There are so many special things about my wife, but one of my favorite traits of hers is when she mangles some of the more common idioms in our language.
During our years together I have heard her say, “Take that with a grain of sand,” “To make a long short story,” “We’ll cross that river when we come to it,” and my most favorite glorious combo of, “Don’t count your chickens before you put them in a basket.”
For weeks I have been thinking of writing about a particular “Elephant in the Room” and every time I think about it I imagine how Sunie would frame the title. She is such an amazing woman and her liberal use of language makes her even more special in my mind, and especially in my heart.
My heart is where the Elephant, err, Alligator lives, and its reconstruction has been weighing on my deconstructed mind of late. A month ago I was forwarded a study on the long term results of bypass surgery. The study noted that once a patient undergoes a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) procedure the risk of death is very high in the first 30 days post operation.
Having obviously made it that far, I skimmed past that section of the study and read how survival rates are excellent for nearly a decade after surgery, but that once a patient reaches the 10-year mark post-surgery, “something happens,” and survival rates begin to plummet.
Let me help you, when you read “something happens” in a medical report it is the literal description of someone in a white lab coat with shoulders raised, elbows pressed against the ribs, palms facing the sky while wearing a face that looks as if someone just asked them to divide seventeen thousand and sixty seven by four hundred and twenty two.
Depending on your resource the average age for CABG surgery patients is between 64 and 74. Either way getting a good decade followed by some less than stellar later years doesn’t seem so bad. But when your surgery happens at 40, the mind tends to travel to dark places. I get mad when I think of dying young and the completely horrendous positon I put that sweetheart from the first few paragraphs of this post in.
To imagine going downhill around my 50th birthday and leaving my wife is a thought that puts a huge lump in my throat. The lump grows larger when I look at the over seven-month bump on her belly. There are exceptions to every rule and every day people outlive their doctor’s predictions, but when you take large samples, as the studies I am referring to have done, the future can be stormy.
Do the results of a study mean I am going to die at 50? Of course not. Could I die at 50? Of course I could. But then again so can any of you. It’s just that my chances are higher than yours.
I have had several people ask me if I was going to keep up my diet and way of eating now as well as my trail running now that I seem to be doing so much better. I have been called stubborn, inspiring, militant, crazy and dozens of other names from family, friends and strangers.
My answer is no. I do not intend to keep doing what I have been doing with regards to how I nourish my body and mind with food and hiking, or my soul with nature and meditation. I am only going to dig deeper, continue searching, eliminate the things that are holding me back and experiment with the practices that help keep me around.
One of the most amazing things about facing death and walking, or in my case, crawling away from it is that the balance in your brain changes. A child-like innocence returned to counter my adult-ish sensibility. When we were kids our parents and teachers told us to dream big, to shoot for the stars and never take no for an answer, but as we grow older we start taking reality too seriously and many of us forget to dream.
When I think of my wife with baby on the way I let everything in. I do my best to make sure she is comfortable. I paint the nursery, I skim the parenting books, I try to remember the difference between a onesie and a romper, but mostly I try to stay present and be the guiding hand that will be with both of them for every second it can be. I also let in the visions of falling, a bypass fail, a doctors warning, a vice relapse, or even worse. I let those in, but just for a moment before turning my chin toward the sun and the eventual way out.
I focus on things that are in my control, from what I eat to how much I exercise, to how I manage work and stress and trying to get more sleep are all things that I am constantly trying to improve. And of course I dream big. I set huge goals and try my best to stick on the journey toward them. While I may never be the most fit vegan bypass survivor (or could I?), or even the longest surviving CABG surgery recipient (why the heck not?), if those were not my goals I would be cheating myself, my wife, by child, and each and every one of you.
In a twist of fate my heart surgeon called me a few days ago, just as I was thinking of scrapping this idea for a blog post and starting a new one. He reminded me of his dream for me, and we talked for a few minutes on the progress I have been making. It was nice to hear his voice, and it reminded me of how far we have come, but also how far I have to go.
In the days since that phone call my dreams have been reaffirmed. My resolve has ironed and my energy has narrowed toward the essential.
I’m not scared to dream anymore or consider the impossible. My hope is that you allow yourself to dream, and grin in the face of discourage and discomfort. Everything we need is in our head, our hands and our heart and if we can bypass the doubt the really, really good stuff in just around the corner.
In the days leading up to my first trail race, I attempted to visualize the day in an effort to calm the nerves.
It didn’t work.
I peed twice in six minutes while we waited for the organizers to call us up to the starting line. And although I tried to look calm, I could not sit still.
It got worse.
When myself and 50 or so other runners started up the hill toward the trail, my heart started racing and felt like it was a quarter mile ahead of my body. For someone running their first trail race, nerves, curiosity and adrenaline would be common, but for those of us less than a year and a half removed from emergency coronary artery bypass surgery, having your heart in fifth gear while your body is in second is an alarming situation.
I tried to calm my heart, I focused on my breathing and sent signals to my legs to slow the ever loving hell down, but my heart would not slow. As my fellow 25kers bled into the five mile loop, joining the 50kers that had started two hours prior, I tried to settle into a space of peace. It took me three miles to ease myself in.
