Food prep is an essential part of eating healthy and you know, holding down a job, being part of a family or generally contributing to society. Just 20 minutes a couple of times a week will save you hours in the long run. Here is a guide, obviously seasonality, size of your family and personal tastes are at play. Sketch out a basic menu. A few lunches and dinners and jot down the veggies you need to prep and then follow these steps:
Brown rice in the instant pot. Trust me, I know more about rice than I would have ever imagined and once I started instant potting it I never went back. Use a 1:1 ratio for rice and liquid, high pressure for 15 minutes and let self release for five and you are good.
While the rice is potting, take your veggie haul from the market and cut to desired length and amounts before sealing up and putting in the fridge. You will be able to choose from these all week long.
Oats, overnight. Do it. Organic rolled oats are the choice. Place in a glass jar, add some dried fruit and flax meal and seal up. In the AM’s you can toss in some fresh fruit, nuts or nut butter or whatever else your heart desires and boom. Breakfast. 20 minutes and breakfast is done, veggies are ready and you have a heaping pile of delicious brown rice to add to your dishes or act as the star of a stir fry of curry.
It’s not just healthier, but it will give you more time with your family when they need you the most.
The latest series on the blog meanders through simple, every day techniques that improve your heart health. All of these practices we will focus on can impact your heart with just 20 minutes or less of the detailed activity. Our first installment looks at our friend, sunshine.
The sun does more than just make us feel good. It breeds life. Not just in plants, but in us. There was a time when avoiding the sun seemed like a good idea. Skin cancer and premature aging were thought to occur with too much exposure to the center of the universe, and those are valid reasons to skip lounging on the beach for an entire day, but in the realm of 20-minute routines, getting sun is paramount to a heart healthy life.
The key part the sun bestows on us is vitamin D. You can of course get vitamin D from other places, but getting it directly from the sun is widely considered the most beneficial option.
In addition to giving us a proper dose of vitamin D, 20 minutes of natural sun light per day has been shown to improve our mood due to sunlight releasing serotonin and endorphins, and a happy heart is a healthy heart.
But the big news is that when the daily sun wash hits our skin a compound called nitric oxide is released into the blood vessels, which in turn begins the process of bringing our blood pressure down. And if you are new around here that means your risk of heart attack and stroke is reduced, and that is pretty much the name of the game.
All indications are that it’s better to get 20 minutes a day then two hours at one time once a week, think of binge drinking. Any doctor will tell you that it’s much better for you to have a glass of wine with dinner every night than to crush two bottles every Saturday night. Same deal with sunshine. And with the 20 minutes a day technique you will be more likely to avoid sunburn and keep any risk of skin cancer to a bare minimum.
If you work in an office make sure to get up and outside at lunch. Resist the impulse to eat lunch at your desk. Walk around the building a few times, or better yet take your lunch to a local park. Doing that combines sunshine and aerobic exercise so your heart will be doing backflips at your overachievement.
Find a sunny spot at home and start an herb garden. Spending times outdoors as you tend to the garden will not only reduce stress, but it will fill you up with enough vitamin D for the day.
The sun always rises, be there to meet it.
Fear is an experience. And just like every experience we choose how we respond to it. Fear doesn’t need to be dissected and placed into categories like logical or illogical, rational or irrational and so on. Just as we find joy, sadness, and confusion, we find fear.
Just five months after my open heart surgery I was sitting on the couch in my living room, staring at a blank TV screen while the cat meandered around the coffee table.
Each morning after breakfast I would put my exercise clothes on, I would drink a big glass of water and then head for the door where I found my sneakers. I would take a seat on the couch and put those sneakers on, but instead of getting up and going outside I would sit. Just sit there. For hours.
I did this every day while my wife was away on business. Every morning I planned my jogging route and every morning I never went. I would sit, back straight, feet on the floor and just looked at the room around me wondering if I would ever change.
There are so many wonderful quotes about conquering your fears, but it is hard to remember any of them when the fear is sitting on your chest and tugging at your heart with every inhale.
I had left cardiac rehab supposedly in a place where exercise would be a natural extension. But in the outside world, with no nurses or heart monitors, how was I supposed to know if that jog up the hill would cause my heart to explode into a million little pieces?
