I am writing about heart disease because Google featured a doodle celebrating the birth
of Dr. René Favaloro. He developed the heart-bypass surgical procedure. It gives me an opportunity for me to write my own experience with heart disease.
The 1960s were a revolutionary time in medical
treatment of cardiovascular disease. Open-heart surgery was making major
advances. The first coronary arterial bypass surgery was conducted in Cleveland by Dr. Favaloro. Pacemaker technology was developing quickly.
Then on December 3rd
1967, South Africa surgeon, Dr. Christian Bernard
performed the first heart
transplant on a man named Louis Washkansky. It was front-page news around the
world. Washkansky died eighteen days later just before Christmas. Not to be deterred,
Dr. Bernard performed the world’s second transplant in early January of 1968,
on a retired dentist named Philip Blaiberg. Again the daring of Dr. Bernard was
One warm summer evening in 1967, my dad and I were
sitting at a small table playing chess near a lakeside log cabin we owned. The last
vestiges of a glorious sunset sparkled on the lake before fading into dusk. A fire crackled in the fire-pit giving us
light. All was tranquil. Suddenly and without warning, Dad grabbed his chest and
pitched forward. The table tipped over sending the chess pieces flying. I
yelled, “What’s wrong Dad!” He assured me everything was fine and recovered his
composure. He said he thought he was coming down with something. No kidding!
Conceding the game he went into the cabin and laid down. I told my mother what
happened and she asked him about it. He brushed off the incident as a minor
ailment. The next incident happened in
late August while Dad was driving the family car. Suddenly and without warning
again he convulsed in pain, clutched the steering wheel, moaned, and with
difficulty brought the car to a stop at the side of the road. He leaned his head against the driver side
window. This time my mother saw it. She was horrified! So was I. Mom badgered and grilled him for details
about his chest pain and demanded he see a doctor. When my father recovered sufficiently he
quietly slid across the bench-seat to the passenger side. Mom drove the rest of
way home still harping at him to see a doctor. He finally mumbled something
about being too late, and doctors couldn’t help him. It was the first time I
saw Dad being irrationally obstinate.
Over many decades of diligent practice, my mother
honed the not-so-gentle art of nagging into a precise and piercing science. But
nagging often has the opposite effect of its intended purpose. My father was of
an era when men loathed to acknowledge personal sickness and recoiled at the
thought of going to a doctor. It was seen as a sign of weakness. My dad made
sure his family was well-tended but neglected himself. In my perception as at fourteen years old, my dad seemed so strong and invincible – so much in control.
The family doctor diagnosed angina and wrote a prescription
for a medication called digitalis. Dad
had a heart condition. To allay our fears,
he explained to the family had people with various medical conditions lived
normal lives. He pointed out a merchant who lived down the street who had
diabetes; with the exception of daily insulin shots and watching his
blood-sugar levels, he lived a normal and active life. But despite my father's
assurances, a twinge of fear hung over me. My innocent and happy life was about
to change forever.
After the 1967 Christmas break, life got back to a
regular routine. It was a typical day at
school. In the middle of my grade eight class, there was a knock at the
classroom door. It was the school principal. He and the teacher whispered at
the door then the principal called me. In the hallway, he looked at me
gravely and said: “You need to go home right now. Get your jacket and leave.”
“Your mother is waiting for you.”
“Your dad had a heart attack. You need to leave right
I rushed home. Something inside me seemed to know my
life was changing and it would never be the same again. When I got
home my father had already been transported by ambulance to a hospital. It was not a moment too soon!
Tempest of the heart & soul
When my siblings and I arrived at the
were sent to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). We found Mom crying in
the waiting room. Through her sobs, she told us that the doctor told her Dad
could die at any time! It was like somebody kicked me in the head! Reality
became unreality. I went into shock. My mind refused to take in her words. It’s impossible to describe my fear.
That long night, Dad’s heart stopped three times and he
was revived three times. He hung in a dreadful
delicate balance between life and death.
Visitation rules for the Intensive Care Unit were
restricted to immediate family and only one visitor per hour for ten
minutes. The rule was strictly enforced. That meant I could only see the hero
of my life for ten minutes every fourth hour and he could die at any time. Each visit could be my last.
My first visit was more like a journey into a dreadful unknown. When it was my turn to enter the ICU, I trembled to push the intercom
button and identify myself. The greenish-white metal doors unlocked and I
entered an anteroom to death.