With my heart finally at ease I decided it was time to enjoy myself. I finished the first loop running the entire way, and just a bit faster than I had planned. My wife and her dad were there to greet me and encourage me as I headed out for the second loop.
The second loop was like sophomore year. I knew the general territory, but still was not sure if I belonged, and with sheer terror I wondered if everyone else knew more than I did about the course we were all on.
By the end of the second loop I figured I was in some trouble. For one, my Fitbit that I was using during my self-training proved to be way off. So for the weeks before the race when I thought I had been running five miles it was more like three and a half. My third grade math quickly told me I was going to be running at least four miles more than I had ever done. Almost the entire third loop would be new territory for my body.
I smiled when I saw my support crew after the second loop. Their joy was palpable, and I wanted to stay right there with them so that would be the lasting memory of the day. Quitting was not happening so I began the last loop as curious as anyone as to how this all would turn out.
I started out hiking, ran a bit, tripped over some roots and spent a few minutes talking out loud to no one in particular. That is, until someone spoke back.
About a mile into the last loop I could hear a voice say, “Not far enough yet, dad.” Over and over again I heard those words. As I shuffled up a short incline I saw a little girl, maybe five or six, dressed for Sunday, with pig tails tight and a big smile. I heard it again on the way down the hill, “Not far enough yet, dad.”
My heart felt strong and proud despite my cramping, weary legs (next time I will carry water with me) so I gave them a few squats to try and get them up and join the rest of my body. I was now sure we would make it to the finish line, I just wasn’t sure if I was going to be walking, running, or crawling across it.
With about a mile left I had a flashback to the week of my surgery. The events flew past me like scenes on a DVD in fast forward. The memories of that time don’t come up as much as they used to, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t lurking.
I was able to gather myself and focus on the moment in front of me and the task of getting back to my support crew and finishing this 15.5 mile jaunt over dirt, rocks and way too many roots.
As I made my way toward the last quarter mile or so I could hear the voices of my fellow runners milling about around the start/finish line. There was a slight downhill just before turning to the finish and that was where I heard that voice again. “Good job, Dad.”
“Thanks Poppy,” I replied. Poppy, you may remember from the February 12 blog post, "Great Expectations." The only time I ever saw Poppy was as she lay motionless inside her mother during the ultrasound confirming our miscarriage. But when I needed her during my race, she showed up and gave me the nudge I needed.
I finished my first trail race in four hours and eight minutes, but I will never be finished with being an open heart surgery survivor, and my memory of both will hopefully always lurk somewhere in the shadows, pushing me toward Poppy and the best version of myself.
One night while getting ready for bed Sunie looked at me while I was inspecting my chest and said, “You know you are going to have to tape your nipples?”
“Umm, what? I not sure my nipples are in your jurisdiction,” or something like that, was my reply.
I’m not a gear person and one of appeals of running was the lack of gear needed to get started related to other pursuits like mountain biking or rock climbing. Then this idea to do a long trail race entered my mind and the more I read about it the more gear was recommended. I already had a hydration pack that Sunie bought me last year, but I am now investigating other, lighter options as my race quickly approaches.
I usually hit the trail in a regular old fashioned t-shirt but now realize that when running distances longer than five miles my sweat builds up and becomes uncomfortable in those old cotton shirts. Apparently someone invented shirts that wick away moisture, and unknown to me I had one in the bottom of my dresser. So with amazement I have been training in this bright orange shirt, I keep telling myself the orange scares the bears, so I don’t mind the rather out of character wardrobe choice. But the thing about this shirt is that on long training runs my nipples get somewhat chafed and seem to be on the verge of bleeding as I push toward the 25K level.
So that was how, on Sunday, June 3rd I became a man that put tape on his nipples. It was actually the sticky ends of a band aid I cut up but I figured that was better than wandering into a sporting goods store and asking someone for the nipple cover section.
It was not until I hopped in the shower and yanked the tape, and some hair, and some skin from my already beaten up body that I remembered I had tape on my nipples in the first place. So with that confession I bring you the Top Five list (most of you already know my affection for lists) of things I have learned while training for my first trail race; which is going down June 16 at the Pittsfield State Forest.
5. The Mountains Win, Again – 20 years ago I relocated to Denver with two friends. And while I gave up on that move far too early there was something about having the mountains as the backdrop to daily life that set up in a far corner of my brain and dug in. Life has taken me to many places and I spent the last 20 years closer to the ocean than the mountains, but I don’t think it is a fluke my Sunie and I ended up settling in the Berkshires. We are New Englanders at heart and not only is the Appalachian Trail within minutes of our home, but there are trails through forests, and trails up mountains within walking distance of where we lay our heads. Trail running to me is different that road running or track running. The trails are meditation for me. The trails are where I solve problems, where new ideas are formed, and where it feels normal to me to smile and cry at the same time. And at the end, or sometimes during my jaunt I take in a view unseen by most and one that stays with me far longer than I stay with it. Those are the gifts that the mountains continue to give.
