Post-Heart Attack Life

Life happens in layers, I think, each action and each event having far-reaching implications, many of which are not known until months or years later. We spent the months after Matt’s heart attack (if you haven’t read the story, see here for parts one, two, three, four, and the aftermath) focusing on making the necessary changes to our lives. Matt is on medication and sees his cardiologist regularly, and he began exercising, first every other day, and then every day, and we completely transformed our diet. We’re always tweaking things, and Matt is continuing to try to lose weight, but, for the most part, things have been pretty stable.

But one night in May, I came home from an evening of hanging out with other women as part of our church’s women’s retreat, and Matt told me he felt off. As I asked more questions, he said he wasn’t sure what it was, but he’d been outside that day and gotten sunburnt, and he’d used some different exercise equipment at the gym, and he was sure that’s all it was, but his chest had felt a little weird. Just to be safe, though, since he was home alone with all four of our kids, he’d taken some meds. Alarm bells immediately went off in my mind. He was sure it was nothing – but he hadn’t really thought that the chest pain he’d experienced in the couple days prior to his heart attack warranted more attention than an aspirin.

By this time it was getting late, but I’d just been chatting with a nurse friend at the women’s event, so I was sure she’d be awake, and I called and got her opinion – which was that if this was anyone else, she’d say it was probably no big deal, but with Matt’s history, we needed to check in with his doctor. We are so blessed to have, as Matt’s primary care doctor, a friend from church. I texted him and asked him to call me if he was awake, because we had a question about Matt’s health, and he called within five minutes. After talking with Matt, he advised him to head to the ER – that it was probably nothing, but better safe than sorry. Matt said he didn’t want to turn it into a big deal by having someone else come here and watch our kids or having someone come and get him, so he drove himself in, while I stayed at home with our kids.

And honestly, it was an emotional night. I was relieved when, by 2:00 a.m., he texted me to say that bloodwork was showing that his troponin levels were normal and an EKG showed nothing out of the ordinary. He stayed for another round of bloodwork 4 hours later and then, when all looked okay, came home to get a few hours of rest and then to hang out with our kiddos, so that I could go in to speak at day two of our women’s retreat. Interestingly enough, for a portion of my talk I was using as examples some of our experiences after Matt’s heart attack, so my mind and my heart were already steeped in some of the counsel I’d received then.

Most poignant among all of it was and continues to be, “Enjoy your time together, it is a gift. Use this time to draw close to God and Matt.”

After Matt’s heart attack, I hadn’t realized that I was afraid to draw nearer to him in our relationship until my friend spoke those words to me. Even knowing that our time together might have a hard stop years before we’d dreamed it could, we were and are called to this marriage relationship together, and I realized then and I know now that I cannot take him to have and to hold, to love and to cherish – as I stood in front of our family and friends 14 years ago and promised to do – if I’m holding him at a distance. And so I push fear away and draw near to him.

I’ve been thinking about Philippians 4:4-8 lately – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

These are hard verses in that they do not promise what I wish that they promised. They don’t say, “Don’t be anxious, because if you pray, God will give you what you want.” They tell us not to be anxious, and they tell us to pray, but what is promised is not the desired result but peace. What I’d like is a guarantee of long life and love, but try as I might, I’ve found that nowhere.

But I contemplate a God who is true, a God who is honorable, a God who is just, a God who is pure, a God who is lovely, a God who is commendable, a God who is excellent, a God who is worthy of praise. I trust that He is sovereign and that He is good and that this life that He has given to me and is giving to me is the one He laid out for me to have, and He will walk with me through it.

I don’t always feel peace. Matt and I are watching through the first season of This is Us right now. We just watched the Christmas episode, in which Toby collapses, and I felt my breath catch in my throat and my heart pound in my chest. I know that panic, and I know those hospital beeps. I know that there’s no guarantee they will stay at bay for years or even days to come.

And yet there is an undercurrent of peace throughout our lives. I choose to trust myself to the God of the universe and throw myself into this life He’s given to me. I expect there will be more ER trips in the future. That’s something that, 15 months ago, it didn’t occur to me to anticipate as part of this new reality, but I know now to expect it. If you experience cardiac arrest at age 39, chest pain earns you a trip to the ER to be checked out, and it’s going to happen, though I hope it’ll be infrequent.

