“Don’t ever say that life can’t get any worse.”
— Elmore Costa, my late father-in-law
Last March, I wrote a column in Valley Voices about breaking my shoulder, “The tale of wet cement, a fall and a comeback.” I explained that my visit to Saint Agnes Medical Center emergency and subsequent shoulder surgery at Clovis Community Hospital were my first trips to a hospital, other than as a visitor, since I was 7 years old and had my tonsils removed.
I also wrote that, following 13 weeks of physical therapy, my health problems were behind me, and I was ready to get on with my life. It turns out that my optimism was misguided. Since then, I’ve learned how fragile life is, how often we take our good health for granted, and how foolish many of us are not to take better care of ourselves before adverse happenings change our lives forever.
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On a Thursday in mid-April, I was informed, following an angiogram, that I was experiencing 85% blockage in my heart at the point where two vital arteries intersect. My cardiologist said a heart attack would be fatal, so it was determined that I would undergo open heart surgery the following Monday morning, the day after Easter. My two sons arrived from out of state on Saturday.
That weekend, while pondering the shocking news that my life was on the line, I realized how foolish I had been not to have seen this coming. After all, both of my parents and three out of four grandparents had died of heart disease. Moreover, my brother, Don, had been diagnosed with heart-valve problems, and subsequently discharged from the U.S. Air Force, when he was only 23 years old. Fortunately, he is still alive.
The four-hour, double-bypass operation on Monday was considered a success. I received excellent care at Saint Agnes, and upon being discharged five days later, I was, once again, ready to get on with my life, an attitude that turned out to be premature.
Much to my despair, my shoulder had been accidentally re-injured during heart surgery. I lost 50% of the range I had just spent 13 weeks working hard to get back to normal. So, over the next couple of months, I spent two days a week in physical therapy for my shoulder, and three days a week in cardiac rehab at Saint Agnes, both programs well worth the effort.
Four months after the surgery, however, my wife, Lonna, became concerned that I had not regained my energy, and that I still didn’t look good. Her suspicions were confirmed when I had a stress test in August, followed by a second angiogram. It turned out that my heart was now weaker than before the April surgery, and that I had suffered a heart attack, either during or immediately following the surgery, an event that occurs about 5-10% of the time. During the angiogram procedure, three stents were inserted in the back of my heart, but the front was too tender and inflamed from the heart attack to touch.
During the following months, I again reflected on how my imprudence over the years had contributed to my current problems.
Not being a smoker or overweight was not enough. I’ve always been a “steak and potatoes guy,” one who enjoys prime rib or Spencer steaks while dining out, and who spent summers barbecuing steaks, sausage, ground round and wieners — just about the worst food imaginable for one who is already genetically at high risk for heart disease.
In addition, I never jogged or joined a gym, although I did play tennis in my younger years. Walking my dog in the morning was the only real exercise I got, and it wasn’t much considering how often Pepper likes to stop and visit every shrub and tree.
In mid- December, my third angiogram of the year indicated that there was considerable narrowing inside the three stents implanted in September. I needed open-heart surgery again, as soon as possible. I was referred to a surgeon in Northern California who specializes in tough cases, and on Dec.18, underwent my second double bypass in eight months.
This time my recovery has been excellent, thanks to an outstanding heart surgeon and a loving, supportive wife who is the best caregiver I have ever seen. I am also grateful for the prayers and concern of so many wonderful friends.
Finally, my lifestyle is now consistent with the reality of my health situation, and I’m feeling better than I have for years. Even during the worst days of the past year, however, I never forgot how fortunate I am compared to so many others who are experiencing medical problems far more severe than mine.
Lonna’s father was right. Life can always be worse.