Before I started down the road of heart failure, I was guilty of the crime of taking things for granted. What does this mean? Well, the Cambridge English dictionary defines the term taking something for granted as: to never think about something because you believe it will always be available or stay exactly the same. In my case, I’m wondering if the definition should just be “to never think”.
No, I am not being too harsh with myself. Prior to my diagnosis of heart failure, I was rushing around so much that I just seemed to be on autopilot, and I never gave any deliberate thought to what I was doing. In the last few years, I have had to give up things that I really liked to do. I am not always thrilled with this result, but the world has not come to an end. I say this even though it is always in my mind that people with heart failure sometimes needs heart transplants.
Maybe when you realize that things could be much worse, that is the point where you finally stop taking things for granted. So the good news about heart failure is that with less going on in my life I can slow down to a pace where I could really analyze how I reacted to events, and particularly stress, before heart failure. I even have the time and more important, the inclination, to make some observations about where I may have erred and learn from my mistakes.
Here is one episode that demonstrates how oblivious I was to how good my life really was. I remember a big storm that came through the DC area in the fall of 2012. We lost power in my apartment building for about 24 hours. It was then that I realized how much I had come to rely on lights, hot water, the microwave, the refrigerator, the television, and my hair dryer just to name a few.
But when I now think about it, my biggest problem was that I had to go to work the next day. I was able to find some short-term solutions, and I showed up at my desk the next morning looking alert and professional. I was so fortunate, but I didn’t see it. I just was stressed over the loss of a convenience, not the loss of a need. Once the power came back on, I just used it without even a thank you to the Gods for returning light and hair dryers and the power of the microwave to my life.
When I started blacking out, feeling fatigue, and getting dizzy with almost no warning, I was at first more irritated than scared. How could I keep up my exercise routine if I kept blacking out? It was just annoyingly inconvenient to my work and life schedule. It didn’t dawn on me to ask why my good health had suffered a sharp decline, or to pay attention to how I was abusing my own body and wellbeing. It never occurred to me that the fact that I had enjoyed really good health and energy into my 50s was something that other people would envy. If I had a fortune that was enviable, what was I doing to protect it? Apparently nothing!
Do you see a consistent pattern in the preceding paragraphs? Do you see that I never bothered to savor each taste, to enjoy the freedom and fulfillment that comes with good health? Do you think I was guilty of taking a lot in life for granted? More important, when I lost something I relied on for a while, did I think about anything other than the inconvenience to me and my very rigid work schedule and life style? Where was the flexibility that I used to talk about with pride?
As I type and think back on these events, I realize how oblivious I was to the challenges that many people not as fortunate as I am have to manage on a constant basis. I am ashamed to admit that I was a very selfish person. I am trying really hard to change my attitude. As I work on altering my behavior, I am beginning to see that sometimes the remedies that I must implement to solve a problem gives me much more patience and sometimes may provide greater pleasure.
Here are a few examples showing how my approach to life’s inconveniences were more measured, more rational since I have jumped off the treadmill of work and work and more work, with no relaxation or recharging time. At the time I retired from work the Washington area subway system started to deteriorate in a huge way. Within the next four years Metro’s management initiated the “safe track” surge, which basically meant shutting down portions of the subway lines for weeks at a time. But instead of reacting angrily at the inconvenience, I knew that infrastructure priorities had been delayed for so long that the fixes of the safe track surge were absolutely critical.
So I realized I needed to repair my outlook. First, whenever I was confronted with safe track work that would disrupt a trip, I just calmly figured out if there were any alternatives to using metro. There were some instances where I could just drive to my appointment or meeting. Of course, in some instances, I had to go into Washington DC. I absolutely hate driving in Washington DC, especially anywhere near rush hour!
But there were alternatives to avoid the part of Metro that was shut down, and to avoid driving. I found a number of local bus alternatives in my area that I did not knew existed and I took advantage of them. They were not only affordable, but they also afforded the luxury to see more of the area where I live which was an unexpected bonus. You can’t see the neighborhoods when you’re speeding under the ground on the subway, or when you’re dodging other drivers on the road.
I also became more empathetic about those in the area who were not as fortunate as me. There were many commuters who had no option other than to rely on Metro. In many instances they could not work from home. Some of these folks did not have the resources to drive into work and pay for parking near their jobs. Their commute times became very long and very arduous. I felt bad for these commuters. I didn’t know what I could do to help them, but at least I had become more sensitive to others who are not as fortunate. It made me look at all the positive things going on in my life, and it made me less likely to complain about minor inconveniences.
For over four months, our condo building was conducting the “balcony project”. Basically, workmen were on our balcony taking out damaged cement, replacing it, sealing it, and painting the balcony railings. But to ensure the safety of both the workers and the residents, our balconies were barricaded. I don’t even like heights so this should have been no big deal for me. But my HVAC closet is on the balcony and so there might be a reason to occasionally go out on the balcony.
So again, I had to deal with another annoying disruption. But this one was a no-brainer to work through. Would I rather have a balcony with cracked cement that was likely going to become unsafe? Or would I rather just have workmen periodically working on my balcony. I found that I got used to the noise of the jackhammers more easily than I ever could have imagined. And even though I had my plantation shutters closed, I always know when the workmen had arrived. I would here this constant chatter of voices, and occasionally a “yee-haw” would break out. I would just smile and shake my head, figuring that I probably did not want to know what that was all about.
Our condo building that was built about 28 years ago. We were operating on the original water pump. So this summer, a new pump was installed. This installation required that our water be shut off for about 14 hours. This is another utility you never think about until it is gone for a substantial period of time. Again, this was another no brainer to work through. Would I rather have a very old water pump completely stop working and create a crisis that might take much longer to fix?
Fortunately, the condo management gave us some tips, including filling the bathtub to have water to flush your toilets. I then went on-line and found videos on how the process works to manually flush your toilet. (It is still amazing to me what you can find on You Tube). So I bought a ton of bottled water to drink. When the day of the shutdown came, I performed a lot of errands outside the building to lessen my need to use water. Before I know it, the installation of the pump was complete and the whole time had been painless. I realized that I still had enough bottled water and water stored in the tub that I could have floated an ocean liner. I was proud of myself for being so prepared!
As I have learned to roll with the punches for minor inconveniences, I seem to suffer less from the effects of stress. This means that there is also less need for my beta blockers to jump in and keep stress from harming my heart. So the beta blockers’ hammer can be used to beat down genuine stress when it surfaces. I realize that rather than ending my life, heart failure (or at least the epiphanies that have come with it) may be the thing that will in the end save me from running myself from an early death. And even though my heart may have weakened, my resolve and my patience is becoming stronger. But I also take advantage of what is happening in the world to remind me that even with congestive heart failure, I have so so so much to appreciate.
As I write this, I am stunned by the amount of destruction and damage rendered this summer in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. The people in those 3 areas, especially those in Puerto Rico, have been very proficient in finding temporary fixes. They are dealing with life or death matters and continue to show grace under extreme pressure. I need to keep their resilience in my mind, and make them my examples for how we can rise above any obstacle sent our way. So they are my inspiration to look for ways to help others. So many people have helped me throughout the last five years that it would be selfish of me to do otherwise. Just as it is sinful for me to continue to commit the crime of taking life for granted.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.