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BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR...

TESTIMONY

It was a perfect Christmas Eve! My entire extended family was home together with the In-Laws visiting from Florida, and there was a true feeling of warmth and contentment.  Our traditional celebration included Church services, visiting relatives and friends, feasting, drinking, and the customary exchange of gifts.  I remember that it was a White Wisconsin Christmas, and that the temperature was seasonably frigid.  That fact was to have serious repercussions as I discovered later.  All told, it was a truly wonderful Christmas Eve…and it soon became the most memorable one of my life! Now it is important to understand my passion for Christmas in order to fully appreciate the irony of what was to follow.  My friends, employees, and family often referred to me as “Father Christmas” in reference to my great love for the day.  Hanging above my library door is a needle-point, fashioned and presented to me by one of my company associates that quotes the words of Charles Dickens, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.”  As you will shortly discover I did indeed celebrate that Christmas Day with my whole heart! Among the festivities of the evening, a number of us braved the near-zero temperatures and assembled in an outdoor hot tub.  This included the partaking of generous portions of scotch, cigars and after reclining in the torrid water for more than an hour the subsequent making of “snow angels” while being clad only in a swimsuit.  Now in truth, at 49 years-old I had been a cardiac patient since age 35 when I had suffered a heart attack and experienced quadruple by-pass surgery.  WHAT WAS I THINKING!!! At 2 A.M. the family began to retire. Before following our house guests up the stairs, I lingered behind to bask in the glow of the evening.  After enjoying my third cigar of the night (and what I did not yet realize at the time was to be my last smoke ever!) I laconically offered the dramatic confession to my sixteen year-old daughter Amy: “If I die tonight, I would die happy!”  Those words would resonate eerily when an hour later I was placed inside an ambulance suffering from a massive heart attack. Within an hour of turning in, I soon became increasingly aware of a growing heaviness in the center of my chest accompanied with an ever-intensifying pain radiating from my jaw and extending down my left arm.  As a heart patient for the previous fourteen years, I knew immediately that something was terribly amiss and that these were the classic signs of an acute myocardial infarction .  My wife Lynne and I were assigned to share a couch on the third floor of our house; the beds all being occupied by extended family and there otherwise being, “no room in the Inn.”  Stationed as we were, I was in the furthest possible location from the medicine cabinet once symptoms developed.  Still hoping for the best, and refusing to fully accept that I was actually having a heart attack on Christmas, I silently descended to our master suite and promptly groped for the aspirin bottle.  Now I later learned that heart attack victims should quickly ingest ONE 325 mg dose…never one to be thrifty, however, I swallowed a whole handful. My pain did not abate, and the situation now became all too obvious.  Alerting the family, my son Andrew, and daughter Kim took immediate charge over me.  My memories of that fateful episode include the recollection of someone franticly calling emergency “911” as others tried to attend to my emotional and physical support.  Most importantly… the Grandmothers prayed.  (There is nothing more powerful than a praying Grandmother!).  Although I didn’t hear about it until much later, my youngest daughter was sobbing in another room after recalling my foolish earlier reference to “…dying happy.” When one is faced with the realization that they are in mortal danger, the surrounding images and activities can take on a surreal quality… In a bit of gallows humor, I remember the paramedics that arrived as a trio of well-meaning but terribly ill-prepared gentlemen…After all, it was the late shift on Christmas Eve and one can guess who drew the duty.  Without sounding too ungrateful, they were somewhat reminiscent of the Three Stooges as medical personnel…“Dr. Howard! Dr. Fine! Dr. Howard!” After what seemed an interminable wait, I finally was able to persuade them that I was having a major heart attack and that the paperwork could be dealt with at a later time.  After being placed into the ambulance, I was informed that the hospital was ten minutes (an eternity!) away, and I was certain that I would not make it.  I now felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest and soberly realized that this might be my last night on earth. Now I do not wish to appear melodramatic, nor portray a sense of false bravado when I say that I was certain that I was about to die.  