My husband’s family history of heart disease reads like a funeral requiem: his father had a heart attack at age 35; his mother, multiple cardiac surgeries; his brother, two stents by age 40; his uncle and cousin both died of heart attacks by 55. And so on and so forth throughout the branches and leaves of his family tree. Only Rich had escaped the cardiac firing line. But one afternoon this February, I finally heard the words I’d been dreading in our eleven years of marriage: Honey, take me to the emergency room.
Rich’s first EKG was normal. So was his second one. Still, the doctors wanted to give him a more conclusive test, just in case. Worst case scenario, he’d get a relatively minor procedure to open an artery. Rich blew me kisses as the nurses wheeled him away to his test.
Rich and I had recently moved back to my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. If I’d ever regretted trading fabulous LA for a life with my family nearby, this moment put any doubts to rest. My father sat with me at the hospital, holding my hand, awaiting the results of the test.
As we waited, a doctor walked over and greeted my father warmly. Dad is retired surgeon, and for 30 years he practiced in the same hospital where we now sat in the waiting room. As my father introduced me to Dr. Still, he explained that they’d operated together years ago and that tonight Dr. Still was on call for cardiac emergencies. My dad quipped, Great to see you hope we don’t see you later in surgery! We all smiled.
But a few minutes later, Dr. Still returned with a very different look on his face. We would be seeing him later for surgery.
My father asked the question I could not: How bad is it? The surgeon blinked a millisecond too long for my comfort and replied, All five. I had no idea what that meant. All five? Five what? I looked from one man to the other, trying to interpret their expressions to figure out if that was good or bad.
Well, yeah, that’s bad. The worst. His heart was shutting down and they needed replacements on all five arteries in the next 12 hours. Trying to understand what was happening, I stammered, Is this like a bypass? My dad said gently, Rich is getting a quintuple bypass. Not double, not triple. Quintuple. My first thought was of our two small children, Quinton and Azalea, at home asleep. Then I wondered if we’d paid his life insurance premium.
I immediately peppered my dad with questions What were Rich’s chances of survival? What would his life be like after the surgery? Would he be an invalid? Would he be the same person? My father answered every question academically, until at one point he stared down at his shoes and broke down into tears.
Not me. I refused to go to the bad place. At least, not yet. I play a little game when bad things happen: I ask myself, How can I turn this into the best thing that could possibly happen? I’ve played this game during all kinds of cloudy situations, and found that sometimes, silver linings can stretch across the horizon.
It was getting late, but I called our best friends, Chris and Rona, to join me at Rich’s bedside to celebrate. Together we laughed and told stories, giving his old heart a going-away party. Rich was all doped up on truth serum-like drugs, so we asked personal questions and giggling until the night nurse shooed us out.
I drove home by myself, and this fact struck me as totally bizarre. It was a sort of evil-twin opposite of the last time I’d left a hospital: after having a baby. When having a baby, Rich and I drove to the hospital as two, and left as three. Today we drove as two, and I left by myself.
Seeing the kids asleep at home was the hardest part. I kissed them each twice: once for me, once for Rich.
A few hours later, before sunrise the next morning, Rich’s operation began. Sitting in the waiting room, I realized I had no idea what exactly was going on in the surgery being performed in real time on the other side of the wall. I Googled quintuple bypass. This is insane, I thought: I’ve researched car seats and blenders more extensively than the consent forms to have my husband’s ribcage cracked open, his heart pulled out from his chest, and the five lifelines of his body cut and replaced.
At last, many hours later, Dr. Still came out from surgery. He smiled. I burst into tears.
The novelist Anna Quindlen once wrote, Think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived. Rich had a terminal illness, heart disease, ticking down towards detonation. We feared it. It was the worst that could happen, and it happened.
But really, it was the best thing that could have possibly happened.
The man I’m married to today is very different than the one who went into surgery. He’s stronger, healthier, and more alive than ever. He is, quite literally, a new man. His skin is brighter, his laugh is bubblier, and his eyes sparklier. Unbeknownst to us, for several years, his heart had been deprived of blood and that showed up in his behavior and activity level.
This blog post is far more personal than my others, I realize. I share this story because it’s a parallel to all the other things I write about… surviving a chaotic situation, consciously creating a new point of view, andchanging your life (by choice or otherwise).
We all walk around with a few worst fears. Some are logical, others, entirely unfounded. But sometimes, the (supposedly) worst thing that could happen turns out to be the absolute best. Sometimes, we have to go through what we dread in order to live our best life. That mean be getting fired, or losing a cherished relationship, or not getting something you passionately hoped and prayed for.
When you don’t have control over a certain situation or result, focus on the pieces within your grasp. If you’re laid off from a job, you can’t necessarily get that same job back, but what can you do? What knowledge or experiences or relationships will you take and use to your advantage?What opportunities could arise from getting laid off, which might not have been possible before? What actions can you take that will use this layoff as a stepping stone to your next success?
In my book, I wrote about experiencing the most scary, and difficult, and painful moments in life. These words, which I wrote in 2005, I now believe more profoundly than ever:
The scary and difficult and painful don’t have to stop you. The scary and difficult and painful are the very things that transform you into your best self.
One last thought. Is it just me, or is it news that the heart has five arteries? Who knew??