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.
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.
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.
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.
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.