Updated: May 7, 2020
On 11/7/17 I didn’t even know I had a mitral valve, let alone that something was catastrophically wrong with it. I did 300 pushups that day on my quest to complete 50,000 that calendar year. (It would be six months before I did another one.) A weird chest pain the month before—that turned out to be a pulled muscle, unrelated to my heart problem—had led my wonderfully cautious doctor to say, “you’re over 50 now; let’s have you have a stress EKG just to be on the safe side.”
The next day, at our local hospital for the stress test, a sharp technician (to whom I’m forever grateful) noticed something that no one had before. “I think I want the cardiologist to come down and listen to this before I put you on the treadmill” She said to the cardiologist, “Can you hear it?” He responded, “I can hear it without a stethoscope!” The next thing I knew I was in the back of an ambulance hurtling through the night to Strong Memorial in Rochester. The next day, the cardiologist delivered the stunning news, “You have to have open heart surgery as soon as it can be arranged.”
I live alone in upstate New York; my wife lives in Virginia (long story) and as we came to terms with this news we quickly decided that I needed to have the surgery down there at the world-renowned Sentara Heart Hospital in Norfolk, where she could look after me. She and my daughter jumped in the car to come and rescue me and transport me to Virginia. When I asked the doctor if I could go back to school until the surgery, he cautioned gravely, “you can’t go to work, you can’t drive, you can’t walk: you are only to sit down and lie down until surgery.”
In Norfolk I was assigned to a brilliant young surgeon and got on his schedule for 11/20/17 and was hospitalized until the surgery. I spent 20 days there before and after the surgery. I’ll never forget Sentara, it is etched upon my repaired heart: wonderful doctors, nurses and outstanding care and attention every minute of my time with them. Even as I sit here and write this, I get tears in my eyes remembering: they gave me my life back.
Once they got inside me for the six-hour surgery, they found that they would be able to repair my mitral valve rather than replace it, which has made my post-surgery life less complicated. I struggled with A-fib for a week after surgery and was nearly implanted with a pacemaker, but my surgeon kept saying “give him another day, I still think his heart will right itself.” And he was right.
One month after surgery, my wife and I drove up to my house that had been standing empty for seven weeks. Our kids had come in early and decorated it inside and out for Christmas. I’ll never forget that sight as long as I live. I went back to teaching and cardiac rehab right after the holidays, and even directed the spring musical at the same time!
Two and a half years later, it almost feels like a dream, except for the long scar on my chest, which I have actually come to like, even though I hated it at first. It’s a souvenir of what I survived and of the second shot I got at living happily ever after. I hope my journey encourages you if you are going through this.
[P.S. - Tim completed 50k pushups in 2019]