The singer and songwriter shares how her faith—and a particular spiritual practice—helped her get through a health crisis.
Posted in , Mar 25, 2022
Do you believe in prayer? I do. This is my fourth story in Guideposts. The first time was back in 1986, when I was at the outset of my music career, a story about loneliness, part of a series Guideposts was doing on the subject.
Loneliness was something many folks mentioned in their letters to Guideposts Prayer Fellowship. I wrote about how I use prayer to overcome loneliness when it strikes, and it strikes just about everyone at one time or another. Even Jesus was lonely in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The next story, in 2005, was about giving and giving thanks, and how any act of generosity, no matter how small, truly makes a difference. My guiding prayer? “Lord, lead me today to those I need and to those who need me, and let something I do have eternal significance.”
The third story, in 2013, was about my dad’s battle with Alzheimer’s. He was a brilliant man, a radiation oncologist who was dedicated to his patients and to learning. It was simply inconceivable to me that a disease could rob this man I loved and admired so much of his intellectual faculties. I had to lean into prayer like never before to deal with it.
Those stories mostly centered on the problems of others and how experiencing God’s presence through prayer is always the answer. This story is about my own journey with a medical condition that was discovered out of the blue two years ago…a heart defect that was about to change my life in ways I’d never imagined.
In December 2019, my husband, Vince Gill, had an appointment with his cardiologist, John Bright Cage, to go over some test results. I went with him. Vince got a great report; his heart was in good shape. Then Dr. Cage turned to me and said the strangest, most unexpected thing. “Amy, I think I need to check you out too.”
Me? I didn’t have any heart issues. In fact, most of my life I’d enjoyed a freakish amount of energy. But recently I had noticed some shortness of breath while singing (something I’ve been doing professionally since I was a teenager) and an irregular heartbeat that would occasionally leave me feeling dizzy. Wasn’t that just part of aging?
I trusted Dr. Cage and booked an appointment for the first week of January. He ordered one test after another. After each procedure, he’d send me a text saying, “Looks good.” But then came a different kind of text: “Call me as soon as you read this.” I did.
The radiologist who had done one particular test contacted Dr. Cage to say that my heart was enlarged, due to a heretofore undetected birth defect—something called partial anomalous pulmonary venous return. (It was a while before I’d be able to say that mouthful.) Evidently, one of the veins that carries blood from the lungs to the heart was going to the wrong side of my heart, enlarging the left ventricle.
“You’re going to need surgery,” Dr. Cage said to me. “Open-heart….And sooner rather than later.”
I had a busy few months coming up, with an extensive concert tour, and band and crew who were counting on that work, so I asked, “Can it wait until…the summer?”
“This condition presents as fine, fine, fine. And then becomes catastrophic,” Dr. Cage said. “You’ll need surgery before the end of the year.”
I hung up, dumbfounded.
I told my sister Carol. She remembered that when we were kids, the pediatrician would always take extra time listening to my heart. He talked about hearing a heart murmur. I had a vague memory of that.
Up to this point in my life—I was 59—I’d never had any real health issues. Open-heart surgery was a lot to wrap my head around.
I was glad for the distraction of the 2020 tour dates that started at the end of January.
And then the pandemic happened.
Everything shut down. For everyone. Concert tours and sporting events were the first things to be canceled. Vince and I found ourselves quietly holed up at our home in Nashville. The situation around the world was upsetting, and my prayers included all the people who were suffering.
This sudden break in our schedule proved a hidden blessing for Vince and me, a hard thing to say in the midst of such a global tragedy. I spent long hours in our backyard, walking barefoot in the grass—grounding myself, feeling the coolness of the earth beneath my feet, savoring every spring flower that bloomed.
I’d take deep breaths, meditating, feeling the breath of life that God breathed into us at the Creation. Everything felt more precious since my diagnosis. I was sensing God in each moment, realizing that if I could learn to live this way, I could live without fear, no matter what the future held. Isn’t that the essence of faith?
By the time I was scheduled for surgery, in June, I was probably the most rested I’d been in years, physically and spiritually. Through social media, word got out of what was in store for me. “It’s amazing how many people are praying for you,” Vince said. “Thousands of them.” I tried to read the responses, but there were just too many. I wanted to reach out and thank each person.
