‘It is wonderful to be alive’

Michael, of Florida, USA, experienced no symptoms prior to being told he had an aneurysm and ascending aortic dissection. He was rushed through the American health system before the condition had any time to worsen and further threaten his life. This is his story.

From a personal health perspective, I cheerfully breezed through the first 62 years of my life. There was the minor sports injury and the occasional sinus infection, but I never had to stay in a hospital and, amazingly, never missed a day of work. Throughout adulthood daily exercise was imbedded in my lifestyle and I monitored every aspect of my diet. Asking me if I went the gym was like wanting to know if I breathed oxygen, I ate maybe three hamburgers a year. I was one of the healthiest people I knew.

This abruptly changed on 1 August 2017.

Two days before my 62nd birthday I had my long past due wellness check. It was during this routine exam that my primary physician detected a heart murmur and referred me to a cardiologist. I had no pain or shortness of breath and my history did not suggest alarm, but the cardiologist directed a series of diagnostic tests. After the ultrasound was completed he wanted to see my wife and I at his office as soon as possible. It was then that I heard a group of relatively common words spoken sequentially for the first time. Aneurysm and ascending aortic dissection – what???

The cardiologist told me to stop exercising and immediately ordered an echocardiogram, which not only confirmed the condition but also the precariousness of the aneurysm that somehow contained itself between the two inner layers of my aorta. At this point I was on the fast track and scheduled to see a heart surgeon, (the appointment was delayed twice due to Hurricane Irma, and I filled one afternoon recklessly removing storm panels from my house).

Heart surgery

Even though I did some previous research, I was still unsure what to expect and stunned when the surgeon outlined what was ahead of me. He explained that an extremely intense operation was necessary to replace the damaged section of my aorta.

Two days later I spent 12 hours on an operating table. The operation proceeded normally and was almost over when the right coronary artery unexpectedly burst. The surgical team were prepared for just such an emergency; before the operation they grafted a vein from my leg which they used to bypass the blown artery. This was when my wife and daughters began to feel overwhelmed about this uncanny series of wondrous and inconceivable events that occurred over the last few days. 

After two weeks in the hospital my homecoming was a treasure, I am working on my rehabilitation and look forward to soon returning to my normal activities. There are no words adequate to express the gratitude I have to my incredible doctors and all the professionals at Largo Medical Center. 

My survival started with a basic check-up, which resulted in an accurate diagnosis before anything really bad happened. Still… why did I not feel any pain? Why did the aneurysm contain itself? (The dissected area was described as ‘being like thin tissue paper’). The consensus theory is a prior physical condition, but I still pause during my recovery and feel that there is a much deeper reason.  

As for now I want to hug everyone I meet, I've fallen in love again with my wife and getting reacquainted with God. I savour this beautiful and precious feeling, it is wonderful to be alive. 

 

One year later

Today is one year after my surgery and the first birthday of my new life. Spoiler alert – I feel wonderful!

It was not until the early spring of 2018 when I felt close to normal again, however it became clear that this was an entirely different normal. It evolved into an understanding of a dividing point to a life ‘before 21/9’ and ‘after 21/9'. I came to terms that no matter whatever happens to me the world moves on very quickly and that only I could control how to react to such an incredible change. 

The first few weeks of my recovery was a brutal struggle with the physical effects of such an invasive surgery. I could only eat or drink certain things, I developed thrush, there was numbness in my legs and left arm and just walking to the bathroom was a major accomplishment. There was also the turmoil in dealing with an unexpected emotional aftermath. I felt an intense anxiousness about the unknown. Some mornings I was afraid to just get out of bed, consumed with a fear that I would not get better. I ached for the body I once had. I wept constantly. 

 

Support network

As with most recovery success stories it was a support group that helped me through this most difficult period. Encouragement came from my doctors during follow-up visits, the specialists I saw for my cardiac rehabilitation and the friends who visited me and called regularly. And how rich is a man to be surrounded by a loving family and a devoted wife, my absolute soulmate, who was tirelessly by my side almost every moment throughout this entire ordeal. 

I am overwhelmed with gratitude. 

Somewhere in mid-life I eased into the comforts of good health and modest prosperity, I rarely thought about my good fortune other than being a just reward for hard work. Over the years I also became spiritually empty and sometimes even began to question the existence of God. Then out of nowhere I’m told I have this life-threatening condition, the series of events that led to my diagnosis and survival were beyond coincidental, I know I was being guided and was called on to accept whatever purpose that is planned for me. So many gifts were right there in front of me, but my eyes were closed, I had to be awakened to see and appreciate these treasures. 

I will not waste this suffering, I now rejoice the beauty and fullness of each day in my new life.

 

 

Shared January 2019

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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