But as long as we’re here together on this earth, living this life, we’ll press on and try to use the days that we have well.

the heart attack (part one: Camden)

As many of you probably already know, while we were in New York for Matt’s sister Denya’s funeral, Matt actually had a heart attack. I’m still not entirely certain how to write about this event in our lives – it’s still pretty raw, and I think it’s something that we’re going to be continuing to process for months and years to come. I’m going to share just a glimpse into how I’m currently thinking about it now, and I’m sure I’ll revisit it in the future, as well.

We’d all gone as a family to the calling hours for Denya on that Wednesday afternoon and then went to Matt’s mom’s house for a quick dinner. Knowing that it would be even more crowded that evening and that it had already been a long day for our kids, we decided that the kids and I would go back to the hotel and hang out there while just Matt went to the evening calling hours. The kids and I read books and played, and I set them up with a movie, and I texted with Matt intermittently.

I almost can't even look at this picture. It was so soon afterwards that everything changed. Every minute matters.
I almost can’t even look at this picture. It was so soon afterwards that everything changed. Every minute matters.

At one point Matt told me that his chest was hurting, and he got an aspirin from someone. I was concerned, but he’d had chest pain in the past and had even gone to the ER to get it checked out about a year ago, and the doctors had said they believed it to be more related to his chest muscles than his heart, so I think both of us assumed it was more of that.

Matt came back to the hotel after the calling hours ended. The girls were still watching their movie on their bed, so Matt and I sat with Atticus on our bed and chatted a bit and just relaxed. Matt was laughing at their cheesy kids’ movie, and at one point his laugh turned into a funny sort of wheeze-laugh. I asked him why he was laughing that way, and he just looked at me. I even asked him if he was having a heart attack, but he couldn’t respond. I started to become alarmed, and I remember thinking that it might seem silly if he came back to normal in 30 seconds, but I really thought I needed to call 911.

I told the dispatcher that I thought my husband might be having a heart attack and told him where we were. And I told him that I’d taken CPR classes but couldn’t remember right at that moment exactly what I was supposed to do first, but if he’d tell me what to do, I could do it. He told me I needed to get Matt off the bed and onto the floor. I really wasn’t sure I could do that – the hotel room was tiny, and there wasn’t much space between the beds, and Matt is a lot bigger than I am. I remembered seeing other cars in the parking lot that night, so I ran out into the hallway and yelled that we were having a medical emergency and was anyone else there. Fortunately for us, a couple, whom I later found out were Matt’s cousin Mechell and her husband, were staying right across the hall. They came over to our room and helped me get Matt onto the floor, and Mechell – a nurse – started performing CPR while her husband and I held Matt’s legs up. He was pretty blue by this point. Every once in a while he’d take a gaspy breath on his own, but he wasn’t breathing at all normally. I yelled to him to stay with me. All of our kids were upset by this point, and Mechell’s husband told me he could hold Matt’s legs, and I could grab the baby. Holding Atticus, I called Matt’s mom and told her that Matt had stopped breathing, and I needed her to come. In true mom fashion – doing what needs to be done no matter what – she said she’d be there.

An older woman also poked her head in the room, and as the 911 operator asked me if the doors were unlocked, I asked her if she’d go down and unlock the back door to get into the hotel. She also volunteered to stay down there and tell the EMTs where to go once they arrived.

At that point things seemed to be in something of a holding pattern, and the 911 operator told me that help would be there soon. I asked if he knew when they’d get there, because we really needed them, and right after that the first man ran into the room. Immediately they shooed us out, telling us to go across the hall to Mechell’s room.

I sat down on the floor with the kids and prayed. And I called my friend Brooke and told her that Matt had stopped breathing and I needed her to pray. Matt’s mom and his step-dad, Dan, arrived then, too. It wasn’t long before the EMTs – who, by now, had crowded into our hotel room, the hallway, and Mechell’s room – all let out a cheer – they’d shocked Matt’s heart, and he had a pulse, and they were hopeful that he’d be okay.

