The Day I Almost Died – Happy ReBirthday to Me!

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. 

Cheers 🙂

About Norm 3.0

World’s youngest grumpy old man & heart failure wonder boy. Interests: writing, woodworking, photography, travel, tennis, wine, and I know a bit about power tools.
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32 Responses to The Day I Almost Died – Happy ReBirthday to Me!

  1. Linda Schaub says:

    What an ordeal Norm. I hear of college or high school athletes all the time who never knew they had a heart problem until they went for a physical before beginning a sport, likely football or basketball, and a heart irregularity was detected and thus they are ineligible to play. As I read how you rallied back, I kept thinking you needed to go back and tell that young intern of your accomplishments – then you said as much. You sure did not look like a slouch on the tennis court – no table tennis for you, Norm 2.0. I wondered about the origin of your blog title – now I know. I started walking because once I began working at home, my life was too sedentary and heart disease runs in my family. My maternal grandmother and all her siblings (9 kids in the family), raised on a farm, seemingly hearty stock, but all had heart disease and my mother had an arrhythmia. I’d hear the night stand drawer open in the middle of the night and the night light go on while she found the Nitro. It would scare me seeing that light go on. I decided that was a good reason to begin walking. I had a monitor and treadmill test done at age 40 but not been tested again and I will turn 64 next week.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. dennyho says:

    Oh Norm, I am just now learning of your cardiac journey! I had no idea such an important anniversary just passed. Congratulations on your healthy and poetic outcome and where you stand today is a most blessed place, as you admitted at the time in this post. You’re right, we never know what lurks just under the surface. We need our role models, like you, for encouragement when the ball is in our court! Continued good health to you, my friend…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jan says:

    Wow – I’d say you are a wonder boy!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ooooh, yes, this is grand form you are showing and first-class resilience. Now I understand the 2.0 part of your name. 🙂 Wishing you all the best.


  5. Wow this is amazing Norm, what a story! We can feel your appreciation for life and the people that surrounds you while reading this post. I don’t know what else to say, except that it is sad that we humans, must sometime come close to losing something, someone or life itself to really start appreciating the greatness of it all. Next time I feel sorry for myself, I will try to think of you and your story.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Amazing what a positive attitude can do. 🙂 Here’s to many more anniversaries.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. joannesisco says:

    Awesome story! So happy to read the ending and the return to tennis 🙂
    Norm 2.0 indeed 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Cindi says:

    I’m so glad you linked to this from your post today; it’s too easy to miss posts buried in favorite blogger’s archives, and this one needs to be read to really understand the foundation of you and your blog!

    I’m 56 years old. I had surgery five years ago to fix hip issues that I’ve had since birth. Expecting a happy outcome as you did, I also had a less-than-satisfactory result. I have a fourth (and hopefully last) surgery coming up, I’ll always have mostly manageable discomfort and pain, and I’ll walk with crutches for the rest of my life.

    It’s not at all what you went through with your heart, but it’s enough for me to have a better understanding of not taking for granted every day that we’re given, and to let each day truly be “the first day of the rest of your life” — those aspects that you let shine in your photos and words, and which give me reason to follow and enjoy your blog.

    Here’s to a great 2015!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      Sorry to hear about your issues 😦
      Any condition that is chronic takes time to accept and then learn to adapt to.
      You’re right about one thing though, it sure gives us a beter appreciation of life and it teaches us not to take things for granted.
      Yes, all the best for a great 2015!


  9. Serins says:

    wow! well thank you for sharing that… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Wow Norm, our body is really powerful and full of surprises. I’m glad you are doing fine! Hugs to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Happy Re-Birthday. Glad you are still here to write your wonderful blog. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You must be a superhero 🙂


  12. Jean says:

    I love the story. I assumed Norm 2.0 meant you had some type of second-life experience, but nothing prepared me for that story! Amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Anita says:

    Gosh, what an experience! Life-changing, indeed. Congratulations on a successful recovery!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. NancyTex says:

    Well Happy 3rd re-Birth Day to you, Norm! Love the 2.0 distinction, and it now makes perfect sense!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. hollie says:

    Great post, Norm! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. If you hadn’t had bad luck there you wouldn’t have had any luck at all. But regardless, you overcame – WOW. So glad you are continuing to get stronger every day and happy anniversary. The post may have been long, but it was definitely worth reading – inspirational in fact. Thanks you for sharing such a powerful time in your life.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. 1jaded1 says:

    Awesome that you survived this and happy birthday, to an extent. I’m laughing a bit…my mom had the same operation. She remembers The Simpsons being on…we.were all gathered around her, with various expressions, and she remembers thinking, “turn that forsaken program off..”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Norm 2.0 says:

      Thanks so much. Since that time in the hospital my favorite saying is. Any day I can be vertical is a good day. So far, today is a good day.
      I hope your mom was in the 94% – Cheers 🙂


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