On July 8, I was a healthy, active 59-year-old, scheduled for a routine test to rule out concern over minor chest pain — a stress test I had easily passed just two years earlier.
I had just enjoyed an extended weekend and birthday celebration with my family, and was still savoring the award I had just received for my autism advocacy.
Today, I am a medically fragile patient on the verge of open-heart surgery.
I am scared — who wouldn’t be, knowing that a saw will soon slice open my breastbone?
More than that, however, I am shocked. For my entire adult life, I tried to do what all the doctors told me — and believed that I succeeded.
My weight, cholesterol and blood pressure have been under control for many years. I always look forward to my monthly visit with our corporate wellness coach, to confirm that conclusion.
But my mother’s family history didn’t care about any of that. Statins were no match for DNA.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, my self-image has plummeted. Apparently, I am not the healthy, active adult I still see in my mind’s eye.
The occasional little twinges and pulls that never meant anything before now make me wonder whether I should take nitroglycerin. I had to leave church to sit in an air-conditioned car, when my heart began to race from the extreme heat that overwhelmed the sanctuary climate control.
Everyone asks me about my cardiologist. But I never even knew I needed one until I failed the stress test.
The paperwork also is killing me (not literally, I hope). I have to work very hard just to make sure that all of my doctors have my records, because their electronic systems do not talk to each other.
Will I really be able to stay off my work email for three months, to recuperate?
Most important, I worry about what my condition will mean for my wife and adult children.
She will bear the burden of caring for me at home, while keeping up with her own job, because I won’t be able to drive for several months.
My daughter just started a new job, at a local institution in financial distress. Our son will transfer from his community college to a local Penn State campus.
I had hoped to support them, not be a potential source of anxiety.
I am battling my own mental scripts.
Many years ago, my father died after complications following “routine” surgery.
Of course, his diabetes, heart issues and long-term injuries from the abuse he suffered in a World War II prisoner of war camp put him at much greater risk. But he never needed open-heart surgery.
(The same luck that plagued my genes put my blockages in places where a less invasive stent would likely fail, dashing the hopes raised by many friends whose lives were restored by a stent. Instead, I require double-bypass surgery.)
The greatest comforts for me have been the offers of prayer, from many, even those who may only know me tangentially.
I choose to pray for peace for myself and for my family. I know that those prayers had been answered during my mother’s final illness.
When my son was diagnosed with autism many years ago, my best “therapy” was writing about him, and about our family, to help others. I like to think I have accomplished that goal.
Today, as a heart patient, I hope to do the same, by writing about how I adjust to my new reality, and heal.
I did not choose my cup, metaphorically. But I accept it, and look forward to what I hope is a long conversation about it.