People experience few opportunities in life to utilize their “platform” because of some fantastic or unusual experience they have had. I had a unique experience recently, and I don’t want to waste it. So, here goes…
A couple weeks back as I struggled around the track at Pleasant Hill High School I remember thinking to myself, “Was that six or seven-times Angela has lapped me? Wasn’t it just two months ago we ran the half-marathon side by side through Walt Disney World? What happened? It couldn’t be my mildly sore ribs could it? Hmmm, probably has something to do with being dead for a couple minutes last week...” My sore ribs were from someone doing CPR chest compressions on me.
I’ve decided that if I am going to have another heart attack caused by a blocked artery, I would prefer it be the artery on the right side of my heart and not the one on my left. Whereas the one March 13, 2018 was not pleasant, and resulted in two stents in my heart, a year of multiple medications, life changes, and inconveniences, the one on the left side of my heart last month hurt like “hell.”
When the cardiologist opened my totally blocked right artery with a stent last year, it immediately clogged back up with a blood clot. It required the doc to insert a second stent. He said he had never seen anything like that before (I have been getting that a lot from cardiologists) and suggested I consult with a hematologist to see what is wrong with my blood. Because of what he called “hyper-coagulation,” he decided not to address the 60 to 70% blockage in my left artery that I also had at the time.
A 70% blockage is where cardiologists draw the line for acting. Anything over 70% needs to be fixed. The doc thought it would be best to allow my heart to work on healing what he had already stented, rather than giving my heart more to stress out about if he were to have stented the other artery. He said people have went twenty years or more without having problems even with the level of blockage I had if they take care of themselves. That was not the case with me.
But, take care of myself I did. I lost 25 pounds, started distance running, and got my cholesterol below 100. Proverbs 16:1 says that “The preparations of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.” I did what I could to prepare my heart for no more trouble, but that was not the plan…
The evening of Saturday, June 8, 2019 I was enjoying my grandson, William’s, baseball game. Coincidently Will’s aunt Heidi and I were talking about our experiences, both being heart patients. Just a short time later I was in the middle of classic heart attack symptoms: persistent chest pain, sweating, clamminess, dizziness, a little confused. They tell me my skin was gray. I ended up going to the emergency room by ambulance where I spent the next six hours only to find out that I had not had another “heart attack.” It was likely angina, caused by the heart not being satisfied with the amount of blood it was getting. It was trying to let me know I had a problem that needed addressing. The plan was to follow up with my cardiologist in the next few days.
The next Thursday I went to see my cardiologist. After describing the symptoms I had been experiencing he said the only way to tell what is going on, is to “go inside and see.” He wanted to do so right away. I was scheduled for a cardiac catheterization procedure the next day. To my surprise, it was to only be a day procedure, regardless of anything they had to fix in the heart that they found. The worse part of the whole day sounded like it would be fasting until 1:00 PM. However, Angela promised me a non-cardio-healthy treat after it was all over. I looked forward to a Sonic chocolate milkshake.
Everything was going great. Although one nurse was disappointed I had done my own pre-op shaving, the other nurse was cracking jokes like he was a Safari Land riverboat captain in Disneyland. My cardiologist was aware of my previous hyper-coagulation trouble, so he made sure I was being given plenty anti-coagulant meds. Also…a little sumpin’-sumpin’ through my IV to relax me. So, it was off to the Catheter (Cath) Lab where they inserted a catheter through an artery in my right arm, just above the wrist, and guided it up around my shoulder and down to my heart.
Arriving at my heart and injecting the iodine-based dye, they found a now 80% blocked artery on the left side of my heart. That explained all the recent light headedness, occasional dizziness, desire to be napping like a cat, and ongoing mild chest pain. I was awake off and on throughout the procedure. I am glad they had not knocked me totally out. I’ll explain why later. The doc fed a little wire mesh stent up through the catheter and expanded it at the blockage. Problem fixed! The big screen TV the doctor used to see what was going on inside of me showed no more blockages in the rest of my heart. Out came the catheter and off to the recovery room I went.
I knew something was not right as soon as they started wheeling me out of the Cath Lab. My upper chest was hurting a little worse than the heart attack I had fourteen months earlier. As I entered the recovery room, I looked at the nurse that I recognized from before. Half her face was blocked by a multi-colored ring of light. I blinked hard and looked again. It didn’t go away. I was wondering if I was having a stroke or migraine or something. I reported what I saw to the nurse. She stood in front of me and in an irritated tone of voice said, “do you see me?” “Yes” I said. “How many fingers am I holding up?” she fired back. “Four,” I replied. “You can see. You’re not having a stroke.”
