On the morning of December 5th, Eric underwent open-heart surgery and a triple bypass. As he told the surgeon, this experience was not on his bucket list. Nor mine. Needless to say, this has been the most intense month of our lives.
All things considered, Eric is doing remarkably well. He’s now walking 30 minutes a day, soon to increase to 45 minutes. He looks great. But he looked great before the surgery, and had no symptoms other than occasional minor chest tightness when we were hiking or biking strenuously. We were lucky. This could have turned out very differently, and I try not to think too much about that.
There have been times in our adventures when we’ve been hiking alone in the middle of nowhere and I’ve thought, “I wouldn’t want to sprain an ankle out here, miles away from help.” I’ve even had brief imaginings of “What if something really bad happened and help was hours away?” At those moments, I’ve reassured myself by acknowledging that I’d rather accept the risks that come with doing what I love instead of indulging my fears and staying home where life is undeniably safer. Nonetheless, I am extraordinarily grateful that we didn’t suffer a tragedy on the trail.
Our doctor told us that Eric is very fortunate—that only about one quarter of people have symptoms that indicate cardiovascular disease. Apparently the first symptom for the remaining unlucky 75 percent is a heart attack. Eric didn’t suffer a heart attack. In fact, his heart is remarkably strong (the EKG tech referred to him as a “work horse”). He also has perfect blood pressure, a heart rate in the 50’s, low cholesterol, and takes no medications. We thought he was bullet proof. But his dad had a heart attack at age 47, and died from cardiovascular disease at 58. So there’s that.
Even now, almost four weeks after we entered the cardiac lab for a diagnostic angiogram (“He might need a stent,” said the cardiologist) and ended up in the hospital for nine long days and major surgery, the whole experience is surreal. I still have times when I expect to wake up and discover that this was all merely a bad dream. The image of Eric in intensive care, hooked up to a tangle of tubes and wires and flashing lights, haunts me. More than ever, I am in awe of both the fragility and resilience of the human body and spirit.
I have always been skittish around hospitals and medical procedures, and do my best to keep medical intervention at bay with a healthy diet, daily exercise, and a positive attitude. When we need help, we turn to herbs, acupuncture, massage, and other noninvasive treatments. This problem, obviously, required drastic measures. The technology and approach of Western medicine is at once terrifying and miraculous. This has been the most humbling experience of my life, and I will be eternally grateful to the skilled and compassionate people who saved Eric’s life and made a scary situation as comfortable as it possibly could have been.
Both Eric’s surgeon and cardiologist assure us that in time, we will be able to return to our normal lives. And they understand that “normal” for us looks different from what most people think of as normal. The doctors and nurses were intrigued by our stories of travel and our outdoor adventures. In Eric’s chart, one of the doctors wrote, “He and his wife travel the country full-time in their RV, and are active hikers, bikers, and kayakers.” I loved reading that. It made me feel that they understood something about us, and that they cared.
So, here we are. We would never have signed up for this adventure, but we are extraordinarily grateful that we discovered the problem before it turned into a tragedy. We are grateful that we’re here in our hometown, within a few miles of one of the finest cardiac centers in the country. We’re grateful for our wonderful surgeon and the skilled nursing care Eric received. And we are grateful to be in the embrace of our loving community of friends and family, who have held us in the most challenging moments, opened their homes and their hearts, brought us nourishment, and encouraged and supported us through it all.
Here’s to life, and to doing what makes your heart happy. You’ve heard it many times, but I have to say it anyway—don’t put off doing what you want to do. Tell your family and friends that you love them. You can’t say it too much. I know that I’m going to do my best to be more present, more generous, and more compassionate in this amazing, wild journey of life. We wish you peace, joy, and good health in the New Year.