4. Keep Calm, Plants have Protein – Subsisting on a whole food, vegan diet after my open heart surgery was a decision that came pretty quick and one that I have stuck with for well over a year. I have been amazed at how well my body has adapted to these lifestyle changes, but adding miles on the trails was always a concern despite all the research I have done assuring me that all of my body’s need could be met during this additional exercise.
As the weeks have rolled on I have added to my weekly trail total. From about 10 miles a week back in April to the 30 miles a week I currently log, and every single mile has been fueled by my whole food, vegan diet and I feel great. I have also stopped obsessing over the amount of carbs, fiber or other nutrients I consume because plants provide it all, and I never count calories, ever. Not only does my body feel strong, but it is a major boost to my spirit to realize that my life can thrive without the harming of another life.
3. Crazy for Trying – Pushing the limits of what people expect of you may put you in a new, and possibly awkward place. Say you quit your job to start your own company, or maybe you decide to go back to school, or perhaps run a 15 mile trail race less than a year and half after open heart surgery. There will be people that not only think you are nuts, but they will tell you that you are crazy straight to your determined face. And the reality is you probably are a tad askew. Take solace that most great ideas or accomplishments sound a little crazy when they are conceived, and being told you are crazy should never be a roadblock. Look at those thoughts as a challenge, one of the many on your road.
I realize that attempting this race will be considered crazy to some, but for me it is anything but. It is a necessary stop on the route that is my life as a bypass survivor and example to those out there that think the reality of chronic disease is something they have no control over, because the minute you stop doing the comfortable things and embrace the challenges is when the growth begins. As for where it ends, I have no idea.
2. Pain is Inevitable – Last week, a friend asked me how my health was in light of my additional trail running. “Okay, this plantar fasciitis in my heel sucks and my lower back takes a bit of a beating at times, but overall I feel good,” I replied. This friend stared; blank faced at me and tipped his head slightly before responding. “Yeah, I mean your heart man. How is your heart? They cracked you open and rooted around your chest cavity for half a day. Who cares about your back and your heel?” I grinned and told him from all I could tell that my heart was as strong as ever.
Pain comes in many forms and exists in all of us, but how we deal with the pain guides us and allows us to function in a place of uncertainty and challenge. When I am shuffling along the trails near our home I feel my heel pinch on almost every step and the next morning by lower back aches for a few hours, but my heart is quiet. In a way those small pains are insuring that my heart remains without pain and keeps powering the rest of the pieces that I need to continue my relentless march forward.
Whatever you are working towards, be it an athletic goal, quitting smoking, getting off a medication that has rough side effects or just flat out feeling better, I can tell you from my personal experience that your body is capable of extraordinary things, once your mind stops putting limitations on it.
1. The Beginning of the Beginning of the End of the Beginning – With less than two weeks from race day I have spent just a minute or two wondering about how I will do in this attempt to circle a five plus mile loop in a state forest three times with over a hundred strangers running around me. But just for a minute, then I get back to working, or training, or gardening, or my favorite pastime, laying around with my wife making her laugh. Where I end up on during this race is not the point of any of this. This is not a race against anyone or for anyone. This race is just another step on my road. Another ride in which the ticket was punched a long time ago. What stays with me, and what I will bring to the next day, the next breath, and the next race are the moments that elicit that evil little grin of mine; like the time I registered for the race, the time where I finally went into a full out sprint at Jug End, and the first time I ran the rail trail without stopping to walk. I own those moments now and have them in my pocket for whenever I need them.
A journey of many steps has just as many memories, and each one is vital in our progress as people. Mine just happens to include strapping on some sneakers and running through the woods. Wherever yours takes you, be open to the possibilities, and take along with you an open mind, an open heart, and of course a bottle of water and a snack, it’s a jungle out there.
There were a few minutes during our housewarming party over Memorial Day weekend when I found a quiet space in the corner of our yard and watched the images of my family pass gently before my eyes.
As I rested for a bit my mind kept conjuring up the idea of what this scene would have looked like without me.
Would it have even have happened at all? I am sure my family would have come to celebrate with my wife on the purchase of a new home, even if I had never made it out of surgery alive. The nephews would have still been running around like little lunatics while my curious nieces would have been following butterflies and sniffing flowers while the adults chatted, prepared the food and engaged in an intense version of whiffle ball home run derby.
Alas, it would have been different. Of course it would be different. And when the party was over my beautiful wife would have been left to wash the dishes alone, and continue on with her life without me. As I sat back on the hammock and watched the scene I imagined my spirit watching over the party, bouncing from person to person trying to hug them only to run right through them like ghosts do in movies. And when the day turned toward night I watched as my wife instinctively reached for me before falling asleep, only to swipe at memory instead of a man.
My eyes welled up, and a touch of anger entered my space as I once again realized how close I was to losing all of these people. I was returned to reality by the touch of my nephew’s hand on my knee, his right arm outstretched pointing to something I could not see, and just like that, I was back.
As Carter walked me to a rope swing on the other end of the property and encouraged me to swing from it like only a three year old could, I was present, grounded in the reality of a loving family and amazing friends. And just as I was at Vassar Brothers Hospital, I was surrounded with three generations of blood giving me all the strength I could ever need.