After fourteen years as a heart patient (that included two heart attacks and bypass surgery) the unprecedented severity convinced me that it was over.  Simply stated, I did die a short time later and had to be brought back by the physicians.  I tell you this because it was an experience that only a few people ever come back to tell about.  Strangely enough, for or me it was something of a catharsis.  I clearly remember lying on the gurney and musing over the thought of dying on Christmas Day.  I actually envisioned my own funeral and people remarking, “Of course Bill would die on Christmas…He was always Father Christmas!”  I couldn’t help thinking that God had a great sense of humor. Upon the realization that death is at hand, by necessity one urgently ponders the afterlife.  What I still find remarkable to this day is the memory of the conscious serenity that suddenly overcame me.  Despite the severe physical discomfort and emotional stress, I found myself totally without fear and strongly sensed God’s presence.  This was not a matter of bravery or icy nerve.  Rather it was the result of faith.  I wasn’t happy about dying but I was totally at peace about it.  As a believer with a personal relationship with God, I had absolutely no doubt of my immediate salvation.  It was not like… “Well I have been a Christian all my life; now that I am dying I hope there really is a Heaven?!”  Not at all!  I had not the least moment of doubt.  I knew that whatever happened, I was going to win…or I was going to win. This was a significant attitude change, however, from my first cardiac episode some fourteen years earlier…Before I continue with a description of my Christmas Day festivities, 2001; it might be appropriate to share with you how I got in such a dire predicament in the first place. As a young man I had all of the classic attributes of a future heart patient.  Heredity certainly worked to my detriment.  My father died of a heart attack at the age of 53, and my mother has had by-pass surgery twice.  For many years I was a heavy cigarette smoker…two packs a day…Lucky Strikes (without filters).  Moderate but fairly regular alcohol consumption added to my risk profile.  Although I did not feel particularly stressed at the time; my professional career as a business executive along with my commensurate service as a naval reserve officer, probably also took a toll.  Even the things that I did right somehow managed to increase my peril.  It is hard to imagine looking at me now but I was an athlete up until the day of my first cardiac event.  I was a daily runner and an avid weight-lifter.  My maximum “bench-press” was 410 lbs.  At age 35, during my annual navy physical fitness test, I had the second highest overall score among more than six hundred sailors and marines at my duty station.  Two months later, I had my first heart attack!  When I stated that my exercise regimen actually contributed to my onset of heart disease; I was not exaggerating.  We did not know about cholesterol in the early 1980’s and as part of my weight-lifting routine, I ate liver five days every week.  In addition, I took handfuls of dessicated liver pills as a regular dietary supplement.  As a result, I developed seventeen inch biceps and a cholesterol reading of 289.  My first symptoms of angina appeared abruptly as I was playfully racing with my son Andrew (who was age 10 at the time).  Caught by surprise, I shrugged off the pain in the center of my sternum as nothing more than “too much coffee.”  When it began recurring with greater severity, my wife persuaded me to have my heart tested and I reluctantly decided to visit a physician.  I still believed that my persistent chest pain was nothing more than a possible hiatal hernia.  Ironically, at the time I happened to sit on the Board of Governors of the Wisconsin Heart Association, and personally knew and befriended the very cardiologist that the doctors went to themselves when they had heart problems.  Steven Port, M.D. has been my physician, my friend, and the man that has kept me alive for more than twenty-seven years.  We have shared many social gatherings through the past three decades…from Milwaukee Brewers Games to Art shows.  My wife and I attended his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah; He and his wife came to our daughter’s wedding.  As you shall see in a moment, having the right physician can make an incredible difference! Suffice it to say, however, my first visit to the cardiologist was an unmitigated disaster!  Reporting for a treadmill stress test, I was quite surprised when the attending physician halted the procedure within less than a minute of commencing the exam.  As he expressed to the technician the words “I have seen enough…” my immediate conclusion was “Great!  