In the middle of the large open Intensive Care Unit, an
observation center was raised for a proficient and clinical cadre of nurses and
doctors. They peered out across the large room at their half-dead patients.
They watched beeping monitors, examined charts and fanned out across the room
to various patient’s beds. One side of the unit was for cardiac care. Other
assorted life-threatening conditions lined the other three walls. The atmosphere
was sterile in more ways than hygiene. It was like something out of a Robin
Cook novel. I walked past numerous beds, separated only by curtains and medical
equipment until I reached my dad.
His skin was waxy grey. Electric cardio-shock must
have still in its infancy because he had numerous burn marks on his chest as
though hot stove elements had been held against his skin. The sight of him
broke my heart. But even in that very critical state, he smiled at the sight of me.
I had only ten minutes for the next four hours so I cut through any possibility
of small talk. In four hours he might be dead!
Choking back tears I blurted, “I thought you were
going to die!” He became serious but in his usual unflappable way he said, “I
thought so too, Mark.”
“Weren’t you afraid?” I asked.
“Yes, I was afraid of dying before you kids were
raised. I was afraid of leaving your mother to finish the job alone.”
“Your heart stopped three times, Dad! How can you be
My dad looked at me intensely then said,
“I want you to understand that Christ was with
me, Mark. We all must die. We can either die with Christ or without him, but eventually
we all die. This has been the point behind everything I’ve tried to teach you,
son. How you respond to Christ and His sacrifice at Calvary is all that
matters when you die. I want you to give your life to Jesus and live for Him.”
Growing up in a Christian home, surrounded by
evangelical Christians, I often heard the refrain, “Have you given your life to
Jesus?” As a child, I did make a
commitment to the Lord. But it was a cultural commitment of a boy who
worshipped his earthly father and wanted to please him rather than my heavenly
Father. Now my earthly father lay at the edge of death. I held his hand and we
looked at each other. In that quiet
sacred moment, we lived centuries.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by a gurney bursting through the doors with a team of medical people frantically working on a
man. A nurse unceremoniously ushered me
out of the ICU. I founded myself standing outside the doors looking at some
poor wretch’s wife with soggy cheeks. She had a terrified expression
on her face. I knew exactly how she felt.
Dad remained in the Intensive Care Unit for weeks. It
seemed like an eternity. My family watched other heart patients either die or recover
enough to be moved to hospital wards. We remained in a limbo of shadows—a no-man’s land that swung back and
forth between life and death. Doctors tried to stop
the downward slide of my father’s failing heart—and various other serious crisis’s
that befell him. We were living in a nightmare.
The heart specialists worked valiantly to save my dad
and their skills were spectacular. But I detested their casual detachment from
the humanity of suffering. It was not the patient in bed 7 — he was my father!
His name was Howard and he had a family who loved him, and our hearts were
breaking! He was not the sum total of his electro-cardiograms, blood tests and
whatever else was on his chart. He was not the patient in bed 7. He was a man
and that man was my father!
The head of the cardiac team was a brilliant young cardiologist I will refer to as Dr. T. I remember he called a meeting of families
of all the cardiac patients in the intensive care unit and forbade newspapers
or discussions about the world's second heart transplant patient: Philip Blaiberg.
Dr. T. did not want to raise false hopes in us or his patients. He believed
that Dr. Bernard’s sensational transplant operations in South Africa were
doomed to failure because anti-rejection drugs were still in their infancy.
Although Dr. T. was right, Philip Blaiberg lived another 18 months before dying
or organ rejection on August 17th 1969.
I remember a debate arose in South Africa
because Philip Blaiberg was a white man who received the heart of a multi-racial black man. I was disgusted! What did race have to do with heart transplantation? Apparently, in Apartheid South Africa of 1968, it meant a great deal. Heated debates erupted about the “ethics” of
interracial transplantation. Ethics! It had nothing to do with ethics and everything to
do with racism. My father was living at the edge of death and people had the
audacity to bring racist bigotry about a medical procedure that
could possibly save people like my Dad?!
I was deeply offended, as I’m sure thousands of families were offended
who had loved-ones dying of heart disease.
(My father’s case was remarkably similar to Dr. Bernard’s first patient,
The success of the Philip Blaiberg heart transplant
led to an explosion of heart transplantation by doctors around the world.
Today it is quite common.