Clearly the multicolored ring I saw was not a halo on the nurse. For one thing, it had now disappeared. Secondly, I recognized her tone and technique. It was very similar to countless interactions I had heard over the years as deputies in the jail dealt with very intoxicated individuals. After dealing with your hundredth drunk person, some begin to lose their sense of humor and they may default to getting straight to the point. Even to the point of being rude and unprofessional. Afterall, they assume the person they are talking to is so intoxicated that they will never remember the interaction. I unfortunately do remember what happened in the recovery room. I imagine it gets old dealing with countless people coming out of the Cath Lab who are under the influence of heavy narcotics.
Whereas my vision issue went away, my chest pain had not. I let the nurse know about this. Continuing to use her charming bedside manner, she let out a quick sigh of frustration, furled her forehead and said, “we told you it was probably going to hurt for a while afterwards.” I responded with, “yeah, but it hurts quite a bit. Like at least a ‘four’.”
Nurses like you to attempt to report your pain level on a scale of one to ten. This is a tough thing to do. Everybody’s pain level is different and who knows if I have ever previously experienced a ten: the worse pain a human can experience. The criteria I have previously used for calibrating my pain scale, is saying that a “ten” is when you take a normal framing hammer and hit your thumb with it, dead on, as hard as you can. Or, maybe sticking a hot iron on your face. That is the type of pain that requires all your attention and will make tears come to a grown adult’s eyes. You can’t think straight, and it will make you utter words you would never otherwise utter. You are totally consumed by the pain.
Within a few seconds, I was telling the nurse my pain was at least a “six.” It was getting uncomfortable, to say the least. Then things started to get a little fuzzy. The nurse started taking me more seriously. She began to call for some help. I recognized the other nurse who was no longer telling Safari Land river boat quality jokes. For the brief time my eyes were open, he looked quite serious. I was starting to fade and my eyes were closed, but I recognized the doctor’s voice and heard others arriving. The doctor said, “do we have an EKG coming? We need to get the EKG here so we can see what’s going on.” After this, things got “distant,” and quieter fast. I guess it’s possible to die with a pain level of only six. But, I wasn’t really aware of my pain anymore as I drifted off.
The next thing I remember, is seeing six to eight blurry faces of people dressed in different colored scrubs standing at the foot of my bed in silence. They were all staring at me: their heads cocked at various angles. No, they were not angels… I cannot describe how surreal it was. Their silence lasted only a second. The doctor broke it: “OK, lets get him in there.” What had just happened was they had just shocked me with the defibrillator, and they were waiting to see if I would come back to life. I did.
What I learned later was that the stent which had just been placed in my left artery had quickly been blocked with a blood clot, starving the left side of my heart for oxygen. As a result, my heart went into a ventricular tachycardia rhythm, I coded out, they did chest compressions on me for about two minutes before shocking me and restoring my heart rhythm. I call it my “bonus resurrection.”
They wheeled me back into the Cath Lab. This time, they poked a hole in the artery next to my groin. Don’t worry, in anticipation of this happening, I had shaved there too. I felt the catheter being fed into me this time. They were in a hurry. I went out for a few seconds. When I came back, I was breaking new ground in recalibrating my pain scale. It hurt like “hell.” My previous understanding of a pain “ten” was a framing hammer at full force on my thumb. My new understanding of a “ten” is a five-pound hammer repeatedly and relentlessly being pounded on my upper chest, over, and over, and over. Compared to this new pain level, the hammer on the thumb would be about a seven or an eight.
Time out for a quick prayer: “Lord, please make the memory of that pain fade.”
I was conscious of my repeated moaning. I could not stop. I feel like I need to apologize to the three cardiologists and who knows how many nurses and support staff who had responded to the “code blue,” that had been called on my behalf. A “code blue” is called in a hospital when a patient is in cardiopulmonary arrest. I like to tell myself that it was the drugs moaning. That if I had not been under the influence, I could have controlled myself better. I don’t remember specific amounts, but I heard the person who was administering the drugs to me in the Cath Lab tell the doctor how much they had given me and ask if they should give me more. He said, “yes, give it to him!” Probably because I was writhing around a bit too much for his liking while he was attempting to do a delicate surgery in my heart.
“Hang in there guy.” “Hold on man, it’s going to get better.” “Doug, stop lifting your arm. Put your arm down,” the different anonymous voices said. “I’m trying, it hurts,” was all I could say. All the while, the doctor calmly giving out instructions as he manipulated his tools towards the clot in my heart as he watched the screen across my body, to my left. I could see people walking about the room on both sides of me, I was aware of several people behind my head.
Somewhere over the years I have seen some science fiction horror movie where someone gets abducted by aliens, beamed up to the mother ship, temporarily completely paralyzed, placed on a sterile table, probed, painful experiments conducted, implants placed, strange faces coming and going, anonymous voices, and then they get “flashy thingyd” in order to try and make them forget. That about sums up what this experience was like.
