Breathe, I told myself. My 22-year-old son, Owen, ran down the hospital corridor to find a nurse. My husband, Scott, was hooked up to heart monitors that had started beeping loudly. The monitors showed no heartbeat. He was flat-lining.
After what seemed like minutes, several nurses ran in, and seconds later, the monitors showed a heartbeat again. (We soon learned that the new heart monitor had not been correctly connected to the nurse’s station.) Scott was moved into the intensive care unit (ICU). Within a few hours, he was rushed into surgery. A temporary pacemaker, used in emergency situations, was attached to his neck. Its wires were threaded into his neck veins to keep his heart pumping until the correct pacemaker model could be identified and installed.
Breathe, I told myself.
Those ten days my husband spent in the ICU were emotionally exhausting for me and my family. The outside world stopped, and our whole existence was within the walls of the ICU. How did he go from being completely healthy and a lifetime athlete to lying in an ICU bed with a life-threatening heart condition?
Standing with me in the sterile ICU hallways, the doctors said multiple times, “He is here. Most men die of this. We will figure this out.” I tried to hold on to their reassurance and feel gratitude amidst the fear within and around me. Yet, panic rushed up and down my spine, and tears welled up in my eyes.
Owen chose to read up on the two heart diseases that were being discussed. I chose not to. I chose to take one moment at a time, one breath at a time. I did not want to fill my mind with many what ifs and more worry and fear.
Breathing calmed me. Praying calmed me. The many family and friends that reached out to us gave me comfort.
As the days went by, the pull to live one moment at a time deepened within me. When fear arose, I consciously tried to hand it over to God. I repeated to myself, “Let go, let God. Help me. Give me your strength.”
We eventually learned that Scott’s heart had been damaged by cardiac sarcoidosis, a rare heart condition that causes inflammation in the heart muscle and electrical damage to the whole heart. It can lead to heart failure. Many of our doctor friends said, “I read about this disease in medical school. Scott is what we call a zebra.” A zebra, they explained, was a patient with a diagnosis that is rarely seen in medicine. Only one of them, a cardiologist named Andy, was familiar with cardiac sarcoidosis.
Today, three years later, Scott is responding well to daily doses of an autoimmune drug, heart-failure drugs, and an anxiety medication. He tries to limit his exposure to germs given his low immune system.
Every six months, Scott visits the doctor for a check-up. And every six months we wonder, what will his scans tell us?
Last week we heard good news from the cardiology expert at the Mayo Clinic: things are stable. Scott now has another six months to get healthier and stronger.
Life and death are front and center for Scott, not in the background, like they are for most 54-year-olds. His health condition has sharpened our appreciation for life. Both of us are compelled to embrace what is important and focus on enjoying each day.
Taking control of the mind and not letting it race to what ifs or possible future scenarios takes daily practice and commitment for us. It includes accepting each moment fully and, in each moment, choosing love over fear. Knowing that we are not our minds, we can step back and observe thoughts and feelings, which helps slow the mind and create internal space and stillness. Living each day and each moment is a conscious practice.
Gratitude for life is front and center in our lives. And this gratitude starts with each moment and each breath.