He saw right away that it must not be heart related!”  I could not have been more wrong!  I was shortly informed that I was going to be taken immediately to the cardiac cath lab.  Within the hour it was determined that I had four major blockages including a nearly total occlusion of the main artery.  Bypass surgery was scheduled for the first thing the following morning. As I lay in the hospital bed that evening I recall being bewildered and greatly dismayed.  After all I was only 35 years old with a wife and three young children.  In my mind, I was a superbly fit and healthy athlete…this could not be happening to me!  Interestingly, the harsh reality of my situation became brutally obvious when a nurse entered the room and in a loud audible voice announced to my 70 year-old hospital “room-mate” that his bypass surgery was being pushed back to the following afternoon as they had admitted a very serious heart patient that it was feared might not survive the night.  She did not know who I was, and you can imagine my chagrin when in those “Pre-Hipaa” days I later discovered that I was the preemptive patient in question! Bypass surgery is a very difficult and minutely precise procedure even when the physician performs it without a broken thumb!  Imagine my wife’s dismay when informed that everything was “going well” but taking a bit more time than usual because the surgeon was operating with just such a broken extremity! The surgery was indeed successful, and I began the process of healing and rehabilitation.   My emotions, however, did not heal as easily as my physical body.  On my first visit to cardiac rehab, my senses were stunned by how much the exercise facility looked like a “Gold’s Gym!”  Mirrored walls, sparkling chrome weight machines and racks of barbells beckoned me into surroundings with which I was all so familiar.  One thing was impossibly and horribly different, however.  Every single individual that was there “working out” was over the age of seventy, and no one was hefting more than a five pound dumbbell!  My friends, I’m a bit ashamed to say that I lost it!  For the first and only time in my life, I broke down and sobbed in front of strangers.  Two weeks earlier I had been conducting weight training for a high school wrestling team and was now reduced to this!  The young nurse assigned to my care kindly spoke words of encouragement to me and assured me that in the future I would be allowed to rehab in a more age-appropriate atmosphere.  Later that afternoon, as I was back at home feeling terribly sorry for myself, the phone rang and my wife took a call from my naval reserve commanding officer.  Only two months earlier he had nominated me for the readiness command “Junior Officer of the Year” among some eight hundred fellow officers, and now I was in danger of being medically discharged.  Informed by my wife that I wasn’t having a “Great Navy Day,” the Captain expressed his concern and politely hung up.  Imagine my shock when an hour later he arrived at my door wearing a party hat and blowing a horn.  My youngest daughter, then age three, was simply delighted as the Captain handed out New Year’s Eve style hats and blowouts for everyone while announcing that, “We are going to have a party!”  The veterans in the room will understand what an amazing thing this was for a Navy Captain, and Viet Nam combat veteran to do for a Navy Lieutenant!  One could not remain despondent for long with a leader and a caring friend like that! Unfortunately, I am compelled to relate that during the following year I became the victim of a deep emotional depression that was finally conquered by the combination of a loving family and friends; supportive co-workers; empathetic medical personnel; and a gracious God!  For the subsequent thirteen years I was able to return to a relatively normal routine. As you can clearly see, I never lifted a barbell ever again.  When one stops weightlifting his physique changes from an hour-glass and transforms into a pear!  Nonetheless, one mild heart attack notwithstanding; I eventually returned to a reasonable facsimile of my former self… Type AAA personality included.  And then, as referenced previously, it was Christmas Eve, 2001… Please permit me to share with you how I celebrated that Christmas Day! As alluded to earlier, I went flat-line shortly after arriving at the hospital, and the doctors had to bring me back.  My challenges were just beginning, however.  The following is a list of concerns for which I was being simultaneously treated:            Massive Heart Attack            Congestive heart failure            Ejection Fraction of 25%Fluid retention …literally twenty pounds of weight gain overnight!Ischemia (nearly 100% blockage of the main artery)Severe Arrhythmia/ Ventricular TachycardiaAspirated PneumoniaPartially collapsed lungIntermittent dangerously low blood pressureAnd amazingly…the doctors determined that by eating steak tartare at my officeChristmas party, I had contracted E-coli!  