Broken heart candies

Guard Your Heart

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.
Proverbs 4:23


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.

My times, His hands

Part 4 of a memoir of heart failure, open-heart surgery and complications

One of the things that sustains me during my weeks of hospitalization and recovery from open heart surgery is the hope of seeing and cuddling with my mixed-breed dog, Edison.


We adopted him in January 2020, and he quickly became a member of the family. We called him HSS Edison—handsome, sweet and smart. Edison and I are a bonded pair, but on February 5, 2021, that bond is severed by my cardiac incident. Ruth has her hands full driving to Pittsburgh and back, and my father, who is living with us at the time, has medical appointments in Ohio that prevent him from being at home with Edison during Ruth’s long days.
It is decided that Edison’s interests are best served if he goes back to Ohio with Dad. Thus, when I come home from the rehab hospital in early May, Edison is still in Ohio. It is just as well; I am too weak to withstand so much as a gentle nudge from him and having a dog underfoot while I am learning to stand to walk is unwise, if not downright dangerous.
Just nine days after coming home from the rehab hospital, I have sufficient mobility with my wheelchair and walker that the family felt Edison can come home, although by then, my father is very attached to him. But he also recognizes that having Edison in our home is essential to my healing.
Seeing him hop out of my father’s Jeep is one of the most joyful moments of my life. Edison looks toward the door and recognizes me, sitting in the wheelchair, then rushes in to greet me.

Edison. Handsome, sweet, smart. We are best friends.

More prayers of thanksgiving.
That weekend also marks the beginning of my return to “work.” My office is on the second floor of the house, and there is no way I can climb the steps to access my computer. My son, grandson and his wife move the computer and related paraphernalia to the room where my air mattress bed is located. I spend the next eight weeks or so editing and filing years of photos and other files, catching up on emails and addressing long-overdue tax returns.
My son also brings downstairs my camera bag, which weights 18 pounds. I am astounded by the weight of the thing and cannot comprehend how I was once able to hike through the woods with it on my back. I remove the Nikon D810 body from the bag; it is all I can do to lift it. Mounted on it is the beautiful, vintage Nikkor 28 mm f/2 lens I had purchased a few weeks before the heart attack. The thought of owning that lens and using it during my hikes in Old Hemlock Nature Preserve sustained me during those long days in the acute care facility. I try to lift it to my eye, but the weight is just too great. I place the combination on my makeshift desk, a motivational tool for me to follow through on the weight-lifting exercises that the occupational therapist assigns. Lacking a three-pound hand barbell, I use a 180-mm lens as a substitute.

Summer pastime. Watching the clouds roll across the hills.

Ditching the walking aids
Ruth returns to work in Morgantown two weeks after I come home. Although I am alone and we live in a rural area, several neighbors up the lane assure her that they will come running if I call. And there are visits from home-health professionals through the daily. The nurse assures me that I will be back to “normal” by August. Sitting in a wheelchair, unable to walk so much as two steps without a walker, too weak to pick up my camera, weighing less than 110 pounds and hauling around a huge battery pack attached to a vest that could shock me back to life in a lost heartbeat, I cannot fathom that I will ever be back to normal.
Then again, I probably should not even be alive. Doctors, nurses, therapists tell me I am a miracle. And little by little, my health improves, my abilities return.
My physical therapist, Jason, is amazing. Patient, encouraging and strong, he comes alongside me and literally walks with me through my recovery and progression from wheelchair to walker, from cane to walking stick, from being terrified of the stairs to climbing them on my own and, on June 1, spending the first night in our upstairs bedroom with my wife after months of being apart.
By mid-June, I walk the steps to my office for the first time. Entering that room after an absence of nearly five months is like walking into another’ person’s life and trying to assume it as my own. I wonder what happened to that man who had such high hopes for this space and the creating that would be done here? What became of him, and what am I to do with all this? Nothing in the room matches the alternate reality of it that I experienced in my coma. It is all so alien to me.
Many boxes remain unpacked from the move, and papers are everywhere. There are tax returns to be completed and filed, get-well cards to acknowledge and long-neglected projects to tackle. What I want to do most on this first day back in office is locate my LPs of the Westminster recordings of Bach’s Orchestral Suites. I play one side of an album and my mind flashes back to one of the ongoing alternate-reality scenarios in which I left my vintage receiver and turntable running the entire time I was hospitalized. I am relieved that I have not destroyed the cartridge and overheated the receiver by failing to lift the tone arm off the turntable before I died. Perhaps that is just one more way my mind tried to help me make sense of what I was experiencing.
I sleep 12 to 16 hours a day; therapy exhausts me. I have a morning nap, after-lunch nap and evening nap. I sleep more soundly and effectively than I have in decades. Sleep has never felt as good to me as it does now.
Food still tastes horrible, and I struggle with swallowing many of the things that are staples for a vegetarian diet, especially salad and fresh vegetables. My physical therapist encourages me to eat ice cream several times a day, for both the calories and fact it is palatable to me. My downward spiral of weight loss stops, and by mid-June I begin am gaining weight. After my son installs the water purifier on our refrigerator, I finally can stand to drink water in quantities necessary for good health. For the first time in months, I enjoy a hot mug of coffee.

