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!