Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Revisiting Heart Chronicles #1; i.e., Save Your Life

February is American Heart Month and Go Red for Women. Heart Disease is the number 1 killer of women. We don’t always recognize the symptoms. Many factors increase the risk of heart disease, not just cholesterol or having weight issues. I have heart disease and got it young; I was thin, exercised, ate okay, did not have high cholesterol. Below is the first post of a group of essays called “The Heart Chronicles” that I wrote for my blog starting 2011 about my experience of being ill, getting the right help, the work of ongoing recovery and my gratitude for so much well being. If you even suspect you may have a heart problem, do not delay: seek help, be of good courage and win the battle for greater health.

I am a born walker.  I love the way my arms and legs swing rhythmically and how my breathing deepens, the close up views of place and people from  sidewalks or forested trails. My appreciation of walking likely started when I was a child. I rode my bike often but I walked ten blocks to school and back both alone and with friends. I took leisurely walks around the neighborhood to see friends or just to seek folks on front porches or working in their yards–I wanted to see what was going on. I spent hours in nearby Birch Woods, jumping over roots and navigating leggy plants, around birches, maples, elms, poplars, oaks, along the creek. Sometimes I fancied myself a spy and kept tabs on the crusty old Benfers (and their strawberries and tomatoes and such flowers!) in their sprawling and gorgeous garden in the plot of land by our house, or shadowing Stark Nursery’s customers poking around rows of bushes and trees– where later I ran about, a cowgirl on a wild horse as sunset spread vividly above.

I also recall my mother walking with frightful efficiency and pace, two heavy bags of groceries in her arms, my short steps scurrying to keep up with hers. Freedom was unfettered movement of all kinds–the hallmark of children and those who love to be on the go. But when I became a mother, my children actually nagged me to slow down. Then one of those years I realized they were power walking past me, well-trained.

Now I walk daily unless constrained by intolerable weather or bed-bound by illness. I hike in woods and on numerous trails around the Pacific Northwest, as nature nourishes me. I walk during the day in the city and at night after ten to eleven hour days at my counselling job, and my spouse often joins me. We update each other on day’s events, enjoy beautiful old homes adorned with graceful gardens in our neighborhood. But mostly I walk not to be sociable or to rid myself of stress but because my body loves to move–and my life depends on it.

Almost eleven (note: the heart event was in 2001; this was written in 2012) years ago my husband and I were hiking in the Columbia River Gorge area. We had taken a well-used trail with steep ascending and descending trails that took us deeper into emerald-green of an early September day. I felt sweaty, and a bit breathless but thought little of it. I’d experienced shortness of breath before–and even since I’d quit smoking 9 months prior. I pushed myself harder, not one to shirk at a challenge.  I could hear our destination waterfall in the distance. I would rest then. As we climbed up railroad ties embedded in a hill, my legs began to feel rubbery and to weaken, my chest compressed and breath came hard. I was having trouble getting oxygen in me and it hurt each time I tried. My spouse had moved ahead of me. People passed by with barely a glance as I began to crumple. I willed my legs to carry me up the last bit. Then it landed with a vengeance: the proverbial elephant on my chest. It weighed so much and created such deep aching I could not cry out. I somehow–about on my knees– pulled myself over the top step to where my husband stood. Then fell forward onto the viewing deck as Bridal Veil Fall roared in my ears, then was muted by the physical crisis.

It was a hallucinogenic dream sort of trip through primeval forest as I stumbled, then was half-carried by Marc to the car. Breathing was labored. An odd electric sensation shot through my chest from time to time. I felt nauseous, so exhausted it was as if I might sleep an eternity. But once in the car we did not head to the hospital. I thought only: I’m tired, need to sleep in my own bed, it can wait a night. We went home and I said to Marc that I would make an appointment to get my lungs checked. Was it the start of COPD– or cancer? Damned cigarettes. I knew viscerally I was in serious trouble. Tomorrow, I thought, and fell into a restless, haunted sleep.

When I awakened weary and anxious the next morning I held in my mind one clear thought: Find a heart doctor. Not a lung doctor. It was as though I had been sent a blaring message: my heart was warning me. Rather than look online at my insurance providers list, I oddly–perhaps testament to how bad things were–went through the phone book’s yellow pages and asked each cardiologist’s office closest to my home if they took our insurance. I felt urgency that superseded all. After a half-dozen calls, I found an office that accepted the insurance and had a physician who would see me without a referral. Dr. P. was a new doctor in the large cardiology practice. After I described all my symptoms to a nurse, I was given a slot first thing the next morning but was informed I should call 911 if previous symptoms returned.

