“Broken hearted often leads to broken open. And broken open is the perfect environment for finding out who you are and why you’re here. Break and grow.”
– Michele Woodward
On September 16, 2007, emergency open heart surgery saved my life.
I didn’t have clogged arteries or heart disease. I had a myxoma, a very rare benign tumor that was almost completely blocking the blood flow through the left atrium of my heart.
They discovered it after I had an episode of sharp ice pick stabbing pain in my back and chest and the inability to breathe. And yes, jaw pain and arm pain too.
It started right after dinner out with friends, so I thought it was indigestion. I made a cup of tea and smoked some pot to calm down. And then I just laid in my bed and tried to find a position of least resistance so I could just focus on breathing.
I didn’t call 911. I knew that if I went to the ER, that crazy, noisy chaos would kill me. I knew that I just needed to be still and quiet and just breathe through it.
I did call Marika, my ex-partner who is a nurse and was still my best friend, but she was out with a friend and not answering her phone. By the time she called me back two hours later, all of the symptoms had subsided.
I felt fine in the morning, but Marika took me to Urgent Care anyway. That’s where they saw an abnormality in my blood work indicative of a clot. They sent me to the closest ER, the Heart Hospital, for further tests.
They took x-rays. I did a stress test. I could hardly breathe after walking on the treadmill for just a few minutes. We waited for the echo-cardiogram technician to come in and he’s the one who found the tumor, nearly encapsulating the left atrium in my heart.
And he told me he was surprised I was still alive.
He said that most people with a myxoma die before it’s detected. That it’s like a head of broccoli – you can brush your hand across it and small pieces will break off. With the myxoma, small pieces usually break off and cause a blockage some place else in the body and you die of a massive stroke.
I thought about how, just two weeks before, Marika and I were on vacation in Michigan with her mom, and I was climbing to the tops of lighthouses, coughing all the way up and back down. I’d been coughing for years, and assumed it was from so many years of smoking pot. But now I knew that I was coughing because not enough oxygen was circulating in my body. And that I could have died.
Marika and I joked about how tricky it would have been to carry my body down those spiraling lighthouse steps. But we didn’t talk about me actually dying. I didn’t need to. I only wanted to focus on healing.
The idea of having open heart surgery didn’t scare me. I knew I’d be fine. I was young, only 48, and pretty healthy if you didn’t count the extra fifty pounds I was carrying around. All went well, they removed the 5.5 cm tumor from my heart and six days later I went home to recover.
I stayed at Marika’s house for six weeks as I healed. She cleared out a room for me and my landlord/friend brought my bed and favorite chair over in his truck. Friends called and came to visit. Clients sent emails and cards.
My parents brought me whatever I was craving: my mom’s chicken soup, egg rolls from Super Dragon, even corned beef, something I hadn’t eaten in 15 years.
Laddy and Mabel laid in the bed with me while I napped and Nurse Marika took such sweet care of me. I was so utterly aware of the love and support in my life.
I had very little energy those first few weeks. I wasn’t interested in watching TV. I didn’t have the concentration to read or watch a movie. Everything in my world slowed down. I couldn’t do much, so I rejoiced in the simplest of things, like being able to open the refrigerator, walk a full circle around the pool, reach the shower massage so that I could take a shower by myself.
I journaled, but not much. I kept up with my Mac2School monthly tips newsletter. I drew abstract doodlings with the crayons my mother brought over.
But when you are recovering from open heart surgery, you can’t busy yourself with too much doing or distract yourself with a lot of meaningless activities or mindless chatter.
When you are recovering, at first, all you can do is sit. And breathe. And even that is so painful.
Maybe it was the pain that made me so aware of my breathing. And by focusing on my breathing, I was able to stay in the present moment.
I had to let go of what I wished I could be doing and begin focusing on what I could do: breathing, sitting still, saying thank you.
Before the surgery, my life was pretty sweet. I lived in a friend’s guest house across the street from a tree-rimmed grassy park. I had a successful Mac computer training business, I went on great beach vacations, I made mixed media art pieces and sold them in galleries. I belonged to a women’s spirituality group and facilitated creativity workshops.
Marika and I had split up in 2004 after 14 years together, but we were working through the hard stuff, trying to stay connected. And we were sharing the dogs, Laddy and Mabel.
I loved my little guest house. It was a studio apartment with a full kitchen and bath and a large covered patio. And there was a pocket door in the living space that opened into a 20 x 20 converted garage with 4’ x 9’ wide windows and a Saltillo tiled floor.
