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 …

headless man in ice

The sawblade embedded in my neck

Part 2 of a memoir of heart failure, open-heart surgery and complications

The journey home is one of 10,000 steps, and the first one is always the most difficult.

On March 23, 2021, I am released from Allegheny’s heart failure unit to an acuity unit in Morgantown. I recall nothing of the ambulance ride or the first days in acuity care.
At the urging of my wife, the ventilator has been replaced with a tracheotomy tube while I am still in Pittsburgh, and that was the reality into which I awoke.

A monstrous piece of machinery is attached to my throat; I visualize a handsaw blade protruding from my neck. The opening hurts. My upper lip, swollen and cut from being trapped between the ventilator tube and my teeth for week, is painful. Then again, my entire body aches. “This is not my body,” I think.

I am encouraged to cough up the accumulation of mucus and blood in my lungs, and I go through box after box of tissues. The coughing and purging continue day and night. the respiratory therapists tell me it is the path to healing, to eventually dispensing of this tube, the periodic suctioning and inability to speak. This whole thing can be described in one word: gross.

My mouth is beyond parched, but the only moisture they offer is a damp sponge on a stick. I beg for American Concord grape juice served over crushed ice, and in my alternate reality this wine is used more powerfully than Eve’s fruit to entice me into torturous situations.

It is so wrong for them to deny you grape juice,” an attractive woman from my past life tells me as I am confined to a bed in our home, now a nursing facility. I am kept locked up there in a basement room and confined to an iron bed. “Let me help you. I am going to give you the key to the cabinet above the bed; in the cabinet, you will find grape juice, as well as all the crushed ice you want. Just wait until they are all in bed, then use the key and help yourself.”
When the house is still and I am certain I won’t be detected, I reach for the cabinet. But I lack the strength to pull myself up in bed far enough to grasp the door handle, let alone maneuver a key into the lock, retrieve the beverage and pour it over ice. The key slips from my hand, and the woman appears, mocking me for my pathetic condition and inability to fulfill the simplest of my desires.
The burley men return with the ambulance to take me back to the hospital. In my preceding experiences with them, they tried to kill me by slowly draining the blood from my neck into a discarded gallon milk jug. The procedure lasts throughout the night and is performed in an abandoned house in Sheffield Township, the site of 1971 murder. One of the men keeps watch over the operation, explaining it is retaliation for a newspaper article I had written about that murder while I was employed as a reporter.
the man removes the spiral wire from my reporter’s notebook, straightens it out and proceeds to thread it in and out of my abdomen—not once, but twice. Electrodes are then hooked to the wire and electricity applied to the captors’ pleasure.

These men work on an ambulance squad, and at any point where I need to return to the hospital, I must endure the ride and their sadistic pleasures in the back of the ambulance. They are in no hurry to get me to the hospital.
I am bound to a post outside a barn and my car started a few feet away from me. I could escape, if I could walk, but I am crippled and forced to watch my only opportunity to flee from this hell consume the gasoline that would fuel that escape. The car sputters, and as that hope fades another horror befalls. Teenagers, in their rebellion against high taxes and student loan debt, hold dozens of children hostage in the barn. My grandson is among the hostages. Their parents surround the barn; a lost love appears on a wire stretched from the barn to a tree and declares herself fairy goddess of the teens. Inside the barn, the youngsters are stuffed into luggage and gun shots randomly fired into the trunks. The riddled luggage is carried out to the awaiting parents; I see my son and his wife open their trunk; I see the lifeless body of my grandson.
This journey from hell passes through many horrors.

April 6, 2021
My wife works near the acuity hospital and comes to visit on her lunch hour and after work. One day she asks a nurse about one of the medications I receive. The nurse replies, “It’s for his Parkinson’s.”
My wife informs her that I do not have Parkinson’s. It was never part of the diagnosis. So why am I receiving this medication?
The medication is withdrawn from my diet of pills, as is an anti-anxiety drug that has made me groggy.
Shortly thereafter, I recall it as a Tuesday, my mind transitions from the alternate reality in which I’ve been living. It is like walking from a dark room to one filled with fog.

Breathing tube.