The house as a structure can also ground a person. There is the upkeep it needs and the pride that builds by making your small piece of the planet better than when you stumbled upon it. There are bills to pay and things to fix, and every one of those actions grounds us to a place, a place not only on a map, but a place in time, and that is what most of us are looking for. A place to return to. A place to feel safe in. A center. A place to laugh, to cry and to make memories.
After being given a solid foundation by this family for the first half of my life, I slowly chipped away at that foundation for the second half. Bad lifestyle choices took its toll until eventually the foundation could not support the weight I was placing upon it. Then, it crumbled. Now, it is being rebuilt, stronger than it was before.
After Carter and I swung on the rope, how I got blisters and he didn’t I will never understand, we returned to the party to do the things families do on special occasions, and when it was time for the weekend to end and return to the task of my every day existence, I started the day with my wife in a place so perfectly suited for us.
It’s not the ground that keeps you grounded. It is what you place on that ground. The home you build, the food you grow, the relationships you curate, and the decisions you make that give you a ground worthy of walking on.
To create a new life, new dreams and hopes, to experience triumphs and trials from a ground stepped in history and with stories as old as time is how we live, and how we will grow and how my heart will heal.
We are lucky we found this place together, and each day I rise and get to walk these grounds I feel a sense of overwhelming joy and anticipation to see what we can grow from the ground up. And when the day is done I rest easy knowing that when my wife reaches for me in the middle of the night she will be able to wrap her hands around me, and not just a memory.
I never knew you. But after spending last Saturday with those that did, I am filled with a profound sense of gratitude for all that you were, in your short time with us.
As I listened to people talk about you over the lunch held in your honor, I could not help but notice that most of the stories involved you going out of your way to help others. Most people in attendance remembered a time when you went out of your way to make sure those that needed help never went without it.
My hope is that you find this letter as your spirit drifts from place to place and watch over your family, friends and fellow soldiers in the United States Army, just as you did when your feet walked firmly on the ground.
I wanted to make sure you knew how special your memorial service at our local cemetery was. The veterans that rode in, American Flags on board, and stood at full attention while we all mourned your physical death and the active soldiers that provided a touching and impressive honor guard would have made you proud.
The strength of your parents helped guide everyone through this difficult time. Your extended family was there and remembered you fondly, and your nephews did an excellent job filling your memorial vessel with items to comfort you in your journey. And I am sure those little boys will soon come to realize that those balloons they released that got stuck in the trees was a sign that you wanted to stick around awhile longer.
It seemed from all the remembrances of your life you were on a perpetual search for a place where you would fit in. Fitting in is something we all want, it comes easier to some, and it sounds like you finally found that place with the United States Army.
As we shuffle through life there are many moments that make a lasting impact on us. Ones that we learn from, cry because of, and even smile at the faintest reference to, the pieces of life that we collect and make us who we are.
It occurs to me that the experiences we have, the friends we make and the lessons we learn become the fabric of our lives. And no matter the length, we put together a blanket of these memories which we can use going forward. Whether to help us or someone else, we patch together a quilt that eventually becomes the story of our lives and reveals how we have come to be who we are.
The fact that our doctors were not able to determine your cause of death does leave an empty patch on your blanket. But just because that patch remains blank for now, that does not in any way leave your loved ones in the dark; for it is the empty spots where the light comes through the brightest. And your light will be felt by so many people that you cared about.
I wanted to say thank you for allowing me a day to learn about you and meet all those folks that you cared for and cared so much about you. I will never forget the day and will honor you by adding a patch to my quilt that encompasses all that you lived for, and were striving to become as your body left us.
Rest easy Nathan. See you on the other side.
This week marks four months since I was out running the trails of the Berkshires. Our rough winter weather has been a nuisance for my recently cracked sternum, but I’ve been told that the discomfort gets better. While boot camp classes and elliptical machines are a decent substitute, for me, nothing beats jogging through nature.
There is something about trail running that reaches into my soul, circles my heart and appears on the edges of my eyes while I grin at the sun. Inspiration comes from many places, but when you take up a new venture the challenge to succeed has to originate from inside if it will have lasting meaning. I have toyed with personal challenges like hiking to a mountain peak, trail running certain distances, but they have always been marks I set for myself kept to myself…until now.
My open heart surgery occurred on Friday, January 13th and added another frightening notch in a belt of a number that has been considered unlucky for centuries. In addition to that date, my wife recently informed me that there were 13 people in the waiting room during my eight-hour surgery (it’s a wonder I made it out alive).
Numbers, even anniversaries are different now. They pass through me like a train passes by while you stand on the platform. You acknowledge the passing train and know that another will be coming by soon and may have your name on it. You glance at the train, then look away and bring your focus back to whatever is currently pressed on your mind.
Passing through another Friday the 13th a few days ago Sunie and I talked over breakfast about the day of my surgery. We didn’t talk in big bold letters as I am wont to do at times when I tell the stories of those precious few days where breathe balanced perilously on the brink.
