Can you imagine heaven? Imagine a place where a handicapped person (like me) will have unlimited strength and most of all—no pain! In heaven, I will not have a degenerating spine! I will not walk with a limp or need a cane! In heaven, I can imagine running—running—pell-mell toward the throne of God and bowing low, low, before him. Enthroned in light he takes my hand, lifts me up, and begins to sing his endless song of love over me.* And free of every burden and every sin, I sing back to him, with a perfect bell-like voice, clear and better than I ever had on earth. And other voices, multitudes of voices, are singing with me—Praises to the king—the only one who deserves our honor and glory and praise and blessing.** I can imagine it so clearly! Everything is perfect, and there is so much light—and everyone is perfect. I imagine this more and more often in the weeks of August. When it’s hard to breath, I imagine heaven. When everything hurts, I imagine heaven. In heaven, I jump and run and dance!
Finally, the last week of August, when I really, really, can’t breathe, and the inhaler doesn’t help any longer and my third call to the cardiologist does not result in an appointment and a trip to the internist offers nothing, we make a plan. On Thursday morning we shower and eat a good breakfast and I tidy up, (leaving sticky note instructions everywhere—I don’t know if I’ll be back) and then go to the ER. Perhaps I can be made more comfortable. And then suddenly, despite my longing for heaven, I begin to beg God to let me live. I can think of so much yet undone. There are important things to teach the grandchildren! I have writing to do! Both Rog and I are teary on the way to the hospital. I don’t want to leave yet. My husband doesn’t want me to leave. Heaven looks so good. But people love me and I love them and what do you do with that? And besides, Roger can’t see heaven; he just wants me to stay. And so we begged God for my life.
Soon after arrival, the ER doc reminds me of my congestive heart failure, pulmonary edema, and my failing aortic valve and we both cry. When he asked us why we are so emotional I tell him, “You don’t understand. I have a big life! I can’t die yet!” He tells me, “I don’t think you need to think like that. There are things we can do. But I’m not the one who will tell you about them.” “Well why not?” I ask. “Just wait, the cardiologist will see you when we get you upstairs and he’ll tell you what your options are. But you will have options.” Meanwhile, I periodically grab the rail of the bed and sit up to gasp for air. After I hyperventilate for a while, I lean back and rest. A few minutes later, I swing feet to the floor, gasp again and rest. I repeat this often throughout the day, for eight hours, interrupted only by wild bouts of bathroom time. I’m really thankful I know how to unhook the leads, go on my own and come back and hook them up again.
I’m finally admitted and an echo cardiogram is ordered. I’ve had at least 50 echocardiograms over the past 36 years and they have always been, at worst, annoying, and usually interesting. But not this time; this time it’s painful and scary. Every time I lean back I feel suffocated and frantic. Every pressure of the ultrasound wand adds to the weight on my chest. I want to spring up and breathe! The tech is patient and kind. She says I’m doing great and she’s used to people in my condition. As she finishes up she tells me I’ll know something soon. And it seems as if in just a minute I’m being moved to the 5th floor of the heart center, where all the people with congestive heart failure go to wait. They wait for a myriad of tests and treatments, mostly surgical. Or, as in the case of my second roommate, they just come to get more comfortable and then go home to die.
After hours of Lasix drip, slowly but surely the water is removed from around my heart and throughout my body. I begin to feel better. I can breathe! I’ve never been so happy to be in the hospital. In the morning my roommate exclaims, “Wow! You look 10 years younger!” (After four days, I will have lost 17 pounds of fluid.) Rachel, a PA from the hospital’s interventional cardiology comes to tell me that if I pass all the tests I can have an aortic valve replacement with the TAVR method. I tell her she doesn’t understand. I have already had two valve replacements and I can’t be cracked open anymore and my heart can’t be cut anymore. But she replied that I didn’t understand. TAVR meant that they could replace my valve without cutting. That the new valve would be inserted through an artery where it would “open like a flower” inside the bad valve and on the next heartbeat it would take over. It would open and close the main valve in the center of my heart—no stitching required. What miracle is this??? After a year and a half of believing I would die when this valve gave out, there was a way to continue living! Rog and I turn to one another with hugs and tears. I jump up and down on the bed a little. Rachel is quite taken aback by our behavior. She wants to know why we are so upset. After a minute, I’m able to tell her we are not sad, we are happy. I thought I was going to die and now I will live. The praise of hearts has no words.
And I know one thing about my body: I have never had high cholesterol or atherosclerosis. I know I will pass with flying colors the tests checking for blockages in my arteries. Whether routine or because of my initial incredulity, in an hour or so the actual hospital cardiologist comes to see me. The Fred Meijer Heart Center is part of a teaching hospital so in that day alone I’d already been seen by at least five other white-coated professionals. When he came in and started talking I stopped him. “Who are you? I can’t see your name tag.” With a grin he tells us, “I’m just the director of interventional cardiology here at the Fred Meijer Institute.” And he then tells us I have arrived with a critical heart valve—that it is over 90% blocked, and additionally, it leaks more oxygenated blood than it puts out. In minute detail he reviews every aspect of TAVR. He says, “We’ve done one thousand TAVRs and counting!” I love this man! I see Dr. Merhi and Rachel every day that I’m in the hospital, even Sunday, and every day they are more encouraging and helpful.
And every day more students come to listen to my unusual heart. I learn: On the right, you can hear the aortic regurgitation (leaking). In the middle you can hear the aortic stenosis (blockage) and on the left you can hear the regurgitation of the mitral valve. Weirdly, I had actually been hearing all of these things for some weeks by simply lifting my arm; I just hadn’t known what they were. Now when a first year medical student shyly comes in by herself because she’s been told to come listen to me, I explain each thing to her. LOL! I’ve gotten so comfortable breathing and living, I can be a teacher again!
And so I am alive.
But here’s the thing: I still have a degenerating spine, I still can’t run and jump or even walk freely. Lots of things hurt, almost every day. As I write this, my fingers hurt. There were lots of things that didn’t matter (my spine will last long enough), because I was dying – it didn’t matter. But now that I get to live, I have to figure them out. What a challenge! How will I live this life filled with my five grown children, their spouses, eleven grandchildren, lots of siblings and a church community who love me? What is my role with each one in my new strength? All I can say is, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your will. *** And for me to live is Christ; to die is gain. ****
*(Zachariah 3:17), ** (Rev. 5:13), *** (Luke 1:38), ****(Philippians 1:21).
By Margaret Broersma