In this new reality, I am waking up from the open-heart surgery of Feb. 12. I only can groan displeasure for “no” and use my hands to resist interventions that I do not understand or that play into the horrors of my alternate reality. I rip out the tracheotomy tube, set off alarms and thus summon angry therapists to my bedside throughout the night. The incisions from the original surgery and subsequent procedures ache. My backside burns with the pain of bedsores that are periodically scraped with scalpels; I dread the sight of the nurse who specializes in wound care.
I lack the strength to so much as pull myself up in bed, let alone get out of it and walk to the bathroom. The weeks of intravenous antibiotics destroyed the intestinal flora, and I suffer horrible diarrhea with extreme constipation. I feel shame, despair and anxiety. Simultaneously, I am filled with great gratitude, for I am alive, and that is no small thing.
Each April day brings a new goal, a new hurdle, that must be cleared before I can dispose of the tracheotomy tube, drink liquids, eat, start physical therapy and rid myself of the feeding tube and other medical intrusions. When I am given the ability to speak through a speaking valve placed in the tracheotomy tube, I use my voice to praise God for sparing my life. This becomes my mantra whenever doctors, nurses, technicians and visitors stop in my room to examine what is becoming an inexplicable miracle of survival.
As I slowly adjust to my new reality and regain the ability to speak, I ask my wife the hard questions: When was my grandson’s funeral? How are the other children who were kidnapped? What about my father? Were we able to bury him? What about my dog, which I had witnessed being killed in a storm? What about the pets we had to leave behind during our visit to Canada? Were we able to rescue them? How is her business doing? Why is there a nursing home in our house?

She knows nothing of this reality and patiently helps me unravel these stands of falsehood from my cord of experience.

The burly men out for revenge still pursue me at night. A high fence surrounds our house, but the men manage to breach the protections while my wife is away. They take me to a meeting of volunteer EMTs, who place me in an iron bed within sight of food and challenge me to get out and walk to the table. I am starving. The meeting is closed, the building locked, and I remain in the iron bed, immobile.
I keep a vigil by father’s body as we hide out in a veteran’s hospital.
I am constantly retrieving my wife from a tangle of wires in a projection booth.
I am driven to a deserted building on the perimeter of a cemetery and left there to die, my legs unable to support my weight as I tumble out of the car.
I am a patient in a hospital in a communist nation. My doctors are more interested in torturing than healing. One of them is an American, serving out a sentence and about to be released. But the negotiated deal sets me free rather than the doctor, who takes revenge on my body.
I notice he is carrying a white notebook, and convince my mind this is a dream, a hallucination. My mind retreats from the hospital, but I am thrust back into that circuit where I am an electron. I have hallucinations within hallucinations; the journey from hell takes me through purgatory once again.

Code blue, again

I feel an intern touching my swollen ankles, assessing the atrophied muscles in my leg.
“What a waste” as he mumbles and leaves the room. He looks like the doctor who I left behind in that communist-nation hospital. I struggle to distinguish reality from where my mind has been for the past two months.
The physical therapist says it is time to get me on my feet and attempt to walk; I resist, but she insists. My legs, on which I have not stood for more than two months, are swung over the bedside and I am assisted into a sitting position, then lifted up to stand. My legs struggle to withstand the weight, then collapse. Suddenly, everything is dark, and I tumble back upon the bed. Alarms go off; my heart has stopped beating.
A dozen doctors and nurses descend upon my room and spill into the hallway. I wake up to an audience. I am given a few minutes to stabilize, then, inexplicably, the therapist insists upon repeating the scenario. Once again, I lose consciousness.
Is this reality, or just another alternate scenario? No, this is for real, my wife assures me.
I come to dread the physical therapist’s visits. I want to walk, but nobody seems to understand just how weak I am. I am still on a feeding tube and cannot so much as take a sip of water. I first need to learn how to simply stand, and it is my respiratory therapist and a physical therapist from Mon Health who patiently move me toward this first step to self-reliance. On a Sunday afternoon, the respiratory therapist and my wife help me into a wheelchair, and I am taken for a short ride to the atrium. I look out over the greening landscape through blurry eyes. From my window of my hospital room, I had seen only gigantic exhaust pipes and other hospital external infrastructure. The sight of trees in bloom, grass still spotted with snow and healthy people walking across the parking lot overwhelms me.
The brief journey exhausts me, as well. I realize how many steps I must take before I can go home and care for myself. I am so ashamed of my appearance. I weigh 30 pounds less than I did before the surgery; the skin hangs from my arms, legs and face. I have not shaved in weeks, and my hair is long and curly. I cannot imagine any person loving me, yet here is this beautiful woman who comes to visit me daily. The staff speak highly of her and her devotion. And, after the incident with the Parkinson’s medication, she asks even more questions about my treatment and care.
She is my best friend and guardian; she is my wife.
Continued February 19.