Acknowledging that day when it appears is a healthy practice. Life gives us all some very unpleasant situations to deal with, and allowing them to consume us adds to stress and puts us in a dangerous cycle that can be hard to extricate from.
I ended up acknowledging my scary day of 13 by signing up for a trail race. Yes, that feels as weird to write as it does to say, the last time I ever remember racing in any capacity was during high school basketball practice. Back in those days the last place finisher in the sprints portion of practice had to do more sprints, so my only incentive was to finish second to last, an honor I claimed nearly every time.
Trail running has been a potent activity that kept me moving last year during my recovery. I signed up or this race for many reasons, the main one is I have been toying with the notion of such an act for months now, and thinking and talking about doing things is so very last year while actually doing things is far more hip, not to mention healthy.
We all have things we would like to accomplish. We face challenges every day and how we climb those hills helps define us as people. For 98% of trail runners winning the race is not the object. Getting out in nature, enjoying the camaraderie of fellow runners and overcoming our individual obstacles are just some of the reasons people gather at these events (plus you usually get a cool t-shirt if you finish).
Now for the good part; my maiden voyage at a trail race will be this June very close to home in Pittsfield and it just happens to be called Vegan Power. You don’t have to be vegan to run it but all the pre and post-race snacks I was assured will be vegan, ,and while meeting fellow plant nerds has proven hard in our new community, I am sure I will be running with some of them in less than 10 weeks.
Crap, 10 weeks. I need to start training. Trail races come in all shapes and sizes, this particular one consists of a 50K distance and a 25K distance. I’m unsure as to why we use kilometers so often for race running in the United States but I gather because the sound of K is much softer, and gentler than saying MILES. In fact if you told me to choose running 25 Ks or 15.5 MILES I would undoubtedly pick the 25 Ks (they are the same thing).
Crap again. 15.5 miles? Who signed me up to run over 15 miles over the sticks, stones, grass, and dirt?
You may be wondering how long I have run on my own now that we have established this is my first race. Well, let’s see, without stopping I’ve made it about two miles on the trails. Then I’ve walked awhile and run a little more. Last year I peaked two mountains (my term, not sure if that’s a thing, yet) and had a dozen trail outings that clocked over 10 miles. But never 15, and never in a race, you know, with competitive juices flowing, possible urine wanting to flow and most likely tears in major flow mode.
I have no idea if I am up for this challenge in what will be 17 months after open heart surgery, not to mention a long, slow recovery. And I have no idea if I will even finish this race. As much as I am looking forward to answering those doubts I am not sure if that is what this is all about.
As I continue to travel the road of a bypass survivor I have encountered many people with attitudes steeped in defeat, frustration, and self-doubt. Continuing to heal and push beyond the boundaries set by conventional wisdom is something I have been setting my sights on since this past August.
I have a strong feeling that many of us have things that we would like to accomplish but we get derailed and fall behind. We worry far too much of what others might think of us and end up making excuses along the way and playing what if and what could have been more often than we would like. I share those pains and would love to hear from you and find out about some of the goals you are pursuing and challenges you are looking to run through this year.
For me this last 15 months between Friday the 13ths has been a magical ride filled with every conceivable undertaking and emotion. Each step is an opportunity to explore myself and uncover something that I would have missed if my eyes were closed.
As I begin this journey running on plants in the spirit of shared energy and enjoyment for all creatures I will make sure to keep you posted in the updates section of this site and I sincerely hope you join me in meeting your challenges, physical or otherwise, as we turn the page from one season to another.
For 20 years I was scared. I took the path of least resistance, avoided conflict when I could and directed every emotion inward. Most of my adult life was a sad, slow shuffle through a mundane life of quiet desperation.
When my heart attacked me everything changed. During those precarious days before, during and immediately after major heart surgery, something happened. I wasn’t scared anymore. In the time when I should have been frightened beyond imagination, I was calm.
While doctors and nurses rushed around me, I watched their faces, studied their actions and tried to help when I could. I could barely breathe, but my mind was quiet, lucid and acutely aware of what was going on. At times the pain was more than I could bare, and at one point I remember wanting to give up, but I never felt scared.
Then, when I went away, only kept alive by a heart and lung machine, a transformation occurred. At some point I went from being a human being having a spiritual experience to a spiritual being having a human experience. It is okay if you have to reread that sentence, it’s taken me months to understand and curate this belief and welcome it into my life.
In the 14 months since walking out of Vassar Brother’s Hospital I have carried a lot of weight around, and for almost as long, you as readers have rode along with me as I have shed those pounds in many different ways so it is with great respect for you as my extended family that I bring you into the latest in a series of milestones.
I am not taking my statins anymore.
Against the advice of my current cardiologist I have ended my cycle of one of America’s most prescribed prescription drugs. For those of you fortunate enough to not have to take a statin, I can tell you a little about them. There are several kinds of statins, the most popular, atorvastatin, known as Lipitor for anyone that has watched a television commercial this decade is prescribed to patients as a means to lower cholesterol and prevent heart attacks, and they work for many people.
