One look in the mirror and all is known. Ten years have passed in one day. Age seems to have whisked in overnight and stolen my youth. I look in the mirror and see battle scars of stress, disease, and heartache written all over my face as if the hands of time rushed in overnight and wrung me out like a wet towel. I don’t know if I can go out in public looking this old, but I have to. My husband had a heart attack and is lying in a hospital bed alone. My mind races to virtually check my ID and to repeat to myself, “We’re too young for this.”
I had been in Los Angeles for a week, helping my daughter through her surgery and recovery. In tight quarters, on a blowup mattress, I had been her caregiver and gofer. Recovery was a slow and painful process for her. The surgery was to remove a large cyst on her ovary that had been causing incapacitating pain for over a month. The surgeon removed the cyst, but while in surgery, they confirmed that she also had endometriosis all over her pelvic region. A general surgeon was called in during the procedure to see if it could be cut from the vital organs it was growing on. Nope! It was way too risky for those organs. She was stitched up and sent to recovery.
Recovery was brutal. She had multiple seizures while coming out of anesthesia. I am not sure I’ll ever get used to watching someone I love have a seizure. It is so unsettling. You feel completely helpless. There is nothing at all that you can do except wait for it to end. We stayed in recovery at the hospital for more than three hours because of the seizures.
Once back at her apartment, I went into caregiver mode. My senses were heightened by all that was surrounding us. Housemates with different values and a sense of cleanliness, a kitchen stacked high with dirty dishes, and a scruffy-haired dog named Waffles who kept staring at me. I tried to avoid being critical and pushed back the motherly urge to fix everything. I focused on how I could best help my daughter. Her recovery seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace as Waffles frequently checked on us. Knowing I was leaving at the end of the week and seeing how poorly she was still doing, I convinced her to come home with me for additional recovery time with my help. Friday afternoon, I started packing up our stuff with the plan to leave Saturday morning.
Friday night, I had just settled into bed, turned on a movie, and my phone started ringing. It’s 11:16, and it’s Kevin – one of the young adults from Young Adult Life that meets in our home every Sunday night. I am embarrassed to say I ignored the call. I couldn’t imagine why he’d be calling so late, and I was exhausted. But five minutes later, he called again. I picked up. “Deb, I’m with Dennis at the hospital and He’s having a heart attack.” This literally took my breath away. “What!?” I was three and a half hours away—if I hopped in the car at that very moment. I had a sick girl who couldn’t move very fast and couldn’t carry anything. I started calling close friends. Val and Kelly rushed to the hospital, as did our son Zack, as they whisked Dennis into the Cardiac Catheter Lab to surgically place a stint and investigate the blockage.
My fingers shook. My heart raced. Looking up phone numbers to sound the alarm that something serious was happening was more complicated than I thought it should be. All sense of knowledge of how to find my friends was missing. I fumbled with my phone and tried a few numbers, but it was so late, and people were not answering. I called my sister and woke her up. “I need prayer. Dennis is having a heart attack right now.” Now, those letters strung together into words here on the page sound calm, but there was no calm. My voice shook. Tears flowed and I could barely speak. But she’s my prayer warrior and began to pray.
I called a few more people, pulled myself into action, and packed my bags. My daughter slowly started to pack as well. The phone rang, and it was Dennis. We listened as he tried to reassure us that he’d be okay. But there was nothing in his voice that was okay. All I could hear was the pain he was in. We told him we loved him and that we were headed home. We’d see him in a few hours.
It took me about an hour to pack and get our stuff from the second-floor apartment to the parking garage. Thankfully, I had found a shopping cart by the elevator that morning when I had to rush out the door and move my car, so I wouldn’t get ticketed for blocking the street sweeper. I wheeled it into the apartment that morning. The back wheels squeaked an awful sound as they rotated, but if I lifted the handle off the ground, I could avoid every neighbor peering out their window at me with their morning coffee steaming in their face. But at 12:30 in the morning and the cart loaded high, keeping the cart from squeaking down the open-air corridor was more challenging than I expected.
