Friday, December 31, 2010

The Long and Winding Road

This is the last day of 2010, and to be honest with you, I won't be sorry to see it go. In so many ways this year has been the hardest and most difficult of my life, especially from a health standpoint. In case you are unaware let me recap...

I woke up the morning of August 1st with blood pressure that was dangerously high. Nothing, not my meds or my other methods or rest brought my blood pressure down from its dangerously high level. When the second day of dangerously high pressure came I chose the smart option of going to the doctor. He put me in the hospital for tests. After spending the night in the hospital I had a lower blood pressure but no firm answers. The tests on my heart and blood work showed no obvious problems.

Things would have probably ended there had it not been for the fact that my doctor was not willingly to let that be the end of it. Minor abnormalities on two tests convinced him that there indeed was a problem there. He ordered a nuclear stress test.

We had to wait approximately three weeks for the results of that test. My wife and I were having lunch after seeing the doctor that morning when her cell phone rang. It was the doctor with the results of the stress test. He used words like "blockages" and "heart damage" and told me that he had made an appointment for me that afternoon to see a local cardiologist. When I balked at going he told me that the results were so serious that he didn't feel that I had time to go anywhere else.

I went to see the cardiologist.

The cardiologist was not very encouraging either. He told me three things: 1) I needed a heart catheterization to determine the exact damage to my heart and 2) I had a 40 percent chance of having an "incident" before being able to obtain a second opinion, and 3) My heart was only functioning at about 40 percent of capacity (the exact phrase is "ejection fraction"). The procedure was scheduled for two days later.

There are four possible outcomes to a heart catheter procedure: 1) they find no damage, 2) they find damage that is treatable with medication alone, 3) they find damage that they can correct with stents, or 4) they find damage that can only be corrected with bypass surgery. If you know me at all you know that I have never been one to take the easy way....

The cardiologist told my wife that I had five blockages. Two of the blockages were on the back of the heart and would not be treated. The three on the front of the heart were very dangerous. The most open artery was the main artery that feeds the heart. That artery is called the "widow maker" because the vast majority of folks who have a heart attack based on a blockage of this artery don't survive. The other two blockages were 90 and 95 percent. I have since been told that if I had suffered a heart attack during this time that I would most likely not have survived.

Bypass surgery was scheduled.

The surgery went very well and I was home again in four days. I vigorously attacked the rehabilitation process with the intention of restoring what I had lost. I looked forward to the follow up with the cardiologist to see how well I was recuperating.

That visit did not go as expected.

The echocardiogram revealed that my heart function (ejection fraction) had not improved, but had actually gotten a little worse. I was further diagnosed with congestive heart failure and needed a defibrillator inserted into my chest as a preventive measure because of the weakness of my remaining heart muscle.

Then it was discovered that I was anemic, which is dangerous condition for anyone, but especially for someone with heart failure. Tests to determine the cause of the anemia have revealed that I have an ulcer and a number of spots that are on their way to becoming ulcers. These are bleeding, which causes the anemia.

I am not asking you for sympathy...but I share this to share with you the lessons I am learning through this long and winding road. Those lessons are....

God is not to blame, but rather to be praised. Did God cause my heart failure? Let me state unequivocally NO! My poor health choices are the reasons for my heart failure. God knew that this was going to happen and has given me the strength to endure so far. I can give Him praise for these moments and the opportunities they have given me with my family and with the different patients, doctors and nurses who lives have intersected with mine. Not to mention the wonderful graciousness of our church. I praise Him for the blessing of this illness.

God has a purpose in all things. I am used to toughing things out, to wrestling life into what I want it to be. God has used my illness to make me lean on him more than ever before. This has been a year harder on more levels than any other I have ever experienced. Yet God has a purpose in all this, and these events are all a part of that purpose. I don't have to understand the why behind all of this, but I do know that He has a purpose.

Life is life. Being a child of God is not an free pass in life. There will be pain and sorrow, hurt and disappointment. Those who teach the fallacy that Christians will never have pain or suffering are ignorant or uninformed. God does not deliver us from life, He gives us life. I can overcome all of this because I know that God fills it all with His purposes and that there is coming a day when I shall exchange this reality for the greatest reality of all...His presence. In that moment I will no longer worry about the why of all this.

Those are just a few of the things that God has been teaching, or in some cases reinforcing, me through this process. I don't know what 2011 holds, and that's okay, but I know that God's purposes will be worked out in my life.

For His glory.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reflections on Life....and Death

The e-mail was heartbreaking. The cancer was spreading and they are now talking about months, not years. My friend and his wife had decided to forgo some treatments while continuing others. Their emphasis had shifted from "quantity" of life to "quality" of life. I respect their decision, it's one that I would make. My prayers and hopes go with them.

I've been thinking during the last two days about the whole "quantity" versus "quality" thing....The sad thing in all of our lives is that we've been playing out that debate at all. We pick and choose between so many things that in the end nothing gets either quality or quantity time. When did we lose the wonder and the joy of life? Now our lives are filled with things that are, quite frankly, not important....The tyranny of the urgent rules our lives with an iron fist, and the urgent is seldom important. The TV, the internet, baseball, soccer, whatever, these things have taken us away from the things that are most important. God, family, and friends are all cast aside for the sake of chasing whatever happens to have captured our attention at the moment. My oldest daughter (who struggles with serious health issues of her own) jokes that those types of things are "shiny" and they cannot be ignored.

But that's exactly what we need to do: ignore them. It's time that we quit worrying about the quantity of the things that fill our lives and begin to focus on the quality of our lives. Things like family, friends and God deserve more than the scraps of our time. We'd be better off without most of that other stuff anyway. But doing that will require discipline and discomfort and we don't like either one of those concepts. As a child, and even through college, I could accurately be described as being carefree, happy go lucky. At heart I'm still that way, but somewhere along the way I crowded my life with so many less important things that I lost that part of myself. I've decided that I don't like my life in its current configuration and have spent the last few years sorting through and cleaning out my life, bringing it down to those things that matter most. I'd like to think that its made me a better husband, father, and friend.

It's sad, really, that so many of us have to face a serious tragedy or situation to begin to consider these things. My wish for my friend is that he would be healed, but my greater wish for him is that God would grant him genuine peace and joy, regardless of how many days he may or may not have left.