I have been taking Lipitor for over a year and have been told on numerous occasions that I will have to take it every day for the rest of my life. Ending this cycle was a hard decision and one that many people will not understand. Advice comes from many corners and I have been open to all of it, but when we lay our heads down at night and shut our eyes, in those precious moments before we fade to dream we answer only to ourselves.
My decisions are based on many factors. In addition to how I feel, I have had some impressive blood work results, and at times, considering I underwent triple bypass surgery just over a year ago, the blood numbers are phenomenal.
This decision was made with serious contemplation surrounding all possible results. In the last year I have spent most of my free time reading, researching, learning and listening to everything related to healing not just the heart, but the entire body, mind and soul.
Considering statins are a 30 billion dollar industry, it’s safe to say there are many more members of the medical community against me than with me, but that doesn’t mean I am alone. Statins can be a good way to lower cholesterol and assist those of us with risk factors of heart disease, but I have come to believe that making the lifestyle changes I have made has given my body the tools its needs to begin to halt, and eventually reverse the chronic disease that riddles it without the side effects that will inevitably occur due to a lifetime of medicine.
Eating a completely organic, whole food, nutrient dense, and plant rich diet has changed everything with regards to how I feel. Other additions to my weekly regime have helped with stress management and the love and support from family and friends has been invaluable to me as this process evolves.
The old Kevin would have accepted a fate that the standard prescription based medical community would have bestowed on him. But the old Kevin was the guy that got us into this mess in the first place. Sadly there are many people that revert to their old ways after a health scare or being informed they have a chronic illness like heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
Everyone has their own process and most of us eventually come around to an understanding in our minds to reduce the things that cause us pain and increase the things that make us feel special. When those choices you make are affirmed by the response your body sends out to the world, an insurmountable energy engulfs everything you do.
There may be things you don’t like about yourself or maybe you think you are just a few tweaks away from getting to that next level. In some cases, like me and the drugs, it could be something or someone you need to lose from your life. Or, like me and yoga, it is something you need to add to your life to raise the ceiling another story.
When I reflect on the decision to stop taking the drugs that have been with me for over a year, I see a path with smooth stones and broken glass. There is always the danger of falling into old habits or being nicked by an unforeseen circumstance, but as long as I hit the stones free and true the journey remains open and the impossible rests at the tips of my fingers.
I’ve learned that you don’t need to go to the woods in order to suck the marrow out of life because if you focus, the woods come to you.
Dean Ornish, the doctor that most of us plant nerds look at as bringing the concept of halting the destructive advance of heart disease, and in some cases, reserving it all together, developed a multi-pronged course of treatment that I think is essential to the long term health of everyone of us.
There are obvious ways to improve our health. Exercising more and eating better are universally agreed upon as lifestyle factors that if adhered to will make not only our hearts happier, but our minds, bellies, arms, eyes, and, well, you get the idea, better.
There are two other aspects of Doctor Ornish’s program that don’t get as much attention and during my recovery this past year I have realized just how important they are. The two facets that the good doctor has been preaching for over a quarter century are Managing Stress and How Much Love and Support You Have. For the sake of your weekly five minutes, I will focus on the later today.
Having a system of support and love surrounding you is vital in the management of chronic disease. And if having support is a factor in making your way back from a life threatening illness, as it is in my case, just imagine what it can do for those of you that are not staring down the barrel of chronic disease. Doctors can't write you a script for these lifestyle changes so it is on everyone of us to live better and work smarter.
I have been going hard at the books of late, taking a nutrition certification course and some culinary classes so for a break in the action last month, my wife and I snuck away from the Berkshires and headed east toward the ocean and our old stomping ground of Cape Cod. During our short visit we were treated to a Master’s Course in Community Support.
The Outer Cape is a special, often misunderstood and at times infuriating place to be, but during this particular weekend everything good about it was on display. Friday evening I accompanied Sunie to a special five-year anniversary party of a yoga studio owned by one of our friends. A place where Sunie had both worked and taught and a place I always wanted to go to but as was my way back then, far too intimidated to attend.
This time was different. I am different. Everything is different. As a thank you to the community that has supported the studio, its amazing owner Petra Ledkovsky taught a free class which was followed by a party complete with mostly vegan snacks and some pretty sweet raffle prizes.
The class was amazing. I had heard from my wife what an amazing teacher Petra was and after taking just my first class with her it was easy to see why. Not only did she create a comfortable space but she encouraged me to try new things, to push myself and open my heart to an experience that I will never forget.
After the class we were able to catch up with some old friends, share stories and trade smiles before heading off. The entire night was special and proved once again that small, simple gestures of kindness can move complicated things like your brain and heart to a space reserved for lasting memories.
The next night we went even further out on the Cape to Wellfleet’s venerable Preservation Hall for Chef Michael Ceraldi’s seven-course Valentine’s Day dinner.
Finding a pulse in February on the Outer Cape is not easy, but in the heart of Wellfleet we found one thanks to a few dozen hearty souls and a handful of hospitality wizards. Once again the experience shattered the already high expectations that the Ceraldi crew lives by, and if you are ever on the Cape in season you need to eat the food that they so carefully prepare.
