It was the first beautiful Saturday of the Spring, the kind of day we in Pittsburgh dream about all winter. I was in my car on the way to the gym for a quick work out before our Saturday evening worship service when I had an idea; “Maybe I should go running outside instead”, since I greatly prefer it to running inside. “Not today,” I answered myself, “I might not be able to make it back in time for service.”
A few minutes later I was stepping onto the treadmill. I pushed the speed up to jogging pace as normal, but then I felt an unusual sensation in my chest. It was disconcerting enough that I slowed back down to a walk. After a moment I was feeling normal again and resumed jogging, only to sense the same discomfort return. Frustrated, I said to myself “You just had a stress test and it was clean, this is something you just have to push through.”
Just a couple of weeks earlier my doctor had sent me to the hospital to be checked out after I complained of some minor chest symptoms. Tests were all negative, and the doctors didn’t think I was at risk for heart disease. I did not have high blood pressure nor a high cholesterol count. My body mass index was very good, no one in my immediate family had heart problems, and I had worked out regularly for 25 years. I passed the stress test and was released as expected.
Knowing I had that clean bill of health, I sped up to a jog once again on the treadmill. That was the last thing I remembered. I collapsed motionless on the floor. I had gone into “fatal arrhythmia” – ventricular fibrillation. A gym employee started CPR on me, but couldn’t keep my heart going. A doctor was working out near by, and he just happened to have been certified the day before on the use of the AED (a defibrillator). He grabbed the gym’s machine and shocked my heart back into functioning.
When I regained consciousness, I was in the emergency room of a local hospital with my wife standing over me. Later a heart catheterization showed my LAD artery (known as “the widow maker”) was more than 95% blocked. The doctor looked at me and said, “You are one lucky guy – someone must be watching out over you.”
Heart bypass surgery eliminated the blockage and I have been recovering rapidly. I was back at work full-time less than eight weeks later.
People have asked me how this experience has changed me. In some ways, not at all. My faith and Christ-centered perspective have sustained me. However, in other ways I am changing the way I look at life and ministry. Truths that I have always believed have become vivid realities with which I live.
1. I am more in awe of grace.
Doctors shake their heads looking at my chart. They each say the same thing: “You are really lucky.” I always reply, “I’m here because God wants me to be here”.
When I was lying on the floor I was in the hands of God. There was nothing I could do to save myself or arrange my rescue. I clearly see the grace and mercy of God ordering what I couldn’t.
I recognize that every day I have lived I have done so by the grace of God. Decades earlier, I was spiritually dead and Christ came to my rescue and gave me new life. It is only by God’s grace that I know Christ and serve him in ministry.
I desire for the next years of my life and ministry to be marked by a deeper trust in his power and grace, and with less striving on my part. I will always have a scar on my chest from now on; I like to say that it is my reminder that I am marked by grace.
2. Relationships matter most
When I was waking up from surgery in the recovery room and hitting a wall of pain, my wife’s hand was like a lifeline to me. I held on with all I had.
As I gained strength, I found myself appreciating people more deeply. All people. Their flaws or differences didn’t matter to me – they were highly valuable. I like to think I was glimpsing a little more fully how God looks at people.
The standing ovations I received upon my return to worship were not only moving, they were surprising. I underestimated how much we influence one another.
3. I’m relaxing my grip on Jesus’ church
When I am tempted to jump and steer decisions, or speak on every issue at every meeting, I remind myself that everything functioned well during the 2 months I was gone. Our church has four campuses and ten services per weekend, so there is no way I can be involved in everything, anyway.
I remind myself that they functioned well without me before, and they will do so again at some point.
At the same time, I find myself willing to take more risks in ministry. If it honors God and I sense the Spirit’s leading, I am ready to try it. Since it is Jesus’ church, he should have whatever he wants.
4. I’m learning to minister with less stress.
I was surprised to discover how much I ran on adrenaline. Both positive and negative experiences release adrenaline, which is toxic to the body when its flow is uninterrupted by relaxation.
So I am learning to relax daily – not just watch TV or indulge in hobbies, but to take the time to intentionally relax my body and mind.
I’m also learning how to handle ministry issues with less intensity. Habits are hard to change, but I’m trying to strain everything thought through the filter of Philippians 4:8, which I have memorized and repeat often. (“…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”)
I stress when trying to control the uncontrollable. I realize more deeply how little I can control. And that’s okay.
In my early days of recovery my wife and I found it quite helpful to keep a “Thankfulness Journal”. Every night we’d enter in several things from that day for which we were thankful. Sometimes they were very small, but they kept me facing hope-ward.
I write this article because I do not believe one needs to have a heart attack to live out these truths – all it takes is a soft heart before God.
I suspect that my life will always be divided into “Before heart attack" and “after heart attack". While I have always enjoyed life and lived with a sense of gratitude, I am looking forward to an even richer experience of God’s grace and blessings in the years ahead. Not only am I still alive, but I have no heart muscle damage, and I have recovered very quickly from surgery. (And the church is healthy too!)
Yesterday marked exactly three months since my surgery. This morning I stepped onto the treadmill and start jogging for the first time. I’m grateful that I have a renewed heart.