How a Heart Attack Changes Everything (Part 1 of 2)

It was warmer than usual last October and life was busy. Between a hectic traveling schedule and running a new business, I seemed to be more tired than usual. Maybe my age was catching up with me? We had just moved into our new home and the huge job of unpacking and moving furniture took every ounce of energy I had left. I hate to admit it, but the kids were driving me crazy too—along with the dog. I got the brilliant idea of sending our 10-month-old Labrador off for training. The last thing we needed was our dog chewing up the corners of our new cabinets.

Each day, new questions piled on top of unanswered ones. Where should we put the furniture? Should we convert the dining room into a study? Do we have a space for that armoire?

Kim and I bought this house thinking we would be here for at least six years, maybe longer. In six years, our son would graduate from high school, four years after his sister. Then we could downsize to a little house in the country.

Dreams …

On November 23rd I was scheduled to lead worship at Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church, just north of Atlanta. I had packed my overnight bag and left home Saturday afternoon, stopping along the way at the usual places. Although my trip was quiet, my back and neck plagued me. For the past several months, I had visited a chiropractor and a few days earlier, I had received a shot to try and ease the pain. I arrived and checked into my hotel and enjoyed sushi at my favorite spot just down the street. Then I turned in early for some much needed rest.

I didn’t sleep well. When the alarm clock went off at 6 AM, it was like a clanging bell in a room full of sleeping babies. I was tired and tense and the last thing I wanted to do was get up. I found my way downstairs for a bowl of oatmeal but couldn’t eat anything due to my neck and back pain.

On the drive to church, I tried to stretch out the tension, all the while wishing I were back home in bed. Instead of attending the pre-service staff meeting, I sat in the hallway feeling extremely anxious. This wasn’t a new feeling. I had felt it many times in the past six months; I figured it was something to do with my back and passed it off.

Rehearsal was about to start so I made my way in and sat at the keyboard. After the usual “hello’s” to everyone, it was click, click, click and we were into the first song. Somewhere around two-thirds of the way through, I stopped because the tension in my neck and back had increased and there was now an unusual feeling in my chest. I kept thinking, if I can just get through these four songs, I’ll go to the back and this will all pass. When we finished the last few measures of the first song, I couldn’t continue. I excused myself and found a couch in a small room just off the sanctuary where the pastors meet prior to the service. I sat down for about 20 seconds; the pain increased in my back and neck. I opened the door and asked the first person I saw to please get me help. I wasn’t sure what was happening.

Looking back, it’s all a blur. I remember lying on the floor trying to escape the pain. Someone was calling 911. Someone was putting baby aspirin in my mouth while a nurse asked me questions. My fingers felt like water, tingling as if electricity was shooting through them. What was happening?

The EMT arrived and the questions continued. How old are you? Do you have any chest pains? Are you allergic to any medicines? I begged them to make the pain go away. They got me on the stretcher, down the elevator and into the ambulance. The hospital was twelve miles away. As the siren blared, I shivered underneath the blanket. It felt as if the heat wasn’t working. I wondered if I was experiencing extreme muscle spasms and this would all be over soon.

The ER was abuzz. Two nurses came in followed by a doctor. Tests followed. Blood test. Enzyme test. EKG. A few minutes later, the doctor told me with very broken English that my EKG didn’t look good. I asked what that meant. He said it again: Your EKG doesn’t look good. Then he walked out. I looked at the nurse and asked what that meant. She was apologetic for the language barrier but said my EKG had some abnormalities and they were going to perform more tests. The doctor reentered, gave me three nitroglycerin pills, and told me that I would be admitted and scheduled for a heart catheterization at 10 AM the following morning. I was in disbelief. I really thought they would be releasing me at any moment.

My friend, Pastor Mike Roper, met me at the hospital and called my wife to let her know what was happening. Pastor Steve Wood and his family also stopped in to pray with me. Once everyone left, I was alone with my thoughts when my cell phone beeped to inform me of a text. It was the dog trainer we had hired to train our 10-month-old Labrador. He texted to say he had lost our Lulu two days earlier. I couldn’t even begin to process this news, so I texted him back asking him to please contact my wife. Was I living out a really bad country song? Typically, news like this would cause me to leap into action but there was nothing I could do except let it go.

In walked another doctor. I assumed he was stopping by to talk about tomorrow’s procedure. However, he said an enzyme test had just shown that my troponin levels were elevated. Troponin? I had never heard the word troponin in my life. But this was all the news they needed to reschedule my procedure. He said my catheterization would take place within the next 45 minutes. And, just like that, he left the room. A long thin tube would be inserted into a blood vessel in my groin and threaded up into my heart for diagnosis and treatment. I texted my wife and asked her to pray. When you’re face to face with sudden uncertainty, it’s a feeling like none other. Talk about overwhelming! There was nothing to do except pray and trust. The outcome was in God’s hands.