Ruth walking Edison “on up the lane.” I have gone far enough.

The new life

I establish a habit of sitting on the front porch in the sun after lunch, with Edison by my side, watching the beautiful world pass before us. I eat walnuts and pistachios, supposedly good for the heart, photograph the gathering storm clouds with my Fuji ES2 and wave to and talk to the neighbors who drive down the lane to get their mail.
Ruth takes Edison for a walk along Seaford Lane each evening, and I begin to walk with them using a cane or walking stick for stability on the uneven surfaces. I gradually push myself to walk a little farther each evening, to eventually attack the slope that leads to Dave’s house, then on up the lane to Don’s and Raymond’s. My legs ache and feet wobble. If Edison jerks on the leash at the sight of a feral cat, I can lose my balance. And he does. I tumble backwards and hit my head on a rock. I am knocked unconscious. When I wake up, he’s licking my face and blood is oozing from the back of my head. I make my way home, trembling, afraid of another tour of the hospital, of excessive bleeding from the blood thinners.
Nothing much comes it of it; I am more careful the next time, and the time after that.
These little journeys define my new life, a life for which I am incredibly grateful.
In late June I undergo surgery for the false aneurysm on my arm. I am filled with fear. Will the anesthesia thrust me into the alternate reality I entered following the open-heart surgery and subsequent surgical procedures? Would complications develop that would require another extended hospitalization?
They did. During the surgery, an “unusual” heartbeat is observed on the monitor, and my status changes from outpatient to inpatient. A specialist is called in and decides it is best to monitor my heart with a wearable device.
So, now I have the life vest with its huge battery and a heart monitor. The weather is hot, and the vest, which is uncomfortable on its own, makes it all the more miserable. Sleep is encumbered by these devices, which ensure there is no position in which to orient my body so that wires and devices are not pressing into my skin.
Because our house is distant from cellphone towers, we must drive about the countryside once a day in search of a cellular signal by which we can upload date from the heart monitor.
About halfway through my month on the heart monitor, I get good news: The last echocardiogram shows 40 percent heart function; I can ditch the life vest!
A week later, I officially begin my “cardiac rehab.” Rather than drive an hour each day to spend as much time on a treadmill, I opt for blending my cardiac and home rehab into one—starting with sanding 600 board feet of rough-sawn lumber that will become trim and wall siding for a bathroom remodel.

My father, Carl J., assists me with the project of sanding and finishing hardwood lumber for our home remodeling work, August 2021.

The house that contributed to my heart attack thus becomes part of the rehabilitation from that event. Over the next four months, I push myself to build walls, rewire rooms, install a ceiling and perform myriad other home improvement chores before winter sets in. Each day I grow a little stronger as I awaken and use muscles that were dormant and wasting away for months. My body, and my legs especially, ache constantly; each day is a new adventure in a new kind/place of pain. I forge on.
In early August I fulfill a promise I had made to my friend John Bowers, co-founder of Pickin’ in Parsons. I “return to work” on August 3 by driving the 50 miles to Parsons and spending the day interviewing and photographing Pickin’ for a Goldenseal article. I return for two more grueling days of walking, talking and observing. The week exhausts me, but I prove to myself that, while my brain is still foggy at times, I still can do the work for which I believe I was saved to do.
Since then, I have completed more than a half-dozen similar assignments, driven to Union County by myself for two stories and returned to my work transferring film. I have been hiking with my camera, although not the entire pack because of tripping concerns in the woods. I can lift and carry 40-pound bags of birdseed, use the snowblower, carry in firewood and shovel snow from the walkway. I still nap as needed and get a full eight hours of sleep each night. Food tastes good again, perhaps too good, as I am over 130 pounds and some of the clothes I wore a year ago are getting a bit snug.

