breath for me. I gagged many times before they could remove the tubes from my throat. I had made it through to the other side of surgery. Sorry to say that I do not have any stories of the tunnel of light, walking with angels or being sent back by Jesus. As interesting as those experiences sound I for one am really happy not to have had them.
When it was all said and done I had a quintuple (5) bypass. I out did my father by one. Who says I am an underachiever? As I write this blog I sit here bruised and battered but happy to be alive. I am also very overwhelmed and humbled. When I had the first angiogram in 2008 I could count the number of people who were actually praying for me on just my fingers. Since that time I have let God back into my life and he has begun to slowly transform me as a person. I have spent most of my life feeling pretty much alone. I kept people at two cubits distance (arm’s length reference – See Genesis 6:15). Today I am anything but alone.
The people who were praying for me during this ordeal numbers in the thousands. I have the entire Catholic faith community in general and a dozen or more parishes in particular. I am in the thoughts and prayers of many different protestant denominational and nondenominational churches as well as a few people in non-Christian religions. People are praying for me not only in many different states across this country but in a few other countries as well. The priest who married my wife and I heard about it through Facebook and drove over an hour and a half to sit with her in the waiting room during the surgery. My parish priest was there shortly after surgery to anoint me again and give me deep comfort in my suffering. My ministry formation group held prayer services and sent me cards of sentiment. One even passed on a medal of Saint John of God, the patron saint of those suffering with heart disease. That medal never left my side during recovery in the days that followed in the hospital. Family, friends, neighbors and at least one stranger have been by our side every step of the way. I am anything but alone.
This has all been extremely overwhelming and humbling to me. The outpouring of love I have received has been staggering. I wish I could thank you all here by name but that would be impossible. Know that your prayers have been heard and answered and that God still has a use for me. I look forward to being able to serve and return your love for decades to come.
There is one person I need to thank by name. That is my wife – Nicole. She was by my side every moment of this journey tolerating me while I was less than hospitable. She put up with the bear who emerged after surgery who could find nothing right in anything she did. She continued to care for me with nothing but love and compassion through it all. She said it was all in the vow she took but the vow is all but useless if it is not backed by the right word – agape. She is that to me.
Thank you all for the prayers, support, casserole, cards, beef stew, lunch, hugs and every other offering I have received in the past weeks. Your outpouring helps heal a broken soul and body.