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.

Blazing sunset over mountains

Are you ready to die, Carl Feather?

A memoir of heart failure, open-heart surgery and complications

I have chased sunsets most of my life, although of late I’ve not had no passion for such pursuits. Nevertheless, on that evening in February 2021 was before me the most stunning example of a fading Helios I’d ever witnessed.

The afterglow across the Amish hamlet in North Central West Virginia has more orange than a pumpkin field and red than a blood bank. It glows brighter than a searchlight. Bare, blacker-than-eternity hardwood forms stand gaunt against this sunset of sunsets.
I stand in the side yard of a brick church and gulp the blazingly cold air into my lungs; my body shudders and begs for more air as my legs tremble.
The day star and I are one in this moment, both fading, both dying.

A preacher comes alongside me. “Are you ready to die, Carl Feather? Before this day is over, you will be dead.

February 5, 2021

For weeks I have been working 16 hours a day on the house at 6 Seaford Lane, Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, into which my wife Ruth, my father Carl J. and I moved into in mid-November 2020. The joy of buying a retirement home and relocating to our favorite state has quickly turned into a nightmare of undisclosed, serious issues with the house requiring far more energy and money that remained after remodeling and selling our home in Ohio, then making the move of 240 miles.
I am exhausted. For days, I have been unable to work on the house. My nights are sleepless with worry and coughing; day and night I struggle to draw in enough air to gasp for the next breath. I and my wife suspect Covid, but I won’t know for four days if the test that I took the day before is positive. I need air!

Shortly after noon that Friday, I struggle to the front door, throw it open and stick my head into the frigid mountain air. I inhale like a diver who has just broke the surface after having his oxygen tank spring a leak. But I get no relief; dizzy and weak, I struggle back to the sofa and resume staring at the disaster.
“Dad, I have to go to the emergency room.”

The ER physician at the Mon Health System hospital in Kingwood listens to my heart and orders blood work. The extremely elevated level of the enzyme troponin indicates that I am either in the midst of a cardiac event or coming out of one. I have congestive heart failure, as well.
Within two hours of my wife delivering me to emergency room and convincing the intake person that it was indeed an emergency and my Covid test results were not available, I am in the back of a KAMP ambulance, prostate and under the care of a muscular, middle-aged male EMT who makes small talk about his open-heart surgery. As the ambulance traces the winding concrete ribbon of Route 7 from Kingwood to Morgantown, he assures it will all turn out well. He pulls open his shirt to reveal the zipper scar on his chest as proof, but he warns me not to have it done locally.
“Go to the Cleveland Clinic, that’s who did mine,” he says.
“Great,” I think. “I lived 50 miles from Cleveland for 66 years and never once required medical care from the facilities there. I move away and three months later, I have to go back for open heart surgery.”
That unpleasant prospect aside, as the ambulance snakes its way through the Appalachian night my thoughts are not so much on myself or the likely surgery and painful recovery as they are on my third great-grandfather Jacob Vatter. He and his wife Mary settled in Preston County circa 1810 and lived out their lives on a farm in Crab Orchard, five miles from our new residence. I thought of how frightful the event I was undergoing would have been for him and his family, living without benefit of blood tests, a physician, ambulance service or choice of cardiology departments, let alone a hospital 275 miles to the north.

Among the reasons for wanting to live out my years in West Virginia was to experience firsthand the land of my fathers and eventually be buried among them in that soil.

It appeared the second part of that objective was about to be fulfilled much earlier than I had anticipated.

February 7, 2021

The EKG, echocardiogram and heart catheterization confirm what the ER physician had suspected. My aortic valve is failing, and my heart drowning in fluid. There was no going home to get stronger or anticipate the surgery; the event is scheduled for February 12, a Friday.
The surgeon is optimistic that the valve and single bypass will take care of the issues. I should be fit to go home a week or so after the surgery.
This is one of those events that I expect to happen to others but omitted from my map. My journey thus halted, the washed-out bridge before me, I have but one option: jump into the raging river and trust the surgeon to have a good lifesaver and rescue team waiting for me downstream.
I put it all into God’s hands as they wheel me into the operating room that morning. I expect the worst, hope for the best. My mind races with all the unfinished projects at the house, unfinished manuscripts and unaccomplished dreams. They will have to await the outcome of the surgery. My heart has run out of time, this is my only shot at life.
As the drugs are injected and the bright lights over my eyes grow dim, I determine that if I meet God along this journey, there is one question I want to ask him.

What is truth?

I am an electron. In the alternate reality of anesthesia and whatever drugs are pumped into the body of a man whose chest has been opened and heart repaired, and while he recovers in intensive care, I am reduced to an electron trying to escape the maze of logic gates in a computing device.
For the next several days, I travel this circuit in a Fed Ex box destined for a boutique in Pittsburgh. In this reality, Fed Ex has developed smart shipping boxes with circuitry between the layers of cardboard. At my departure point in Japan, I am injected into this maze of diodes and logic gates, resistors and a trillion possible paths.
It is maddening, and I just want to escape the circuit, take on the body of a human and go home. And it continues for days: it is the only reality my mind knows during and after the surgery.

