On the afternoon of December 13, 2012, I was wearing a pair of baggy dark blue jeans and a three buttoned collared sweatshirt with a slight bleach discoloration in the center. The outfit had made its rounds within my life and, in its pre-bleach days, I had been wearing it when my son was born a year and a half earlier.
I had that feeling again that I had been feeling every now and then for a few months. My hands were tingling and my chest felt like someone was pressing a heating pad against it from the inside. It pulsated and, before long, I couldn’t catch my breath. I grabbed a drink, which quickly fell from my lips as I sipped it. Taking deep breaths didn’t help and I even tried doing sit-ups for some insane reason. Nothing worked.
In fact, it had gotten worse. By the time I half-crawled my way next door to the Emergency Walk-In Center, the pulsating had begun to go up one arm, across my chest, and down the other one. It’s going to sound ridiculous but it pulsed in rhythm of the old spaceship alarms on sci-fi shows. Even though I never saw the program that the quote came from, all I heard in my head was “Danger, Will Robinson. Danger.”
When I got into the emergency center, I pushed the door open with all my body weight and slumped against the desk. I tried to act like I was OK and presentable, but I knew I wasn’t. I was the frat boy on acid who forgot it was parent’s weekend.
I later learned that they rushed me in, as they could tell I was in bad shape. At the time, I didn’t realize much of anything. The cold December air was making me sweat and my body was pulsating. Once inside, the woman doing the test made small talk with me about nothing I can remember. Then, as we we were conversing calmly and measuredly, she said to me in a calm and measured voice.
OK, James. It does appear you’re having a heart attack. So we’re going to go ahead and call the ambulance to come get you.
I guess some people say that everything goes silent in moments like that. For me, it didn’t. I remember instantly being confused. I scanned the room at a fevered pace and, while I can’t explain why, I felt like I had done something wrong. There was no way I was having a heart attack, right? I didn’t have heart attacks. Other people did. I felt that someone, somewhere, had messed up something.
The ambulance came and, in the same parking lot that I had been walking to for six years on a twice weekly basis for groceries, I was loaded in by two paramedics. They spent the ride over talking about the hot E.R. nurse that they were taking me to. I barely spoke to them because I couldn’t stop thinking. Everything ran through my head. Regrets. My kids. Dead friends. All of them. My life didn’t flash, but it certainly played out.
If I couldn’t believe this was happening, neither could the doctor at the hospital. He refused to buy into this “heart attack” talk and claimed that a test showed no signs of any cardiac event. I will forever hear his Indian accent in my ear, asking in a loud whisper.
You tell the truth. You do a little viagara? Hah? A little heroin?
I had done neither and this dude wasn’t helping. Now, this felt like the Twilight Zone. I didn’t think I was having a heart attack. Dr. Blue Chew didn’t think I had a heart attack. Maybe I didn’t have a heart attack. Just for the sake of proving me wrong, he ordered an angiogram, where a camera is inserted via terrifying needle, to look at my heart itself.
Initially jovial and talkative, the medics made me feel at ease…until the picture came up on the monitor. What they found shut down the room. My heart was majorly blocked in every artery. 90% in one, 80% in another, stuff like that. They told me that, at 35 years old, there was no way I could have done this to myself and that the only option was a quintuple bypass. My very first surgery was going to be one of the biggest. I asked him when it would take place and if I should just call to schedule it. He smirked and replied.
Schedule it? Chief, you’re going in tonight.
And that’s when I thought I was going to die.
I never even knew a quintuple bypass was a thing. How often do you hear quintuple? They don’t use it in baseball or dog dares. Yet, here I was getting one on my heart. I resigned myself that I was done.
From that room, I was wheeled to another where a doctor went over the specifics of what was to come. I was in mild shock as, family history aside, I had always gotten clean bills of health from my check-ups. That, apparently, doesn’t matter. The doctor giving me the rundown said something I will never forget.
You know those guys who are totally healthy and then drop dead at 40? That was going to be you.
As I sat stunned, two nuns, who had overheard, walked over from around the curtain and told me they would be praying for me. I think it was a test from God to see if I would curse or breakdown in front of a nun. Things never feel more dire than when a nun you don’t know says she will pray for you, even though you didn’t ask. Free unsolicited nun-prayers. That’s it. I was done.
When I was taken, again by ambulance, to St. Francis hospital for surgery, I have to be honest. A part of me thought I was already dead. Blame Six Feet Under on HBO, but I have long pondered what happens after we die and what that afterlife looks like. My journey to the new hospital had been so sudden that there was no way to get my kids a babysitter or alert enough people to meet me there. So from that moment on, until I woke up from my procedure, I was all alone. No family. No friends. No familiarity. It was just me and the staff in a room that, just a little bit, I believed might be purgatory.
In my head, this was the entrance to a new timeline. I was starting over. Fresh. That room where they prepped me didn’t feel real. Nothing did, except maybe the nurse who, upon learning I wrote a wrestling book years earlier, talked to me about Special Delivery Jones. That part was the most comforting.
The last thing I remember being told before blast-off was from the surgeon who eventually cracked me open. He came over to explain that the surgery I was about to have had a 97% success rate. Suddenly, the haze around me let up.
“97%?” I asked. “I thought it was like 20 or something.”
So he asked me:
Why would we do it if there was only a 20% success rate?
Good point, Doc. They wheeled me in and, as I went down the hallway on the gurney, I saw myself in a little circular mirror in the corner. I rolled by on the stretcher with a stupid shower cap thing on my head. I think I remember the door opening and doing the anesthesia countdown, but honestly, I think I may be remembering past scenes from TV shows or movies.
When I eventually woke up a day later with a plastic tube down my throat, it took a moment to process where I was. What followed were some rough moments, awful nightmares, and the pain of missing my children. I kept a framed photo of the professional Christmas pictures we had taken right before my world was rocked perched atop my movable bed tray all week. My daughter, radiant and shining like a princess, was next to my son, who was halfway up and about to dash away, but manically smiling as he is.
The reason he was about to dash away is that Lucas was showing signs of autism and, in those early days, he was a runner. He hadn’t spoken and missed milestones in his life had started to become the rule rather than the exception. I had worried about him so much in the short time he had been on Earth. I feared for him every day.
Here, though, in the hospital, none of that mattered. I didn’t think about what he didn’t do.I thought about who he was. All that mattered was that I missed him as much as I missed my daughter. They were my children and they meant the world to me. It affected how I see him, how I see life, and how I see myself.
Since that day, every change I have made to my routine, life, and direction has been motivated by them. Whether he never speaks a word for his entire life or composes a sonnet, my son is one of the two pillars of my world with his sister by his side. I want to see them grow up. I want to see them thrive. And if, for some reason, I’m not here for those days, I don’t want it to be from something I could have prevented.
I made changes that day and I’m still making changes today. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, I try to always take myself back to that afternoon, that bleach-stained sweatshirt, those feelings, and the warnings I was told.
I could have been dead by 40. Today, I’m 43. Life is for the living. So, I’m living it and squeezing every last bit of life out of this world that I can.