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Hope and Faith in Intensive Care

It's American Heart Month. Read Rick Hamlin's inspiring story of how his faith was renewed as he faced open-heart surgery.

By Rick Hamlin, New York, New York

As appeared in

The thing that scared me most was the anesthesia. The fear was so overwhelming I couldn’t sleep the night before my surgery. I lay there in my room on the cardiac ward with the lights off, trying not to keep checking the clock on the wall. But I couldn’t help it. Every time I looked, only a minute or two had gone by. It seemed like morning would never come. I could accept that a surgeon would do the repair work my heart needed, but being “put under”? That sounded unsettling, close to being “put down,” what you’d do for a pet that was beyond help. Too close to death.

I’m not normally a fearful person. I feel comfortable with doctors and listen to their medical wisdom with a combination of awe and trust. That my heart had a valve defect was information I’d known for decades. Every year I’d go to my cardiologist, get my heart checked out, sit and chat about exercise and cholesterol levels—neither of which was ever a problem for me. I listened to the doctor explain that there was a weakness in the walls of my aorta and someday this could cause trouble. Someday, in my mind, was far off. People who had heart surgery, well, weren’t they usually…older? Members of the “zipper club” like my father, showing off their chest scars at the swimming pool.

I always performed well on cardiac stress tests and was confident—perhaps overconfident—of my health. But then I did all those things you’re supposed to do. I ran, went to the gym, ate well, slept well, had regular physicals. And I took care of my spiritual health. I’m active in my church, sing in the choir, teach a rambunctious bunch of kids in Sunday school and make prayer a part of daily life. I trusted the doctors to keep an eye on my body and God to watch out for my soul. It seemed like the perfect division of labor. Until now.

At my last visit with my cardiologist there’d been nothing alarming. Then I had a CT-scan for another doctor—she was worried about a cough I had. On a picture-perfect autumn Saturday, I jogged the 15 blocks from our apartment in upper Manhattan to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, had the scan and jogged home. I felt great. But a couple days later the doctor called me back. “Your lungs look fine,” she said, “but that aneurysm in your aorta is really big. You’d better talk to your cardiologist about it. Right away.” An aneurysm? I felt a prickle of fear. Didn’t people die from ruptured aneurysms?

My cardiologist saw me right away. He tapped his pencil on his desk and pointed out the aorta in a large model of the heart. “You’ll need to have open-heart surgery,” he said.

The fear came over me like a cold wind. Open-heart surgery would be a huge ordeal. I’d be under anesthesia for hours, lying on a table in the operating room. The idea of it gave me the creeps. A machine would take over for my heart and lungs. I wouldn’t even be breathing on my own. “Isn’t there some less invasive way of doing this?” I asked.

“No,” he said simply.

I headed back to work. On the subway I took out my pocket Bible, a green volume I picked up years ago, now so battered I’d taped it together. I turned to the Psalms as I do every morning on my commute and tried to pray. But nothing would come. The rhythm of the cars careening along the track, the usual background for my spiritual ritual, jarred me and cranked up my fears. All I could think of was being in that operating room, unconscious, cut off from the world, cut off from God.

I called my old college roommate Jim. He and I have prayed each other through tons of situations over the years. We’re godparents to each others’ kids. “It looks like I’m going to have to have open-heart surgery.” I filled him in.

“We’ll keep you in our prayers,” he said before hanging up.