A year ago this week, I was preparing to come home from the hospital. I had never before had surgery, or been admitted to a hospital for any reason. I had visited many people in hospitals as a pastor, listening to their stories and sharing prayers. Some were answered and some not.
This time it was very personal for me. Now I knew what it felt like to lose all your strength, to collapse in a strange, alien weakness, to know that my end was on the horizon. And in that emptiness of strength, all I could do was vaguely hope that someone knew how to help me.
Thousands of people have had heart surgery. But, like so many other exquisite and dramatic events, it finally became a vivid experience for me when it was my own heart being probed, diagnosed, and eventually repaired with a tiny piece of tissue from a cow and a stretch of vein taken from my left leg.
Looking back from a year’s perspective, it all seems so far away. But reviewing Mary Ann’s journal brings me back to those critical days and makes me tremble with gratitude and celebrate with tears.
So, what makes that memory so precious? First of all, it was the time when my own mortality was swiftly brought into focus. I had faced life-threatening illness before, with cancer, but that experience and the treatment were all without pain. The radiation had made me weaker for a couple months, but then life quickly returned to normal. I had even worked a reduced schedule through the whole period. This time, physical reality hit me in the gut making me face my own blunt, unavoidable mortality.
The second vivid memory is knowing how good it feels to be cared for by friends and family who show their love, and then by EMTs, nurses, doctors, the whole medical staff that gives professional care sweetened with their genuine personalities. I met dozens of beautiful people, those whom I enjoyed in that peculiar temporary relationship when you have no shame from the exposure of your most private needs.
The third experience was knowing the main surgeon who explained what I needed and how they would accomplish the repairs to my heart. He appeared to be in his late 40's or early 50's, cheerful, confident, and very willing to answer questions he has been asked over and over by patients before me. During the week in hospital recovering, I saw him only a couple times, since others on the team monitored my progress.
In our follow-up visit a month later, in his usual cheerful manner, he affirmed that I was doing very well. Curious, I asked him if he used some high-tech machine to do the tiny surgical stitches necessary on my heart. “No, I just do it with my hands,” he replied with a modest grin. His confidence still astonishes me. Then I asked how many surgeries like this he has done. His reply was simply, “Oh, I don’t really know. I’ve been doing this for more than twenty years.”
I wrote a poem for him, titled, “The Man Who Touched My Heart.” He is only one of the hundreds of heart surgeons at work in the country. But I think he is way above average. Because he is the man who touched my heart, with tender, expert care, to give me a whole new chapter to write. And I am so thankful, to God, to him, and all the others who blessed me a year ago.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, [now] I know that full well. Psalm 139:14 NIV
© 2020 Stanley Hagemeyer