First load down. Second load down. I loaded the cart up for the third time and realized I would need coffee, and there probably won’t be much open. The housemate’s bag of coffee sat next to the coffeemaker with a label that read, “The Strongest Damn Coffee!” I decided to borrow some of that! I could do nothing but breathe and wait for my brew. My heart was slowing down, and I was beginning to think more clearly.
The heart. A small vital organ that keeps us alive. Without it, well, we don’t exist in this life. Every beat is precious. Every beat in a regular fashion, that is. I don’t know much about the biological functions of the heart other than the blood must flow through and out of it. When you think about the critical role of this little muscle, you can’t deny that our Maker had remarkable foresight, unsurpassed scientific genius, and precise mechanical understanding. But there is something else about this central pump that is unique to any other organ. It is the gauge of our feelings, emotions, and actions. It not only has a physical duty; it has a reactive psychological responsibility. Being a more touchy-feely person than a science person, this part of the heart makes more sense to me. The heart is said to be the source of our feelings. Now, that may or may not be scientifically accurate, but we all know it is reality.
We chased the storm all the way home and I felt a deep pain in my chest. I have felt that pain many times over the years. My heart was breaking and it hurt. Driving up the 101, we could tell it had just rained minutes before. The rain was moving north, and so were we, but it wasn’t causing us any problems.
Arriving at the hospital at 3:30 in the morning, my son and the young man that had saved Dennis’ life were waiting in the waiting room. They looked exhausted. The ICU nursing station let me and my daughter into the restricted area, and there he was. He looked beat up and drugged, very different than the man I had left six days before. He said he wanted a snowball. One of those fluffy marshmallow-coated, loaded with sugar, gas station treats! Now that was funny. I have been married to this man for 36 years, and I’ve never seen him eat even one!
How was it that Kevin was with Dennis? Earlier in the evening, Dennis wasn’t feeling well and kept getting worse. His chest was cramping. A Charley Horse in the chest, just like you might get in your leg, but that you can’t stretch out. He tried Maalox, Alka Seltzer, carbonated water, and throwing up. Nothing would make it stop. My man had the wisdom to call a friend to come and sit with him. I keep trying to put myself in this situation. Alone. Not feeling well. Not wanting to bother anyone. It will go away. I got this. All of this is MY way of thinking. My pride probably would have been the death of me. And isn’t that true of most of us? We’re stubborn, self-reliant, stuck in our heads and hearts, and certainly don’t want anyone to see us at our most vulnerable moments. There’s a verse in Proverbs that shines a light on this very truth:
“A man’s heart is the proudest when his downfall is nearest, for he won’t see glory until the Lord sees humility.” –Proverbs 18:12, TPT.
Dennis has humility of heart, which literally saved his life this time. This humility of heart doesn’t just happen in a moment. It must be practiced over a lifetime. It must be developed, nurtured, and exercised to be available when the “crap” hits the fan.
It blows my mind how much the Word of God speaks to the nature of the heart. In every capacity imaginable, God gives us instructions on the heart. The central pump of our lives. The emotion center that rejoices, breaks, aches, and draws every breath. “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.” – Ecclesiastes 10:2. Or how about this, “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart. – Proverbs 27:19.
Healing of the heart is a slow process in the physical or the emotional. It takes a slow and steady pace. That little muscle that pumps the lifeblood through the body must be treated with care and ease after a blockage of that magnitude. Dennis had a 100% blockage to the Left Descending Artery. I was told that is the “widow maker.” With tears streaming down my face, the full impact of this heart attack reached my heart. And my heart hurt as if it was being squeezed. And we were not out of the woods yet. I closed my eyes with my head resting at the foot of his bed, hunched over in my chair as his cocktail of drugs allowed him to sleep. My husband was alive but struggling.
I left the hospital at 6:00 am, just before the nurses changed their shift. I drove home numb. I crawled into bed with my clothes still on and fell asleep for two hours. When I returned to the hospital, he was still in pain and struggling to get comfortable. They gave him nitroglycerin under the tongue, and a patch with nitroglycerin paste on his chest right over his heart. Both helped, but he kept throwing up and was miserable. We were not out of the woods yet. I sent a short text to all those who love and pray for us. They continued to pray.
