The Heart of the Matter

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It was May 6, 2017; a day I will never forget. Earlier that day we had attended a funeral for a friend of our teenage son. It was heartbreaking to say the least. A few hours later I was having chest pains & difficulty breathing. The chest pains had been happening for a few weeks. This was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. After much arm twisting from my husband, we went to the ER.

As soon as we walked in they were in a frenzy. Which terrified me! They got my vitals, kept the EKG monitor on me, & then sent me for a CT Scan. My blood pressure was up and down, mainly up. At its highest point, it was 205/169. In case you don’t know, this is stroke level! My heart rate stayed between 110-130 resting & would sometimes jump into the 140s. I knew I was sick!

The CT Scan came back and they informed us that I had a possible aortic dissection, a potentially life-threatening condition. The hospital I was at was unable to handle my case, and they transferred me to another hospital. And because I didn’t understand the severity of this, and because I’m stubborn, I begged the nurse to let my husband take me. Unfortunately, that was not to be. In JUST a hospital gown, they loaded me in the ambulance and took me to the heart center at the local hospital. They rushed me through the doors to the cardiac intensive care unit, where the team of doctors and nurses swarmed around me in a flurry of activity. I remember one nurse saying, “oh my gosh, she’s so young”! I cannot even begin to tell you how much that stung. The medical staff went through multiple IV’s and injections of different medications to stabilize my blood pressure. The process seemed to take hours, but the concept of time had honestly escaped me by this point.

Eventually, they took me to have another CT Scan done to confirm if it was in fact an aortic dissection. When my attending doctor came in the next day he said that they should be moving me to a regular room soon (I was still in the Cardiac ICU), but he wanted to run more tests. He left the room. He came back a few minutes later. I could tell by the look on his face it wasn’t good. He said that he looked over the CT Scans/reports again and I did have an aortic dissection. He said that I had to have emergency open heart surgery. It was still early, so visiting hours hadn’t even started. My husband wasn’t even there yet. There I was alone hearing this horrible news. All I could do was stare. The doctor said he would give me some time to call Joe and to process everything. I made the calls I needed to make.

About 20-30 minutes later our children’s youth pastor arrived (Joe called him on his way), the doctor came back, followed by Joe. He explained the surgery, which was beyond horrifying! The intubation, the heart & lung bypass, the cracking of the chest, the recovery, etc. More family/friends came in: our precious older children (we thought it best our youngest, Bobby stayed in school), my mom, my cousins, & my pastor. There are no words to express the amount of fear I felt. They brought me back to pre-op where they put more IVs and ports in (one in my neck). Before they wheeled me back to the operating room our pastor prayed with us. I looked around and saw the fear in the eyes of my children and it is something that will be etched in my mind forever.

In the operating room, the nurses were so kind. As they were getting ready to put me under I told them how scared I was. They kept telling me to be strong & I’ll be just fine. I prayed & said, “Ok, God you got my attention. I’m listening”. Then I said, “Dad, if you have any pull up there please tell Him to keep me here”. I was out. They intubated me. The surgery was to take 6-7 hours. I woke up about 6.5 hours later, still intubated & very groggy. I remember Joe whispering something to me. Then I started choking on the tubes. After removing the tubes, Joe excitedly told me that I didn’t need the surgery after all. What!!?? Standard procedure is to perform a TEE Scan to confirm an aortic dissection before the actual surgery (while intubated). While the CT Scan showed there was in fact an aortic dissection, the TEE Scan showed there was not one (or there was no longer one). Four specialists were brought in to the operating room to confirm before canceling the surgery.

The next day I had the surgeon and several nurses come to visit. They said there is no explanation for what happened. My cardiac surgeon said he saw on the CT scan an aortic dissection & here there was none. Something he has heard of, but it has never happened to any of his patients. His nurse told me that I need to take this as a direct text from God. More nurses came in to tell me what a miracle it was and they couldn’t believe what happened. They also told me that I needed to take this as my second chance. I needed to eat healthy, exercise, and get my stress levels down.

This was it! This was my wake-up call. I had hit the proverbial rock bottom. My life had to change…immediately!

The Emotional Roller Coaster

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After learning that I would not need surgery, I experienced a wave of emotions that I can only describe as overwhelming. The hospital staff kept telling me how lucky I was, that this was a true miracle, and that I needed to take this as a sign from God. For those first couple of days after, I was thankful just to be alive and having been able to avoid open-heart surgery!
The dust began to settle as I was released from the hospital. My younger two kids went back to school, and my husband Joe went back to work. I was resting at home, alone with my thoughts, which was not a great place for me at that point. I could not get my mind around what had happened. I don’t usually react well when things happen that I don’t fully understand, and this was something that I didn’t understand at all. While I was indeed grateful just to be alive and headed in the right direction, there were many emotions and many questions I had no answers to. Why had God chosen to give me a second chance when so many others don’t get that? I felt so unworthy of His mercy and grace.
I was also very angry with myself. No one was to blame but me! I almost left my children without a mother, my husband without a wife, and my mother without a daughter. Not taking care of myself had been slowly killing me, and I had been too blind to see. As I lay terrified on the operating table, doubting my chances to live another day, I thought of my family. My dear husband, who loves me far more than I could ever understand; my Maggie, who had just finished her first year of college; my JoJo, who has his own medical issues and had just lost a friend to suicide; my Bobby, who is still very young and needs his Mama so much; my mother, already a widow, and who I doubt could handle losing a child. I had just watched them in tears as our pastor Mitch prayed over me as they were getting ready to wheel me to the OR. Then, afterwards, the scene kept repeating in my mind over and over. How could I have let this happen? How could I have put all the people I love through all this?
Everyone told me what a miracle I was. That is a very hard thing to process, and a harder thing to try to live up to. I do not believe I was given this second chance so I could be ordinary. The doctors and nurses told me to take this as a wakeup call. I had to get healthy. There is so much at stake now. I was very overwhelmed by all this, and I did what comes naturally to me when I feel that way- I cried- a lot. I cried every day at least once a day for more than two weeks. I managed to get it together enough to return to work about 8 days after my initial ER visit. It was difficult, but I managed to keep it together fairly well.
Now, almost 3 months on, I still struggle with feeling overwhelmed. I try to use all my emotions and fears to motivate myself. Some days are easy, some are not. Which is why my next post will be about strength and the sometimes-unlikely places we can find it.
Thank you for your support.
Amy
xxoo