I shivered with fear, then calm enveloped me. I had unprecedented faith in forthcoming medical help. This, despite the two doctors I’d sought over the previous year having told me I had “anxiety due to menopause, take a benzodiazapine and relax.” I left disgusted, and without a prescription. I knew there was more to it, but what? I carried on with my life, trying to ignoring the too fast/missed beats, weird pains and general uneasiness–maybe it was just stress symptoms…until a hike in the Coast Mountains, August 2011, where I couldn’t get back up the steep trail without breathlessness with racing heart. Still, I waited another month–the doctors knew better, right?– until that momentous hike in the Columbia Gorge forest. It is amazing how denial can befuddle us.

I could list the tests, share the discussions we had that day but what really happened was that Dr. P. listened. He heard me–my symptoms (which included a worsening rapid heart rate with increasingly less physical exertion, feeling breathless, uncomfortable in my chest–perhaps, yes, as if anxious at times), asked me probing questions– and took immediate action. He believed I’d had a heart attack but it would be hard to discern at that point. I was fifty-one years old and had no risk factors other than having smoked for thirty years until the last seven months. He didn’t believe it was the smoking, though it was perhaps a contributor. Perhaps stress or a genetic link. But I was too healthy, overall, in good shape, and young for such an event. He seemed nearly as shocked as I did but knew my heart was ill.

Dr. P. informed me he was newer to this work but had done over three hundred angiograms–the procedure most used to determine if and how badly an artery is closed or clogged. An attending cardiologist and he would do all they could to help me not only stay alive but become healthier for the long-term. Did I trust him? Was the procedure going to reveal what was needed to help me? I asked myself as I went home to share the news with Marc. As I awaited his arrival, I stared out our big picture window and knew that I did. I was also caught in a strange state, knowing I could have been dead or might yet be, but also felt vibrantly alive, if a bit out of body as well. I also knew I was ready for whatever came next. I thought it all good enough.

On September 17, 2001 I was provided a way back to health with the first stent implant. The tiny device propped open an artery that had narrowed and was more than 90% closed. I was, he said, lucky to be alive. And it wasn’t cholesterol but inflammation that was the culprit. I had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease. It was not the end of it. I would have four angiograms over the next two years and another stent implant as well as changes in heart medications. I returned home each time with wild arrhythmias that sometimes still want to bully me. Tachycardia became an intimate foe, from zero to one hundred and forty until we found the right medication )I was allergic to many).. I learned that if it held at one hundred and twenty I could bear it but if it went on and on, I might still call 911. But medications finally worked better. I went to cardiac rehab. I became brave enough to walk on my own again. Ultimately, with time and exercise and support systems, my heart became much stronger and it beat far more safely so I could inhabit a life worth living.

And so, though always an active person, I began to walk more, first ten minutes and then twenty minutes, in a few weeks forty-five, then finally an hour or two, six days a week, sometimes seven. I had taken time off from work and might have become engaged in swimming or bicycling; I flirted with the idea of flamenco. or something else exotic. But it was simple walking that drew me out of the painful sense of loss and into the world; walking that gave me a little thrill of anticipation; greater encouragement each day as I felt my heart flutter, jump, pause and startle. Walking reunited me with a life of kaleidoscopic wonders. Everything tasted, smelled, looked and felt better. My heart pumped hard, oxygen surged through me so that my mind clarified; my spirit felt more courageous, and lighter.

Oddly, my emotional heart felt more open to everyone and all I care about. I had been a tough woman for many years so that I could survive an assortment of trials, get past loves that had soured. I discovered the path to healing a heart is more challenging but richer than I had imagined. Not a day has passed that I don’t find a reason to laugh for the sheer pleasure of it: my heart became profoundly capable of more living. My emotions were loosened so I felt fully human, closer to who and what I knew as a young child.

And each time Dr. P. tells me: “You’re a star patient. You’ve beaten the odds so far. Your hard work pays off every day.”

I tell him: “You listened to me and saved my life.”

That day I walked my fingers to the yellow pages? They took me to a person who is a fine and committed cardiologist, one who has always cheered me on my journey. Maybe it was a guardian angel who left me the urgent directive that early morning. But I still walk every day out of respect for him, for myself, for this irreplaceable treasure called life. I discovered the power of a mended heart. I intend to use it well.

Still living well–so can you!

GO RED FOR WOMEN:

G: GET YOUR NUMBERS

Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure and cholesterol.

O: OWN YOUR LIFESTYLE

Stop smoking, lose weight, exercise, and eat healthy.

It’s up to you. No one can do it for you.

R: REALIZE YOUR RISK

We think it won’t happen to us, but heart disease kills one of three women.

E: EDUCATE YOUR FAMILY

Make healthy food choices for you and your family.

Teach your kids the importance of staying active.

D: DON’T BE SILENT

Tell every woman you know that heart disease is our No. 1 killer.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: We All Die of Something

Ruby red, small fisted, dauntless royal heart,

heart that has born me up, loaned me a life.

