Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tick, tick, tick...

My heart doesn't beat any more. Ever since my friend and surgeon Dennis replaced my aortic valve with a carbon-fiber mechanical valve, my heart doesn't go 'lub dub' like yours does. No, he didn't turn me into the undead. Now that I think of it...he may have, however, have turned me into a time bomb (I gotta remember to talk to him about that). Why do I say that? Well, instead of beating, my heart now ticks! Just like a wristwatch! It's pretty cool - if the room is quiet enough, you can actually hear my heart ticking like a loud watch. At night when we lay in bed, Camille and I can hear it clearly. Tick, tick, tick. The hilarious thing is that it gets louder when I open my mouth! If I open my mouth and hold it up to your ear, you will hear my heart. Weird, huh? And pretty stinkin' amazing.

The tick is obviously from the new man-made valve doing its job. Out of all the intricate, amazing, specialized parts in my body, my new aortic valve will be the last one to wear out. It's like a Timex - it just keeps on ticking! One day my heart is gonna stop...but it won't be because of that valve. As long as my heart is beating, it will do its job. Day in and day out - until the day I stand before God. Tick, tick, tick. That valve is now officially the most dependable part of my body. I will always hear it working, if I listen. Talk about peace of mind!

As my mind struggles to make sense of the experience that has been the last couple of years of my life...feeling healthy but worrying about health, dreading the inevitable surgery, praying for miracles, uncertainty, fear, faith...I am just starting to grasp what an incredible gift my Creator has given me. Tick, tick, tick...I now have a constant reminder of His love and concern for me. From now on, whenever doubts creep in or the 'fear of man' looms like a shadow in my thoughts, I will hear that tick and know that He is still in control. He has always taken care of me, always seen me all of the way through the hard times and into the joy that awaits on the other side. It's as if He arranged for my mechanical heart valve as a sort of marker - an unavoidable, indisputable sign that He saved my life and that I can keep trusting Him with everything else no matter what.

That sort of begs questions about just what is gonna take place in my future to where I would need such a tangible sign of His love and protection. I guess I could be a little scared thinking about that stuff. But that would defeat the purpose of the tick, tick, tick. I'm convinced that the sign was put there as a reassurance, a reminder that He is at the wheel and that He is a very good driver. And that is good news indeed!

I have a lot of anxiety about this next year. Because I'm a commercial pilot, I am bound by FAA rules. Those rules say that I am 'grounded' after heart surgery and cannot re-apply for my medical certificate until six months after the surgery. Then it is a few month process of tests, medical exam boards and physicals before I will be cleared to fly again. In short, I will be out of work for the rest of the year, maybe more. That's a little scary. Like you, I have a mortgage to worry about and bills to pay. That's not to mention medical co-payments for a major surgery. It's easy to become overwhelmed and feel a bit hopeless. But...tick, tick, tick. Whenever the room quiets, I can hear my heart ticking - and that quiets my anxiety. My Creator didn't bring me this far to leave me to drown in the trivial stuff like money and careers. My heart reminds me of this several times a day.

So, I am looking forward to this next year as one of opportunity. There are several things that Camille and I have always dreamed of trying. I now have the time to try them. I feel God gently pushing us into a new area of our lives. Where we will end up, only He knows. But I am excited! The ticking in my heart tells me that He will be with us every step of the way. If I have learned anything in life so far, it is that while the trip is often bumpy, if we keep letting Him drive, our destination is always worth the journey. So, I'll be happily along for the ride - making sure to quiet my thoughts enough to always hear that tick, tick, tick.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I'm back with a new heart!

Whew! Well, most of you who follow my blog know the reason why I have been gone for a while. Hopefully, I'm back now. I've just been through the first part of an experience that should provide the material for a whole book, let alone a few blogs. Why do I say 'the first part'? Only because I believe that although the hardest part is over, the real changes and lessons and experience are yet to come in the following months. What the heck am I talking about?

Where to start? How about a quick review. About 3 or 4 years ago, on a routine flight physical to renew my FAA medical certificate, the doctor noticed that I had a heart murmur. Further testing revealed that I had been born with what is called a 'bi-cuspid' aortic valve in my heart. Two of the three flaps in my aortic valve were fused together, leaving me with a two-flapped, leaky valve. Over time, my condition would worsen and, without going into all of the details, eventually the valve would need to be replaced. Well, that time came.

As many of my friends know, none of this came as a surprise to my Creator. Years before I even knew that I had a problem with my heart, He arranged for me to meet and become close friends with a surgeon whose team is the leading surgical team in the U.S. at putting in a new kind of carbon-fiber heart valve known as the On-X valve. They are paving the way on an exciting FDA study that will hopefully result in On-X recipients like myself not having to take the hard-core anti-coagulant drug Coumadin. My surgeon's name is Dr. Dennis Nichols and he is without a doubt my hero.

