Sunday, November 16, 2014

365 Days After a Heart Attack

One year ago today, I had a heart attack. And what a year of ups and downs we've survived as a family. We experienced trauma, happiness, death, celebrations and thankfulness. We've learned to grow and take the road not taken. We've also learned that people express their feelings much differently in times of crisis.

Having a heart attack at age 44 is something I would have never expected - except that I have had Type I Diabetes for over 30 years. Diabetes is a silent killer that ravages many different parts of your body. The heart. Your kidneys. The eyes. Your entire circulatory system. In the past 20 years, Diabetes has taken its toll only on my eyes. I was diagnosed with Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy about 16 years ago and have several laser treatments, two Vitrectomies and two cataract surgeries. Thankfully, my eyes are stable now and I've had no problems since my two cataract surgeries five years ago.

But then came my heart attack. It wasn't the 'clutch your chest, collapse on the floor' type of heart attack that is portrayed on TV. Yes, some people do have heart attacks like this, but mine wasn't. It was an 'I don't feel so good, mild chest discomfort, can't catch my breath and sweating' feeling. I was going to shake it off, my thankfully my wife decided to do the smart thing and take me to the ER. We are very lucky in Hays, Kansas to have a hospital with a certified chest pain center in the ER and the Michael DeBakey Heart Institute of Kansas. These two things saved my life.

People with Diabetes typically don't have the typical signs of a heart attack. Neither do women or the elderly (at least that's what my ER nurse told me as he was checking me out that day). After lots of tests, poking and prodding, a heart catheterization and a few more tests, it was determined I was to have quadruple bypass surgery - also known as Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG) the following day.

It was quite a shock to my family and friends and one hell of a shock to me! But we survived. One step at a time and one day at a time. I came home after a week in the hospital and went back to work six weeks later.

After surviving open-heart surgery, I dealt with depression and anxiety that many OHS survivors do, but tackled it pretty easily. I realized I was given a new lease on life and I am so thankful for a second chance to spend the rest of my life loving my wife and kids.

A few months after my surgery, we were able to celebrate my son, Gabriel's first communion and then a few weeks later, my nephew's graduation from college. We celebrated Memorial Day with extended family, but knew that my mother was having some health issues. The week after Memorial Day, she had minor surgery on her neck to determine the cause of extreme neck and back pain she had been experiencing the few months before. All of her tests came back ok, but she had a hard time recovering. Later in the summer, we celebrated her 76th birthday. I lost a college friend to a tragic motorcycle accident in late June and once again was reminded of my own mortality.

In late July, my mom's health issues became worse and after a brief hospitalization, it was determined that she had stage 4 abdominal cancer. Six days after her diagnosis, she died.

This began the most devastating time of my 45 years. The loss of someone's mother is always sad, but when it is YOUR mother, you just really don't know what to do. Your mom is your first love. She is the one who is your biggest fan and now she was gone. It's only been 3 1/2 months since she died in August, and I am getting better every day. There are some days I miss her terribly and other days I laugh when I see something that reminds me of her.

But there is one thing I know for sure. If it wasn't for my heart attack and subsequent quadruple bypass surgery one year ago, I wouldn't have survived the stress of losing my mother. My family would have been dealing with both her death and my death.

One of the most important things I've learned from this past 365 days is the kindness of friends and strangers. If it wasn't for friends (a hell of a lot of them), our family wouldn't have been able to get all of our belongings moved into our home (I had my heart attack on moving day). I also realize the importance of a kind word, a hand-written note or even an e-mail or Facebook message when someone has lost a loved one. We received notes and cards from people I haven't seen or heard of in 20+ years after my mom died. I'm now a note writer and have written several to people since these events.

Although we've had one hell of a year, I'm thankful for what happened one year ago today. It proved that I can survive a heart attack and heart surgery and I can survive life without my mom. It really sucks many days, but it is really good many more days.

Bring on the next 365!

Monday, August 25, 2014

What I've Learned About Life from my Mother's Death.

My mother died almost three weeks ago.

As I've gone through life this past three weeks without her, I've cried, laughed, gotten angry, been sad and been grateful for the love she had for all of us.

She lived a full life and was only sick for about a week before her death at age 76. As her "baby," I was the youngest of her three children and had the privilege of being loved and nurtured by her for 45 years. I was a "pill baby" born in the 60s and she often referred to me as "the best mistake she and Dad ever made."

Mom lived for her husband, my dad, and her kids, grand kids and great-grand kids. I don't think she ever knew a stranger and would gladly talk to anyone about her family. She always had a picture in her purse of a grandchild and always had a story to tell about any of us kids and her grandbabies.

