I recently wrote a commentary piece in The Inquirer about my fears and anxieties over open-heart surgery at age 59.
Less than a month after surgery, I am doing well. Yes, my healthy exercise and eating habits are helping. And so is my very patient caregiver, who still wears the wedding ring I gave her 24 years ago.
Most people never get the privilege of thanking someone for saving their life.
Yet I have been blessed to do so twice.
My doctor, Lawrence Mass, repeated a routine test that I had passed just two years ago. His instinct uncovered my 80% blockages, and then he sent me to great doctors in a great hospital for the lifesaving procedure I needed.
My second lifesaver is my brother, Dave, who chewed me out for the negative attitude in my prior commentary piece. (Sample: “Suddenly and unexpectedly, my self-image has plummeted. Apparently, I am not the healthy, active adult I still see in my mind’s eye.”) Dave’s blunt but caring words helped me stop feeling sorry for myself and focus on my recovery.
I also quickly learned to appreciate the outstanding nurses who took care of me during my hospitalization.
From just talking to me during times of stress, to tracking down a meal that would not trigger my food allergies, they provided the care that my late mother, a registered nurse, would have given me were she still alive.
One nurse spent a full hour on a busy day going over my care plan, in detail, with my wife, to give her confidence that she could care for me at home.
The young man who brought my meals each day may have not had a medical or nursing degree, but his constant smile, and our chats about Philadelphia sports teams, helped me more than he’ll ever know, though I made it a point to thank him.
My neighbor, Ellen, a heart surgery survivor herself, gave me what may have been my most important lesson: “Follow the agenda, don’t set it.”
In other words, take things as they are, without anxiety about what I think should happen next.
Instead, appreciate life as it comes — open-heart surgery and all.
I also learned humility — the things they have to do to help you in the hospital will do that.
Hand in hand with humility came obedience and patience.
As much as I felt confident that I could get out of bed and walk the three steps to the bathroom, my nurses made it abundantly clear that this was not happening. I even learned I didn’t know as much about nutrition as I thought. That “certified heart healthy” cereal I have eaten for years has way too much salt.
My newly acquired cardiologist even helped me to laugh at my situation. His stern instruction, “May you fart,” was music to the ears of a longtime Three Stooges fan — as well as medical advice to show my system was on the mend.
An extra dose of spirituality arrived in the form of an unexpected visit by a local priest to anoint me for healing — just after I had begun a traditional Jesuit prayer.
Finally, I received encouraging messages from total strangers who had survived bypasses at my age or younger, and wanted to console me after reading my first Inquirer commentary.
I certainly never expected that I would find so many manifestations of the divine in open-heart surgery. Yet that is exactly what I experienced, once I allowed myself to experience them, by putting aside my misguided fear and anxiety.
Stanley P. Jaskiewicz is a lawyer and disabilities advocate who lives with his family in Lansdale. This column appears through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for more than a million patients and caregivers.