After giving us an amazing introduction regarding the menu, Michael threw out some phrases and descriptions in perfect Italian (and I only thought he knew the Italian curse words).
Not only did this man craft a special seven-course menu of local ingredients prepped and prepared to perfection for his 50 guests, but he was able to come up with an entirely different and equally amazing menu for his one vegan weirdo at table one. I would drive the four hours back to the Cape tonight for the Eastham turnip roasted in an open fire, just one of several mind blowing adventures of what has now become number two on my all-time most memorable dining experience list (Ceraldi also has the No. 1 and No. 4 spot).
That weekend has been circling around my frontal lobes lately for many reasons, but the prevailing thought that keeps occurring centers around the community that both Petra and Michael have helped create. There are plenty of restaurants and yoga centers around but rarely have I entered ones with the profound sense of gratitude for the people that walk through their doors.
My wife tells me that my affection for Petra and Michael stems from the fact that the three of us are New Yorkers at heart, and that may be true. But when I see Michael in his kitchen or Petra with her students I see much more than a geographic location, I see a unique energy that only occurs when someone truly cares about the experience of others.
For a long time I thought Sunie and I would end up back on the Cape. Back in the community where we met and fell in love, and the one that we have some amazing friends and lasting memories. The past three years I have lived in seven different homes and one gigantic food truck. I don’t believe the grass was greener, the food was better or the guitars screamed louder in these other places. Each place we went had its good and its bad. Change can be good, change can be fun, change can be exciting but let’s face it, moving sucks.
The merry go round is coming close to an end as Sunie and I are just a few weeks away from buying our first house together. A quaint, old farmhouse in the Berkshires and we are impossibly happy about the prospects of starting a family in the area we have come to rest our weary heads upon this past year.
It is the area where we got married; the area where I nearly died, and the area where, with her unwavering support, I am making an extraordinary comeback.
Instead of looking for a place to fit in, I found a place that fits me. Our towns on the left side of Massachusetts have a lot going for them, but they can also use some polish and instead of searching for the missing pieces we feel that we can help find some of those pieces and make this even more of a place we are happy to call home (for now).
Let us know when you need a bit of that mountain air because we will have a guest room ready and a cup of tea waiting for you.
When did I decide that eating an apple a day kept the doctor away? And why did I ever believe that milk did my body good and beef was what was for dinner.
I ate what I was given and cleaned my plate. I wandered blindly through my school cafeteria, adding curious creations to my tray without thinking of the consequences. Once my cafeteria years ended and I started food shopping I built my diet on top of a cracked foundation.
I made horrible decisions. I stopped exercising regularly, I loved a good cigar and routinely put steak and chicken in my shopping cart while zooming past the produce section in favor of assorted cheeses and processed snacks.
My dietary decisions were based on what I wanted, not what I needed, and those decisions nearly cost me everything. As I aged I noticed I was slower, foggier, my aches turned into pains and those pains turned into debilitations.
Every afternoon my shoulder felt as if someone had stabbed it. I chalked that up to the 4,124 curve balls I threw in my teenager years and that it was something I would always suffer with. My 20’s were spent dealing with crippling migraine headaches. They came at all hours for any reason. Those were awful years and nothing seemed to help. I had terrible psoriasis, back and knee pain and eventually during my 30’s I added neck and elbow pain just, you know, for the challenge of it.
I eventually made better choices; substituting regular coke for diet coke then just seltzer. For years I limited red meat to Monday nights; I switched from beer to red wine. I stopped breading chicken and ate more fish. But those better choices were always fleeting. I never ate breakfast and spent months at a time existing on clam chowder and a deli sandwich while pounding out 14-hour work days and eating pizza for dinner.
During those years I tried all the fad diets, from Atkins to Weight Watchers, they all made big promises that never delivered lasting results, because just like me, they are built on shaky foundations.
My dietary life was on a downward spiral, and the damage had been done from the years of poor choices. Despite some better habits that occurred in my later years the sins of the past were too much for my heart to withstand.
Having survived those weeks in the hospital and reflecting on what brought me there it became clear to me that while I pulled the trigger, many other forces loaded the gun. The food industry as a whole has been promoting unhealthy options for longer than I have been alive and the entire spectrum of nutrition is overrun with conflicting messages and false promises.
Much like the tobacco industry did decades ago the food industry is now doing a masterful job at confusing us and confusion can create apathy. Disease thrives in apathy.
Heart disease now takes more of us down than all types of cancer, combined. We spend an insane amount of our healthcare dollars treating the effects of heart disease while spending pennies on the prevention of it.
Over the last year I have finally been responsible for my dietary decisions. Being truly honest with how I am feeling, combined with the information I am gathering has made me acutely aware of the effects food and improved nutrition has on my life.
Having existed on plants in their whole form for over a year now has made keenly aware of how the body responds when you treat it kindly. I understand that this way of living is not easy at first, and I was one of those people that wasn’t crazy about giving up my favorite things, or at least what I had been persuaded to believe were my favorite things.
Whole is a word I have become friendly with these days. Not only does it explain what I eat but it describes how I eat and how I feel.