Making sense of reality

I write none of this out of vanity or as a testimony to my perseverance. It has all been by God and through his son Jesus that I have come to this point. The suffering was very real, as was the excursion into the alternate reality. I continue to struggle with differentiating reality from what my mind experienced. This life and person still feel unfamiliar, a feeling heightened by the fact that three months prior to the start of my hospitalization I was living in a state, where my life was surrounded by friends, family and the physical environment I’d known since childhood. Further, I had a part-time job that gave an element of structure to one or two days of the week. I am just now starting to feel as if that which I had dreamed of finally doing for most of my adult life is actually coming true, although certainly not in the way I had planned.
There are times I wonder if what I am living is actually an alternate reality and that I am dead and just dreaming that I’m still alive. A couple of days ago, a cut down a tree in our sideyard, and the darn thing just stood there, resting on and binding the chain saw’s bar after I had cut through to the wedge cut. A large, dead branch acted as a prop that kept the tree from falling. There was no telling which way it would drop when it finally let go. All I could do was walk away and pray that God would send a wind to bring it down, hopefully not on my new saw as it was spun free from the bind.
A few minutes later, I returned to the area where the tree was standing and began cleaning up around it. Then I heard the ominous crack. The tree was falling, directly in my path.
I jumped aside as the tree and the large, dead branch that had been propping it up crashed beside me. The saw bounced off, landed in leaves unharmed. I could have been killed. But I was not, again. Why?
The lack of oxygen to my brain and vital organs from heart failure on February 21, 2021, could have left me in a coma for the rest of my life. But it did not. The blood chemistry is “perfect,” better than my physician’s numbers, he says. He looks at the tests and shakes his head. So do I, and my wife.
I am alive, and you, as well, because God wills us to be alive. That is sobering stuff. We stumble our way through this world and life always in danger of injury and death. We take our precautions, we swallow our vitamins and suffer through those “mininally invasive procedures” in hope of getting a clean bill of health. We fasten the seat belt and look both ways twice before pulling into traffic. But it is God who gives us each breath.

My times are in your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.
Psalms 31: 15

In light of the alternate reality that I experienced, horror after horror of being pursued by enemies who wanted to see me dead, this verse brings me comfort. My experiences confirm it; my times are in God’s hands, and it is not my job to worry about when or how this life will end. My job is to do his will. Frankly, there are days I really wonder what that is. What books ought I write, which ones do I prioritize? What home improvement projects are most important to have completed in case another heart attack claims me and Ruth has to sell this place? What Goldenseal articles ought I pursue? When have enough words been written, enough images captured, enough stories told?
What is God’s will for the additional times he’s given me?
If I had to sum it up in one word, it is to love. To love my wife and son, grandson and daughter-in-law, father and aunts and uncles, friends and dog and cat. To love and love the unlovely. To find wonder in it all and feel peace in his arms in all circumstances.
We wander through life chasing “his will,” ignoring the things he wants most from us, love and worship. Just love those around us and stand in awe of the Creator and Redeemer. Is that too much to ask? Evidently. We waste so much of the life and time that the Father gives us on things that don’t last and don’t matter. We chase sunsets when we ought to be chasing love, catching and holding tightly to it.

Several months after I came home, I asked my wife to take me to the bakery and church I’d seen in the alternate reality, where the pastor told me I would be dead in 24 hours as I stared at what was to be my last sunset.
The place looked nothing like what I had experienced in that other world. It was not Amish, there was no church at the corner and the setting was hardly bucolic. There was no sunset, only the blue haze of an August day in Appalachia.
I have chased sunsets all my life, and of late, I have abandoned that pursuit in favor of chasing life itself. In the weeks ahead I will try to humbly share what I am learning in this dash from heart failure to restoration.

Blazing sunset over mountains
In my alternate reality, I was given hours to live by a preacher who came along beside me as I watched the sunset. But a voice from the sky disputed his prophecy …