“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, 18th Century German Philosopher
June 27, 2021 – 2:12 PM – Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center, Room 3365
A little more than 72 hours before I started writing this post, I was at home making a bowl of oatmeal and blueberries to start the morning. Life was settling down after a physically and mentally challenging year. The hardest days of my heart transplant recovery were behind me. Walking 4-plus miles everyday, doing light strength exercises a few times each week, and working on a couple of mentoring opportunities filled my time.
After enjoying a few spoonfuls of the creamy and fruity breakfast, a phone call I had expected from the heart transplant clinic came in. I was waiting for the results of a quarterly blood test that determines if the medicine needed to protect my heart from rejection was working. Usually, the test results are good and the call is a quick 2-3 minute chat about staying the course. This time was different.
The 30 minute conversation began with the nurse practitioner telling me to report to the hospital as soon as possible to be admitted. My body’s immune system was preparing to wage a battle against my heart to reject it. This is the most common cause of death for transplant recipients. Just like that, the wave of comfort, peace, and happiness that I had been riding for a while came violently crashing down on the shore of uncertainty.
A heart transplant isn’t a cure, it’s a way to live longer and improve the quality of life. It’s so easy to think that a transplant is just a few snip snips, put in the new heart, a couple of stitch stitches and the patient is good to go back to a “normal” life. In reality, it’s a daily grind of staying on top of anti-rejection meds, eating healthy food, exercising, and keeping regular cardiologist appointments. Infection, rejection, and other calamities wait in the wings.
The good news is that the transplant team caught the rejection before it damaged my heart and put a plan in place to fight it. I will get high doses of steroids, a dialysis-like treatment to clean antibodies out of my system, and an infusion of proteins. The bad news is that I have to be in the hospital for at least 11 days to complete the treatment
That means wearing one of those light blue cotton gowns with an open back for 11 days. That means sleepless nights in a tiny hospital bed for 11 days. That means lousy-tasting food for 11 days. That means hearing the monitors and the sounds of sickness in the hallways for 11 days. That means getting poked to draw blood a few times every day for 11 days. That means not knowing what will happen next for 11 days.
Lying alone in the dark as a monitor beeps and displays a green line dancing to the heart’s rhythm, I surf social media to see people preparing for 4th of July festivities and frolicking in Cabo, Lake Tahoe, and fun places near and far. Watching people celebrate their freedom from Covid’s loneliness, sadness, and hopelessness plays havoc on the psyche, especially one with an uncertain future. In the darkness of the hospital room, my mind wanders from bemoaning my misfortune to digging deep into the soul to reflect on the meaning of life.
During the height of the pandemic, people were upset that they couldn’t have a normal life. Not being able to go to dinner with friends, visit family, enjoy a ballgame, and much more caused widespread suffering for many people. I thought about St. Paul the Apostle languishing in a Roman prison for years and writing about hope, faith, and love. It reminded me that being a slave to our desires isn’t the pathway to personal peace.
Almost 2,000 years ago, Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius wondered if there was more to life than just “marrying, raising children, getting sick, dying, waging war, throwing parties, doing business, complaining about their own lives.” Sounds familiar, right? That’s what most of us live for. Is life all about sipping a glass of wine in Napa Valley at a posh resort and posting pics on social media to escape the drudgery of daily existence?
Or is it about surviving “to find some meaning in the suffering,” as German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said. Over the past 11 days, I’ve had a lot of time to think about Nietzche’s perspective. Since there was no damage to my heart, I feel good and energetic. I had to find some way to cope with the fact that 11 days of restricted confinement was my fate on the very weekend that Americans declared independence from Covid restrictions.
Here’s the thing: Just because I felt good when I arrived at the hospital doesn’t mean that all is good. Antibodies were assembling the troops to attack my heart. There was no time to take the holiday week off. It was time to call on my own troops to fight yet another battle. Medically, doctors immediately began executing their plan. Mentally, I was resolved to stay in the moment, use skills I learned in psychotherapy, and put into practice my understanding of Stoic philosophy. It was game on!
Marcus Aurelius also wrote that, “the obstacle on the path becomes the way.” He meant that we must face and work through life’s challenges instead of complaining about them. My diseased and now transplanted heart is the obstacle in my life. Working with it is the way. I decided that I’ll try to have fun while in the hospital. Sandra has been here everyday. The girls trade off being here with her. It’s just like being at home with my family, just not so comfortable.
From the healthcare aides to the nurses, cleaning crew, and nutrition staff, I tried to get to know each member of the hospital team that came into the room. They’re from Nigeria, Kenya, Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, and a few from the east side. We talked about politics, hoops, family, their home countries, and empathized together with the victims of the collapsed building in Florida.
Believe it or not, this hospital stay has been a rich experience. Have I come any closer to understanding what life is all about? Not a chance. But, I’m learning that taking each moment for what it is and enduring tough times with a little sunshine goes a long way. I’m becoming more convinced that doing fun things from time to time only serves to temporarily soothe the suffering of everyday problems. I truly found meaning in what could have been 11 days of suffering.
July 5, 2021 – 10:36 AM – Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center, Room 3365
My cardiologist just left the room. She’s part of a great team of amazing doctors that have cared for me for more than a decade. The news is good. The last of the treatments will be complete by late afternoon and I’ll be discharged later in the evening. I’ll need to do additional blood tests to determine if the plan to rid my body of the heart rejection demons was successful. Until the results come in, I’ll get back to my home routine and just take it a moment at a time.