She was a very talented artist, specializing in folk arts and crafts. She and dad made thousands of handicrafts and went to hundreds if not thousands of arts and craft shows. I always remember her walking at various lakes and ponds that she and dad were fishing at looking for pieces of driftwood that she would paint Santa Claus faces on and sell at craft shows. She could paint, sew, decorate beautiful cakes, cook and make anyone feel at home in her home.

I remember as a child she would decorate cakes. She would make beautiful frosting roses on pop bottle caps fastened to nails in a wooden board (something my Grandpa Fox had created for her). She would take those flowers and make gorgeous cakes for many people's birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and other special occasions.

She was a gracious host. Our house was always open to friends and family and there was always something good to eat on the kitchen counter - especially when we got home from school. Homemade long johns, cakes and cookies were normal at our house. When she and Dad had retired and they volunteered for the American Legion and Legion Ladies Auxiliary, they were the ones always making soup, ice cream or baked goods for the many fundraisers they had.

I know there will be thousands of times I will miss her, but especially at Christmas. For the past 25 or so years, she has made each one of us kids a homemade angel Christmas tree ornament. Each one is different. Some years we each got one and other years she would make a set of three for each of us three kids. She also used her sewing talents to handmake a doll and doll quilt each year for each of her granddaughters. Each year a new doll. My 21 year old niece has 21 of those dolls! My 10 year old daughter, Grace has 10.

Another Christmas tradition that will live on forever in our family is our Christmas stockings. When my older brother and sister were little (in the 1960s), she made personalized stockings out of felt for her, Dad and my brother and sister. When I came along in 1969, there was one for me, too. As we became adults and got married, our spouses each received a personalized stocking, and as each grandchild was born, a new stocking was crafted. Each year at Christmas, she made sure that each stocking was filled with special gifts for each person, along with an orange in the toe.

I'll miss that.

I'll miss her smile, her laugh and some of her other quirky habits. I'll miss her love of cinnamon bears and clove-flavored candy.

I'll miss her "Watch for Rudolph" warning when we were leaving her house after dark to go home, reminding us to watch out for deer on the Kansas highways.

When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 abdominal cancer (they believe it started in the pancreas) just one week before her death, she took the news gracefully. We talked about how she wanted to handle the situation and she took it head on. She said she didn't want to sit in a dark corner and feel sorry for herself. When the oncologist visited with her the day we got the diagnosis, he was amazed that she hadn't been in severe pain for several months (based on the degree of how the cancer had spread to many of her organs.)

She was a very lucky woman to have gotten a stage 4 cancer diagnosis and was gone in a week. Yes, the cancer diagnosis was a complete shock and then her sudden deterioration and death was another shock, but once again, my mom handled this gracefully. She talked about her living will with us and that she didn't want any extraordinary measures to prolong her life. She knew she had a terminal diagnosis and also knew she was loved by all of us. As we looked through the safe deposit box a few days after her death, we all felt comforted when we read her living will. We made all of her end-of-life decisions just the way she had directed.

Although it was heartbreaking and the hardest thing I've ever lived through, I'm so glad I got to be there for the last 10 days of her life. I got to witness the true love and devotion of her and my dad. Married for 57 years, my mom and dad breathed the same air for a majority of their lives. The love and dedication my dad showed to Mom in that last week was amazing. After only two nights in the hospital, he moved out of his hotel room and stayed by her bedside for the rest of her hospitalization. He was there in the middle of the night when she would wake up disoriented and upset and would be the one to stroke her arm and whisper reassurances to her that she was ok.

The last 24 hours of my mom's life on earth was so surreal to me. It was the first time in probably 30 years that just the five us - Mom, Dad, my sister, brother and I - were together alone without spouses and children as a nuclear family. We spent those hours in her hospital room and shared stories, favorite songs and just time together.

So what have I learned in the last three weeks?

I've learned that the love of a mother is the strongest love a child can feel. When she's gone, there are other people who love you, but nobody can replace that love of a mother for her child and the love of a child for his mother. My heart aches, but it is also filled with joy that she was a Christian and is in Heaven with God, free of cancer's evil hold. She's surrounded by my grandparents and her grandparents looking down on all of us - surrounding us with her love.

I've learned that nothing lasts forever, including your parents' lives.

I've felt the pain and heartache that my own wife felt just four short years ago when her mother died suddenly. But I've also felt the love and support that my wife has provided me as she knows the pain I'm feeling.

I've also learned that support from friends and family is very important to get you through these rough spots in life. The day we got my mom's cancer diagnosis, I got in touch with a few of my closest friends from college to let them know I would be needing their support as we went through this next stage of life. Each one of them offered their support and we talked many times that week. The night my mother died, I had a 2 1/2 hour drive home and I was able to talk to each one of them as I drove home. Each one cried right along with me. I knew they hurt right along with me as I was processing how I was going to live without my mother.