When you have a chance to reflect on what nutrition really is and the role it plays in each and every aspect of our lives you soon realize just how important it is to take back control from factory farms, misguided government guidelines and parlor tricks from greedy food manufacturers.
These decisions we make regarding the food we put into our bodies are some of the most important decisions we will make in our lifetime and it affects every aspect of our culture. From personal health to plant health, what we eat literally means everything.
Here are just three things that have happened to me in the last few months. All of them I attribute to my nutrition and food choices. (P.S. There are way more than these three)
These are serious times and I encourage you to take a serious look at what you are eating and why you are eating it. Ask questions, read books, and be honest with yourself regarding how you feel. Health issues don’t have to be whispered about or be ashamed of. Talk to your friends, ask me, and listen to strangers. Take steps to feel better and live longer. If you are already there, great, if you are like me and just coming around I hope you stick with it, and if you don’t know where to begin, there are plenty of us that can help.
The good thing about blame is that it is temporary. It gets thrown around like a hot potato but eventually laying it all over the place gets old and you are forced to deal with the situation you helped create.
So am I the victim or the crime? I’m a bit of both, but that doesn’t make me a criminal or a charity case. What I believe it does is give me real life experience to tackle our greatest threat, which is chronic disease. Having been able to see the change, and feel the change has made all the difference.
In the quest for truth we come across information laced with lies, and promises that lead to the cliff’s edge. Somewhere on that path there will be answers and if you are honest with yourself you will know they have been there all the time and needed only to have the sticks brushed away or the stones removed for you to see them.
When your heart breaks, or even cracks a bit, things are hard to hold together. But there I was, lying in bed with my wife’s back pressed into my chest, holding her tightly in my arms as she cried.
A few hours earlier an ultra sound confirmed what we knew in our hearts. Our baby had miscarried. Our little Poppy, named after the description a silly pregnancy app on Sunie’s phone used to describe our baby’s size (that of a poppy seed), was no longer to be.
Finding out that we had conceived was thrilling, and the fact that is occurred just four months after my open heart surgery lent the feeling of being doubly blessed to our little household.
We told our family. We made plans. We bought cool changing table at a local yard sale and I started a photo journal of Sunie’s belly in progress. My wife, always the expressive one, started to walk around with the top button on her jeans open despite not gaining much weight.
I had always wondered what kind of father I would make and now I would have the chance to find out. We were thrilled at the prospects of raising a child together and more than once Sunie had told me that one of the biggest reasons she married me was that she believes I will be a good dad.
It is safe to say I would make a better dad now than when we first met. Trading the cigars and cider for plant protein and tea were signals, and my mind and body are much more equipped for a young stranger to enter my universe more now than ever. I began to think that it was Poppy who was waiting for me to get my act together before arriving on our shore.
We talked about Poppy all the time. We started a vegetable garden and I went to work to prove that I could produce healthy produce for our growing family. We were happy.
The day I accompanied Sunie to her doctor’s office for an ultrasound this past summer was just another in a streak of optimistic afternoons. As I sat in the examination room I watched the doctor’s eyes widen and his lips get tense. I sat up, the doctor spoke, but he didn’t have to.
He sent us to the local hospital where their machines could get a clearer picture, but we all knew what it would show. At the hospital we saw the image. Poppy was in there, but Poppy wasn’t moving.
I could see the outline of her little head and tiny body. She was just resting without a single care in the world. But she wasn’t part of the world any longer. In her brief time she felt so much yet saw so little. She never saw the flowers, the birds or the sun. She never gazed toward the mountains or watched the waves of the ocean. But she felt her mother and shared in her warmth; and she felt the love of so many others she would never meet.
That afternoon when we stopped crying we got up from our bed, wiped our eyes and went about the things that couples do. The other things. It is the other things that keep you willing and able to deal with the bumps and bruises. The other things.
The woman that I get to lay with every day is a peaceful, special soul that can have her head so lovingly in the clouds while, at the very same time, digging her feet firmly in the soil.
I always claimed that I was unbreakable. That no matter what life threw at me I could survive on my guts and my wits, but I was wrong. Sunie took care of me, never wavering despite being seconds away from losing me. Sunie is the unbreakable one, and her greatest gift to me will always be picking up all of my broken pieces and putting them back together.
In this time returning from the brink I have learned many things. This has been a year of education, observation and exploration, and those actions continue every day. They have to.
I spent a recent weekend attending a writing workshop and during my ride home I was trying to remember a quote from Kurt Vonnegut about how he thought of his audience when he was writing. As I drifted home, following the Housatonic River past old homes and open countryside I remembered what the man said.
“Every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind.”
This blog and the extremely rough and terribly organized draft of a memoir that it has turned into have been life altering creative activities. I often wondered, even doubted why I bother to write down these moments. I ask myself if writing it really matters. If anyone will read it, and if they do will they even care?
Then I think of Poppy, the sweet, beautiful creation of my most optimistic spirit. She is laying there listening and reminding me of what life is like when you live it truly happy and without judgement.
She is the spirit now. Poppy. My audience of one.