The cardiologist and the nurses did what they could to make him comfortable and to start getting all kinds of drugs on board without him throwing them up. They had to thin his blood to a level that would prevent clotting, and that would take four different blood thinners. It was evident that life as we knew it would change as Dennis was ushered into a new club to which he didn’t want to belong. But he was alive. I was not a widow.
I stayed at the hospital all day. During the evening shift change, they finally got him to sleep. The nurse came to tell me that I should go home and sleep. I just wasn’t sure that I could leave. I definitely needed sleep, but I wasn’t sure I could talk my heart into leaving. Dennis and I started our marriage 36 years ago with a three-squeeze-hand-hold. We had decided way back then that this would be our way to say “I Love You” when words couldn’t be spoken. One squeeze for each word. I. Love. You. I walked back into ICU, kissed his head, and held his hand with three squeezes. I made myself leave.
I drove home with tears in my eyes. Thankful that I still had my husband. Worried for the future. But absolutely sure that the same God that created something out of nothing, and brought life from death, has ultimate power and authority over my life and Dennis’. We would make it through even this, and He surely isn’t finished with us. There is more story to be written.
I ate something and went straight to bed. The next morning, I woke up refreshed and in prayer before my feet even hit the ground. “Lord, I am your girl. This is Your day. Do with me as You will.” I drove to the hospital and picked up the phone at the ICU entrance. “This is Deborah, I am here to see Dennis Swanson.” “Come on in.” Straight ahead, I could see him sitting in a chair eating breakfast! A complete change from yesterday. Smile on his worn face cutting his French toast and turkey sausage. Unbelievable. He felt great! My heart soared.
Dennis spent four nights in the hospital. Rest was futile with nurses constantly fussing over IV drips and poking him all over to try and draw blood. Sometimes it would take three or four sticks just to find a viable source. His one arm was shaved, and both were black and blue. Bruising would be his new fashion statement. Once released from the hospital with our ½-inch thick, stapled pile of paperwork to read and understand before we left, we headed home together. Together! I didn’t realize that would mean so much.
The kids, not kids anymore, were both home. My nest was full. I had both my kids under one roof to support me and love on their dad. My heart was happy. Our friends also rallied around us, providing meals, unplugging gutters and drains, and visiting the friend we almost lost. But, best of all, wrapping us in prayer. A peace that only comes from heaven has settled into my heart. This peace has held me steady in the uncertainty of it all. Every day we inch closer to full recovery, but I realize this is a very slow process that can’t be rushed or skipped over. The wounded heart needs a gentle, slow, and steady recovery time.
I have been a Christian practically all of my life. I had walked that out in many variations since I accepted Jesus when I was five. In college, I walked away entirely and served my own happiness. When I met Dennis, neither of us was choosing to follow Christ. We were just doing our own thing. Together, we eventually came back to making Jesus our Lord and Savior. But it wasn’t until about ten or twelve years ago that I told God, “I was ALL in” — He could have ALL of my heart. I would hold nothing back. That’s when I really began living the most incredible adventure of my life. And the wildest ride imaginable.
Giving God my whole heart hasn’t been without personal tragedy, heartbreak, sorrow, and grief. Giving God my heart wasn’t a bargaining chip for a carefree life. But I slowly learned that giving God my whole heart meant my heart was His, and He would protect it. It didn’t mean my heart wouldn’t hurt. Oh, it still breaks. But He (My Lord) is holding my heart, steadying my heart, and strengthening my heart. This past week He gave me the verse that is the “mic-drop” for this year and will be what soothes my heart into 2023:
“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” –Psalms 73:26
God is the strength of my heart and is still writing the story of our lives. It is an epic tale of which only He knows the end. Remarkably, I am okay with that. I brushed close to death with a deadly breast cancer a few years ago. Now, Dennis has looked death square in the face with quite the heart attack. With all of this, I am confident God is not done with us. Dennis’ life verse, the one he has had on his website for many years now, is this:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…” –Colossians 3:23
This precept guides his heart. It puts his heart into the correct perspective and results in humility of heart and wisdom. His heart is still beating. My heart is still beating. There is more the Lord has for us to do, which means the most extraordinary adventure is yet to come, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it!