|September 2007. Lucky to be alive.|
The title is a Sam Elliot quote from one of my favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. A clip from YouTube is posted below. It pretty well sums up my story in this blog post. Sometimes, when you least expect it, death comes up and narrowly misses biting you on the ass. That happened to me nine years ago this weekend...
In September 2007 my life was pretty good. I was forty-three years old, I owned a house in Eagle Mountain, UT (not the greatest place in the universe to live, but at least the mortgage company and I had a roof over my head), I had three amazing daughters, a minivan and an ancient SUV, and I had a job I liked that was a five minute walk from home.
Despite all that, things weren’t quite right. The previous summer I had acquired my first strep infection in over thirty years. It put me flat on my back for nearly a week and I never felt like I completely recovered. I was tired and weak most of the time, and any sort of physical exertion gave me shortness of breath and dizziness. During my first walk to work of the new school year I had to stop every few minutes, lean over with my head between my legs, and try to catch my breath. Clearly something was amiss.
On Saturday, September 8, my family and I were visiting my in-laws at their home in a hilly area on the upper east side of Provo, UT. Because I was bored and because my optimism overcame my common sense, I decided to go for an afternoon walk. I started out on a route that I had walked a thousand times before. It was a strenuous route, but not overly so; in previous years, when my kids were younger, I usually carried one of them over my shoulder or under an arm while I hiked the area.
However, on that warm September afternoon I thought my walk was going to kill me. I had barely gone half my usual route before I had to turn around and go back to my in-laws’ house, because I literally couldn’t catch my breath. My face was pale and I had broken out into a cold sweat before I even walked through the front door. I flopped into a chair and basically scared everyone in the room to death. My in-laws insisted I take an aspirin in case I was having a heart attack. I asserted that I wasn’t, but I couldn't move from the chair for the rest of the afternoon.
The next day was Sunday and I felt awful. I spent all morning and most of the afternoon prostrate on a couch in my man cave, too exhausted to move. I don’t remember much about the day other than my kids were in and out checking on me, and I had no energy for even the most basic life functions, such as eating or bathing.
Finally my ex-wife — to her credit — told me she was taking me to the emergency room. She called a neighbor who was a nurse and he told us that the hospital in Provo had the best cardiac care unit. The Provo Hospital was thirty miles away, so my ex arranged for her parents to meet us at the hospital and pick up the kids.
As soon as I described my symptoms the admitting nurse moved me to the head of the line for treatment, in front of other people with obvious bloody bodily injuries. The admitting physician was — coincidentally — an old high school acquaintance, and when I reported what I was feeling, he immediately admitted me to the hospital for testing. I remember being wheeled to my hospital room in a wheelchair and thinking that I could have walked to the room myself, although in reality there was probably no way I was capable of actually doing it. The delusions of a very sick man, I guess. The rest of the day is kind of a blur. I remember a visit from my ward elders’ quorum president — the only LDS Church leader to actually care, which is a story for another time — and not much else.
The next day, Monday, September 10, was hell. I remember lab techs hooking me up to a bunch of monitors and trying to jog on a treadmill. I couldn’t do it, which devastated me so completely that I broke down crying. I had always prided myself on being in reasonably good physical condition, so my inability to do something as simple as jogging on a treadmill scared me badly. The lab tech injected me with a drug that caused my body to react as if I had been able to complete the stress test on the treadmill. That medication made feel terrible — severe muscle cramps, shortness of breath, and nausea — and it was about that time my dad called. I told him what was going on and I think I scared him badly.
I honestly don’t remember much that happened after that. They wheeled me to an operating room where they injected dye into my cardiovascular system. A cardiologist found a blockage in one of the main arteries of my heart. The blockage was nearly one hundred percent (I found out later that a strep infection can cause plaque that already exists to expand rapidly.) The doc ran a catheter through an artery in my groin and opened the blockage, and then inserted a stent. I woke up the next morning to a few stitches in my groin, news stories about the sixth anniversary of 9/11, and a brand new, expensive piece of metal in my heart. A cardiac therapist told me to take it easy for a few weeks, but I actually felt better than I had in months.
So that was my brush with death. Apparently I was a few days away from a major cardiac event due to the blockage in my heart. There should be all sorts of life lessons I could impart now, such as the temporary nature of life and how easily it can slip away, the inevitability of death (which I rediscovered less than a year and half later when my dad unexpectedly died in his sleep), and how easily and quickly things can potentially change for the worse. All of that is true, but the biggest lesson I learned is that I am sometimes one lucky sumbich.
My belief system has changed a lot since September 2007, but I still think that there may be some primordial universal force that occasionally smiles on us and blesses us with good fortune. I don’t know why that happens; I look at places like Syria and the people fleeing the carnage there and wonder why them and not me. I’ve had a lot of really lousy things happen in my life since then, but I am still amazed that I lucked out so completely that September day, when I could have keeled over and left my kids without a father. I like to think they still need me; maybe they're why I'm still around.
Whatever the reason, I’m glad I’m still here. Despite it’s challenges, my life is good. I’m living more authentically (another phrase I hate, but I don’t know how else to say it) and I’m finding out what it’s like to actually be loved for who I am and appreciated for the talents I have to offer.
It’s a good feeling.
It’s a good feeling.