“Estimates suggest 50 percent of individuals diagnosed with heart failure survive at least five years, and 10 percent survive at least 10 years.”
Circulation Research Journal, August 2013
Eight years ago today, after a massive heart attack killed off most of my heart muscle, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure (CHF). If you believe the data published in the medical journal Circulation Research, it looks like I’m in pretty good company. Each day that I get, I try to do all I can to keep it that way.
I’ve done everything my cardiologist has recommended. I gave up eating food that I love. I take a handful of pills every day. There are no more pre-games, all-nighters, or nightcaps for me. I can no longer work the 70 hours a week that once kept my professional life exciting and challenging. I don’t shoot hoops or workout to near exhaustion in the gym anymore. Staying alive requires a lot of just saying no.
Doctors tell me that my full commitment to a low-sodium diet, daily moderate exercise, low-stress activities, and a strict medicine regimen explains why I continue to beat the odds of CHF mortality rates. My cardiologist has played a key role in keeping me ahead of the game. She’s amazing. We work as a team to make adjustments to address any changes in my heart my function.
There’s also the impact on mental health, especially for those with Type A personalities. A recent article published in the journal Medscape states that, “Depression in CHF patients has been described as a temporary or chronic mental state characterized by feelings of sadness, loneliness, despair, low self-esteem, and self-reproach.” Because CHF has put extreme limitations on my life, I’ve been there and done that for most of the past 8 years.
Through all of this, here I stand celebrating my 8th Re-Birthday. This one’s sweeter than the 7 that came before it for a variety of reasons. The most important being that, for the past year, I’ve really gotten to know myself, the genuine me underneath the calluses and scabs caused by 54 years of living.
God gave me a gift on June 7, 2010. I didn’t realize it then. In fact, it’s taken most of the last 8 years to truly understand that the events of that day were just the beginning of an amazing voyage. That awful heart attack and the subsequent side-effects that kept me hanging on for life in the ICU that summer were merely the first stops on a long journey of acceptance, self-rediscovery, and faith.
My youth was awesome, period. My older siblings said I was a happy kid that loved life. School, sports, part-time jobs, and friends were the foundation of my world. As a young man, self-perceived disappointments in life and in love led me to spend the rest of my life running from failure demons. Dwelling on those early defeats kept fueling my drive to “succeed.” By my mid-40s, I worked harder than anyone else I knew. I was looking for redemption for life’s letdowns.
Since nearly working myself to death, I’ve spent the better part of the last 8 years trying to understand what it all means. That’s the gift God gave to me. He’s given me the time to reflect and think about what really matters. It’s funny what facing mortality and living with less will do to a person. It can break someone not willing to accept the gift or it can uplift those who take advantage of the offering.
This gift has been an arduous and sometime frustrating excursion. There have been steep hills to climb, and wide turns and tight corners to manage. There have been roadblocks and rockslides that forced me to go in another direction. Just when the sailing seemed smooth, winds laden with questions would push me off course.
I use the gift of thought and reflection every day now. At first, I questioned God: Why did this health catastrophe happen to me? What was I supposed to do with this new life defined by limitations? What happens next? There were no apparent or immediate answers, so I moved along the road of discovery.
The path took me in different directions until I came to the trailhead of faith. I followed the trail by reading the Prophets, Jesus and his Disciples, Mohammed, Buddha, and Gandhi. They helped me understand faith. Through them, I learned that there are no answers, because THAT is the answer. I accepted that what had happened was God’s will and resolved to make the best of it.
Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, God has blessed me with the chance to look back and see how beautiful my life has really been. Seeing this through a clear and pure lens, I’ve discovered that beneath five decades of soot is the same happy boy who loves life. It’s only better now. This time, I’m learning about the true meaning of love.
More on that next time.