Mechell told me that someone would come and talk to me, and she asked if I was going to ride along in the ambulance. I didn’t know what I should do – I wanted to be with Matt, but I also wanted to and needed to take care of our kids. Matt’s mom said she would take care of the kids, and Mechell nodded. I had enough time and was able to get back into our hotel room just enough to grab my sweater, my phone charger, and my wallet. I wasn’t able to get to my coat, but I told Matt’s mom where to find our car keys in its pocket, and I said a quick goodbye to our kids, and Mechell gave me her coat as I walked out the door.

Next installment to come in a day or two…

reflections from a week of solo parenting

Matt was incredibly excited to be invited to be part of Wakonse again this year, and we both knew it was a great opportunity for him. Last year he found it to be invigorating, encouraging, and helpful for continuing to refine his teaching, as well as a good opportunity for networking. I knew a week of parenting our 3 young kiddos would be intense without him, but I agreed that the trip would be good for him, and so, a little over a week ago, he boarded a bus headed for the shores of Lake Michigan at 6:00 a.m.

During the time that he was away, I found myself reflective. How should I view my week at home with our kids? What was the marriage and parenting context in which I was setting it? What did it look like to love and parent well during that time?

I preached to myself over and over a truth that Matt and I always make sure to discuss with young couples when we meet with them for pre-marital counseling – marriage is not a 50/50 proposition. Viewing it that way is a set-up for disaster. You’ll find yourself keeping score, tallying everything that you’re doing and comparing it to what you see of your spouse’s contributions, and it’s nearly inevitable that you will see him or her coming up short. It was so easy to start slipping toward making a list of all that I was doing during this week that Matt was away – changing diapers, making dinners, putting 3 kids to bed each and every night, and on and on and on; meanwhile he was obviously not here and thus doing none of those things. And I would find myself thinking of the rewards that I felt I deserved for my hard work…only to have to hit the brakes hard. This is my family, the people I love more than anyone else on earth. It is an honor and a blessing to care for them. And what I’m called to and what I’ve committed myself to is very different from putting in 50% of the work required to sustain our family; it’s putting forth 100% of what I can, looking for ways I can love and areas where I can serve, and doing so joyfully. That is what our marriage is about.

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Another realization I found myself having over and over again was that, often times, proactive parenting is what constitutes good parenting. All of our kids had a hard time with Matt being gone, more than I expected. It felt like our days were often off course before they even began. I realized very quickly that, particularly within that context, I needed to be proactive, to spot potential difficulties before they arrived and do what I could to steer us around them. The sensory bins came out on multiple occasions.

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We kept up with our structure as much as possible, doing school most days. We turned errands into adventures. I said “yes” when I could and tried to set us up for success.

On a related note, I reminded myself multiple times that I was making choices about the narrative I was telling myself about this time. I could choose to focus on the hard – and there was a lot of it – or I could choose to focus on the opportunities for fun. As much as possible, I tried to keep the positive narrative at the forefront of my mind, to see the blessings of our time and to plan fun activities for us. One huge blessing was that my brother David joined us for the week. While no one can take the place of a parent, having an extra pair of hands and some adult conversation is undeniably helpful! In part because he was here, we were able to pack a lot of fun into our week without Matt. We visited multiple parks, which was so good for everyone.

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We all enjoyed being outside, and as an added bonus, the kids’ energy expenditure made them significantly more receptive to bedtime in the evenings!

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Another well-received activity was making homemade popsicles and then enjoying them out on the porch during a rainy afternoon!

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We really did have fun together!

Of course, I was still counting down the days until Matt’s return…which, of course, led to high expectations of what that homecoming would actually look like. I think probably the lesson I’ve most consistently needed to learn from Matt’s travels has been that homecomings are not all they’re cracked up to be. Yes, it was great to see Matt. No, he didn’t waltz in the door proclaiming his undying love and expressing profuse thankfulness for my efforts at home during his absence. And when I build up the moment of his arrival, counting down to it for days, I set us all up for disappointment.

All in all, it was an exhausting week, but it was great to get some time with my brother, and he and I and the kiddos really did have some good, fun times. And being jolted out of our normal routines gave me an opportunity for reflection – and, hopefully, growth, that I wouldn’t otherwise have had!