The early morning of February 21, my wife receives a text message from the hospital. During the night, I suffer another cardiac event. My heart fails while undergoing another catherization. I am placed on an external pump; my only hope for survival is an advanced heart failure unit. The nearest such facility is at Allegheny in Pittsburgh.
I recall nothing of this, not even the $32,000 helicopter ride. In my alternate reality, I gyrate between imprisonment in an electronic maze and hospice care at home.

Visitors over my body as I lie on a table in my office. I speak faintly to the former neighbors, coworkers, pastors and friends who travel from Ohio to say their goodbyes and extract mementos.
The pastor who told me I was going to die talks to me about Jesus and the afterlife. He did not hear my mother’s voice and is certain of my fate.
At some point, I get to pose my question, although I cannot say to who
. The answer is simple and complex.

“Truth is in the moment.”

I repeat it over and over. I don’t want to forget it, in the event I emerge from this alternate reality and have the opportunity to finish the unfinished life.

I wander into that brick Brethren church on a Sunday night and assist a young woman and her band with the engineering of a recording of her lovely Christian song. It is the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. She snaps a picture of me with my dog for the CD jacket and delivers copies of the recording to our home. Indeed, I discover she is our neighbor and lives across the deep gully where the old Kingwood Railroad tunnel was built. Carved into the rock of the tunnel’s entrance is an elephant; the carving is being extricated by the young woman for $100, and she is incorporating it into the mantle of the massive fireplace being built in our living room.

Specialists in Pittsburgh offer Ruth little hope for my survival without a transplant. In the interim, an extra-corporeal life support (ECMO), takes over my heart function and a ventilator performs my lungs’ work. Counselors prepare her for the inevitability of being married to an invalid whose very existence will depend upon this machinery.
Daily she drives from our home in the mountains to Pittsburgh’s nest of interstates and side streets to be by my side and make crucial decisions about my care and our future. She takes off time from her job, which she started just two months earlier, to attend to these tasks. My father holds down the homestead and takes care of the pets in her absence. My son drives from Ohio to visit and help out in myriad practical ways; my step-daughter-in-law, Kristine Evans, comes from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to encourage and support Ruth.
My father, Ruth and our friends from Ohio turn to God and call upon believers in their circles to do the same. Entire church congregations pray for me.
Each day brings a new complication and, oftentimes, a new procedure that involves going under anesthesia again, blood transfusions, more tubes and more equipment. I am told that at one point during my stay in Pittsburgh, four stands were required to hold the 16 bags of drugs, blood and fluids trickling into my body.
I kick off whatever coverings they place over my body and grab at the mass of tubes and needles penetrating and protruding from skin. I am restrained; my hands are placed inside boxing-glove-like mittens that leave my fingers numb. My upper lip is pressed between my teeth and the ventilator tube, resulting in a deep, painful cut.

Concurrently, my mind is dealing with its own reality.

I am back in Ohio with my father. The nation is in turmoil as youth have risen up against our generation, demanding relief from the onerous burden of student debt and increased taxes required to keep the older generation alive. Hunting down and killing the elderly has become a sanctioned pastime in my alternate reality, the only one my mind knows.
I witness the shooting of my father and desecration of his body. The undertaker publishes a full-page ad in the newspaper announcing that I will give the eulogy for my father. I am wheeled before hundreds of people at an outdoor gathering, but I cannot speak. For six hours, I sit before this restless crowd, speechless, motionless.
Punishment ensues. I and my wife are arrested for allegedly stealing the metal frame for an underground structure we are building onto our house to accommodate the nursing home and restaurant businesses that Ruth had to start in order to pay for my care. She develops a fashion line and makes commercials on the beach in California, propping me up in the background as a pathetic onlooker. She goes to work each day in a helicopter.
As we are booked on the theft charges, our accusers take turns abusing me. A malfunctioning CT scanner is used for my mug shot, and the sheriff repeatedly passes me back and forth through the radiation field, assuring me that the dose will be sufficient to induce brain tumors. A government official comes to my side and tells me his hobby is playing with needles. Dressed in a 19th-century undertaker’s outfit, he pulls out his collection and samples each artifact’s effectiveness and range of penetration on my body.
It is during this procedure that I notice my accusers are caring white notebooks. Someone whispers to me that if they have white notebooks, it is just a nightmare. I am given the mental tool by which to escape the nightmare, only to return to the alternate reality of an electron seeking an outle

Nightmares are nested within hallucinations.

I remain in the heart failure unit throughout the remainder of February and most of March, using up the 30-day Medicare limit. Each day brings a new challenge. As I gradually defy the odds, there is one fewer tube, one fewer IV bag. I recall nothing of it. My body is there, but my mind is trapped in these alternate realities. If I display any awareness of my surroundings and the gravity of the situation, I beg to go home.
It is out of the question.

My wife thought I was sleeping during most of my days in Allegheny’s heart failure unit. Rather, my mind was experiencing hallucination after hallucination, horror after horro.

Continued February 12, 2022