It’s very disconcerting to be on a stretcher that’s being pushed down a hall toward a place you’ve never been. When we finally stopped, I lifted my head to see the entrance of the Cath Lab. My pulse raced. The door opened and I saw six or seven people readying the room for my procedure. Dr. Gregory Robertson walked up to the bed, shook my hand and informed me that I had suffered a heart attack. I was stunned! He assured me that I was in the right place and that he and his team would take great care of me. With that, they whisked me onto the table. I felt a pinch on my leg and was soon in another world. I caught a brief glimpse of the heart monitor and that’s all I remember.

*  *  *

The next thing I knew, I woke up in ICU. I was surprised and relieved to see my aunt and uncle there. Fortunately they lived close. My uncle made sure I stayed hydrated and my aunt kept assuring me that everything was going to be okay. The craziest thing about that day–in addition to having a heart attack–is looking back to see how a few hours can change everything. What I could do for myself earlier that morning I now depended on others to do for me.

I was in disbelief. I was exhausted. I was extremely anxious.

My wife and kids were back in Nashville under tornado warnings. They would arrive the next morning. I couldn’t wait to see them; but for now, I was hungry and thirsty. Gladys, my nurse, brought me a turkey sandwich and for it was surprisingly tasty for hospital food. After I ate, she suggested I get some rest. I gladly closed my eyes. My aunt stayed the night sitting upright in a chair. I’m sure she didn’t rest very well, but having her there helped me get through the night.

I dozed off several times but the slightest movement caused my heart to race. Late that evening, the heart monitor started beeping and a flashing red light appeared. My heart rate went from 66 to 158 BPM in a matter of seconds. I was a basket case and stayed awake for most of the night staring at the monitor. My fears were on high alert. Would this happen again? My eyes were heavy, but I resisted as long as I could. Someone poking my arm for more blood interrupted any sleep I found.

The next morning, Dr. Robertson informed me that he had put three stents in my left anterior descending (LAD) artery that was 95% blocked. That artery is famously known as the “widow maker.” He was very encouraging and emphasized that he expected me to make a full recovery. I wondered if he said that to every patient.

A few hours later, in walked my wife and daughter. They were a welcome sight. Kim was making small talk to hide her concern and Sophie was quiet, just taking in everything. There was something about all their hugs that felt very different. When you’re wondering if you’ll ever see someone again, it’s all the more sweet when you do.  I was so appreciative of the friends and family who came and went and every prayer offered on my behalf. The last time I spent the night in a hospital was when our daughter was born. That was 17 years ago. Here we were again. This time was much different.

The hours went by slowly. Kim and Sophia helped pass the time talking about how we would get our dog back and I listened as Kim went over the menu for Thanksgiving dinner. I felt too weak to be part of the conversation so I rested. The following day, I was moved out of ICU and was encouraged to start walking the hall. What you don’t use you’ll lose, they kept saying. It was slow going but good to be on my feet again. Kim and Sophia were ready to get back home, but I was not sure if I wanted to leave just yet. I didn’t want to seem too worried, but inside I was a mess. Dr. Robertson, my cardiologist, stopped in to check on me. I hugged his neck and thanked him for what he did for me. He spoke with Kim about living with a heart patient. Saltshakers were to become a thing of the past along with anything from a box or fried. This was new for us since heart disease didn’t exist in our immediate family. Someone popped in to say I would be released soon. But “soon” turned into hours. Late that afternoon, it finally became reality. Leaving was a bit emotional. As we drove off, I was leaving people who literally had my heart in their hands. Together they had given me the opportunity for a longer and healthier life.

We drove four hours home. Quiet. Exhausted.

There were so many thoughts going through my head. Would the stents hold? What was that pain in my shoulder? My chest? Kim was exhausted as well.  Once family welcomed us home I wanted nothing more than my bed. I lay there, missing the connection of my heart monitor. I reached out, put my hand on Kim’s back and slipped into a deep rest.  I was wide-awake at 4:30 AM. My first thought was Thank you, Lord. I found a hot cup of coffee and my Bible and headed to our study. I read Psalm 34. Then I read Psalm 34 again. And again. Especially verses 17-18 and 22:

The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them;
he delivers them from all their troubles.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit. . .
The Lord will rescue his servants;
no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.

My heart had literally been broken. Not just figuratively, but actually. The Lord had orchestrated the events of the past few days to save me. He heard my cries and rescued me from death. Now I needed him to deliver me from the crush of anxiety I was experiencing about the future. What about my health? Our family? Our finances? Our missing dog

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