Dr. T. was a rude and blunt man with an audacious
bushy moustache that matched his personality. My father didn’t like him. He thought
Dr. T. had a god-complex and a colossal ego that was fed by his extraordinary
and dazzling skill of saving patients other doctors were losing. Most of Dr. T.
patients were in awe of him. When he entered the room, one felt he expected its lowly occupants to shrink and genuflect before the superior intellect standing before
them. My father was suspicious that Dr.
T. saw his patients as a group of sustained arrhythmias, myocardial infarctions
and faulty ventricles—problems to be solved rather than people to be healed.
Dr. T. showed my mother dad’s electrocardiogram.
Before explaining the medical problem he said, “That’s the heartbeat of a dying
man.” My mother broke down and wept like a mere mortal. But in the final
analysis, despite his rudeness and tactlessness, Dr. T. used his vast medical
knowledge and skills to pull my father back from the grip of death and saved
his life. I have always been grateful to
One day while visiting my dad in the ICU, a man a few
beds away went into full cardiac arrest. Within seconds nurses and doctors
pounced on him. It reminded me of wolves attacking a crippled prey – except this
pack was trying to save a life not take it. It happened so quickly nobody had
time to throw me out of the ICU. A nurse made a haphazard attempt to close the
curtain but the patient’s feet were still visible. I could hear shouts of
medical lingo between doctors and nurses jostling around the bed, then the sound of electro-cardio shock paddles being applied to the man’s chest. His
body convulsed. There was a pause. The paddles were put to him again, again and
again. With each shock, his feet jumped less. Finally, the medical team stopped
their frantic work. Somebody closed the curtain around the man’s bed and they
walked away. I watched in wide-eyed horror as the whole thing unfolded. It was the first time I saw a person die.
Slowly I turned and looked at my
father. I don’t remember what he said — or if he said anything at all — but we
held each other knowing that his feet might be next to bounce on a bed. I dared
not speak for fear of weeping. A nurse
told me it was time to leave. I nodded assent and made my way to the
double-doors of the ICU then turned to look back at my father. It would be four
hours before I could see him again. Would he be dead by then? He waved to me and
smiled weakly. I left.
Then something happened. I experienced one of those inscrutable human moments in which we live
a lifetime. At such moments, a lifetime’s
worth of love and sorrow (much of it still unlived) simultaneously floods our
hearts. Our souls cry out in primal anguish; our pain lays open like a raw
gaping wound. Such moments are stark and terrible, yet they are necessary. If
our souls’ remain unstirred it would a crime against our own humanity.
How I longed to be in a boat fishing again with Dad bobbing gently on a lake in a cool morning mist. Sobbing and blinded by tears, I fell against a wall then slumped to the floor and bawled like a baby.
a pair of black shoes in front of me and followed them up to see
the face of a priest. He was a friend of my dad: Father Edward Lynch. He sat on the floor and silently hugged me.
Then, through blurred vision, I saw
About ten minutes later those same nurses walked out of the ICU and passed us
on their way for a coffee break. They were chatting and laughing, talking about their plans for the weekend or their kids’ basketball team. I hated their
detachment from suffering humanity! Somebody’s
family was trying to fathom the death of their loved one, and the nurses and
doctors were heading off for pie and coffee? I hoped they’d all choke on the
crumbs and dregs. (I understand now, as an old man, that detachment was necessary
or they would have burnt out.)
Father Lynch gave me the invaluable gift of his presence. It was a simple yet profound
witness. His compassion was real and visible—a bastion of human decency that
made sense in my unravelling world seemingly gone mad and callous.
The Apostle Paul said, “Rejoice with those who
rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
The priest was not afraid to enter my pain and sit with me in my sorrow and
fear. He did not try to set things right. He couldn’t. He did not spew empty
platitudes about knowing how I felt. He didn’t. He simply showed me Christ-like
love by his presence. His greatest comfort was simply being there with me in my
anguish. Even at fourteen years of age, I understood that. It was something my family’s United Church church community did not do.
I do not remember our own United Church pastor or church members sitting with my mother in those dark hours as my dad’s life hung in the
balance. (I must be fair, they probably sent a Get Well Soon card.) It was a Catholic priest
who was consistently there for my family. He wept with us and prayed with us
and consoled us. I grew to love Father Lynch like a – well, a father.
I want to help you to understand the important Christian witness of your simple presence with those who hurt or mourn. I have often said that it was not cleaver theological debates that led me to the Catholic Church. I was loved into the Catholic Church. Love in action is the best witness for Christ.
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