I am not proud to say, that the last words I uttered to the person on my right during the procedure was, “please just take me outside and shoot me.” I now understand the mercy killing scenes better in so many westerns and war movies I have seen. But, just after I said this, the pain stopped. In retrospect, I am glad they did not take me out and shoot me. However, if that kind of pain, on an ongoing basis, would be the price of continuing to live, I would stand by the request I made.
The doctor said something like, “got it. Coming out.” I was aware that people were leaving the room quickly and that the crisis was over. The doctor said, “great job everyone!” I would like to second that… God used that team to save my life.
There was one person who remained in the Cath Lab with me that I was aware of. I think coincidently his name was also, “Doug.” I asked him, “What just happened?” He said, you had a clot and we had to shock you to bring you back.”
Me: “You had to shock me!?!”
Other, more healthy Doug: “You don’t remember, do you?”
No, I did not remember. I did not see Heaven. I did not see Jesus. I was just missing some time that others had to tell me about later.
No going home for me. The doc said, “I’m not taking any chances with this character.” I was chilling badly, which caused me to shake violently. They wrapped me up like a burrito in a warm air inflated blanket and shipped me off to ICU. There, my wife Angela, soon joined me, and our eyes filled full of tears. Angela had been in the waiting room by herself. She had just been told by a volunteer what the number of the recovery room was that I was in, when she heard a “code blue” called to that room. It was a rough day for my sweet wife. She got on the phone and was soon joined by my two daughters and Rachel’s husband Dan.
I have known various people, Christian and non-Christian, over the decades who would react to my experience in predictable ways. One group would ask, “how could a good and merciful god allow such a painful experience to happen?” I think I could now literally write a book about how a good and merciful god could write it in to His story before time began, how He would allow my chest to be pounded on repeatedly with a five-pound hammer and scare my wife so. But I’ll keep it to a few paragraphs here.
Mercifully, God allowed me to live in a time and place that had the technology to fix my heart in a timely manner. Years ago, He caused me to work in an occupation that upon retirement, provided me with health care insurance. It would be getting rough paying for these heart attacks at around $65,000 apiece. He mercifully allowed me to be in a hospital, surrounded by cardiologists when I coded out.
God mercifully allowed me to live for, as of today, almost an additional month beyond my most recent heart attack. During that time, I started giving my grandson Will bass guitar lessons. I have been able to “jam” with him (my favorite form of recreation is playing music). What a joy! I got to give away my daughter, Megan, in marriage last Saturday, and gained a new son. I watched my other grandson, four-year-old Jamie, bust out dance moves at the wedding reception in ways that I wasn’t aware were humanly possible. I was able to see my son, Jared, again for a few days and kid around with him. He has such a great sense of humor. I have been able to cherish and be moved to tears by the sweetness and love of my oldest daughter Rachel. I have witnessed the heart of a quintessential servant of God in Rachel’s husband, Dan, as well as have shared many laughs with him (and a couple shots of fine whiskey). I got to visit with my good friend Marty for a while in person. Marty is closer than a brother to me. I was able to pick blueberries and visit with all my siblings at one time. I got to experience my six-year-old granddaughter call my attention to a “kitty,” that was actually a cougar, fifteen yards away from me (Thanks for the heads up Violet!). I have witnessed several acts of kindness towards me that were generated out of God given love. And, I have had a month more of looking into my best friend, and lover’s eyes, Angela. God indeed was merciful in allowing me to stick around and see all these things.
Remember above when I said that I am glad that they had not totally knocked me out for the procedure? In God’s mercy, He allowed me to be awake when I exited the Cath Lab and experience the chest pain. My doctor told Angela that in all his career, there has only been one other patient he has had, who experienced this hyper-coagulation blood clotting problem after the procedure. He did not mention her name, but I know exactly who he was talking about. It was a lady who attended the same church as Angela and I in the past. She had the exact same thing happen to her as I had happen to me after her cardio catheterization and stent placement procedure by the same doctor. The only difference is that she died. She never woke up after her procedure but passed away peacefully. At that time, the doctor we shared told her husband that he had performed 35,000 such procedures in his career and had never seen such a thing happen before. Around four years later, and who knows how many thousands more procedures the doctor has done, I was still only the second case he had seen. Thank God for His mercy in allowing me to experience the pain so I could get something done about it.
Mostly, God allowed these things to happen to me for the spiritual lessons it has driven home with me. Things I can only do a pathetic job of trying to convey.
Others might phrase their question about God in this way: “Where was God when you were laying there in such pain?” He was right there with me! Those who might say God could not be a part of such an experience, will have no understanding of how it is that I feel God’s love more than I ever have. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”-Job 13:15.
