On October 28, 2015 a miracle that has come to impact many others began with my husband. Chris died that day. He remembers where he went. He remembers coming back. Nothing has been the same since.
Here is what I wrote a month or so after it happened …
It was a Wednesday – garbage day. Like every other Wednesday, Chris was taking out the garbage. But on this particular Wednesday, when he leaned over to pick up something that rolled under the truck, he felt something pull/tear in his chest and then had an immediate migraine. He saw lights.
My 44-year-old husband is an extremely healthy guy. He’s handsome. He’s fit. He is an at-home-dad and chases our 3 kids under the age of 5 around all day. We grow and cook most of our food. He is a martial artist. We go to acupuncturists and chiropractors. We take supplements. We meditate. We think we are really healthy people.
Although there are symptoms we can look at in hindsight, we had no reason to suspect the 7+ cm aneurysm off his aortic root. We had no idea he had apparently been in heart failure for years.
So, at about 9:30am on 10/28/15, Chris unknowingly had a Type A Aortic Dissection and went to lay down with what he thinks is a terrible migraine. Nearly 7 hours later, he sent me this horrible text:
“Please come Home. Feeling light headed and short of. Breath., hear a weird ripping sound when I breath.”
This was at 4:39 pm. I decided to take him to Dublin Methodist via the back roads to avoid rush hour highway traffic for his ‘headache.’ On the way, he started to crash. He was clearly going into respiratory failure, or congestive heart failure. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t hold himself upright in his seat. He was turning a light bluish green color. He was staring at the GPS counting the minutes and saying “4 more minutes, I can make that. Just 4 more minutes.” When we finally got there, I flew past the entrance and he calmly reminded me, “you just passed it, agape.”
Immediately when we got to the ER I poured him into a wheel chair. Two nurses came out to help us. I would later learn this was Keri and Jeremy. I will never forget the look in Jeremy’s eyes when he took Chris’s blood pressure and looked up at me. We both knew something was very, very wrong. From there, everything went very quickly. We are so blessed that everyone seemed to know exactly what this could be. A CT room that started with just a few turned into a room of many and I could feel the dire nature of what was going on. Everyone kept using that word all night, “dire.” Dr. Jason Schneltzer held such a perfect calm space with us while Chris continued to fall deeper into respiratory failure and they had to intubate him. A nurse with a lovely brown curl of hair falling over her shoulder told me that I had to ride in the front of the ambulance, “there is a chance your husband may not survive transport” I was told.
Arriving at Riverside I was immediately met off the ambulance by Elaine Hoover, the nurse practitioner for the surgeon, Dr. Jonathan Enlow, that would be saving my husband’s life. Then in came chaplain Herb. I unfortunately remember introducing myself to him with the words, “you are a f*#cking chaplain?!” They explained to me his 7 cm aneurysm off his aortic root. They explained his type A Aortic Dissection. They explained the situation as ‘dire’ and ‘50/50.’ Shortly after surgery began, Elaine came back and informed me that Dr. Enlow, wanted me to know that we were ‘starting from a very low place.’ Our 50/50 had just gotten worse.
It was a full moon that night. I just watched it cross the sky and prayed in ways I had never known to before.
Our 6-month old was brought to the hospital so I could nurse him. My mother in law arrives. Family and friends start arriving. All of it so surreal. There is chaplain Herb, always nearby. Somebody told me to “see him as well.” So I posted a bunch of pictures of him healthy and well on Facebook for everyone to see without any shadowing of the situation at hand. People are telling one-up stint and heart attack stories in the waiting area. Nobody seems to understand the severity of what is going on.
In the early hours of the morning, in a small nice consultation room Chris’s mom, dad and I are informed by Dr. Enlow that Chris survived surgery! He had his aortic valve, ascending aorta and aortic arch replaced. I remember the wash of relief I felt when I knew he’d lived! I will never forget Dr. Enlow in his cowboy boots leaning in toward me with this cautious look and a slight ‘no’ nod to his head – Chris had to wake up first. We should expect compromise from stroke or paralysis.
Just after the sunrise on October 29th, 2015 – Chris woke up. The way I heard the story was that his nurse, Trudy, was disheartened because Chris’s mother and I had been in and he was unresponsive to us. She put medicine in his nose that usually irritates people and he was unresponsive. She washed her hands and then turned back around toward him and he flashed his eyes open. She asked him if he was okay and he gave her a thumbs up. She asked him if he could move his feet and he did. He remembers her putting her hand on his shoulder in the most gentle, loving, nurturing way and saying, “You are going to be fine. Just rest.”
(These nurses are cut from the most amazing, angelic cloth. Trudy, then Grace, Heather, Kate, James and so many others … This is just what they do every day. They somehow hold space when fragile sutures, new body parts, medications and machines are the only tethers keeping somebody in this life. And, they held my family and I just as gracefully. I am always in tears when I think of the kind of work these people signed up for and show up to each day…)
Now I could let the relief wash over me. My 44 year-old husband, the father of my 3 children, was going to be okay. He chose to stay. He could give a thumbs up and wiggle his toes. And so the miracle of him and the life with this new man we’ve been given began. I asked my mom to print and frame this picture of us that we’d taken just a week earlier on our son’s 5th birthday for him to have in his room.
