The above picture is me at RE Bar Camp Phoenix in April 2010. It may not be readily apparent – I wasn’t aware at the time myself – but the man you see there was dying.
About two weeks after REBCPhx I was at a board meeting for my synagogue – my last, as it turned out. We were arguing over something or another and I left. When I got to the car my chest was tight and I was incredibly out of breath. Given my girth, I thought little of it.
Except it didn’t go away. I went to the doctor and nothing seemed out of whack. Another two weeks passed and I finally told my spouse I was heading either to the ER or Urgent Care, whichever she preferred. I’d just walked the 100 feet from our master bedroom to the office in the back of our house and was gasping for air. She chose to ER and off I went to Arrowhead Hospital, which would become my home away from home.
Real estate segue – I’d shown homes the day before to a nice couple from Canada, trying to hide my exhaustion as we went from one house to the next and I was unable to walk more than a few yards without stopping to catch my breath. They wanted to look at homes again the next day – I ended up hanging an agent half of my commission to write up an offer for me on the original home they wanted. Two days later, I completed three-week long negotiations on another house. So tell me – how many agents do you know who sold two homes from the telemetry department of the local hospital while they themselves were the patient?
Anywho, it was about an hour or two after I went down to the hospital that I was told I was in both a-fib and congestive heart failure. I’d been diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse when I was 19 and it never was considered major; after 21 years my mitral valve decided to call it a day and was flapping in the breeze that was the flow of blood through my heart, all but useless. Fluid was collecting in my lungs and I started to swell. Not just “he’s a fat guy” swelling but “look, he’s got Fred Flinstone’s feet” kind of swelling.
I was sent home, as the surgery needed wasn’t necessarily an emergency, and spent the next nine weeks sitting on my couch swelling. Oh, and attending my son’s bar mitzvah – and moving as little as possible, though our synagogue has a center walkway that tilts up at a decided angle that felt like Everest.
Fast forward to August 4, 2010 – essentially three years ago right now. My wife and I had lunch at Pick Up Stix – a delight for someone who’d been on a low sodium diet – and she drove me to Arrowhead Hospital to check in for surgery the next day. After months of struggling to walk without gasping, including a couple of incidents where it took me 15-plus minutes to walk from the parking lot of a movie theater to the theater itself, I plopped myself into a wheelchair and willingly allowed myself to be rolled into the waiting room and then up to my room.
It was there I was greeted with my new best friend – the heart-shaped pillow I was to squeeze against my soon-to-be cracked chest whenever I wanted to move (and to sop up the tears when I sneezed and it felt like my ribs were shooting out like a party favor – a very painful party favor) – as well as a video explaining that I’d wake up to wrist restraints, something I hadn’t expected. Turned out, I wasn’t really coherent enough for it to matter.
On August 5, around 7:45 in the morning, I said goodbye to the wife and my parents and was rolled back. You know this routine … count to 10 slowly, never get past 3.
* * *
At 1:40 a.m. I awoke, thinking it was the middle of the afternoon. The damn breathing tube was in and I remember banging that finger pulse monitor on the handrail until the nurse gave me another round of morphine. Morphine was good at the time.
And the damndest thing happened just a handful of hours later. Just over 24 hours after having my chest cracked open and two valves repaired, I was sitting up in a chair eating a pancake. I was wearing oxygen and there was a pick line in my neck and an IV in my arm and four drain tubes sticking out of my chest, not to mention the six-inch zipper scar that I’d carry forever as a member of the zipper club … and I was eating a blueberry pancake when my wife and parents walked in. They nearly passed out from the shock of seeing me up.
Those first couple of days were a haze of morphine-addled dreams, half sleep and occasional efforts to walk a few feet – the first around 2 in the afternoon, or 24 hours after I checked in for the first time. It wasn’t until Sunday – D-Day plus three as it were – that I took a 1,500-foot stroll, the longest I’d been able to take in several months without having to stop and gasp for breath.
The odometer officially rolled back. I was back among the living.
* * *
In theory, I’m supposed to tell you that my life magically changed that day but that’s not really the case. While I’ve learned with time to let some of the littler things go, it wasn’t because of my brush with death. It was just a matter of getting older.
Reality is our mortgage companies don’t care what we go through. That’s the reason I ended up working at the free-lance writing job the night after we took my dad off the ventilator in March, the reason I was answering questions about an inspection report from ICU Waiting Room A at Boswell Hospital an hour after he passed as we waited for the mortuary to come pick him up.
No matter what happens, short of winning the lottery, the bills needs to be paid and the simple frustrations of real estate – working with buyers and sellers and other agents and title companies and lenders and all the rest, not to mention prospecting (akin to laying down crab pots on Deadliest Catch and hoping you’re on the bite) remain. Those don’t magically disappear just because you have a zipper scar.
The 40 pounds I lost in the hospital returned within six months or so and I still work to take them off, which has required to rewire my brain to understand the concepts of not hungry, full and stuffed to the gills – things your average skinny person never need worry about. I’ve worked to come to grips that my identity isn’t in my size, despite my Twitter handle of PapaGrande, but in my repaired heart, my brain and my soul.
Truth be told, that’s the hardest part of my now years of constant recovery.
They say women quickly forget the pain of childbirth, which allows them to go through it again. Similarly, I’m acutely aware of how sick I was and how little I really could do in the months before my valves were repaired, but I’m detached from the actual misery. I can tell you how tired I was but I can’t remember the actual feeling of having to stop every 15 feet to catch my breath, if that makes sense.
I distinctly remember the reality of writing down account websites and passwords for my wife, just in case. But the sense of mortality I felt at the time has long since passed, which I think is as it needs to be. At some point, you have to forget how close to death you really were in order to live again.
So, yeah … I’m passed the bulk of it. But I haven’t forgotten. That’s impossible. And not just because of the scar on my chest.