My heart had been damaged, and despite the surgeon bypassing a pair of blocked arteries I was still unsure of what else could go wrong in there. The way I saw it, sitting on the couch instead of jogging around the neighborhood was the path that would be least likely to sing me back home to the emergency room.
There is a point when the experience of fear becomes a series of fears that, depending on your perspective, can alter your future and bring you to places once thought impossible. At some point the fear of one’s heart exploding is surpassed by the fear of doing nothing.
Later, I surmised that the single act of contemplating the explosion of my heart was, at best, a waste of my time, and, at worst, detrimental to my mental and physical health.
Risk is only relevant if one has something to lose. One of the great blessings of my life was meeting the woman that would become my wife and eventually starting a family. The curse of that life change is that I have much more to lose.
As I sat on that couch day after day I would sink deeper into a malaise that, if left unchecked, would most certainly devolve into depression. Each evening when I would take my unused exercise gear off, I would promise myself that tomorrow would be different.
It was never different, until it was.
One afternoon I put on Falling Faster Than You Can Run on my phone, planted some earbuds in their proper place and took a walk. A long walk. Up the intimidating hills in our neighborhood, across to the other side of town and then right down Main Street where I stopped for a decaf coffee to cap the ride.
It felt great. I went the next day, and the day after that, until it became just something I did. As the winter rolled on I felt better, looked better, and was starting to dream of running trail races once the Spring rolled into town.
There is a point during the slide where one needs to decide when fear will do more damage. The fear of not exercising slowly overtook the fear of exercising. Remaining stationary, feeding into the anxiety of a post heart surgery mindset was chipping away at my will to do anything productive.
But as I allowed myself the space to be honest I could see that changing the route I was taking was the only way to make tangible differences in my future.
Recently I have been hit with a similar apprehension to exercise that I can only surmise has something to do with an altering risk tolerance of some kind. We all have so many factors to consider when planning our days, but when we continue to put off the self care that is paramount to a healthy life, there should be an alarm that opens your eyes and begins to ask the hard questions.
Today I reminded myself of the secret that came to me a decade ago while I was jogging on the Cape Cod Rail Trail during Take 52 of the Get into Shape TV Movie I was starring in. This secret, this understanding, made me realize that taking risks was essential to getting the thing we wanted most out of life.
My realization that every misstep, false start and hiccup along the way just meant that I was one step closer to reaching the goal I set for myself. Instead of looking at those false starts as failures, I began to look at them for what they were; good practice for grabbing the reins and taking control of my world.
The first half of this year was abysmal in terms of my athletic and physical goals and my overall health suffered for it. The good news is there is still half a year left, and I’m not dead yet. Not by a long shot.
The next time you say “tomorrow’s going to be the day,” or you go off your new healthy diet pattern or sneak a smoke after work do not kill yourself over it. Instead, welcome that action and let it be known that you will try harder the next time the urge hits.
Instead of wandering around in a distasteful haze of apathy, write down your plan for the next day and how you are going to attempt to turn things around. One day it will click. One day you will do all the things you have been training for all these years.
One day you will have the strength. One day you will be resilient. One day you will follow in the footsteps that your mind has set forth for you to become the truest form of yourself. The form that will inspire others, and the form that will give you everything you ever wanted.
I’ve always loved news. From my first life working as a journalist, the news was always a dynamic word to me, one that still conjures up notes of pride and ambition. And while I eventually moved from newspapers to websites for NBC Sports and Major League Baseball, I always gravitated toward more hard news. My favorite moments from those days were when we were given the opportunity to go beyond games stories, beyond superficial profiles of athletes, and got to report on something. To add something, to put something out there that may really mean something, to someone. Or as I used to say when a non-sporting event broke up a meeting and we all dispersed to our stations.
“Let’s do the news.”
The rekindled blog has been a much needed outlet for my writing and the feedback I have received this month has been heartwarming. Building on what the blog has done we are here to let you know the big news.
It’s big news for me. Maybe for you, but if it’s not that's cool too. I am starting a podcast. And you will be shocked to read that it will be called the Gorey Bypass Podcast. Shocker, I know.
The goal with the content we will create is to bring more attention to heart health in a country where heart disease kills more folks than every kind of cancer, combined. I know, crazy. Cancer sucks too by the way.