This was my work space and art making studio. It’s where I grieved the end of the relationship, where I had a summer fling, where I learned to dance with tulle and play the cello. The guest house had been a healing space after the break up and now, it was once again, a place for my heart to heal.
But when I moved back in to return to life as I knew it, nothing was the same. I didn’t want to make art. I didn’t even do much writing. I was still smoking and working, but very little excited me.
I remember just sitting a lot, watching hours of HGTV and the Food network, feeling like I was in a wide open void. While this is typical with recovering heart patients, my biggest fear was that I wasn’t ever going to be creative again.
I knew I had to find new ways to tap into my creative self and discover how I wanted to express myself authentically. But I didn’t even know what I wanted to say.
I wanted to do more of my “real work,” but I had no idea know what that was.
And so I was asking myself lots of questions:
What did I really want to do?
What did I want most in my life?
What was holding me back?
How could I best serve others?
What brings me real joy?
What were my biggest dreams?
I had no answers. Only questions. And, literally, new space in my heart to explore.
I began saying no to invitations that felt more like obligations. I let go of relationships that drained me. And I became acutely aware of the love and support in my life.
I realized that, what I wanted, more than anything, was more connection in my life. But, being stoned all the time, I was usually too spacey to drive or too tired to go out, and too fixated on feeling good to risk any vulnerability.
And then, there was that day, that moment, when I realized I couldn’t have what I truly wanted if I continued to get high. And so I quit. Cold turkey. Just like that.
But I was still so scared to be in my body.
Post surgery, I had seen a cardiologist to follow up, and he said I didn’t need cardiac rehab because I was young and otherwise healthy, that I could resume my regular activities. And that I should come back in a year for an echo-cardiogram, just to make sure the tumor wasn’t growing back.
I joined my local Curves, a women’s workout club, but I was afraid to exert myself physically. I quickly got short of breath, and I thought, oh, no, the tumor is growing back. I went for a check up and all was fine. I wore a halter monitor during a workout and it confirmed that my heart rate was fine for my age and weight.
Marika assured me that it was just a matter of building up my stamina and strength. And my asthma. But I was terrified.
So I quit Curves and just walked the dogs and continued my weekly yoga practice and that was as much physical activity as I engaged in.
Finally, a year later, a friend encouraged me to ask for a referral for cardiac rehab. She explained that it was more than just exercising – that it was to get me back into my body in a safe and comfortable way. That they would monitor my vitals the whole time. And that they understand about the fear.
My friend also put me in touch with a woman who had similar fears after her own heart surgeries. Talking with someone who really understood what I was feeling and fearing calmed me down.
I signed up for rehab and went three times a week for two months, until I finally understood that I had a healthy heart. That everyone gets short of breath after a lot of exercise. That it’s a good thing to sweat, to get my heart rate up, to breathe so deep and hard that I feel my heart beating.
In the four years after they cracked my ribs open, I trained to become a life coach, I worked with a high level business coach to uplevel my Mac business, I moved into a 2 bedroom house with a yard, I facilitated creativity workshops and women’s retreats and created the Living Room Ladies.
And I know that these new things happened, that my life shifted and opened up because I shifted and opened up. Because I got quiet and I learned how to listen.
I learned that living the questions is more important than knowing the answers. And I learned how to trust my heart.
And every time I get lost again and forget all of this, I eventually remember to simply pause, and breathe and start again, at the beginning.
We all have things in our lives – a sudden death, a new baby, chronic pain, a divorce, a new school year, the loss of a job, a near-fatal car accident, even just moving to a new house – things happen that shake us up, knock us for a loop, throw us spinning into confusion, and fear and not knowing what’s next.
Sometimes the thing that shakes us and wakes us is our own boredom. We aren’t challenged at work, we don’t engage in anything exciting in our free time. We live our routine, park ourselves in front of our technology and, even though we don’t love it, we think that life is fine.
But the minute you realize it’s not enough, you can’t go back. You know you have to make a change. But you don’t even know what else you might want.
Our life is constantly calling us to be bigger. To live with more meaning, more intention, more joy.
But it usually takes a big event for us to realize we want to make changes in our lives.
But really, we have this choice every day – not just when our lives are in crisis.
Every day we get to choose to pause, and breathe. To respond instead of react, to approach with kindness and compassion, first ourselves and then others. Every day we get to choose the life we want to be living.
©Ruth R. Davis This is an excerpt from my upcoming book. If you’d like to know when it’s available, please subscribe to Heart Sparks above. Thank you!