In retrospect, he realized that he was a walking miracle.
Posted in , Jan 25, 2022
I woke up one August morning this past summer, got out of bed and stumbled to the open window, panting for breath. For about 40 seconds, I could barely breathe. It was terrifying enough to send me straight to the ER.
I knew what was wrong. Almost 14 years earlier, I’d had open-heart surgery to replace the aortic valve I’d been born with. It was bicuspid, not tricuspid, as with most people. I’d been told at a young age that there was a high possibility it would need to be replaced. Someday.
I’d blithely figured that “someday” would arrive well into my senior years. I went in for annual checkups with my cardiologist, then put it out of my mind and lived my life. Come to think of it, I probably skipped a few years here and there. After all, I was a busy guy—working, raising the kids, trying to be a good husband and dad. I was in shape, running in the park, working out in the gym, eating healthy foods. What did I have to worry about?
Then it all came crashing down. I had an aortic aneurysm when I was only 52 and needed open-heart surgery to put in a bovine valve. Recovery was difficult, and the struggle was more than physical. Depression is often an aftereffect of heart surgery, but for me, it was more like anxiety. I could no longer sleep through the night. My body would jerk awake, as though it were saying, “Don’t do that to me again. Don’t open my sternum and stop my heart to fix it.” As if every cell of my being was worried that if I slept too deeply I might never wake up again.
The doctors had said that my new bovine valve would eventually need to be replaced, maybe in 10 years, 15 if I was lucky. In the meantime, I tried not to dwell on it and got my anxiety under control. I began running in the park again, resumed a normal life, was diligent about checkups with my cardiologist. I also deepened my prayer practice, exploring contemplative prayer and meditation. My faith discoveries culminated in a new book I was working on, Even Silence Is Praise. I’d come a long way, physically and emotionally, and didn’t look back.
Until that August morning, when I woke up struggling for air. After an excruciatingly long wait in the ER, I was finally admitted to the cardiac ward and scheduled for surgery to replace the bovine valve that had worked for 14 years. I lay in my hospital bed regretting I hadn’t been “lucky” enough for the valve to have lasted the full 15. I wasn’t ready to face another surgery. More than that, I was scared of the anxiety that might return in recovery.
I’d been praying fiercely since arriving at the ER. I tried putting into practice the most effective contemplative prayer and meditation techniques I’d taught myself since my first heart surgery. I needed to quiet my mind, but I was really struggling to do so. Nothing was working. Had I learned anything in all this time? I closed my eyes, shutting out the world, inviting God in.
Finally it dawned on me, like a sunbeam piercing through a cloudy sky: What a walking miracle I was already! All those miraculous stories I’d written about for Mysterious Ways, and yet I’d never fully acknowledged the miracle that had happened to me.
I let myself relive the circumstances leading up to that first surgery in early December 2007. Circumstances I’d avoided thinking too much about. I’d had my annual checkup with my cardiologist that summer. He’d listened to my heart, read my echocardiogram and given me the green light. “See you next year,” he said. Three months after that appointment, I noticed that my asthma was acting up. I went to my pulmonologist, and she ran an MRI to check my lungs. She called me that night.
“Your lungs look fine,” she said, “but that aneurysm in your aorta looks pretty serious.” Aneurysm in my aorta! “You need to do something about it immediately.” I made an appointment with a surgeon and was under the knife in a few days.
If I hadn’t had completely unrelated issues with my asthma that required an MRI, I wouldn’t have had any cause for concern until it was too late. I have often given thanks for the miracle of modern medicine. But my life had been saved by more than just doctors and tests and sophisticated medical machinery. The timing was everything, and (as is often the case) it lay out of my hands and the hands of the experts. It was divine timing that had saved me. God had given me every single one of the 14 years since my last heart surgery.
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