What I hope to do is develop content that will not only educate, but encourage people to be honest with themselves regarding the decisions they make and the impact those decisions have on the health of our hearts.
The thing with heart disease is that it is generally avoidable with thoughtful lifestyle choices. If we continue to get the word out regarding healthy choices, and just how powerful a carrot is, we have a real chance to reverse the trends of this dreadful disease.
We are going to have fun, tell stories, meet interesting people, and hopefully think, maybe laugh, and certainly cry, at least I know I will.
Here is how we are going to roll.
Season One will be a primer and will cover the short, but oh so eventual 10 days from the first heart attack to the eventual return home. The origin story will be broken down into six parts and will be the semi-soft, but semi-sweet launch of the Gorey Bypass Podcast.
After we do the short opener we will dive right into Season Two where we will talk about all things heart related. Rich topics, absurd stories and insightful interviews with folks on the front lines of promoting all things good for the ticker. The interview, Q&A style is important because I find it yields new ideas and perspectives that allow for discovery and growth.
In that vein, I am opening the virtual floor to all my friends, family and fellow travelers for the six episode primer. After each of the six episodes of Season One I am going to save time to answer some questions from you. This will serve several purposes. One, we can get an idea of the eventual format of the story first interview second style and two, it can give some of you a chance to get some information about the heart attack/bypass experience that you would hopefully not ever have to experience first hand.
To help with any potential questions here is the brief layout of each of the six first season episodes:
There it is. If you have any interest in finding out some more about any of those topics, or the issues relating to those topics please let me know. You can leave a comment on the blog, use the contact page here or shoot me an email at email@example.com.
I will keep the blog going and see what happens. But I am very excited to enter a new avenue, and share more topics of interest with all of you, and hopefully more, so please tell your friends.
We have all been gifted with time to contemplate what is important to us. I hope we can find some direction and raise more awareness of the many ways we can protect our hearts and the hearts of our loved ones.
The heart is an amazing muscle. And like some muscles it needs to be worked on, and worked out. I hope you join me during what will hopefully be one of the most mutually beneficial workouts of our lives.
When I woke up after my open heart surgery I experienced a myriad of emotions. But above all the sadness and confusion, I was flat out tired. Exhausted, which one can see as odd after being in a deep, medicated sleep for over half a day. But there I was, alone in a hospital room, more spent than ever.
I needed a rest, a break from the way I was treating the vessel I had been given, and take some time to evaluate what I really wanted from this existence. Before I felt comfortable making any changes or big decisions I wanted to rest, and retreat from the merry go round of questionable choices.
I believe that right now our planet is giving every one of us what my heart gave me back in January of 2017. A chance to reset. To reorder and reestablish a baseline of what is important and how we can approach the next steps. And then the next one, the one after that, and so on and so forth.
For the first time in a century we humans have been forced to do something we have never been good at -- stop. We are always looking to advance and the mere thought of retreat is seen as giving up.
Some of us are handling this break in the action better than others. Some of us have looked inward and started focusing on not only how they want to help during this crisis, but what they want their world, and their neighborhoods to look like when this is all over.
My amazing wife Sunie is still working full-time, doubling up on courses for her MBA, taking care of a needy lunatic, not to mention the one-year old, and has started teaching yoga online to her co-workers and members of our community. I encourage you to take some time for yourself and head to facebook.com/SunieYoga for some self care.
Jimmy Spencer, a dear friend of mine, decided that in this spare time from being a husband, a dad to a pair of future San Francisco Giants draftees, and VP at Uninterrupted to build an online community dedicated to sharing simple, kind concepts with the masses. If you visit dogoodsimply.com you can get involved.
And my friend in nourishment Marissa Lippert has continued to astonish, this time putting together a weekly pickup of healthy produce and other specialty items in her Brooklyn neighborhood, they are sustaining neighbors while giving local farmers an outlet for their valuable resources. You can see more at ixvcoffee.com/ixv-x-nourish.
Those three examples are just the ones that came off the top of my bald head, I am sure there are countless more and my hope is that they continue to receive support throughout this pandemic and beyond. In this time of monumental upheaval there are people shedding preconceived notions and pushing forward with positive and practical ways to support the human race despite all the factors pushing back against them.
