A patient who survived aortic dissection shares his gratitude and offers his advice for focusing on “the most important parts of our lives”
I recently received a special gift. It has nothing to do with money and property. Some will say it was a gift from God. Scientists will attribute it to probabilities. My brother, an attorney, and unsure about a higher power, says, “dumb luck.” I am also an attorney and consider it an opportunity to mindfully pay closer attention to everything.
Recently, while working in my law office, my aorta “dissected,” a word I ordinarily associate with ninth grade biology and frogs. I now know that it describes the separation of tissues of the aorta, the body’s largest artery.
Usually on Friday afternoons, I’m the only one in the office. On this day, my partner and I were both there. I was getting ready to call it a day, putting the finishing touches on a letter, when I felt a flutter in my chest. It did not alarm me at first. Within a minute, the flutter became painful and my left leg became numb; within another minute I asked Jeff to call 911. He looked puzzled. “Really?” he inquired. “Really,” I said. That is not like me. Usually I’m the first to scoff at alarmists who run to the emergency room for everything. Then I passed out.
The paramedics arrived within minutes and took me to Anne Arundel Medical Center where the ER Team, led by Dr. Kenneth Gummerson, quickly and correctly diagnosed what was happening. I would need to be flown to Shock Trauma right away where a thoracic surgery team would be waiting.
ER docs do not always correctly diagnose this condition. It looks like a heart attack, but it is not. Delay in diagnosis can be lethal. My daughter, who is a nurse at AAMC, was in the ER with Dr. Gummerson when I arrived and remembers Dr. Gummerson, not for his brilliant medical technique, but for his calm, reassuring command of the situation, like a military leader orchestrating a major campaign.
At Shock Trauma, the thoracic surgery team was just closing up another patient when I arrived. I doubt they shouted for joy when I presented them with another opportunity to perform another 10-hour heart operation in the middle of the night. They stopped my heart, removed the offending damaged parts of the aorta, replaced them with Dacron cloth (strong and light-weight), and buttoned me back up.
I share this story because I am so very thankful to be alive. I share it also because of the outpouring of prayers and thoughts from the community where I live and work in Anne Arundel County. Experiences like this compel us to reflect on the most important parts of our lives. A few observations follow:
- Busyness is not always good – Before this crisis, I confess I was one of the worst offenders in the “juggle as many balls as you can contest.” I raced from project to project, never taking the time to fully explore the ones already before me. Why? Are points awarded in heaven for the most balls in the air at the time of death? Do we get to keep the airborne balls when we die? Not every phone call must be answered immediately. Slow down a little, Breathe deeply.
- Connect with people – When I woke up in the hospital to the sound of my wife’s voice and the sight of her smile, it became immediately apparent why I am still here. When I saw that our children were there, too, any ambiguity about the reason for my existence vanished. As the days passed in the hospital, cards from neighbors, friends, professional colleagues and clients began arriving. Friends and colleagues visited me in the hospital. Their actions reinforced what I concluded when I awoke from surgery. Other people care enough about me to go out of their way to visit me. Sounds silly, doesn’t it … that something so ordinary as a personal visit in the hospital would take on such profound meaning. Being a middle-aged man and receiving hospital visitors is a big deal. I’ll be sure to return the favor.
- Keep the machinery in good shape – One of my favorite popular writers from the 60’s and 70’s, John Muir, (remember his books about Volkswagen maintenance?) put it succinctly, “be kind to your ass for it bears you.” Oh, how he preached of the importance of valve adjustments and oil changes. While I do not do everything he advised, I tend to keep my cars and tools maintained. My body falls into the same group as my truck and my boat. It was in pretty good shape when my aorta decided to give way. While I could have done a better job keeping my blood pressure under control, the fact that my body was in above-average condition when this happened made the surgeon’s job just a little easier. Think about that the next time you wait three seasons between oil changes or consume an entire package of Oreo’s for dessert.
- Give thanks – Not only for the big stuff like a promotion or bonus at work, but for the miracle of sleep, the refreshment of water, the dance that is walking, the poetry of speech, the velvety feel of your own blanket or the warmth of your dog in your lap. While in the intensive care unit at Shock Trauma, unable to breathe without assistance, walk, or drink unaided, the absence of the most ordinary human capabilities taught me one of the most profound lessons. Appreciate the ordinary. Recovering from cardiac surgery provides an opportunity to contemplate the magnitude of the ordinary things we overlook. We have no inherent right to any of these gifts. Be thankful.
So, what now? Everyone asks the same question after an event like this. Conduct a survey of Cardiac Rehab Programs everywhere and you will find the same dominant question: Will I ever be the same?
I do not dwell extensively on this question because I already know the answer. “No, I will never be the same.” That would be true even if I had not experienced an aortic dissection. There is nothing I can do to change the past. However, I can do something proactive about my future regardless of the number of years remaining in my life.
Under the supervision of the hospital’s funniest and most attractive nurses, I can build muscle strength, cardiovascular endurance, talk with fellow members of the “cardio club,” attend nutrition classes with my wife, and discuss the risks of depression with fellow patients and professionals.
I attend Cardiac Rehab three days a week and am finding it another outstanding resource available through the Anne Arundel Medical Center. In addition, I am learning to cook low-sodium recipes on the DASH diet, I have returned to work part-time, I write thank-you letters to people I care about, I spend more time petting the dogs, and when I walk, I appreciate the ability to move both legs in harmony with the rest of my body.
There are moments each day that remind me that my life will never be the same. Some of those moments are sad; I grieve the loss of the excellent health I had before this event. I am anxious about my ability to regain the vigor and stamina associated with that good health. I sigh at the sight of the medicine cabinet, filled now with medicines necessary for my recovery. I worry about my ability to support my family.
But these thoughts are short-lived. I permit them to occupy my mind for a few moments and then I invite them politely to move on. There are more pressing matters to occupy my time. I must go out for a walk this morning, then attend Rehab at the Hospital, then have lunch with a dear friend, and pick up groceries for supper. Perhaps I’ll make something a little different for supper tonight. The dogs must be walked and fed. Bills must be paid. And my boat needs some attention. Others depend on me. I say I matter. Therefore, I do. I prefer to think of it as a self-fulfilling prophesy.
I have lived and worked in Annapolis since the mid-1970’s. Our children were born at the old hospital on Franklin St. I am thankful for the vision of the community leaders who invested in the excellent medical facility that is Anne Arundel Medical Center. I am also thankful to be able to give thanks.