You may already know this, but February is American heart month, a month where we not only celebrate our heart-strings of love, but also remember the beats and valves of our physical hearts.
If you asked me a couple years ago about heart month, I would have shrugged my shoulders. It’s just a month where we talk about the importance of screenings for defects and raising money to buy more defibrillators. I felt bad for those unfortunate people born with holes in their hearts, but it also wasn’t exactly my problem. My empathy only extended so far for the things that didn’t affect me.
But now I’ve been affected and, like all good hypocrites, I’m going to beg you not to do what I did. Don’t let your empathy end where your experiences do. Like all major issues in the world, we can’t pretend it’s not real just because it hasn’t touched us.
Only caring because it might happen to you someday isn’t the right way to think of it either, but that’s certainly what changed me.
In June last year, I had just finished my first half of college and was back home for the summer. Things were going well until my dad started complaining of pain in his back and arm. After a lot of whining, he went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with a pulled muscle in his chest/shoulder. We all made fun of him for complaining when he took his pain meds but still claimed it hurt. He said it got worse; he went to the doctor again. He was given a shot to help control the pain and, again, sent home to recover.
One day, a couple weeks after my dad first complained about the pain, my mom got a phone call from the church synod where my dad was presenting. He had passed out, unconscious. They didn’t know what was happening exactly, but they were able to revive him and an ambulance was on its way. My mom took the call. She was in the middle of making sandwiches for the two of us but left the knife and the meat and the cheese sitting out on the counter.
A few hours later, she called to tell me that my dad was in an operating room with a bunch of the best surgeons. They were trying to get his heart to work again. I was watching Bones at the time, but I was only halfway done with the episode. I watched the second half on mute, not even realizing when it ended and the TV flickered back to the One Demand screen. It sounds cliché, but I really felt like I sat there for hours.
My dad’s muscles weren’t pulled. He had been having a heart attack for the past two weeks.
Only 15% of his heart was working when the ambulance pulled up to the hospital downtown. One of the surgeons who worked on my grandpa’s heart a couple years prior happened to be working when my dad came in. My mom said goodbye to my mumbling, confused dad and he went into surgery. She didn’t come home to my sister and I until late that night, when we just stared at one another and thanked God that he at least survived his first surgery.
We went to visit him the next day. It was funny and sad to hear him try to talk while the drugs made him drift in and out of consciousness. Usually the loudest person in the room, his voice was barely audible that day over the machines helping him breathe. He was only allowed a few moments out of the mask the nurses kept strapped to his face, and he didn’t say much in those moments.
One of the first things he told me was that I was right—I had been telling him that he needed to get healthier or something bad would happen—but there was no way I could say “I told you so” when he was barely able to keep his eyes open.
Over the next couple weeks, we watched him get stronger, strong enough to leave the ICU for a few days before his big surgery. We sat around in waiting rooms and listened to doctors and nurses try to decide how they could help him. They were waiting for him to get strong enough to endure the long triple-bypass surgery.
When that day eventually came, my sister and I stayed at home, waiting for updates from my mom. She sat and waited while families came and went, their loved ones leaving the surgery room. Hours after the surgery was supposed to be completed, a sweaty, exhausted surgeon walked out and slumped down in a chair in front of my mom. The procedure hadn’t gone nearly as smoothly as expected, but it was done.
It took a while after that for him to recover enough to go home. He had to walk again for the first time in weeks—it’s a weird feeling, watching your dad relearn to walk on his feet when he taught you to walk many years ago. He was determined, though, and he was able to come home in time to sit outside in a dining chair and watch us set off fireworks in the cul-de-sac on the Fourth of July. God blessed him greatly.
After that month and the following moments of helping him get up from his chair and fit his walker through doorways, I developed a new respect for the human body.
Heart disease typically accounts for a quarter of deaths each year, the number one cause of death, and it can take anyone at any time. Some people are born with defects while others have heart attacks as a result of an unhealthy lifestyle. Factors like smoking, diabetes or obesity can also contribute to this.
Someone has a heart attack about every 40 seconds in the United States; every 60 seconds, someone dies from heart disease complications.
As a college student, I’ve heard a ton about making healthy choices: we’re supposed to eat healthful foods and exercise regularly. Whatever. But during February, I remember how important this is. So many lives are affected each year—not just those who suffer from heart disease, but their families and friends as well.
Heart disease can be treated and, in some cases, prevented. Healthy living and regular checkups can help ensure protection from these events. Maybe you think it can’t happen to you, but it can happen to anyone. Please protect yourselves, and consider donating to help protect others here.
Happy Heart Month! Go and spread the love that comes from the beats of your heart.