Hope and vision are great things, but danger exists when we allow hope and vision to get stuck running on a loop at the end of the bar or swirling around the local coffee shop. Hope and vision can change the world, but they need hands, blood, sweat, and most certainly tears.
During this forced sabbatical things are changing. People are working differently, eating differently, learning differently, and many people, for the first time in decades, are getting a break from the hamster wheel version of the American dream.
I hear people across all channels saying that they can’t wait to get back to normal. For me going back is not an option. Look around, the planet is healing, after the initial freak outs people are sharing with others and helping neighbors get access to essentials.
If you happen to be one of the many that tell me things “are what they are,” or worse, “what’s the point of doing anything because this is all one big plan anyway,” I am going to need you to continue to shelter in place when this is over, you are slowing the rest of us down.
Real conversations regarding healthcare, energy, relationships, and healthy living are being undertaken by folks that have had their focus elsewhere for far too long. We have learned that we can live without certain things that in the past we deemed essential, and that may be the biggest takeaway of this entire event.
The belief that we can do with less and to be thankful for what we have seems to be permeating our culture. The desire for the cheapest of everything at the expense of the long term health of the country and planet could finally be given the light of a smogless day.
In a similar way that my heart put me on the shelf and forced me to change the lens and choose the next steps with force and fascination, we as a group need to dig in and make the small changes locally that will reverberate for generations.
The Earth is breathing again, so should you.
Now let’s go to work.
For a decade and a half I’ve tapped myself three times before leaving the house. One tap to locate the phone, another tap for my keys, and a third tap for the money clip that holds my relevant plastic and identification.
But for the last three months there has been a fourth tap. It doesn’t belong with the other three. If you were given a grid of four pictures and asked to circle which did not belong, every single one of you would circle my fourth tap.
The fourth tap reminds me that I am sick. The fourth tape reminds me I am safe. There are times I panic when that fourth tap comes up empty, only to realize I was carrying the goods, but their small vessel couldn’t be felt by numbed fingers. It’s a little bottle, tiny really, and it holds several dozen chalky white pills.
My fourth tap finds my bottle of nitroglycerin.
My fourth tap exists because I have heart disease. My fourth tap is here because three years after my coronary artery bypass graft surgery, I had a setback and my heart started failing. My fourth tap reminds me that at any moment of any day I could be gone.
“I want you to carry these with you for the near future,” my nurse practitioner told me. “You have chest pains, you take one. You feel you need to take a second one, call 911, then take the second one, and I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
I can hear her say those words to me every time I slide that little bottle into my pocket. I hope I never have to take them, but the odds are not in my favor.
After having three arteries blocked a few months after my 40th birthday and with subsequent open heart surgery that fixed two of those arteries, I committed to changing my ways.
I used to drink every night, I quit cold turkey. I loved cigars in a Mark Twain way, I quit those, colder turkey. I gave up meat and transitioned to a whole food vegan diet, and am still eating that way, tofu turkey. I took up trailing running and lost 50 pounds. I was doing everything that everyone told me I should be doing.
Then in November of this past year I felt something in my chest. A slight tugging near my heart that made me nervous enough to go see my cardiologist. I never saw my doctor, after answering a few questions, combined with my history I was sent straight to the emergency department. I failed a nuclear stress test a week later and was sent for a cardiac catheterization that yielded a mixed review. The good news was the bypasses were clear, but according to my nurse, when you have what I have, it’s never just good news. The bad news was that there were two new blockages forming, and the really bad news was that my heart function was dangerously low.
Medical folks use something called an ejection fraction (EF) which measures how well your ventricles, usually the left, are pumping blood to your body with each heartbeat. A low EF is a sign of heart failure. After my heart surgery three years ago my EF hovered around 50%. That is on the low side (normal is between 55% and 70%) but considering what my heart had just gone through it was encouraging. Three years later, despite my best efforts my EF had fallen to 36%, and that was when my nurse practitioner got nervous (her words) and called me late one Friday night and reiterated her nitroglycerin instructions.
This is where knowing the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest comes in handy. I had already experienced what a heart attack is like, several times in fact, and while they are no walk in the park I managed to avoid cardiac arrest, so far. An EF of 35% or less puts people at a much larger risk for cardiac arrest, and cardiac arrest is the difference between meeting your medical team in a waiting room versus the morgue.
