My brother David once told me that I was like a cat with 9 lives. He was talking about how I bounced back from failing at my first try at college and rebounded from devastating election defeats. I went on to finish college with honors and ultimately served in public office. Of course he didn’t know at the time that his comment also could have been about my battle with heart failure.
Taking a cue from Drake, I’ve taken on YOLO – You Only Live Once – as my motto for this fight, with a few adjustments along the way. First, I stayed alive after a heart attack in 2010. Second, I survived cardiac arrest when doctors shocked me back to life. Third, I lived to tell the tale of a summer on life support in the ICU due to a rare lung complication from the heart attack.
After that summer, I adopted YOLT – You Only Live Thrice (yes that’s a word) – as my rallying cry. For some reason, God has chosen me to stay around for a while. Not questioning His will, I’m just going with it. Last week, I added another life to my résumé. Now my motto is YOLF – You Only Live Four Times (weirdly, there’s no single word for the fourth time).
Boy do I have a story to tell…
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a candidate for a heart transplant. This is great news! Getting on an organ transplant list is a rigorous process. The candidate has to have the odd combination of great health and a nearly inoperable heart. It requires a long evaluation period called the heart transplant workup, a comprehensive list of medical and mental health exams.
A key part of the workup is a procedure called the right heart catheterization – otherwise known as a right cath. It’s a procedure that measures lung pressure. This is critical to getting on the transplant list. A previous right cath showed that I had high lung pressure, not a good sign. After taking a new medication for a couple of months, the doctors wanted to check it again.
Heart catheterizations are common – according the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about 1 million are done each year in the United States. To measure lung pressure, a heart surgeon inserts a wire called a Swan-Ganz through a small incision in the neck and into the arteries that connect the lungs and heart.
The procedure is done in a cold and sterile operating room. Lying on a narrow operating table, heated blankets kept me warm as the right cath team prepared for the procedure. To ensure the accuracy of the measurements, patients aren’t sedated.
With my head turned to the right, the team placed a small tarp-like covering over the right side of my head to give the doctor a clear view of my neck. I could see the nurse in front of me and hear the doctor and technicians behind me. The doctor explained the procedure and asked if I had any questions. Once the prep was complete, the doctor numbed my neck with local anesthetic.
Everything was going smoothly like the last time I underwent a right cath. I felt the doctor pushing on my neck as the he threaded the Swan-Ganz into my neck and arteries. Midway through the procedure, I felt a weird tickling sensation in my chest. It was like the wire was poking against the inside of my heart. I didn’t feel that the last time, so I told the doctor about the sensation.
Acknowledging my comment, the doctor described making an adjustment to the insertion and continued. The sensation started intensifying. Before I could relay this to the doctor, he announced to the team that he was pulling the wire out. He asked if I felt better and I responded, “yes.”
Suddenly, my heart started racing! I was taking shallow breaths and felt like I was sprinting. I heard the doctor shout, “Place the pads!” He then asked me, “Are you still with us, Mr. García?” I was scared, but replied, “Yes, I’m still here.” For the first time in the 8 years since the heart attack, I believed that I was going to die.
With my eyes tightly shut, a million thoughts raced through my mind. The old tale that you “see your life flash before your eyes before dying” didn’t happen. I thought about my faith journey and God’s will. I worried that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Sandra and the girls. These thoughts swirled through my mind in a matter of a few seconds.
The doctor calmly said, “We’re going to give you a shock, Mr. García.” Then…POW!
Some have said that the shock of a heart defibrillator is like getting kicked in the chest by a donkey. I think my donkey was driving a car when it hit me. I felt a massive blow to the chest and saw a bright flash of light as my eyes opened. My body jumped off the table and I screamed “Oh, shit” and the F-word about 62 times (or something like that). I could feel the electric current from head to toe.
The doctor confirmed that my heart was back in rhythm. I was going to be okay. He repeatedly apologized for shocking me without sedation, but my heart rate was rising too fast. His action prevented me from going into potentially fatal cardiac arrest. Lying on the table, I was shaking like a scared Chihuahua and my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. The nurses that rushed to the room covered me with heated blankets, held my hands, and comforted me.
When I calmed down, I too apologized for yelling out the F-word so many times. The team smiled and assured me that I just went through a traumatic experience. I asked for Sandra and Erica who were in the waiting room. The doctor went out to talk to Sandra and they came into see me shortly thereafter. I met them with a big smile to assure them.
The doctor sent me to the ICU so my cardiologist could determine if there was any damage to my heart. All tests came back negative. My heart just got annoyed with the intrusion at that moment and decided to send a strong message. I guess my heart is so moody sometimes.
God once again decided that it wasn’t my time. Seven hours after the shock, I agreed to go back in and finish the right cath procedure. I wasn’t nervous and I was no longer scared.
As St. Paul might say, I went back into that cold room with “faith, hope, and love.” The procedure was smooth, just like the other million or so that will be done this year. The result was another mini-miracle. My lung pressure decreased significantly with the new medication. My cardiologist was happily shocked (pun intended) with the results.
I checked off another part of the workup. I feel good. With the fourth life God has given, I will continue to do the things that I love: spending time with Sandra and supporting Marisa and Erica as they pursue their dreams, working to help east side kids and emerging community leaders, and taking daily walks to music that makes me smile.
For a few days after the shock, I was haunted by the words, “Are you still with us, Mr. García?” At the time, I didn’t know if he was asking me if I was still alive or if I was still conscious. I kept hearing the question in my mind. Eventually I turned to my faith and realized that it didn’t matter what he meant. Faith gave me the courage to write this post.
The experience highlighted another lesson I have learned from this long journey. There’s a silver lining to every cloud. There are so many people enduring what I’m going through or suffering from cancer, depression, anxiety, a job loss, a broken marriage, and countless other life challenges.
For those who are going through tough times of your own, I encourage you to put your trust in faith, hope, and love. Look for the silver linings. They’re there. They’ll help you carry on through the challenges. Trust me on this one.
By the way, if my brother is right, I still have 5 lives to go. Stay tuned!