Part 5 of a memoir of heart failure, open-heart surgery and complications
One does not come so close to death as I did without learning many lessons along the way. As I continue to recover from heart failure, open heart surgery and its myriad complications, I am given the gift of time to reflect upon and dissect the events in search of wisdom for living the balance of my days. I share them here.
Please don’t see me as the preacher. In all these experiences, I speak as one has failed, one who has come through the fire and sincerely desire that all others would avoid these flames.
Lesson number one: Guard your heart.
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
I once thought the heart muscle and emotional/spiritual hearts were distinct entities. My experience taught me they are one and the same. Just as alternating current passing through a coil induces current in a neighboring coil, the suffering of the spiritual/emotional heart induces pain and destruction in the physical heart. Emotional and spiritual disease induce a destructive current in the physical heart.
In the past 10 years I went through a divorce that was entirely my fault. I walked away from a darling house that I and my first wife had worked so very hard to own and remodel. During this same period, I left a 25-year career in journalism and sold off my part-time business to meet the requirements of taking a job in county government.
I purchased a foreclosed home that had to be completely rehabbed. The copper water lines had been stripped from the house. There was a huge hole in the roof and black mold was throughout. I had to move in, nevertheless. The first night, I slept on the floor next to a spot where an animal had died and rotted on the carpet. Every spare minute and dime went into the house for two years, during which time it became apparent I was in a marriage built upon lies. I suffered a second emotional “heart attack” as I went through the discard and divorce.
I was working 18 hours a day between the job, house and writing a book. On good nights, I got three hours of sleep. Some days, I got halfway to work before I realized that the sun was setting rather than rising; the nap I took had been mistaken for a night’s rest. I persevered, but I knew something was very wrong inside me.
God graciously sent me a loving, caring wife. It looked as if my life had turned the corner; then my mother broke her hip on the eve our wedding and died six weeks later.
Despite assurances that the funding source for my county government job “had my back” in the event the job didn’t work out, I was laid off due to funding being withdrawn and the all-Republican board replacing me with a political friend and younger worker.
I could not find a job, any job, and was forced to go on Social Security three years short of full-retirement age. That will cost me $260 a month for the rest of my life.
On December 19, 2019, the two dogs who had seen me through many dark nights had to be put down due to terminal health issues. Digging the graves for those two pups was one the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my life. My emotional heart was broken, but I pushed forward, trusting God in every vicissitude and challenge. Then Covid-19 came along, and Ruth was laid off.
With my income reduced, I could not could not afford Ohio’s city, school, county and state taxes. Ruth found a job in West Virginia. For the fourth time in seven years, I was packing and moving.
A part of my heart remains in the stone walls of that house, just as a part of my heart remains in that house my first wife and I remodeled. I remember reading a book in which the author stated that a piece of your soul dies each time you divorce. The author had it right, except it is the heart that dies. Once dead, it cannot be recovered, only bypassed or replaced with a foreign part.
There were times during the move from Ohio to West Virginia I felt as though my heart was going to explode as I struggled to carry and load the heavy boxes. The thought of living in West Virginia, a place I had only dreamed of living, pushed me onward. I was certain once we got there, all would be well. But the house we bought had serious issues that went undisclosed by the uninsured home inspector. We nearly lost the place to fire as a result of these issues. We faced tens of thousands of unanticipated expenses. The stress was incredible.
I gave little thought to what all of this was doing to my physical heart. It just kept beating, and I just chalked up the shortness of breath, sleeplessness and tiredness to abundance of stress. Further, after I lost my job with county government, I had no health insurance. Whether I went with an Obamacare policy or was added to my wife’s employer-provided insurance, it was going to cost us more per month than what I was receiving in unemployment benefits. Further, those benefits were reduced by whatever income I had from writing. So, I went without; I didn’t go to the doctor when I should have.
After I reached the magic age of 65 and was eligible for Medicare, my cursory checkups failed to reveal any issues with the heart. Indeed, just three months before being diagnosed with congestive heart failure, my family doctor examined in me and failed to detect any signs of heart weakening. A week before I showed up at the emergency room, another doctor had listened to my heart and prescribed vitamins, a steroid and antibiotic.
My surgeries, hospitalizations and affiliated costs exceeded $1.6 million. I will be on blood thinners the rest of my life. Healing a heart is expensive, whether the damage is physical or emotional. Prevention and early intervention are always less expensive than repairing a broken heart.
It took months of therapy to get me through the divorces and abusive relationship. Only by the grace of God was I able to trust another person again. During that time I clung tightly to something Jesus said in Luke 11:11: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” I trusted God to give me a fish, and he did, the loving, dedicated wife I have in Ruth. It was a miracle.
And I trusted him again as I went through the rigors of surgery, complications and recovery. And he was, once again, faithful. During that time, I realized that the health and capabilities of all my being depends upon the strength and health of the heart. I was in a constant mental fog, I lacked the strength to lift more than a pound and could not take so much as one step until my heart healed. All things truly flow from the heart on a physical level.
The same is true of emotional and spiritual heart. Our overall health depends upon the spiritual heart’s condition. People die of broken hearts. Had I paid more attention to an area of emotional and spiritual weakness, I would have reinforced my defenses in that region and thus avoided further damage to my emotions’ “big muscle.”
There is wisdom in Proverbs 4:23, regardless of how you read it. You can be an atheist and still benefit from this wisdom.
Take care of your physical heart; eat well, exercise and get regular checkups by responsible practitioners. Take symptoms seriously. Trust me, you don’t want to have to go through open-heart surgery and its minefield of complications if you can at all avoid it.
The extensive testing performed prior to my surgery revealed a weak aortic valve that could not keep up with the accumulation of fluid around the heart. The extensive emotional and spiritual testing that I went through with my marriage revealed an inadequate defense against weaknesses in my character, spiritual life, thoughts and emotions.
Our spiritual enemy knows us better than we do and has an army poised to strike at those weaknesses. A lack of boundaries in my life and the steady erosion of my defenses through the trials of life made those weaknesses an easy target.
Sadly, when the Christian comes under attack and suffers “spiritual heart failure,” the tendency among brothers and sisters in Christ is to puff up and revel in their own righteousness, to quote condemning scripture and ostracize according Jesus’ teachings on the matter in Matthew 18. Keep this in mind: Someone having heart failure needs intensive care, not intensive criticism. The way many evangelicals treat brothers and sisters “in sin” is akin to an EMS crew lecturing a heart-failure victim on the evils of a sedentary lifestyle and diet high in saturated fats rather than compassionately administering life-saving measures. Even Paul recognized that a spirit of “gentleness” is required when dealing with the heart. Having an attitude “it could never happen to me” is an open invitation for invasion by the enemy.
The consequence of ignoring the health of your heart is eventually having to be jolted back into reality. Lies whispered to us through lips controlled by the enemy target our hearts, just as the propaganda being spun by Russian media belie the obvious. The war for our hearts is as real as Putin’s War in Ukraine. It is the heart level at which psychopaths and narcissists operate. Be alert!
All life stems from the heart, and the health of both the spiritual and physical heart determine the quality of life we will enjoy. This I have learned in so many difficult trials and attacks.
Guard your hearts, my friend. Your life depends upon it.