The Gift of a Decade

It is 6:45 am on July 30, 2020. Ten years ago today, at this very moment, I was being wheeled into the operating room for my first open heart surgery.

At the time, I had no idea the journey I would be traveling. Surgeons from across the country shared with me that it was an incredibly complicated surgery, and through the interview process I would come to learn that this was no “routine’ heart surgery. Many of the top cardiothoracic surgeons I consulted, would count on one hand the number of times they had performed a similar surgery, information that was incredibly scary to me. This was one time in my life where I did not ask every single detail of what was about to happen, because it was just too much information.

It was overwhelming to think that I had had a birth defect my entire life, unbeknownst to me for 46 years, and was now facing my death if I did not have corrective reconstructive heart surgery immediately. Who am I kidding? I was actually facing my death if I had the surgery too!

Interviewing surgeons for a monumental surgery is scary. Who do you pick to place your life in their hands? Who do you trust? Different surgeons had different recommendations. One surgeon at Mayo thought that I could wait 90 days to have the surgery. Good thing I did not choose him, otherwise I wouldn’t be here right now! I learned through the process that you have to choose the surgeon that makes you feel at peace, the expert who gives you the courage to be wheeled into the operating room.

No one had ever shared that I would be taken into the operating room with no anesthesia, no sedatives, completely awake. I was in complete silence as they wheeled me through the hallways – quickly wondering, analyzing, what should I be thinking at this moment?

The big doors popped open. The room was bustling. Daunting. The cardiac operating room was huge. So many people, so much equipment – hard to wrap your head around the fact that I would be the person on the operating table.

The next thing I knew, they were asking me to place myself on the operating table. That was also a surprise. How do you do that? How do you climb on a surgery table knowing that this motion could be the very last thing you remember?

The moment I laid down on the operating table, I burst into tears. I was scared. I was not prepared for this. I was terrified I would never see my husband and my girls again.

I remember the anesthesiologist well. She was incredibly kind. I know she saw and felt my terror. She shared with me after the surgery, that once the entire surgical team had gathered, I insisted that everyone hold hands, and say a prayer. She said I was adamant. I had no recollection of this, and she said it was the first time she’s ever had a patient do that. Thank goodness I did, that prayer may have helped gift me the recovery that gave me the last 10 years of my life.

The operation lasted 13 hours. I was told the surgery took much longer than expected. I was placed in deep hypothermic circulatory arrest, at 18°C, while they reconstructed my heart. (That was information I was not aware of prior to the surgery) Afterwards, I was told I was on the heart-lung machine up to the very last minute considered safe, while they diligently worked to make my heart function again.

I cannot even begin to describe the pain. I would say it is a pain that individuals should never experience in their lifetime, yet I’ve had the misfortune to experience it twice. It literally is like a tsunami approaching, you see the pain in front of you, you’re afraid to meet it; it overtakes you, immerses you, and is suffocating.

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Lying in the cardiac ICU, I did not think I was going to survive. I am a very determined person and I just was not prepared for how challenging this was going to be. Things got a lot more troublesome on day two after the surgery.

I coded.

I can’t put in to words what it is like to face your death, to be looking down on your body. In what felt like a split second, I was literally facing the “gates” that could be opened.

Luckily they weren’t.

Five years later, I would face that trauma again. The worst thing about the second open heart surgery is that you know the pain in front of you. No person should ever, ever, have to experience that pain. That hell. I guess if you’re searching to find a positive  reframe, I got to hit the life “reset” button twice. I could have lived without that opportunity.

As I approached the tenth birthday of my first heart surgery, I found the last week to be been incredibly challenging. I did not realize the impact this milestone was having on me until I was celebrating my 56th birthday two days ago.

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My family surprised me with a zoom video call to wish me happy birthday. They celebrated me so well. At that moment, emotion overwhelmed me as I realized how many life events and celebrations I had the opportunity to witness over the last decade. The faces scattered on my screen were some of the “gifts” of a decade. They represented the “presents” I have had the opportunity to enjoy over the last ten years.

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At one year old, my sweet grand nugget gave me the best birthday present of all as she embarked on the animated display of all her tricks… clapping, waving, blowing kisses, stealing the screen, and beating my heart. I am incredibly grateful I got the opportunity to meet this little girl.