I've learned not to take anything for granted.

Ten days before my mother's death, I had no idea how much time we had with her.

I'm glad I got to spend time with her.

I'm glad I was picked by God to be her son. She taught me so much about life.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Andy's Ribs

I love to cook. I love to eat.

I love to cook and eat these ribs.

Now, if you don't like sweet, messy ribs then just leave this page now. These ribs are awesome!

Here's the scoop on how to make them.

You'll need two racks of pork baby back ribs and this cast of characters for the rub.
Brown Sugar
Your favorite BBQ spice/rub
Chili Powder
Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Black Pepper

I start with about a half cup of the bbq spice/rub and then add about a cup of brown sugar. Then let your creativity and your nose be your guide. A little bit of this and that from the cast of characters. Mix it up and then rub it all over the ribs. When you are done, they will look like this.

Now here's the skinny on these ribs. They have a rub on them and then you soak them in apple juice. Yes, apple juice. Put the ribs you've rubbed all this sweet spicy mixture all over into a roasting pan and then pour some apple juice about half-way up the pan.

Once you've poured the apple juice into the pan, put the lid on and let these babies sit in the fridge for an hour or so. I went and worked out during this time so I could prepare my body for this rib fest. I'm glad I did!

After about an hour in the apple juice soak, turn the oven on to 300 degrees. When the oven is at temperature, pop those ribs in.

Let them cook at 300 for about 2 1/2 hours. The apple juice will be boiling and those ribs will enjoy their time in this sweet and savory hot tub. When you pull them out of the oven, they'll look like this.

Now it's time to head outside to the grill. But before we do that, we'll need to make the sauce. Yes, these babies deserve their own sauce with its own cast of characters.
Apple Juice
Honey style BBQ sauce
Heinz 57 sauce
Peach Preserves

In a small mixing bowl, pour about half the bottle of BBQ sauce in and then add about 2 tablespoons of Heinz 57 and 2 tablespoons of honey. Take about 1/2 to 1 cup of the peach preserves and put in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave for about 30 seconds to a minute until it is hot, bubbly and almost liquid. Pour those preserves into the sauce mixture and then add a couple tablespoons of apple juice. Mix it together and wait until it is time to take the ribs out to the grill.

 Pop the ribs on a hot grill so they can finish cooking out here. Turn them over a couple of times to get some good grill marks and some crustiness on this awesome apple juice infused pork.

When they are about done, it's time to put some of that delicious sauce on them and let that bake in for a few minutes...

When everything is hot and bubbly, bring those suckers in and enjoy!!!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Living With A Chronic Disease Sucks. Dealing With A Large Insurance Company Sucks Harder!

I was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes in 1984, when I was in my early years of high school. Back then, it was called Juvenile Diabetes and I had all of the classic symptoms: extreme weight loss, extreme thirst, fatigue, frequent urination and a fruity smell on my breath.

What caused my Diabetes? We'll never know exactly, but poor genetics and just pure "luck". When someone is diagnosed with Type I Diabetes, the body starts attacking itself and the pancreas is the battleground. My pancreas stopped producing insulin and my body suffered.

In the past 30 years, I've been a good diabetic and a not-so-good diabetic. I've taken control of this disease many times and it has taken control of me many more. I've had periods of very tight blood glucose control and periods of rebellion against this shitty disease and my body has suffered from it.

Diabetes affects the blood vessels in your body, especially the teeny-tiny ones in some very important parts: your eyes, your kidneys, your heart and your limbs. I was diagnosed with Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy in the late 1990s - just as I was in the process of getting married. I have had many eye surgeries to repair the damage caused by this silent disease. No, I didn't have LASIK - I have hundreds of laser burns on my retinas to stop the growth of new blood vessels on in my eye. I've had invasive surgery in both eyes (yes, they cut open my eye, placed microscopic tools in there and repaired part of the damage) and at age 40, I had cataract surgery in both eyes. The eye surgeries in the 90s increased my risk for early-stage cataracts. Once again, I am so thankful for wonderful doctors who have the talent and skill to help me see.

In 2013, I had a heart attack and had quadruple bypass surgery to repair the damage that diabetes has had on my heart. When my surgeon visited me after looking at the results from my heart cath, she told me that I had a very strong heart muscle, but my arteries were just shot after living with diabetes for 30 years. My arteries had blockages between 60% and 99%. When your blood sugars are high, your cholesterol and triglycerides are high. This causes plaque buildup in your arteries.

Thankfully, I have had no major problems with my kidneys. But I know that without tight control, I could suffer kidney damage in the future. That's what leads me to this rant.