God was right there in that room, hearing my moans and groans, somehow “working all things together for good for those who love him” – Romans 8:28. The Bible tells us that those who follow Jesus have, “been appointed for good works which God prepared in advance for us to do” -Ephesians 2:10. God determined the "good works" long ago. Not me. Go ahead and form your church committees to “mow lawns for Jesus” or “march for Jesus” or provide “showers for Jesus.” Those are all good things to do for your community, but I am convinced that the “good works” that God wrote into the story He is revealing to us, are contained in the regular details of our normal everyday lives. Sometimes the painful details. They are things that He appointed and causes to happen in order to tell His “story” as He “wrote it,” before time began. Normal, everyday things which accomplish His “good works,” as He sees good works, from His perspective.
I am convinced that God was accomplishing His good work through my painful heart attack. At the very least, He was bringing about a more mature and experienced belief in me. He was testing my faith not for His benefit, but for mine. He was allowing me to feel His peace amid incredible pain and anxiety. He took me by the hand and walked with me through the entrance of the valley of the shadow of death and back out. Again, you probably won’t understand this, or think I am delusional, but what an incredible joy that gives me. I have no idea how God is using my heart attack, but I am confident He is using it for His good purpose.
I have no fear of death. With my first heart attack, I began to “swirl the drain” (my vitals started down a very bad path), this past heart attack, I actually made it into “the drain” (my physical body died for just a bit). Both experiences were surrealistically peaceful. I did not cry out to God with my mouth. I just felt his presence and was aware of His complete control of the situation. There were no words necessary. It was the trying to stay alive and fixing my body that hurt so bad.
Please do not try and tell me that God could not be behind what happened to me. Are you saying God is not sovereign? That things were out of His control as I lay there? That Satan pulled a fast one on Him? Even if you want to tell me that He allowed Satan to torture me for a bit, it still required God’s stamp of approval for what He knew would happen and what I was going through.
I have also had well intentioned Christian friends that would go here: “Wow, two heart attacks. I wonder what God is trying to tell him. I wonder if Doug has hidden sin in his life? Maybe he is not a tither? It seems like God didn’t get through to Doug with his first heart attack so he has turned up the heat on him with this second heart attack. Let’s pray that Doug has learned his lesson.”
I am a sinner. Of that there is no doubt. I truly deserve any beating by God I have coming to me (Thank God He views me as pardoned for my sins because of the work of His Son!). I do think we live in a physical world where God built in a “reap what you sow” principle. The Bible states as much, and science seems to verify it. Mostly, I think I may be reaping the benefits of my genes and of a high stress occupation where the average life span is 57 years of age. Mix in my high fat tater-tot-casserole years (my 30s), and bam! Heart attack!
With reaping what one sows in mind, based on scripture, I do not believe that I must have some sort of formula correct for God to accomplish His perfect will through me despite what my circumstances look like. To my knowledge, no one, save Jesus, has ever lived the perfect life. If anyone deserved to live the charmed life on this earth because of being in tune with God, it is Jesus, and we all know what happened to Him. The apostles make for additional swell examples of what I am talking about. If it were possible to keep score for the last two thousand years, I think we would see that Matthew 5:45 is true: “It rains on the just and on the unjust.” Show me someone who may appear holy and subsequently blessed because of it, and I will show you the Pharisees who Jesus referred to as “snakes.”
What is next for me? God only knows. People ask me a lot: “how are you?” Fair question. I hope you will understand when you get mixed signals from me when I try to answer about my physical health. You see, I thought I was alright the morning of March 13, 2018 at 11:00 AM, just minutes before my first heart attack. I also thought I was OK after a cardio nurse told me last fall that my half marathon training was paying off. She said after my stress echocardiography test, that I had the highest score she had seen in her long career (all the heart patients she has seen). I scored in the 90th percentile for someone who is in their twenties. I thought I was OK after I ran my first half marathon in April. Turns out, I wasn’t OK. My confidence in my body has been significantly undermined. Doc says I will have to take anti-sticky-blood-clotty pills the rest of my life. Still having some angina and mild chest pain without any great reason as to why at this point. My blockages are supposedly all gone.
How am I emotionally? I have good days and bad days. I have occasional bad dreams about being on the table in the Cath Lab in pain. I sometimes start crying spontaneously when I think about Angela being alone in the waiting room hearing the “code blue” called. Every little chest pain I experience now, takes up a great deal of my attention when they occur, not knowing if it is the beginning of another event. I wonder if I am going to spend the next 72 hours dressed in a thin cotton robe that my butt hangs out of in the back. My life is different now. I have a tough time planning too far out in the future, and I must let others do some things for me I never would have previously allowed. These are all blows to my pride that I am dealing with. I perhaps don’t enjoy some things as much as I used to and enjoy other things more. Some things seem “flat,” other things, like doing research for my next book (Lord willing) excite me. I’m sure, like He did after my first heart attack, God will use time to heal the emotional scars.
How am I spiritually? From my perspective, unexplainably Fantastic! From God’s… I can only hope the same. My question for you is, how are you doing?