And just because my heart was behaving like a grumpy old man that didn’t mean it couldn’t learn some new tricks. You last breath is just that, the end, but until then it seems to me that the next first step is to breathe.
When my wife and I were living in the neonatal intensive care unit with our little guy, I asked a friend of mine, one that was living through his son’s own medical nightmare, what he did when things seemed out of control.
“Breathe deeply Kev, count back from 100, if you lose your place, start again.”
My heart got a bit lost last year, and it was time to take a deep breath and start again, because in the absence of hope there is only darkness. The heart needs the light that gets in through the cracks and shines strong on our backs.
As we head into Spring my hope is we can all move forward and arrive in the space that best suits our minds, bodies, and of course, our hearts. It seems like a perfect time to start again.
I’ve never liked surprises. It goes back to an early prank my uncle pulled on me during Christmas that scarred my brain and made me loathe practical jokes.
When I heard whispers of a surprise 40th birthday party for me a few years ago I sprang into action. After a few tenuous moments searching the internet I found out that Old Crow Medicine Show was performing Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in its entirety at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, on my birthday.
I booked plane tickets, found a place to stay and set three alarms for the minute tickets to the show went on sale, grabbing two a few rows back off stage left for what promised to be a unique showcase of American Music.
The concert did not disappoint, but the real star of our first trip to Music City was Husk. I had read about Husk, seen its chef/owner in a documentary on Netflix, and read as much as I could on the resurgence of Southern cuisine in the weeks leading up to our trip.
Oftentimes when I build up something in my mind it falls short and leaves me disappointed, Husk did not do that. I was my favorite meal of the year and it centered around a piece of catfish that was the most delicate thing to touch my lips until an evening birthday kiss from my soon to be wife sent me sweet dreaming.
We spent a few more days in Nashville and I have always wanted to return, and because my wife is just that awesome, we found ourselves in Nashville last week. Times, as they tend to do, have changed. Since our last visit, I’ve had a few heart attacks, one open heart surgery and one very special baby boy, who joined us for what was his first plane ride at just four months of age.
When talk of where to eat with my wife’s co-workers came up, I did not interject. It was her trip this time, I was tagging along to take care of the little guy, but the first word out of her mouth was “Husk,” and just like that I fell in love with her all over again. Reservations were made and after a day or two getting used to Music City all over again we met the crew in our hotel's lobby one night and headed out.
While walking to Husk my excitement was measured. I was hopeful that they could come up with something for a vegan, but even if they could not I was not willing to let that spoil bringing my wife, her co-workers, and my son to my version of a temple.
Everything about Husk speaks to me. From the historic brick house that surrounds its culinary wizardry to the old school front porch; to the daring color choices that grace the walls in the dining room, to me it will always live at the intersection of southern tradition and modern mindfulness.
Oh, and the food is amazing. I’m often asked how a hardcore vegan rationalizes eating at places that serve meat and I’ve never been truly happy with the answers I have given, so I will give it another try.
I’m never going to tell a grown up what they can or can not eat. I will answer questions about what certain foods can do for your body and tell anyone who is interested just how great I feel consuming an entirely whole food plant based diet. But what I will not to do is preach. Be honest with yourself, with how you feel after your meals, and be open to trying new things. That is all I ask. I will never preach, all the preachers I have ever met are either full of shit or trying to sell you something, the really good ones do both at the same time.
Just because something bad happens, that doesn’t mean you need to give up on enjoying some of your favorite things. If you are open and honest, amazing things happen. You have new experiences and that leads to new favorite things. In my case I enjoy breathing way way more than chicken flesh. When you stare death in the face, having to try all the craft beers under one roof doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as the desire to forego sweating during dinner. Weird, I know.
I knew I had one chance, the Plate of Southern Vegetables, as long as we could agree that is wouldn’t be prepared with butter or any animal fat. The Husk staff once again delivered, only this time is was a glorious cavalcade of plant food surrounding their vegan version of grits. Everything was amazing and it proved once again, that eating the way I do never has to sacrifice flavor, nourishment and delight.
Walking back to our hotel it struck me just how different things really were. Our little son pressed against my chest, both my heart and belly full of things that bring me energy, instead of things that eat away at my spirit and arteries.
