Our medical journey began with Terry’s damaging heart attack almost fourteen years ago. He seemed otherwise healthy and was active, and we didn’t see it coming. He had open heart surgery four years after the heart attack when a staph infection invaded his heart chambers. Both of those were difficult medical events for him to overcome, but he did overcome to the best of his ability. He then started having other medical issues that put the heart problems on the back burner. The funny thing about your heart is it doesn’t like being ignored…you will be reminded that there is a problem, and it will get your immediate attention.
I’ve heard some of the scariest words doctors have to utter to the loved ones of their patients. “He’s had a massive heart attack and we won’t know the extent of damage for some time.” “He needs open heart surgery.” “He has thyroid cancer.” “He has a potentially fatal condition known as a pheochromocytoma.” “He has stage 4 bladder cancer.” “The damage to his heart after all the defibrillation shocks was extensive.” These are words you do not ever want to hear, because they are all life threatening events. I know most people out there are especially scared of a cancer diagnosis. But a heart condition demands your attention in literally the beat of a heart. One moment you are fine, and a moment later your life is at risk.
I’m not saying heart problems are worse than cancer or other debilitating diseases, but it is an event, like an accident, that is totally unexpected and out of the blue. It forces you to accept that all of those things you thought were important don’t really matter when a loved one is fighting for his or her life. It requires you to acknowledge that the plans you have are of no consequence if your loved one isn’t there by your side.
About ten weeks after Terry’s heart attack, his sister’s husband had a massive heart attack that he did not survive. I asked her last week at the hospital if it was worse to watch a loved one battle so hard to live or be blindsided by the bad news that the battle was lost before there was a chance to fight back. She responded that while what she went through was difficult, it seemed I was continually tortured. And she was right. Every time Terry goes through a major medical event, it takes a tremendous toll on me physically and emotionally. This last event was so horrific, because I could see the apprehension on his face and the tension in his body as his heart rate accelerated to the point the heart was shocked by his defibrillator in attempts to regulate the beat, and he knew it was coming. He experienced a total of 21 shocks in less than four hours. Horrific is the only way to describe it. I couldn’t leave the ER room while he went through that to make it easier on me. He needed me in there, and I needed to be with him to coax him through it and encourage him to breathe and try to calm his heart all he could. It scared both of us to realize that was necessary to keep him alive. Without the device working to regulate the irregular beat, he would be gone now. And we both know that if he endures another such event he will have to experience it all over again. Neither of us want any part of that.
So on this day before Thanksgiving, Terry has again defied the odds against him, and will be here with us when we sit down as a family to share a meal and a sense of gratitude for all we’ve been fortunate to receive. There is nothing more we could have asked for than to have him at the table one more time…we are blessed to have been given just that.