Let me give you a glimpse into just how perfectly our Creator cares for us. Until very recently, there hasn't been a lot of options for someone who needed a new heart valve. Usually, the valve would be replaced with a valve from a pig or sheep or human cadaver. Being organic and foreign to the recipient's body, these valves would break down rather rapidly and eventually have to be replaced. Ten or twelve years was a long life span for a replacement valve. I'm 38...just think about what I would have to look forward to in the future. The other option as technology has improved has been a mechanical heart valve. These are more durable but blood platelets tend to stick to the surfaces of the metal valve and clotting is a big problem. Hence the heavy drugs such as Coumadin - they thin your blood so that it won't clot as easily. They also leave you susceptible to easy bruising, hemorrhaging and bleeding.

God was taking all of this into consideration before I was even aware of any problems. You see, the On-X valve is made from carbon-fiber. Blood platelets can't stick to it! By the way - it's indestructible! A thousand years after I am dead and buried, someone may dig up my bones and there, sitting right where my heart was, will be my On-X valve - good as new. Do you see where I am going here? It blows me away when I think of how perfect God's plan to fix my heart was. I was just minding my own business, unaware of any heart defects, and through some pretty miraculous circumstances a man named Dennis walked into my life and became my good friend. The exact circumstances are fuel for another blog, but for now I will say that God brought Dennis into my life as He was using some other surgeons to perform a pretty miraculous brain surgery on my sister-in-law, Jamie. Dennis came to be with the family and comfort us on that very hard day and a special, very real friendship was born between he and I.

I didn't know what an On-X valve was, much less that I needed one. Nor did I care, at the time. Dennis didn't know that he would one day saw open my sternum, stop my heart and replace a faulty valve. He just knew that he had met a kindred spirit. Both being Army vets, we share a lot of the same experiences and can understand each other in ways that someone who has never seen combat would never grasp. More than that though, we share a heart for other people, a love for our God and a little insight into what is really important in this life. I often laugh when I picture how our Creator must have been smiling on the day Dennis and I met, knowing what was coming and seeing the wheels of His perfect plan being set into motion. The enemy of our souls thought for sure that I would be out of his hair with an early demise due to a bad heart. My Creator not only had an answer for that old snake, but He was 'hooking me up' with the best possible solution and the best possible person to make it happen. And he was giving both of us a new friend at the same time!

Dennis cried the day that I sat in his office and he listened to my heart murmur for the first time. He hugged me and cried. He told me that he was going to have to give me a new valve. I asked him if he was gonna be OK with doing this surgery. He told me that he couldn't be more honored to do it. It was just that he had never had to face the reality of doing what he was going to have to do to someone he loved. If there were any doubts that I was in the right hands, they were erased as I watched my friend agonize for me and empathize with me. All throughout the long process from that day until now, Dennis has been the rock that I can lean on when things seem overwhelming. He's the busiest person I know, yet he always has time for my calls and always knows just what to say. Whenever I have started to worry, I have thought about the Divine circumstances that brought Dennis and I together and have always pictured that day in Dennis' office. Instantly, my worries have been erased.

Dennis tells me that we had a very meaningful conversation and cried together in the operating room just before my surgery two weeks ago. I don't remember much - the anesthesiologist had already given me a healthy dose of 'happy juice' to calm my nerves. I do remember that when I came to in the ICU, the first faces I saw were my beautiful wife Camille and my beloved friend, Dennis. I remember a sense of relief and of knowing that everything had finally come full-circle. The chapter that God had started years ago when He orchestrated our friendship had come to a conclusion - a new chapter waiting to be written.

I could write volumes about my friend Dennis. Being one of the most well-versed, busiest cardiothoacic surgeons in the country, he still finds time (and space in his heart) to adopt children orphaned by their unwed mothers, in addition to the children that he and his wife already had. He is currently awaiting the clearance of some government red tape to be able to fly to Africa and adopt his seventh and eighth children. He runs marathons and works out voraciously. All of this is sandwiched between a couple of major open-heart surgeries a day, in addition to being on-call for trauma victims. He is the most loving, caring, genuinely nice person I have ever met. There are several rumors circling him that suggest that he's not a human at all, but an angel. I'm tempted to believe them.

I've said it before on this blog, and I'll undoubtedly say it many more times: our Creator can be trusted. Our finite minds rarely see what is best for us. But His mind sees the whole picture - past, present and future. We don't always get the answer that we thought we should have when we ask Him for stuff...but we always get the correct answer. If we can learn just to trust Him to care for us, then our lives can be filled with Dennises. He had the answers to all of your questions and problems and tough situations figured out before you were even born. Just letting go and trusting Him with our lives is the real challenge. But let me tell you from personal experience, it is a challenge worth taking. Open-heart surgery wasn't the first challenge I've faced, and it surely won't be the last. But looking back on all of my trials, I can see His hand guiding my every step and see how His solution was exponentially better than any solution that I could have brought to the table. If you are in the middle of one of those tough situations, try letting go and asking Him to do whatever He thinks is best. I promise you, it may take a while for you to realize it, but you won't be disappointed!