It’s not so much that I’m a different person, but the lense that I view things is vastly different; and that has made all the difference. Changing the way you look at your favorite things is one of the most daunting challenges one faces when greeted b the grim reaper. The definition of insanity aside, the reality is our favorites things should sustain us, not drain us.
“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen
As I watched my day old son get poked and prodded by a nurse that was in over her head my mind careened to a world without him. Just 30 hours ago this little baby boy had changed everything. Now he was in trouble.
Something about an infection in his lungs and rapid breathing were enough to turn the second day of his life into a train wreck. The game was familiar, but the players had changed and instead of me being the one everyone was concerned about it was our little Cody.
A NICU transport team was called and by morning our now family of three (four when you count the kitten) was in Springfield where we stayed for the better part of a week before Cody was given the green light to go home. Cody’s amazing mother never left his side. She nourished both his body and soul on an hourly basis while I whispered in his ear and told him that everything was going to be just fine.
Despite being sent to an intensive care unit (my second in less than two years) I really did believe everything was going to be okay. After that first night of chaos I settled down and centered everything I had on our seven pound bundle of joy.
A night prior while Cody was scared and screaming I was sobbing on the bed he was born on, unsure of what was going on and how I could help my son who was taken from our room in the middle of the night for reasons that still reside somewhere in between smoky and hazy.
What the trip to the NICU did was remove that new baby feeling from my mind and my heart so while we helped nurse our guy to health in Springfield I searched for that feeling and eventually found it. The new car smell gets most of the attention but the new baby feeling renders any superlative utterly underwhelming.
For me, the new baby feeling amounts to an overwhelming sense of anticipation for the potential of not only the little one, but for the world he currently inhabits. For days, despite our at times bleak surroundings in the NICU I couldn’t help be excited about the prospects of a massive reset of all the ills of humankind.
A few of Cody’s neighbors in the NICU were born many many weeks premature and addicted to various forms of drugs. To see these little hands and feet jerking and kicking while their bodies glowed under the blue lights that lived above them seemed to be a bit of a microcosm of society.
We all have our challenges and what may seem like an easy road to to someone may be a monumental mountain to climb for someone else. And to watch these little boys and girls fight every day to stay alive, some of their lungs paper thin and hearts seemingly jumping through their chests I again found a sense of hope for the world.
These little beings arrived in this world with the biggest of mountains to climb but they weren’t giving up, so why would we? My belief is that at some point one or both of their parents were good people. They were strong people. They were hopeful people. But a twist here and a turn there and they found themselves in a world so unforgiving that it can turn an angel into a demon on a dime.
When a baby is born, all babies, I believe they begin with the best of each of their parents before society introduces itself and the show begins. Even these premature babies were given qualities their parents were once admired for. Maybe it was their toughness, maybe determination or even imagination. It’s in all of them. I know because I saw it in their eyes.
When I think of our Cody in his hospital bed my eyes usually tear up. Not because he had to spend some time in the NICU but because for decades I wondered what having a child would be like, and it took the little man less than two months to have me throw out everything I thought I knew, and start over.
Nothing prepares you for any of this and yet everything prepares you for all of it. Your mind flips and flops over itself and day after day you find new reasons to believe that maybe, even for a minute or two, just maybe, the world makes sense.
You never realize how deep in shit you are in until after you shovel out. When you are in the middle of it things criss and cross and you use what you have to survive and advance and you are better for it. The challenges you face never seem that bad in hindsight and if you take what you need from those experiences when you set forth anew you have more firepower in which to handle the next one, and the next one after that. And the best part is that now you have a wingman that happens to look a little like you, to help you begin, again.
I received a text from an old friend while we were in the hospital. A friend I had not seen in a long time and one who has spent his share of time in the pediatric wing of Boston’s finer children’s hospitals. His advice to me was simple. He told me to breathe, in and out, breathe again, and again, and if I lost my place, simply start again.
If we can remember what it was like to hope. Remember what it was like to see the good in people and never forget that the most important value we can nurture in our young ones is to treat our fellow creatures the way we would want to be treated, we can march forward.
If we get knocked off track, lose our place, or simply forget what got us to where we are, we can take a breath, close our eyes and find the reason and the way. And with every child, we can start again.
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.