As background, I am a person who has been driven to achieve as long as I can remember. Even after retiring for the second time from a full-time job at Harvard University in 2013, I had been working night and day, 24/7, teaching, freelance writing, and promoting my ideas about space exploration.
When you don’t have a full-time job, you don’t know where your next dollar is coming from, so you tend to take every piece of work that is offered to you, even if you already have 40 hours a week committed.
That’s the situation I was in as we entered early April of 2015. On top of the workload, though, my wife Donna suddenly went into the hospital with a life-threatening pneumonia, which was totally unexpected. We literally went from her doctor’s office to the emergency room where they told us the oxygen getting to her brain was perilously low and she had to go right to the Intensive Care Unit, or ICU.
After getting some fluid, oxygen, and Tylenol for her high fever, she felt better, they said she didn’t really need the ICU, and she said, “I need to go home. It’s Easter and it would be terrible if I can’t celebrate with my grandchildren.”
The doctor said, “It would also be terrible if you died. If you leave, I will write the strongest ‘Left against medical advice’ note I have ever written.”
Eventually, Donna was admitted, and for several days, I did not leave her side. During that whole time, I didn’t go home and I continued to work on my projects while also taking care of her.
On the third day, I was sitting outside her room in a chair, writing, when I had a feeling as if some huge monster had grabbed me from the back and was squeezing the life out of me. I immediately thought, “I’m having a heart attack,” but it went away really quickly, and I thought, “Well, there is an emergency room one minute from here. Let’s wait and see.”
Nothing else happened until a couple of days after we got home. Donna was allowed to leave only if she agreed to be on oxygen all the time for a while. Once again, she was resting, I was in the living room, and it happened again. The monster was back, squeezing the life out of me.
Again, it only lasted 10 minutes.
Well, I did what any thoughtful person would do in the 21st century: I Googled it!
After a while, I self-diagnosed it as “stable angina.”
I went into the bedroom to see Donna and said, “Hey, you know that thing that happened to me when you were in the hospital? Well, it happened again and I think I need to go see my doctor tomorrow. But I don’t want you to worry about it; I Googled it and it’s stable angina, which is not serious, but it has to be managed.”
What happened next likely saved my life. Donna looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “No, I’m worried about you and I want you to go to the emergency room right away.”
I really didn’t want to leave her, because she needed me there to take care of her, or so I thought. We discussed it a bit, she convinced me to call her sister Barbara, who is a nurse practitioner, and Barbara said, “Frank, it is not stable angina until a doctor diagnoses it and tells you that it is stable angina.”
I finally agreed to go to a nearby emergency room. I was feeling good at this point, and really did not think I had a problem. However, after taking blood tests, the cardiologist said there were enzymes in my blood that are only present when something happens to the heart.
He suggested they keep me overnight and do a cardiac catheterization the next day. I decided it would be better if I went to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where my doctor practices, and where they had just also built a new center totally dedicated to heart issues.
So off we went in the ambulance to Brigham and Women’s, and I called Donna and gave her the shock of her life when I told her they thought I had had a heart attack. She urged me to call our son Josh, who immediately flew overnight from Sedona, Arizona to be with me, since Donna was really in no condition to be at the hospital.
The minister of our church headed to the hospital as soon as he heard what was going on, but he just missed me, as the ambulance roared headed into Boston.
Believe it or not, I actually talked to the ER doctor at Brigham and Women’s into my diagnosis of stable angina because the amount of enzymes in my blood was so low. He said, “I think you’re right; no cardiologist would call this a heart attack.”
Well, when the three cardiologists showed up, that is exactly what they called it! And they said I should have the cardiac catheterization the next day.
For some reason, and perhaps it is because of my faith, or just because I felt okay and had no further episodes of pressure in my chest, I was really not worried about any of this. I slept well and the next day I had an echocardiogram to see what damage had been done to my heart, and then was taken into the Cardiac Cath Lab where they threaded a catheter into my heart and took a look at what was going on there.
My minister showed up again, but missed me again, so he sat with Josh, who just happens to be a Zen Buddhist priest, and they prayed for me together. (I was covering all my bases, as you can see!) And it worked!
“Hanging by a Thread”
They gave me some excellent drugs, and I was in a pretty good mood throughout the procedure and afterwards. However, I could hear the doctor who did the procedure talking to my son on the phone and she sounded very serious and emphatic. After talking to Josh, she came over and talked to me. Even though I was a bit woozy, I got the message.