This heart that runs of its own accord,

with daily rescues, with my will as cohort.

How it keeps thumping, pushing,

sweet talking despite time or errors, passions

wearing out me out, the cumulative years

like sand falling, driven against stone,

and wind gnarling the once green tree.

 

I call out to it even as it labors,

don’t let me down, dance me just so,

grow old at home behind the light armor

of ribs with a proprietary peace.

And still it heeds my pleas.

I carry it into the ruins of the world,

into dangers of ordinary living,

and tentative runs with silver hair flying, on walks

with legs that push until my breath shortens,

squeezes me to a stop. I count the seconds,

eyes widely watering, back to passersby

until we can go on, panting,

dash through tender or cutting rains,

under sun’s umbrella, in moonlight’s whisper

and the trees, who know everything.

You feel with me as they wave, rivers flash,

and other creatures call.

You feel because I feel. Or is it

the other way around, my friend?

 

The rest we manage, too, madcap

mysteries and random muttering spiked

with bolts of anger and deep weeping wells,

sorts of things few might admit but we cannot deny.

We are comrades, more than this,

confessor and confessed,

body and soul.

 

So today when the one (who 20 years ago

salvaged us) intones with smile and handshake

doing well once more, keep up the great work,

stop worrying because you know

we all die of something-

I lift you, my heart, out into the world

feeling more brave and sturdy but this, too:

five more years, ten more years. Please.

When all that exists for us is this moment,

old heart, so let us know the glory of it.

the golden romance of another reprieve.

Good heart, it only comes to this, 

that we shall live and live and pass as one

 

Friday’s Quick Pick: Farewell to Heart Concerns (for now!) and Beck’s Tree Farm

 

Well, I came through the heart angiogram just fine and am about back on my feet, after a fine conclusion: the third stent implant is not needed! Now I happily turn my attention to the Season’s preparations once more and must think about where we will get our fresh tree this year.

Beck’s Tree Farm was visited over the years as it was our favorite place to get a tree. It was bought later in life by a charming and friendly couple who finally retired from the business; now new owners apparently have other plans. We quite enjoyed the woolly sheep, our endless walks across muddy fields to discover the very best tree which we (or, if our son wasn’t there, a helper) cut down. Such panoramic views were beheld, including glimpses of Mt. Hood. The air was crisp and sweet. It was fun, felt magical to us.

Here are a few pictures from 2013 and 2015 of the annual trip out there with our son, Joshua and his children, Asher and Avery. Happy memories, indeed! (Now Asher is 13; Avery is 16, soon to graduate early from high school.) You will note Joshua is wearing a more  typical Northwest attire even in winter: shorts (if at all possible) with a heavy fleece-lined flannel and sneakers (or hiking shoes). Of course, the Santa hat is required for these Christmas forays!

No matter where we discover our next and best piney tree, then decorate and light it  up, it will be more good times shared. I can’t imagine anything better. Though I may have a less than perfect heart, it is beating strong and true, overflowing with love for my family and friends as we gather around table and tree.

Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: A Heart for Life

Photo by Alexandra Richardson

The heart takes it all in, the tender and piquant,
pings of sadness that stop us in the street,
messages of death carved on the walls,
yesterday’s certainties strewn at your knees,
empires treacherous, unknown or golden
and sound of dew gathering, incense of ancient wood.

The heart gathers secrets: pearls of light to part gloaming,
the wildness of fighting and loving, sleepwalking fears,
shadows of scavengers perched upon pinnacles,
shouts of joy flying on a warm west wind,
your victories and beatings entwined as twins,
betrayals like rust in your mouth. Hope abloom in your belly.

The heart knows and bears and intuits all things.
It is a marthoner, meant to service you without fail,
a constancy overlooked as the air you breathe,
it’s precision a mysterious matrix, sinew and blood.
It doesn’t beg attention nor keep track of favors
nor run you ragged–until it’s become too late.

Within its inner chambers reigns a holiness.

Feel the prayerful music and dance? It lives for you.
Shelter and adore it, rescue and honor it
as it starts and finishes every single moment with you.


February is American Heart Month–this is why I am wearing red today and holding up a stone heart I found–and feeling gratitude. Diagnosed with heart disease at 51 a couple of days after suffering a suspected heart attack while hiking, it changed my life. But this year is my 17th still alive, thanks to medical interventions I’ve received and ongoing management of symptoms. I work at staying well, as 1 out of 3 women (and 1 of every 4 men) in this country die of heart disease. Learn the symptoms and signs of heat attack and stroke as they are not always obvious! Care for yourself enough to preserve this wonderful powerhouse that keeps us going. Check it out: http://www.americanheartassociation.com

 

My Heart, My Queen

My Heart, My Queen via Discover Challenge: The Greatest _______ in the World

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It’s the happily blood thirsty and nutrient-carrying, industrious and curiously adaptable heart, when all is said and done–isn’t it? That would qualify as the greatest of something worth noting, this being the organ in the human vehicle that propels us into the world. The one that gets us up and at ’em, then transports us through velvety caves of thought and architecture of sleep and even blurred somnambulance.

