Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Heart Attack Six Months Later: The Unexpected Turns Continue

I'm not sure why I am surprised that this post-heart attack road is taking some unexpected turns.

My counselor reminded me that the stages of grief are relevant. I had not thought of it that way, perhaps because this experience feels so different from when my dad died. Several days after talking with my counselor, I was on a panel for a local organization called Michael's Place to discuss finding hope after loss. While going through the things that helped me then, I realized that I was taking the same steps since my heart attack. Hmmm.

One of the key things I did then was to write as a way in which to process everything bouncing around inside; I wrote, then rewrote, searching over and over for a way to say it that was ever more honest. I didn't realize it in the moment, but in hindsight there was something about bringing my grief into the light that robbed it of its power. There's a good process that begins simply by identifying and acknowledging all the things that brew inside. I made my writing public after several years, hoping that a public discussion could build an open community of broken and mending people who could be honest about life.

This post is in that tradition. There are differences, of course, because the situation is different. I'm not looking to rob grief of its power this time. I'm looking for clarity and direction to emerge from the mists of the emotional and mental fog that has lingered. Some of you have already responded to what I've written with stories of your one recovery from heart issues. Perhaps this post can help us to continue to do life together with a little more comfort and hope than before.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Heart Attack: Five Months After

It’s been five months since my heart attack. My doctor has told me that my heart is completely healed; medically speaking, I am cleared to do whatever I want (including Crossfit again if I so choose). A lot that could have gone wrong didn’t. For that, I am profoundly grateful.

But in addition to the medical perspective on the status of my heart, there are other dynamics at work. I am learning that this kind of injury is a much more existential one. I’ve had two knee surgeries, foot surgery, and a major shoulder repair; I thought I knew what the path to recovery looked like: I take time off; I get out of shape; I ease back into life. All these are true once again, but now there is an internal complexity that is remarkably different from my other experiences.

Some of it’s good. Some of it’s not. I have some trepidation about sharing this, but I figure - it's life. I wasn't the first and I won't be the last to experience the aftermath of a heart attack. Consider this my frank contribution to life together in hopes that we all can better walk through this beautiful and broken world. Anything helpful you wish to contribute in the comments section will add that much more.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Regaining My Footing: The Lord's Prayer

After my dad died, I really struggled with the concept of prayer. Lots of people had prayed – and felt really confident that God’s plan was healing – and yet he died. I spent years reading about prayer, talking with others, and regaining my footing in this area. The Lord’s Prayer was huge to me during this time. I didn’t know what I was supposed to pray or how prayer worked, but I knew Jesus said, “Pray like this.” So I did.

Jesus offered this prayer to his disciples as sort of a model. There’s nothing magical in the recitation of it, but in it we see foundational principles in how to pray, and why. Some have claimed we see the whole of the gospel message revealed in this prayer. Perhaps that is so. At the very least, this prayer offers some answers to the questions I raised earlier.

Our Father, Who Is In Heaven…[1]

“Our Father” starts us off with good theology. God is not a deistic God, aloof and uncaring. God is not a pantheistic God that is just part of nature. God is not the Force. God is person[2] who is relational, immediate, accessible God.[3]

“Our Father” reminds us that he’s our father. Not mine; ours. We cannot forget when we pray this that we are raised from death into new life in a family, a Christian community. In this, we are recognizing that while God is for us, He is for all of us. I cannot be content to simply think of God in terms of “me and God.” It must be “us and God.”

“Our Father” reminds us of our status as Christians. We are meant to  approach God as a child approaches his father. “Abba” is often described as ‘daddy,’ but it’s more than that. It’s conveys the idea of a nickname, the word that children say before they can fully pronounce the word.[4] It’s the best, unquenchable expression of a deep, gut-level, unrestrained cry of joy when daddy walks into the room; it’s the instinctive wail of his title when a child in pain believes only daddy will make it better. It’s a word that is used only in a relationship of safety, trust, and love.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Reflections After An Unexpected Heart Attack


I’ve had chest pain before. Three years ago, I visited the ER and underwent extensive testing that showed a strong heart. They gave me Xanax and Prilosec to see if one of those who help, and the Xanax worked. Chalked it up to stress. Since then, whenever I have had discomfort in my chest, Xanax and just a change of position cleared it up pretty quickly.

