I would say that my initial days in retirement was a bit of a mixed bag of results. On the up side, it dawned on me that there was no office that I had to go to ever again. There were no deadlines I had to meet ever again. I didn’t have to look at my iPhone for after-hours work messages ever again. Mind you, I really thrived on my job until my heart problems began to surface. But I have to admit that even the vestiges of the hard charging Melanie that still existed thought it was fabulous that I did not need to be a servant to a time clock, and I did not need to juggle a variety of assignments.
I engaged in the fun activities that I often was too busy to do when I was working. Enjoying lunches and coffee and long walks with friends in the neighborhood, and just being with people without having to worry about what was happening in an office. I was aware that a group of 5 women I had worked with over the years had planned my retirement celebration. I wanted to thank them for their efforts, so we went to lunch at one of our favorite restaurants. I also began a custom of meeting former colleagues who had become dear friends for lunch or dinner every few months. In fact, I just had one of these lunches the other day. I value the companionship of these friends, knowing that it enriches my heart and my health. When you have heart failure, you take medications and perhaps rely on devices as part of your treatment. But I also believe you must stay in touch with your network of friends, because these connections are also important to your heart health and emotional well-being .
I also took advantage of my free time to let people know how much I appreciated them. There were a number of people who gave me retirement gifts, or who contributed food or money for the retirement event that my office held for me. I was so touched, and I wanted to let each and every person know how much our relationship meant to me. I made sure that I put some personal anecdotes in each note about our time together. I wasn’t sure how many of these people I would ever see again, but I wanted to make sure they knew that my appreciation for them as unique and gifted individuals was heartfelt. The process of writing the notes was also uplifting for me. The last six months at work had been a bit clouded by the anxiety of my condition, but the memories I compiled for each note brought back the good memories that were overshadowed by heart failure.
In a previous post, I mentioned the lovely young mother in my church who took me to an appointment with my primary care physician when I was at the end of my rope because of the lack of a diagnosis. Her wonderful children (who I believe were around one and three years old at the time) came with us. Having them around me during this stressful time generated the only positive energy I had experienced in a while. So a few weeks after I retired, I arranged a play and lunch date with them. If you haven’t had the chance to be around small children and see the world for the first time through their curious eyes, you need to do so. If your view of life, like mine, could use some rejuvenation, here is one approach I heartily recommend!
I also traveled to the city where my Mom is now living in a retirement facility. We spent some quality time together at one of her activities classes. The activity of the day was making trendy sunglasses, and we had a blast. I still have the picture of our end results. We looked so glamorous, and the activities leader swore that my Mom looked like a rock star! I think a picture of her may have been included in the facility’s monthly newsletter. These were memories that I was too busy and too stressed out to make in previous years.
But now for what could be a down side, the part where I really needed to invoke some patience. I welcomed retirement with the false notion that suddenly the pacemaker and lack of a daily job would magically make my heart return to normal. Apparently the fact that the cardiologist and electrophysiologist told me there was damage to my heart had been erased from my mind, along with the advice of the cardiologist and cardiac nurse that I would have good days and bad days.
When the first bad day came around, and I just wanted to sit around and veg, I was devastated. How could this be? I needed to take advantage of the freedom of retirement, but how could I do that when I didn’t feel like loading up my calendar with a lot of “to-do” items? It seemed that I was trying to overachieve even in retirement and in heart failure.
The first time I got winded walking up a flight or two of steps, I was dumbfounded. How could this be? I used to walk up 10 flights of steps with no problem. The fact that I had an electronic device keeping my heart pumping steadily – well in my mind that should fuel more energy – right? So I never was good at algebra, and so I could not work through the following equation: getting older + some degree of heart damage = less ability to keep up with the cardio load. I failed to find comfort in the fact that my cardiac team thought I was doing a pretty awesome job at exercising. I couldn’t understand the marked decrease in my energy level. I kept comparing myself to Melanie in earlier years, rather than comparing myself to a typical heart failure patient.
During this time period, my cardiologist prescribed another echocardiogram. One thing that the echocardiogram does is measure a patient’s ejection fraction. The ejection fraction is an important measurement in determining how well your heart is pumping out blood and in diagnosing and tracking heart failure. According to the American Heart Association, a normal heart's ejection fraction may be between 50 and 70. The cardiologist contacted me when the results were in and told me that I had an ejection fraction of 35. So to help address the heart damage and the weakened heart function, he prescribed a number of heart drugs for me: a beta blocker (blocks the production of adrenaline), an ACE inhibitor (blocks the conversion of a substance called angiotensin) and diuretics to take care of water retention issues. We started out with some relatively low doses of the beta blocker and the ACE inhibitor.
I admit that this was a bit of a letdown. I realized that I needed to invert the glass so that it was registering in my mind as half full even on bad days. In other words, I had to manage my expectations and beat some sense into the overachiever. I decided that what I needed were things to keep me busy. But what I did not need was something that required me to show up at and office and account for a set schedule, even a part-time schedule. This was because I couldn’t guarantee when the occasional bad day might show up. I needed something where I could dictate the schedule as much as possible, probably something in the volunteer realm.
I concluded that I had begun a new chapter of my life, and each day did not need to open with a “bang” like in an action novel. But it also didn’t have to open with a “whimper” like in a melodrama. I just wanted fulfillment, and fulfillment depends on the eyes and mind of the beholder. I set to work creating a vision of fulfillment in my eyes, because I knew this would have a positive impact on my heart. What I didn’t realize is that from a heart health perspective, I needed to keep things in a slower speed. This was because I was entering into the eye of the heart failure storm…
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.