I could feel the peace of everyone’s prayers. I wasn’t scared. Not at all. It was like I had a West Texas wind at my back, carrying me through the entire process. When I was prepped for surgery, I felt so completely enveloped in the presence of God’s love, in the love that came through all those prayers.
That doesn’t mean it was easy. The surgery was a success. Still, afterward, I felt as if I’d been hit by a train. Tubes and wires were coming out of me in all kinds of places. I was bruised, my sternum was wired shut and my chest was stitched up.
The doctors said I’d be in the hospital for a least a week—typical for an open-heart surgery patient—but after three days I was feeling good enough to go home.
I felt like a walking miracle.
And I was.
The 14-week recovery period was a discovery in how different a good heart feels. Gone was the irregular heartbeat. Gone was the shortness of breath. It was as though I had been riding a bike on two flat tires for the past few years, and now they were aired up and ready to go.
After the mostly sedentary six months awaiting surgery, and the three months post-surgery, my mission was to regain and build stamina.
I needed to do something to build strength and endurance. But what? I tried running, but starting that practice at 59 was not a good idea. My body felt old and defeated. My core strength had evaporated. Anyone who sings knows that core strength is essential.
About that time, we began gearing up rehearsals to relaunch the tour that had been canceled in March 2020. I planned an ambitious 25-plus-song set list. Dates were booked. The band and crew were ready.
I was not.
After the first rehearsal, I realized I could not make it through even half of the material. The fear was paralyzing. I imagined that this would be my final tour, limping my way through the songs each night, disappointing myself and anyone who had bought a ticket.
I prayed a familiar prayer: Help me.
The answer turned out to be right in my backyard.
An old friend had come to visit for a few days, just the two of us in the house. We had so much catching up to do.
Since it was summertime, after dinner I suggested, “Let’s go for a nighttime swim and talk under the stars.” When Vince and I bought this house, the pool came with it. I’m not a swimmer. I’d never made much use of the pool. It was mostly for the kids.
That night, Cindy and I kept our heads above water so we could talk, doing the breaststroke, going slowly back and forth the length of the pool, visiting...for two hours! I wasn’t even aware of the passing of time.
The next morning, I woke up feeling more rested than I had felt in some time. That’s it, I thought. Swim! Swimming will help me recover my stamina and my voice.
What a wonderful discovery.
The magic of being in the water, the weightlessness of it was freeing! In the water, I felt like a kid again, doing flips and somersaults, things I could never do at this point on dry land. The words “In him [Christ] we live and move and have our being” took on new meaning for me. With each lap, I felt myself getting stronger.
Thus began the workout that I continue to this day. Going to the Y—it has a bigger pool—swimming for an hour, using it as prayer time. I do the breaststroke, freestyle, sidestroke, backstroke and something I call the frog. Each stroke I dedicate to one of our five kids, praying for them. I pray for every person who crosses my mind.
There’s an old saying: Pray for yourself and you’ve prayed once, pray for someone else and you’ve prayed twice. I pray collectively...for all of us to experience the freedom and the potential of what is possible when we see ourselves as “living, moving and being” in the reality of God’s love.
Who knew that a spiritual practice like this, in the pool, would come about at this stage of my life and, of all things, after open-heart surgery? Life sure does have its surprises. That’s what makes the journey of faith such an adventure.
In November 2020, I turned 60. I guess because I’m a hometown girl, the Nashville paper did a story on me. I gave the reporter permission to talk to my cardiologist, Dr. Cage. He said my condition would have likely killed me in the next two to three years if I hadn’t had surgery.
Reading those words, I immediately called Dr. Cage. “Thank you for not telling me that!” Though he’d said as much to Vince, he’d spared me the added anxiety. That’s great bedside manner in my book!
Since my surgery, I’ve had an 8 p.m. alert on my phone, except when I’m performing (and, yes, my voice is back stronger than ever). “Pray for the caregivers,” it says. For all the people in hospitals and elsewhere who care for the ailing and who’ve had to deal with the ongoing stress of this pandemic. And for the good people God put in my life who helped and cared for me. After all, what greater form of care is there than prayer? Especially when it comes from the heart.
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