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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Complacency...And The Choice*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
February 28, 2010
as "Not Going to Waste Third Chance at Life"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

It started as an ordinary day. I woke up, got ready for work, ate some breakfast, and headed out for my 30-minute commute to Johnstown. I was looking forward to the weekend and the big motorcycle show in DC.

As I walked up Market Street, I began to feel a dull ache in my chest. I paused briefly at the Vine Street intersection, and the pain faded a bit. I was trying to hold onto the shreds of denialism, but it was becoming difficult. I had to stop twice more, once at Main, and in front of Gallina’s as the pain spread into my shoulders and arms. By then, I had to finally admit to myself that this was no passing malady. The pain was familiar, having experienced it once before.

In the Spring of 2003, I ended up in the hospital with similar chest pains. A heart catheterization opened up and stented two blocked arteries. During the procedure, though, my heart quit and while the team worked feverishly to bring me back, I paid a brief visit to a land of tunnels and white lights.

Now, feeling that familiar sensation again, my discomfort began to turn to fear.

At the hospital, I was told that I needed another heart cath. I was now officially terrified. However, despite my previous experience, this one went very smooth. I remained calm throughout, choosing to sing softly to myself, I’m sure causing some aural persecution to the cath team.

Afterwards, the cardiologist explained to my wife and I that he had found a blockage in the Left Anterior Descending artery. This artery has another name: The Widow-Maker. A problem there usually means The End. He had opened it up with a balloon and placed a stent, my third.

I was discharged the next afternoon. My son and his family had come up for the long weekend, along with our 3-year-old granddaughter. As she always does, her hugs, smiles and laughter lit up our lives for those three days. I was happy, and thankful, to be alive.

As I recover, I face some tough questions. After the last time, I got serious about my diet and exercise, losing some 70 pounds. I felt great, and even went back to playing tennis and softball. At the time, I felt certain that the experience of almost dying would provide me the motivation to stay on the straight and narrow.

However, over time, I lost that momentum. I had been feeling so good for so long, that I somehow arrived at the incredible position that I was invincible. Diet didn’t matter, and serious exercise lost its priority. I thought that the insertion of two metal sleeves made me 25 again, and I could live a life without consequences. I was like a man with a leaky roof living through a long dry spell. Why fix it? It wasn’t leaking.

I had become complacent.

Lying in that hospital bed, I realized I had been given a third bite at the apple of life. It was a gift and I could no longer afford complacency.

This is a weakness we all face, especially we aging baby boomers. In both instances, the onset of symptoms was immediate, without warning. I want people to learn from my stupidity of my experience. Just because you “feel fine” does not mean you don’t have a ticking time bomb in your chest. I knew of the familiar risk factors, such as weight, diabetes, and high blood pressure, but this time I was also diagnosed with Sleep Apnea, which, I was shocked to find out, can bring on sudden cardiac death.

It’s what killed NFL star Reggie White. At age 47.

February is Heart Month, sponsored by the American Heart Association. For me, this time it’s personal.

A heart attack can strike out of the clear blue, whether walking on a sidewalk, lying in bed, or driving a car down the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I urge you folks to spurn complacency and choose now to take care of yourselves.

Please. Do it before that choice is taken away.

When I look at the future now, I have to keep uppermost in my mind what will happen if I don’t act my age and make responsible health choices. I expect I may falter from time to time; I am human, after all.

But for whatever reason, God gave me yet another chance.

This time, I’m not going to blow it.
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