In 2008, I was lucky enough to be approved for an insulin pump. The development of insulin pumps has greatly improved in the past 30 years (the first ones were introduced about the time I was diagnosed in the early 1980s) and the costs are "manageable" by insurance coverage. Most insulin pumps are covered under a 4-year warranty, as mine was. In 2012, my insulin pump went out of warranty and my wife and I decided to keep our fingers crossed and not replace it. Even with insurance coverage, it is about a $2,000 out-of-pocket expense. I have taken great care to make sure it functions normally, because it helps me maintain control of this disease.

After my heart surgery, I had to start taking a medication for my heart that affects how I react to hypoglycemia - also known as an insulin reaction or low blood sugar. With my new medication, my body doesn't automatically recognize that my blood sugar is dropping too low. Normally, when having hypoglycemia, my body's adrenaline glands kick in and it alerts me to the low blood sugar (especially in the middle of the night when I am asleep). With this new medication to keep my heart healthy, my body doesn't do this. One night when I was still in the hospital, my blood sugar dropped to 20, which is very dangerous. Because of the new medication, I didn't wake up and realize my blood sugar was dropping.

Because of this latest development, my primary physician, my diabetes specialist and I have decided that a new insulin pump with a continuous glucose monitor would be the best treatment of my diabetes. This combination of pump/CGM would stop delivering insulin in the case of hypoglycemia and would also help me keep a tighter control of my overall blood sugars.

We filled out the forms, had the doctor provide information how it was medically necessary for me to have this new technology to treat my chronic disease. The insurance company (who had just processed the multiple claims from my open-heart surgery) decided it wasn't. They denied my claim and said it wasn't medically necessary.

Here is an example of a patient who wants to take control of his disease which will lower his chances of developing any more life-threatening complications (kidney failure, amputation, etc) with a FDA-approved device that will help me keep a tighter control of this disease, but the insurance company doesn't want to pay for it.

Wouldn't they want to help me with preventative treatment of this chronic disease and lower the risk of me developing additional complications from this disease in the future? Wouldn't they pay for a new pump with CGM instead of dialysis or kidney transplant in the future? How about another heart surgery?

We have filed an appeal to my claim and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that with additional information they will come to their senses and approve this. I want to live to watch my children grow. I want to be a productive member of society. I want to have a decent quality of life.

All I want is a new insulin pump with continuous glucose monitoring!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Just Keep Swimming!

It struck me this morning as I was trying to catch my breath while I clung to the edge of the pool.

My kids are pretty damned good athletes!

To know that they willingly (most of the time) go to swim practice and swim pretty much nonstop for 90 minutes with a coach hovering over them makes me pretty proud of them!

I got back in the pool for the first time this morning since my surgery. I've always been a "good" swimmer, but never a top athlete. I learned to swim the summer I turned three when my mom managed the Logan Municipal Pool. The lifeguards took me under their wings and taught me to swim. I spent every day of every summer at that pool. I'm sure I drove each and every lifeguard crazy through the years.

Swimming is a hard sport. It uses different muscles in different ways than other sports do. You use your entire body against the resistance of the water. There were lots of muscles that I used this morning that I haven't used in lots of time and I'm going to be using them some more.

Plus, when I get out of the pool, I can slip on over to the hot tub for a few minutes of stretching and relaxing!

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Me? A Fitness Freak?


My name is Andy and I like to exercise.

Yes, it's true. Six months ago, you would have never heard me say that sentence. NEVER. I have never liked to exercise. When I was little, I loved to swim, but it was mostly about playing in the water and socializing at the pool. Not about fitness.

In PE class at school, I used every excuse to get out of that day's physical activity. Usually the only C on my report card was in PE. Yes, I got Cs in PE. (the only D I ever got was in shop class, but that is a whole 'nother story!)

Since my open-heart surgery, I went through six weeks of Cardiac Rehab at HaysMed. It's part of the whole experience after surgery at the DeBakey Heart Institute of Kansas and it has changed how I look at life.

Before my surgery, exercise was something that I thought only fitness freaks did. I didn't truly comprehend and realize the health benefits associated with a true exercise plan (especially for those of us over 40).

It makes me feel better, both physically and emotionally. Those endorphins are just going crazy in my brain after an hour of working out. I feel like I could conquer the world after a good workout - and my workouts aren't anything too much off the charts. I do some simple cardio (treadmill, bike and some demon-machine that is like an elliptical, but not quite as demon-like) and then about 15-20 minutes of weight lifting.

Pretty good for a overweight, out-of-shape, 44-year-old who had heart surgery about 2 1/2 months ago. Initially, I lost weight, but now I've gained weight, but my belly is shrinking. Yes, I'm gaining muscle (and muscle weighs more than fat). I'm wearing clothes I haven't worn in years and I'm liking it!

I know it is a slow process, but I hope this new habit is one that sticks for the rest of my life. It makes me feel too damned good to quit now!