A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting alone at the kitchen counter hunched over a bowl of oatmeal, bananas, blueberries, and walnuts. I stared out through the kitchen bay window at the backyard garden above the retaining wall. A hummingbird was hovering over the yellow hibiscus flowers and miniature red roses that were in full bloom. As I dipped the spoon into the hot cereal, I was lost in thought.
I was thinking of the 4th of July week. Erica has been home plotting her next move after graduating from college. Marisa flew in from New York to spend time with us and Sandra took the week off. Movies, dinners, binge-watching Netflix, and an annual Independence Day campout with family and friends filled our days and nights. We shared many laughs, recounted old stories, and created new ones.
People always say that having a great time surrounded by family and friends is supposed to be the very essence of what defines happiness. Social media posts abound confirming that belief. Yet, throughout that week and the next, a faint gnawing churned in my stomach. The good times and the wonderful company merely masked what was going on in my mind.
While sipping water with my breakfast, my attention turned to why I wasn’t overwhelmed with cheer. The past 9 years have been a bumpy ride. There was the horrifying summer of 2010 followed by 8 years of managing heart failure. Dealing with medication, exercise, and diet filled my daily to-do list. Maintaining a disciplined routine worked until my heart started showing signs of severe wear and tear.
An expectation of better days ahead came last fall when I qualified to be placed on a heart transplant list. In the meantime, a surgically implanted LVAD mechanical heart pump would keep me stable until a donor heart became available. My heart and lungs decided not to cooperate with the surgery, so the ride got bumpy again. Five days of uncertainty evaporated the hope of a smooth transition.
The road back from the complicated surgery in November has been steady. I feel better than I have in years. Getting reactivated on the transplant list is the next step for me. But first, doctors wanted to make sure that my lungs could get through another major open-heart operation. That meant another round of tests and more evaluation.
The anticipation of getting back on the list had been weighing on me for the better part of a month. The festive week with the girls being home and the family campout provided some relief. But, the fact is that I’m sick, very sick. Reality is always there slung over my shoulder in a black satchel that carries the equipment connected to the LVAD attached to my heart.
There are no days off living with advanced heart failure. Taking a “cheat day” from my strict diet isn’t an option. It’s low-salt, low fat for every meal every day. Relaxing and unwinding over a couple of cocktails after a long day is out of the question. Forget hot dogs and beer on the 4th of July. While coping with the physical challenges of the illness is extremely difficult, the psychological and emotional impact can be paralyzing.
The American Heart Association estimates that nearly 40% of patients with chronic heart disease suffer from depression. Anxiety and other psychological maladies make that number even bigger. Throughout my illness, I’ve waged a brutal battle with depression and anxiety. For years, I struggled to comprehend why this all happened to me. I resented being “cut off” at the prime of my life. These kinds of thoughts are common for someone with a chronic illness.
After finishing the oatmeal, I stood at the sink washing the bowl, spoon, and water glass. I reminded myself that I’ve been on a 9-year journey to learn how faith can help conquer those destructive thoughts. Throughout my trek through spiritual self-discovery, faith has helped me rise above the negative spirits that occupy my soul.
Nevertheless, while staring out the window again, the demons danced around my head. What if the tests showed that my lungs couldn’t handle another major surgery? What if the CT Scan of my chest revealed scarring from nearly a decade of the heart and lungs struggling to keep me alive? What if I have to be on the LVAD for the rest of what’s sure to be a short life?
I focused on taking steady breaths as I wiped the dishes with a dry towel. I’d been in this place of doubt plenty of times. The evil spirits in my mind were trying to pull me in a downward spiral. I was pulling in the other direction to lift myself up to a place of calm and trust. Since I embarked on this journey, faith always swept in to save the moment. This time, faith came through again.
Feeling less anxious, I sat on the family room sofa and turned on the morning news. I always do this before going on my daily walk to check in to see what kind of mess Donald Trump has caused. Suddenly, my cell skipped on the coffee table as the vibration mode indicated that a call was coming in. The number on the caller ID was all too familiar: +1 (408) 851-1000, Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center.
The digits on the caller ID displayed the medical center’s general number. The person on the other end could be any one of the people on the amazing team of professionals managing my healthcare. I get regular calls from the team. Scheduling appointments, sharing lab results, or giving instructions for the next exam are typical topics during the calls.
Earlier that morning, my cardiologist was scheduled to present my reactivation case to Stanford, the location of the transplant surgery. I expected him to call, but not until later in the day. As I reached for the smart phone, the demons began their dance again. Is it the cardiologist? Does he have good news? Does he have bad news? Was the meeting cancelled?
When I answered, it was the doctor’s soothing voice that greeted me. It was good news. The laboratory results were positive. The lungs were stable. Everything looked good. And, oh yeah, my name was reactivated on the heart transplant list effective immediately. I expressed my deepest gratitude to him and his team for caring for me with such commitment and professionalism.
I sat back on the comfy couch, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I thanked God, made the sign of the cross, and took another deep breath. When I emerged from that serene moment, I called Sandra to share the doctor’s update. I don’t exactly remember her response, but I could feel her warm hugs through the smart phone. I sent texts to the girls next. After exchanging celebratory messages with them, I went to the bedroom to get ready for my walk.
To be continued…