My eleven year old grandson, who was adopted into our family two years ago, cheered his little sister on as she stole the show. You could see the love and joy in his face as he watched her, proud to be her brother, knowing that he is her biggest love.

Seeing my daughters sitting with their families, was the visual that made the picture clear. My girls are my entire life. Surviving the heart surgeries, and so many other life challenges, gave me the opportunity to be here today. I’ve watched my babies graduate from college, graduate school, get married, embark on their own careers, start families, and walk on their own paths of life. I could not be more proud of these strong, independent women. The joy they have brought me is immeasurable.

My husband occupies two of the boxes on the screen. He was so consumed with getting the zoom call launched, that he was connected from several devices just to be certain that the call happened. He has been my rock. My constant. He is the one person in my life that has stood by my side through tremendous hardship, pain, and has held me when I was broken. He gifted me my daughters and has celebrated with me the milestones. Over the last 10 years, we have navigated some pretty challenging obstacles, and we have grown stronger together. Words cannot express my gratitude for this man.

Littered across the screen are family members, in-laws, cousins, and childhood friends. My uncle, lost to me for well over 30 years, sits in the top right corner.  His daughters, my cousins, sit in two of the “gift boxes” on my screen. It has been within the last 10 years that I have found them, gotten to know them. They have helped me uncover hidden pieces of my life. Until two months ago, I never knew my paternal grandmother’s name, nor had I ever seen a photo of her!

Four of the “gift boxes” are occupied by cousins on the other side of my family.  They are siblings. These four boxes display the faces of the only people on the maternal side of my family that have bothered to ask, cared to listen, and have shown understanding, love, and compassion.  I am incredibly grateful for these four “presents”.

After the call, I realized that many of the individuals on my screen had never met or knew the others. Didn’t know their story, and didn’t know their name. Yet, each of them represented the many individual pieces of the puzzle that has illustrated the picture of my life. Mind blowing to recognize that I was the ribbon that tied these gifts together. Enlightening to realize, in complete display, how fragmented my life was.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the community of women that were not on this call. They are ladies I call my “sisters“, and often “WOMAN!” They are truly the sisters of my heart that I have gotten to know and love over the last 10 years. They have added so much purpose and meaning to my life. Many I have never met, yet we have laughed and cried together, and they know some of my darkest secrets, and have supported me through some of the biggest challenges in my life. They know more than much of the family on the screen, because they have cared to ask. This is in no way a criticism of my family, it is just a testament to the metamorphosis of perspective when you have faced incredibly difficult life challenges – you learn to lean in with concern and inquiry.

As I’m writing this blog, I’m having some real clarity. The last decade has presented me with so many incredible gifts, opportunities I would not have had experienced, milestones I would not of witnessed, had I not survived my first open heart surgery ten years ago today.   There have been so many blessings, so many things that have given purpose and meaning to my life. I am going to take the advice I often give others…

“Don’t look backwards. You cannot change what’s already happened, you cannot change the history. All you can do at this moment is choose the path and the direction you take from here.”

I am going to give myself permission to move forward with intention from the dysfunctional childhood, the sexual abuse, the betrayal, the lies, the challenges, and the hurt. While they are part of my history, they are not my destiny. I’m going to shift my gaze and focus from the rear-view mirror, the trauma and crashes in the past, to looking forward, to what lies in front of me. Trauma are points on my story-line – they don‘t have to be quicksand. They don’t have to travel with me.

The truth of the matter is, I am who I am because of the challenges, the adversities, and the tragedies I have faced, I have navigated.  I have overcome.

I will continue to choose to surround myself with individuals that make me a better person, rather than allowing any toxicity to remain in my life. Over the last decade, I have made hard choices, the most difficult choices a child ever has to make. These decisions have led to freedom and allowed my heart to grow, rather than shrink and die.

Every day that I wake up I thank God for how fortunate I am to be given another day.. another chance…to make even the smallest difference in our world… in someone’s life.  To be kinder, to love harder, to extend a hand, and to give of pure HEART.

Today, I celebrate the 10th birthday of my heart. I call it a birthday because it truly marks the “birth” of a new heart, literally and figuratively.  I am going to continue to make a conscious effort to approach every day as a new beginning, see from new eyes, and to never take life for granted.

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Today, and every day, I will reflect and cherish all the “gifts” of the last decade.