It was a surreal feeling. I was being discharged from the hospital, back in April of 2008, after having a life saving emergency double bypass for a “widow maker” blockage of my heart. I was 42 years old. This was when my life, and my health, would change forever.
I was too young for this to happen. Everyone was saying it in the operating room. I heard them before I fell asleep from the anesthesia. When I awoke, I was attached to several machines, one of which was doing my breathing for me. As time would pass, and I would be expected to begin moving around, I discovered that in less than 48 hours, I had lost all of my strength from being confined to the hospital bed. I had countless people making a fuss over me, from techs taking blood, nurses monitoring vital signs, and of course, plenty of visits from residents, and therapists, physical and mental. My life would never be the same.
A hospital chaplain had even come into my room the day I was discharged, not to preach to me or spread Gospel, but just to prepare me mentally for the possible emotional waves I could (and did) face, to understand they were real, more importantly, normal.
It may sound cliche, that as I was rolled out of the hospital in a wheelchair, climbing into my car, as a rare passenger, not the driver, but I did feel as if I had a new start. Physically, at least as far as my body and looks, they were still the same, but everything else about me felt different. Though not consciously doing it, I could tell that things were appearing to me differently, giving me a new sense of appreciation. I was noticing details on the ride home that I had never seen before, or had not remembered in a long time. I guess this would be where the reminder “remember to smell the roses” would apply.
I could walk. Clearly I was weak physically. My mind was clear. I knew that I was about to die, and the steps it took for the doctors to save my life. And I wanted to do all I could, to recover fully, and quickly.
I had not seen my golden retriever Pollo in almost a week. We had never been away from each other. On an average day, upon my arrival home from work, he would get up on his hind legs, front legs on my shoulders as if to give me a hug hello when I came in the door. I had no idea what to expect when I walked in the door for the first time at that moment, but I was definitely concerned that I could not survive a full-on “where the hell were you” excited ambush from him. What I got instead, surprised me, but then solidified the best friend I knew that I had in him. As the front door opened, he stood in the kitchen doorway, perhaps with that “look, (where were you?)” which quickly turned to “glad you are home,” as he calmly walked up to me, circled around me, and then just stood against my left leg. He “knew” something had happened and was not right.
From there, I positioned myself on our couch, and my (then)wife turned on the television, so she could catch her daily soap opera. I have seen these two shows in particular over time, when I could not avoid it, and this was one of those occasions. I never pay attention because the story lines are all the same, for some reason, until now.
In this particular episode, one of the characters, a woman, was having open heart surgery. Very quickly, it became too much for me emotionally. I lost it, completely breaking down. My wife came rushing into the family room, “what is it?” I could not even get the words out, just pointing to the screen, but even she was not able to understand what I was trying to get out. I had never felt this way. But seeing on television, albeit in lesser detail, what had literally just been done to me, was too soon. I had my first flashback from the surgery of many. Welcome to the world of PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. As I found out, PTSD did not just affect soldiers of war.
My first few weeks at home, I had a visiting nurse, documented my vital signs and weight, and as instructed, went for daily walks. Unfortunately, as I went for those walks, which happened to be along a main road which led to where I worked, and would now be out sick for a lengthy period of time to recover from my surgery, several of my co-workers spotted me. They decided to notify management that they had seen me, that I looked “great,” and were frustrated that I was not back at work yet, clearly “milking my absence” according to them.
Now it should be clear, the orders to return to work, were 3 to 6 months post surgery, and that was between me and my doctor, and the health services/HR department at work. This was day 3. While cardiac wise, an average patient might return to a less physically demanding job in three to four weeks, I had a very physically demanding job. And with one major issue that complicated my healing process, a history of radiation therapy to the chest area, and a freshly cracked open breast bone for the surgery, that breast bone would take additional time to heal. I knew that because my doctors told me that. Evidently some of my co-workers felt they needed to know this information as well. But even then, they were judging me on my shell, what the only thing they could see about this situation, since my heart and breast bone were internal, I looked great on the outside, now get back to work.
It actually got worse with my employment as time went on. Although I was protected by both the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act, that did not stop me being sent a termination of employment notice less than the minimum three months ordered by my doctor, unless I returned to work, as the protection of the FMLA had expired. Though I knew my legal rights, and was prepared to fight them as hard as I could, that would not help me in the short while, if I were to lose my income. Knowing that I could count on a handful of workers to watch out for me, and help me as needed, I needed to convince my doctor, to go against his own recommendations, and release me back to work, knowing full well, I risked either reinjuring my rib cage, or worse, impacting my heart and recent bypass. I still needed to complete my cardiac rehab, but without my job, that rehab would never happen as I would have lost my health benefits.
In the end, nobody won by my early return to work. A bitter management failed to dump the perceived dead weight and an adversarial advocate for his co-workers, and as for me, my health continued to decline, perhaps even quicker. Had I to do the whole recovery over again, I am not sure I would have wanted my doctor to let me go back to work sooner than I was ready.
Which brings me to a story many of us have been following since it occurred more than ten days ago, Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin. Collapsing on the field of a regular season football game with playoff implications, going into cardiac arrest, which normally would lead to death, on national Monday Night Football, on January 2nd, Hamlin, was transferred from an Ohio hospital to a Buffalo hospital a little over a week later, and after completing some more tests, was sent home for the rest of his recovery.
Anyone watching the final season game of the Bills last weekend, saw the opening kickoff returned for a touchdown by the Bills, clearly building from the emotional lift given by communications directly from Hamlin himself to his fellow players. Any fan who has seen a serious football injury, and to be given inspiration by that player, or just as in the movie “Rudy,” inspiration is definitely a powerful thing. The Bills won that game, and now the playoffs begin.
Of course, all of the chatter has been, will Hamlin be able to return to football? Should he return to football? What about the playoffs? If there is anything you read in my situation, you can make no mistake, if Hamlin had his way, he would be suiting up for the Bills playoff game against the rival Miami Dolphins. But also, just as in my situation, there is likely a lot going on through his head, though I am sure he wants to return, even with the cliche “lightning does not strike twice,” will not ease that shadow hanging over Hamlin if he decides to return. As a football fan, I have seen plenty of players reinjure themselves or have their play impacted worrying about a reinjury.
Make no mistake, what happened on that football field January 2nd to today, is nothing short of miraculous. I know I was not allowed to watch hockey games in the hospital because of what it did to my heart rate, so I was really surprised, though not really, he was allowed to watch the game this past weekend. But I am sure he will be watching this Sunday, even more so, wishing he was able to play. I think no one would begrudge the Bills getting more emotional inspiration from Hamlin during the playoffs.
Most football injuries are serious, but this is the first time, the NFL almost had a fatality during an actual game. If Hamlin wants to come back, it should definitely be on his own terms, and definitely when he is ready.