“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is ‘cor’-the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences—good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.’”—Brene Brown, psychologist
I feel vaguely anxious. I can’t really identify what it is, or what thoughts I’m having that trigger the anxiety. Last night I couldn’t fall asleep.
Tomorrow I am running a 5k, something I’ve done many times before. I’m not a particularly fast runner—I usually come in somewhere in the middle of the pack for my age group. I’m fine with that. I use the races as motivation to keep exercising. It helps me get on the treadmill when I know I have a race coming up.
This past November, I was training for a 5k. It was taking me a bit longer than usual to get my distance up to where it needed to be, but I was confident I’d be able to do the race. I had run a little over 2 miles on a Saturday morning. Then, on Monday morning, I had a heart attack.
On Tuesday, I had a catheterization that revealed serious heart disease and I had a stent placed in the “widow-maker” artery. I recovered well, went through rehab, and gradually returned to exercising.
On paper, I didn’t have many risks for heart disease. I have always exercised. I played sports through college and I’ve been a runner for the past ten years. I ate decently, watching my fat intake, except for a remarkable fondness for pizza. I have always been thin. I still remember my first baseball game in college. When Coach Dix brought me in to pitch in New Orleans against Tulane University, I heard this guy with the most charming southern drawl say, “Gee, number 13, you’re so skinny you could tread water in a garden hose.”
Throughout my life, I have had recurrent dreams of being able to fly. Sometimes, I have had a cape and have been Superman. I’m not quite as skinny in those dreams.
“The universe is not short on wake-up calls. We’re just quick to hit the snooze button.”—Brene Brown, psychologist
Back in my 20’s, I had my first real brush with my mortality. I had some health issues that knocked me over the head and reminded me that I was not Superman. I still remember the neurologist starting our conversation by saying, “You’re probably worried you have a brain tumor, right?” I stammered in reply, “Actually, no, that had never occurred to me…”
It was around that time that I had a dream, a dream that made me wake up laughing, a dream that I didn’t need to be a psychologist to interpret—I dreamt that I was Clark Kent and could not find a phone booth. Yes, I was just as vulnerable as everyone else.
Last November, I had no idea that I was about to confront kryptonite. On that Monday, November 15, I was walking down the hall at work and stopped briefly to talk to a friend. As we finished our conversation, I had a strange tingling sensation in my left arm and heavy pressure in my chest. I began having tunnel vision and it took everything I had to remain conscious, to remain alive
I made it back to my office, sat down, and the symptoms all went away. I knew I had to get to the hospital. I didn’t want to go by ambulance though—all I could envision was getting wheeled out of the building with hundreds of people watching. I knew I could get there on my own—because I was Superman, of course.
I drove myself to the ER. Apparently Superman is not too bright.
Within seconds of arriving at the ER, blood was drawn, I had an IV, and EKG was done. The EKG was abnormal. My troponin level was mildly elevated. They handed me some chewable aspirin that still had that orange flavor I had liked as a kid. I flashed back to being a kid, being sick, and being taken care of.
Within 75 minutes of my arrival, I was upstairs in a room in the cardiac unit. Electrodes were monitoring my heart. I received clot-busting medication through the IV. Physically, I felt fine. Emotionally, I was in a daze. There was so much to process, but I didn’t even know what it was…
As a psychologist, I used to work with heart patients, at the very hospital where I was now a patient. I knew many of the nurses. One of them had organized a 5k I ran in a couple years earlier.
As a patient myself, though, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Would I recover? Would I be disabled? Would I even survive? As all these thoughts sped through my head, I felt a strange feeling of relief, a feeling of acceptance (or was it denial?). I was able to let go of many of the things I worried about on a daily basis—it was clear that they didn’t matter.
The next day, I had the cath and had the stent placed. In another day I was home. All went well. That’s the short story.
The longer version is this…
When I left the hospital, I was exhausted walking the short distance to the car. When I got home, I plopped down on the couch, short of breath. With the heart attack, the catheterization, and the meds, I became short of breath just walking across the room. After a few days, I tried walking on the treadmill at a slow speed. I lasted only a few seconds before feeling dizzy and out of breath.
I got bored doing nothing and began loading and unloading the dishwasher. I got light-headed when I bent down and stood up. This eventually got better and I was thankful for being able to do simple tasks.
After about a month, I started cardiac rehab. I couldn’t do much at first, but my confidence grew over time as I increased both intensity and time on the equipment. I started doing some exercise at the YMCA.
I’ve continued to train, and it has all led to this. Tomorrow I run.
But why am I nervous? Running, in some ways, is my return to life. Running is an affirmation. Running is also a reminder that all this can be taken away. Just as I developed an appreciation for being able to do simple tasks after my heart attack, I appreciate being able to run, to move. Running is part of my identity, a part I came so close to losing. I am a runner.
Tomorrow is a reminder that I will lose this ability someday. Tomorrow is a reminder that I am vulnerable. I am not Superman. But I can feel like him for 30 minutes.
Afterword: I completed the race in 28:30, a minute-and-a-half faster than my goal. I felt good during the race and even better after. Thanks to all for your support!