People started asking me what the ‘take home’ was from Chris’ story. What could we have done differently, if anything? What did we not do? If there is an answer, there is just one and it might seem ridiculous: we did not get regular physicals. In hindsight, his doctors think he was in heart failure since probably 2010. We really thought we were pretty healthy people living a holistic lifestyle. Our kids have a wonderful pediatrician but Chris and I just call a friend if we need a prescription or something. If anyone had listened to my husband’s chest they would have heard the insufficiency in his valves. I have stethoscopes in my office – what was wrong with us that we hadn’t had anyone listen to his heart in over a decade?
He didn’t have to be an emergency miracle. He didn’t have to die (or come back). A huge irony in all of this is that I work with connective tissue diseases and their fallout daily. I am regularly referring people for evaluation for Ehlers Danlos or other connective tissue disorders and making sure that those I work with who are diagnosed have had proper cardiovascular surveillance. It never once crossed my mind that my Chris was sick, much less so seriously, much less with an unknown connective tissue disorder. It never once crossed my mind that my kids would need cardiovascular surveillance the rest of their lives.
The only thing we cold have done better or different would have been to know what we were dealing with. A simple preventative health screen would have made all the difference for us.
In those first months, all I wanted was to celebrate my husband and raise awareness. I wanted to thank all of the medical staff that took inspired and expert care to save his life and love us like family. I wanted to give back to our community of family, friends and colleagues that supported us in so many gracious and thoughtful ways. I wanted to bring together other families that had been impacted by vascular diseases and individuals that have come back to share their near death experiences. On Saturday, January 23rd, 2016 (1/23 if you know me well enough to understand the significance) we held a celebration benefit that was the catharsis of these wants.
At that time, I was the director of a community center where we launched our ‘Integrative Health Screening Initiative’ and the beginning of many Integrative Health Screening Days to come. There are a lot of people like us that take good care of themselves but, for whatever reason, opt out of basic health screens. To date, this initiative has provided over 120 free comprehensive physicals and nearly 1000 individual free screens of various types. At least 5 people with serious risk factors have gotten the information they needed to prevent tragedy for themselves and follow up accordingly.
While at first I thought that these screenings would be the ‘impact’ of Chris’ story, I have seen instead that Chris is the impact of his own story. (And yes, I do see the lesson for me of thinking that I had to rally some big community effort to make sure what happened to us carried forward). If you have ever met Chris, you have been impacted. He is his own impact and he brings the most amazing things out of the people and situations around him.
Our daughter and I were talking before bedtime the other night and she asked me, “Why does baba talk to everyone? Everyone. He has these liiiiittle conversations with everyone he meets?!” And, it really is true. He makes friends with everyone, the butcher, the baker, the cashier, the crossing guard, the people walking their dogs, the bus drivers, the life guards, the garbage man, etc. This wasn’t how he used to be before he died and came back.
He sees the worthiness in these could-be mundane interactions. He sees value in little moments and small conversations. Things like taking out the garbage doesn’t seem the same. (When we moved to our new neighborhood, he helped the garbage man load up all of our boxes and things and he was shocked. The garbage man told Chris that in all his years in his job, nobody ever had tried to help him load the garbage truck. And … while all this was happening, I’m inside watching with the kids and our oldest says, ‘Oh, he’s just out there making friends with the garbage man.” That kind of sums it up.)
I was so ‘proud’ of him that summer when I realized that he wasn’t wearing a t-shirt to cover his scars at the pool with the kids. Apparently, people just walk up to him – at least one each day – and ask what on earth happened. “You look so young and healthy, what happened to you.” And then they share something profound or something they’ve never shared with anyone else with him. He brings something out of people and that is so amazing and so sincere.
We all have that in us, right? Why does it take a handsome man with horrible scars to bring kindness out of strangers and genuine interaction in our community?
I have had the blessing to walk on this journey with Chris for nearly twenty years now. He started as a busy, overworked, charismatic realtor. Then something fell out. We realize now that from 2010 until 2015 he was living in heart failure. His frequent ‘migraines’ were likely something more and they have scarred his precious brain taking away from him a lot of the executive kinds of functioning that were a foundation for his overworked, charismatic personality. Now things are different. Multiple anoxic injuries to his brain have taken away some things with organizing, planning, memory, etc. But in the aftermath, he has been opened up and sparked by a joy and a knowing. My Chris is a walking veil between this earthly existence and a tangible, true knowing that something profoundly peaceful and beautiful is part of who we are and awaits us when it is time.
This life is so special. It is so fragile. Even if the life isn’t lost forever, the experience of it can be forever changed in a moment.
He has what he calls his ‘evil meter’ where he can just know when people have bad intent or are acting of ill heart. His “heart blew up” (as he always phrases it) and now he has this discernment of the hearts of others that is amazing to witness.
Since most people do not survive what happened to him, there isn’t a lot of information to let us know what the future holds. But we have learned – that isn’t the point.
I love that Eleanor Roosevelt quote:
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, that is why we call it the present.”