I know a little something of hearts, of working ones and failing ones. How mine leaps, thrums and flails, at least. It alerts me sometimes late and sometimes early to what is to be reckoned with: it is an organ that has its own intuition and its own mutable barometer. It shimmers like a rich scarlet light inside the brazen frame of my ribs. I am part of a small percentage of those who literally feel its responses daily and nightly, as if I am its default keeper (am I?) and not the other way around, as if it means to accompany me on every tiny turn of earthly or other pathways I skim and trod. This is a blessing. It can seem to be a curse. Having a heart that whispers and sings, then shakes it fisted mass at me–it is a thing that cannot be ignored for long.

As a child it was quieter. That is, it was in the same league as the rest of my functioning pieces, neither brighter or dimmer than the other parts as I blithely used the body I was given. I could do all things, I thought. I might well have done if there was time, who knows? My heart wanted so much. That I felt early.To care for it meant to live, simply put, and my heart obliged, letting me love it as much as feet and belly and head and fingertips and teeth that fell out and grew in and tiny hairs on arms that prickled in sudden delight. Or, later, fear.

And the heart grew with me, or so it felt. It seemed bigger in my chest, as if the one who commanded and filled me up. I noticed it took up more of my life. It started to flinch a little and toss about and lie low when uncertainty hit. It often generated poetry of the moment and prayers that had no succinct words. It rocked with the wisdom of ages and stole away into shadows during our brazen escapes. We were partners, co-conspirators. I knew my heart was a thunderous engine that kept my life humming and reaching but even let it make mistakes.

It didn’t show signs of weakening as I grew, changed and became that adult that had once seemed like a distant dream or a warning of likely hardship to come. Yet, wait, that is a lie. It surely wanted to back down, even collapse on bent knee in its autonomic muscular manner; there were times it held back or lurched, but it was incapable of retracting its grand intent way back when. Because it is a heart. It has its duty, its job. It was and is meant to work, to shift and seem to fly easily like silken wings or groan like rusty gears. To draw attention, then harbor itself in its inner sanctum, deep into its chambers so the rest of the body can go about its business.

I had to abuse it some, ignore it more, pretend it mattered less than what I accepted. I had to be a bit heedless of its messages, reckon with its temperament, which well reflected mine too often. I was an amateur trying to live like a pro. My trusty heart waited and gathered intelligence for our future.

We forget about its greater meanings. Its multiple uses. How it is not a paper heart, not a clay or stone or ever actually a smiley heart. It is a serious and unequaled creation of sinew and electrical impulses and valves and rich blood flowing in and out, up and down, without which we cannot live one more mundane or extraordinary moment. It is the Queen/King of our private territory, our fleshly boundaries, our brain’s acrobatics and investigations and musings by candle light or sunrise or at our desks when all else is just ticking about us. It pumps and pumps and we go forth and ignore it if possible, do we not? Until it aches or adores or grieves or exalts. That sort of a greatest thing is part of what it is.

Nonetheless, my companion heart, my devoted and tough and touching heart walloped me hard at 51. Yes, this heart that reflects my greater peace, creative passion and upsurges of soul-inspired kindness and love; despite random terrors survived and frequent conundrums; that thrives on my adoration of its workings and mysteries. It just took me down at the base of a riotous waterfall in the Columbia Gorge forest.

Now, it said, hear me well. Alter your life choices further. Respect your particular genes. Reappraise your forgotten dreams and arduous agendas. Revere the miracles of science as I signal an SOS to keep you sentient.

I obeyed. I found a way to stay alive. Would you not obey a heart that cried out and desperately wanted to rally, strictly on your behalf? I am telling you the truth, you would listen and you would follow that decree and if you had the will and the fortune, you would somehow walk out of that forest to find salvation.

And so, I know that the heart is the greatest. I yet live. It beats its own alternating rhythms and even when shocking or cranky it yet keeps its agreements with me and with God, if unknown in full to me. I follow its lead. We manage to embrace each day with thanksgiving. It knows far, far more than do I and that makes me a willing student. This heart–our hearts–they are given to us as guides, lest we forget we are profoundly, maddeningly human, lest we forget we are here this minor but powerful time. It is a body of light wrapped in sinew that we have been gifted–lest we forget we may even be angels in the making, carrying beacons for this day and beyond time.