She showed me the before and after x-rays that they had taken while doing the procedure.
She said, “Here is the artery we call “the Widow Maker” going into your heart. As you can see, it was hanging by a thread before we did the procedure. There was very little damage to your heart because the heart attack itself was mild. However, the next one would have been catastrophic. We put in a stent, and everything else looks fine, so you should be okay. But, Mr. White, next time you get that feeling in your chest no Googling, call 911.”
After that, I saw quite a few doctors and nurses while I stayed overnight and was then discharged the next day. After a while, it got a little boring to hear them say, “You are really lucky, Mr. White.”
And I’m sure they got tired of hearing me say, “Hey, this is really strange for me. I haven’t been in the hospital overnight for 68 years.”
At this point, I want to be clear about something: Donna’s hospitalization did not cause the heart attack. The doctors said I had been working on it for many years, and that it would have happened eventually.
Well, the next day, Josh brought me home and Donna and I had a tearful reunion. She has told me many times that I have saved her life because she has endured many health crises. But the first thing I told her when I got home was, “The ledger is clear, My Donna. There’s no question you saved my life this time.”
So I had had a near-death experience. It wasn’t the type where you go down a dark tunnel and see a light or meet your relatives on the other side. However, if I’d had another heart attack, I probably would’ve died.
In addition, I fully realized that I’m a person who’s been deeply driven all my life to achieve, to make my mark in the world, whether through my writing, my consulting or even my work in the field of space exploration. I didn’t die that day but that part of me died, and it was a good thing.
To borrow a phrase, I believe I not only died but also was born again. Something else changed, which is a kind of judgment about daily life. I’ve always considered writing to be a noble task, but doing errands to be something you needed to just get through.
One day, maybe a week or two after my experience, I found myself in the parking lot of a Staples store and it was a beautiful day. For a moment, I just stopped in the parking lot and thanked the Lord that I was able to do errands. I realized that if things had gone slightly differently, I would not be there with the warm sun beating down on my face, enjoying running errands.
Donna and I were deeply touched by the thoughtful support we received from our church, friends, and family in the aftermath of my heart attack and her pneumonia.
I believe the heart attack was a blessing in disguise, and it was not really disguised at all. It was also a divine intervention.
So I have made some really big changes in my life since April 12, 2015. One is that I don’t work on the weekends. This is in contrast to my previous approach, which was to work all the time—literally. On Saturdays, I work around the house, or read, or just enjoy family time.
On Sundays, I focus on my spiritual growth, which may include going to church or staying home and praying or meditating, or listening to sermons from my church on the Web.
I have pretty much lost any judgment of others around health. I have been involved in holistic health, meditation, and stress reduction since the 1970s, and I’ve always felt somewhat superior to people who had illnesses. I felt they just weren’t managing themselves properly and of course here I was in my 70s, hale and hearty, and never having hospitalized overnight and so on.
Today, I can no longer look at the world in that way. After all, I have a device in my heart that’s keeping me alive and if it closes, well, that might be it for me. Also, I have to take six different pills every day, and the doctors told me if I don’t take them, that little device might well close off. And I spent several months in cardiac rehab with a bunch of other people who had survived heart attacks.
I’ve learned something about living every day. I wish I could say that every morning, I get up happy to be alive, that I never have negative thoughts or feelings and that the old driven part doesn’t try to come back to life. That isn’t the case, but when it starts happening there is a new part of me that says, “Hey, don’t go there!”
Yes, I might get angry or frustrated about something that’s happening in my life or in my work but then there’s a voice that says, “Anger is stressful and you don’t need that stress.”
As you read this, I hope that you can adopt that attitude without having a major health event. And if you ever feel like a monster has grabbed your chest, please don’t Google it, call 911!
Heaven and Hell
Finally, I don’t know if I can really explain this—but you know there’s an old phrase that “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die to get there,” and I certainly can understand that, after my experience. But recently, I had another insight.
I realized that, to some extent, this is heaven, this life we have right now, today, when we think of the alternative, if we can only see it in that way. In other words, it’s how we see it that makes it heavenly or hellish for us.
I am not at all sure I understand this insight, but it is definitely one of the gifts this experience has given to me.
Perhaps the secret is in living life to the fullest every day right here on our beautiful planet Earth.
If we can do that, even the bad days will be good ones.
© Copyright, Frank White, 2016, All Rights Reserved