It’s hard to believe that 3 years have gone by already, but on this date in 2011 I almost died.
No really, I’m not being overly dramatic. I’ll spare you the gory details mostly because I don’t like reliving them, but for whatever reason what was supposed to be a routine heart valve replacement went terribly wrong and I almost didn’t make it off the table alive.
As someone who has been involved in sports and was extremely active his entire life, never would I have suspected that I was born with a heart problem.
When I hit my mid-forties though, I noticed more and more that I was out of breath during moderate exercise. A walk up a hill or a few flights of stairs had me huffing and puffing. I’ve played tennis at a competitive level since my teens and suddenly it seemed to take forever to catch my breath between points.
I should have seen the signs sooner, but until a heart murmur was detected during a routine physical, I had passed it off as part of the effects of putting on a few pounds, lack of exercise, or just the normal slowing down that comes with age.
The heart murmur led to a series of tests that found the problem. A birth defect called Bicuspid Aortic Valve. With this condition the heart pumps just fine, but the valve begins to wear and gradually leaks more and more. By midlife it gets bad enough that the body just doesn’t get enough oxygenated blood to function normally; hence that constant feeling of breathlessness.
On Thursday September 15th, 2011 I checked into the cardiac surgery ward feeling nervous of course, but also optimistic. The next morning I would have my new aortic valve installed. This would reverse the effects I’d been experiencing and would allow me to go back to the more active lifestyle I was used to.
My wife and I had been reassured; the success rate for this surgery was around 94%, and considering my relatively young age, a speedy recovery was expected. I was told I might be back at work within 6 weeks.
I only wish.
Well, my surgery didn’t go as expected and unfortunately I was part of the 6% who experience complications. In my case: serious complications.
Again I’ll spare the graphic details but in a nutshell, they ended up having to keep my heart under clamps for 50% longer than normal. The end result was that when they were ready to take me off the bypass machine and restart my heart – it wouldn’t.
After multiple attempts, the surgeons finally got my oxygen-starved and now permanently damaged heart started, but it was so weak that it could no longer do its job well enough to keep me alive.
Ironically though, the new valve was functioning just fine.
Over the next ten days they scrambled to keep me alive by connecting me to a variety of external auxiliary pumps, and experimenting until they found the right mix of drugs to help my heart come back strong enough to do the job on its own.
Those days were pretty much touch and go but eventually I was stable enough to be brought back to consciousness.
I awoke having no idea what had happened but I do remember not liking what I was seeing and hearing; my wife and family standing over me, trying to be brave while obviously holding back tears.
When I was lucid enough, someone came to give me the bad news. The diagnosis was Severe Congestive Heart Failure. The left side of my heart was seriously damaged and this damage was permanent.
As I lay there too weak to move, there was a very nice Doctor telling me to relax, stay calm and try and not to worry. He told me that I was in the right place and that if I needed an artificial heart or a transplant, “Don’t you worry young man, we’ll find you one.”
Not exactly the way I expected to wake up post-surgery. At that point it was a good thing that I was still intubated, because all I wanted to do was scream, WTF!
Over the seven plus weeks I spent in the hospital there were many difficult moments. Because my heart was still so weak, a pacemaker/defibrillator had to be installed. Then an infection set in and required IV antibiotics. And there’s medication that I will have to take for the rest of my life.
There were also a lot of tough emotional moments. I kept asking questions looking for something hopeful to cling to, but so much was up in the air that no one was making any promises about my prognosis.
All they knew for sure was how badly my heart had been damaged. They were throwing around Ejection Fraction numbers in the 12-16% range. FYI: Heart failure is when you get below 30%, a normal healthy person’s is between 60-65%.
But let’s face it, when your blood pressure is high 60’s over mid 40’s, and your heart rate is 115 while laying totally motionless, there really isn’t anything positive they can say. All they could do was keep me alive and wait to see how my body recovered.
Honey and I got through it by taking it one day at a time. We reminded ourselves every day that at least I was alive and that many others had it much worse than I did.
After it became clear that I would survive I have to admit that coming to terms with my new reality and all that I had apparently lost, wasn’t easy. “Playing tennis again one day?” One of the interns answered my question, “Hmm not likely sir.”
She smiled and tried to be a little encouraging, “You could try table tennis…maybe.”
That one took me a while to digest.
Despite all that, for me this anniversary is not about what I lost that day. Instead I choose to look at where I am now versus what I was told to expect then, and see it as a celebration of how much I have gained back. Because I really have come very far since that day three years ago.
I remember sitting up in bed for the first time a few weeks after the surgery; that alone took twenty minutes and left me exhausted. Thankfully the human body adapts. It heals, rebuilds, and gets stronger.
It took a while but eventually I could get out of bed and stand on my own. A few days later and I took a few steps, and a few days after that I walked out of my room and down the hallway for the first time. Yes, Honey and I both cried after that one.
Finally, seven weeks after going in, when I was strong enough climb a few stairs without dizziness they allowed me to go home. That was one of the happiest days of my life.
What unfolded over the weeks and months that followed was nothing short of amazing. I did my home therapy exercises an hour a day every day, and we marvelled as my strength and endurance gradually came back. So much that my cardiologist calls me one of his top five miracle cases.
With a damaged heart, a metal box in my chest, and an ejection fraction now in the 26-30% range, I’m doing almost as much today as I could before the surgery.
I am able to do most physical activities without problem. I can walk for miles, go on hikes, and even do long bicycle rides. We can even travel, though I do need rest days on vacation to avoid burning myself out. And despite being told that going back to work wasn’t likely, and that I should prepare for some kind of semi-retirement, I’ve been back at it fulltime for two years now.
Each barrier that came down was another milestone and luckily I have many wonderful people in my life to celebrate these moments with. Over the past three years I have been overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring of encouragement, support, friendship and love, from so many people that at times it humbles me to tears.
And this brings me to my most important point about this anniversary. It isn’t just about what I lost or even what I’ve gained back; it’s about realizing how blessed I was to begin with.
I call this realization my rebirth. I guess you could say the day I amost died is also the day I started over; with a new outlook and greater appreciation for everything I have in my life. The new me; which is why I chose Norm 2.0 as my online moniker when I started on social media during my convalescence.
And if you’re wondering about my tennis, have a look at this:
I won’t be qualifying for Wimbledon any time soon but it’s enough to play recreational doubles once a week, which suits me just fine.
And I do plan on going back to see that intern just to let her know that for now anyway, table tennis will have to wait!
PS: I realize that this was a very long post, if you made it this far I thank you very much for reading. Tomorrow I’ll go back to pretty pictures and lighter material.