This time, the pain started the same way but quickly became something else. It was center mass; hard, demanding, unrelenting. I didn't feel like a vice was squeezing my chest or that an elephant was standing on me. It didn’t radiate. I just hurt, sweated profusely and turned very pale. Xanax and Tums did nothing. No position was comfortable. It took probably 30 minutes for my wife and I to decide it was time to take me in just to be sure. (No need to tell me we should have called an ambulance. We heard that one or thirty times while at the hospital).

Going in was a more confusing decision than it may seem. I am 47, and I am low on all the risk factors. (When I told my doc I didn’t have a family history, he said, “Now you do.” Clever guy.) Why would I be having a heart attack?  Six days prior, my son and I had done Crossfit’s 16.5, which was for me a 17 minute grinder of thrusters and burpees. Two days prior, I had tacked an extra session of clean and jerks onto a heavy kettlebell WOD. Thursday, the day of the attack, I had done heavy deadlifts and squats at the YMCA. I had some minor chest pain, but it went away when I sat down. It should have happened at any of those times, right? But it happened when I was playing Carcaconne with my family.  The whole drive to the hospital I fluctuated between, “No way!” and, “I wish Sheila would just blow that red light because this really hurts and might be serious.”

I found out after the surgery I had 100% blockage in left anterior descending (LAD) artery that runs down the front of the heart and supplies the front and main wall (that's a before and after picture to the right). That kind of heart attack is commonly called a Widowmaker, a little nugget of info I’m glad Sheila and I didn’t know that at the time. The doc told us later, “A lot of people don’t survive this one.” 

Why did it happen? Plaque dislodged and moved; that is the only thing that is clear. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly. Could I have done something to prevent it? Sure, in a general sense. I could have spent my whole life being healthier – but we could all do that, right? Nothing stood out. To quote my quotable doc again, sometimes it just happens. Occasionally the marathon runner keels over while the 85-year-old obese lifetime smoker does not. There are general principles that tend to ensure certain results - and then there are particular people who get different ones. I appear to be particular.

A lot of things worked in my favor. I was home and only ten minutes from the hospital, not flying to or boating in the Keys like my wife and I had been doing three weeks ago. My wife was present to observe what was happening and help me decide what to do. I got to the hospital relatively fast, probably within about forty-five minutes after the pain started. (Fun fact: the nurse asked Sheila if she wanted clergy present, and Sheila said, “He’s here already.”) From the time I got to ER until I had a stent was an hour and fifteen minutes. Because I got in so fast, blood flow started quickly enough that long-term damage to the heart muscle will likely be minimal. 

So now it’s a handful of pills every day, a very slow reentry into the ebb and flow of life, a suddenly serious study of how to fill my body with things that promote heart and artery health, and a lot of prayers of gratitude that God has allowed me more time with my wife, my boys, and my friends.  

Which brings me to the theological part of this experience.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Liturgy of Lament

 Reader: As the soldiers led Jesus away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned for him. Jesus turned and said to them, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.’”  (Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:13-28)

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining...  Then Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.”  (Matthew 27:45-50; Luke 23:44-47)

Pastor: Jesus entered a world that was broken, suffering, and full of grief. He grieved the loss of his friends; he wept for his people. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  He entered into a lonesome, weary world in desperate need of the light of hope and peace, the promise of God's everlasting presence and love.

Congregation:  Just as Jesus wept, we, too, weep for the death of loved ones, the loss of opportunities, the fading of hopes and dreams.

Pastor: God, you have given us reason to celebrate, but we often find the days cold and our hearts hard.  As we await our resurrection, it’s sometimes hard for us to lift up our hearts. You understand the grief of the world; meet us in our aching hearts we pray. Hold as we walk through darkness.

Congregation: Help us. Embrace us. Heal us.

Reader:  “He was despised and forsaken by men, this man of suffering, grief’s patient friend.
As if he was a person to avoid, we looked the other way; he was despised, forsaken, and we took no notice of him. Yet it was our suffering he carried, our pain and distress, our sickness-to-the-soul.
 We thought that God had rejected him, but he was hurt because of us; he suffered for us. Our wrongdoing wounded and crushed him. He endured the breaking that made us whole. His injuries became our healing. We all have wandered off, like shepherdless sheep, scattered by our aimless pursuits; The Eternal One laid on him, this silent sufferer, the sins of us all." (Isaiah 53:3-6)

Pastor: Jesus knows the feelings of abandonment, anger, and loneliness we sometimes feel. Jesus knows the depths of our broken hearts, and He alone has the power to bring beauty from the ashes in our lives. We long for the day when His work will be completed in us and in a world that groans as it awaits redemption.  

Congregation: Meanwhile, we weep with those who weep, and we mourn with those who mourn.