A defibrillator was used to electrically shock my heart into sinus rhythm and a stint was inserted to open the occluded artery.  A specialist was summoned whose sole responsibility was to coordinate the simultaneous multiple interventions that were being administered for each individual life threatening emergency. On Christmas day, as a result of my massive aspirin intake of the previous night, I began to vomit blood.  The nurses dutifully recorded twenty-one separate episodes.  I was later told that this was an unprecedented event in their combined experience, and that they each felt that my death was certain.    I also developed a thick, full-body skin rash due apparently to an allergic reaction from one of my many antibiotics. To make matters more interesting, a catheter accidentally dislodged from an artery and I was bleeding profusely.  Fortunately, an alarmed nurse discovered the saturated bed sheets before I bled to death.  A 24-hour private nurse was exclusively assigned to constantly monitor my condition.  I was placed on a balloon pump to help circulate my blood and keep oxygen flowing through my system.  Heavily sedated with morphine, I began experiencing vivid hallucinations.  My children later informed me that I was quite panicked while observing the presiding specialist whom I was convinced was a terrorist about to blow up the hospital!  I will never understand why anyone would use drugs recreationally. It was now feared that the backside of my heart was so severely damaged as to be virtually dead.  As a result bypass surgery was no longer an option.  My wife was told that I had only “one bullet left,” and the doctor informed her of the likely need for a heart transplant. Suffice it to say, my situation was grave…and it seemed apparent to many that such was indeed my immediate destination!  What I needed was a miracle… The enormous power of prayer will always amaze me!  One can actually feel the intensity of intercession.  It was humbling and gratifying to eventually learn how many friends (and their friends) took time from their Christmas celebrations to pray for my rescue.  Years later, I spoke with a man that I had only met once before, who informed me that immediately upon hearing of my plight, had fallen to his knees in prayer.  Another dear lady emphatically expressed to my wife, “we are going to keep praying until God sweats!” The small waiting room in the intensive care unit was literally inundated by pastors, church members, family relatives, and a myriad of friends; all interrupting their holiday festivities on my behalf.  I smile now over later being told that the nurses mistakenly thought that due to the traffic, I must be someone important.  For a person of Faith; prayer, family and friends are an amazing elixir! Miracles sometimes come in disguise.  After one week in ICU, my condition stabilized, much to the amazement of my attending nurses.  One particular male nurse has since become one of my closest personal friends, and he confided to me that no one thought that I would leave the hospital alive.  I barely had time to reflect, however, when a second attack began.  The stint supporting the diseased artery had completely re-closed and in the dark, early morning hours of New Year’s Day I began experiencing terrible pain once again.  Strangely, therein was the miracle… Rushed again to the emergency cath lab, I was saved from any further heart damage.  The attending physician was delighted with the calamity, however.  The severe pain indicated that there still existed living tissue in the area that had previously been written off.  This “miracle” permitted a new course of corrective action and it was determined that I could now have my second bypass surgery…an option that had previously been rejected and thought impossible. As I mentioned a few moments ago, having the right physician can make all the difference.  Once it had been decided to perform bypass surgery, a suitable surgeon needed to be recruited.  This being the Christmas Holiday week, many physicians and their families were on vacation and traveling.  The surgeon that remained home “on call,” although certainly competent, was deemed to be less than entirely suitable by my friend and cardiologist.  He told me that I MUST have only the best!  As a result, showing incredible clout, Dr. Port contacted a top surgeon who was currently skiing with his family in Vale.  The man immediately interrupted his ski trip; flew to Milwaukee; performed an eight hour quadruple bypass; and finally flew back to Vale the same night!  When I later met with that unselfish surgeon, I tearfully expressed how amazing a gesture it was that he had made on my behalf.  With incredible self-deprecation, the wonderful man merely shrugged and stated that his “kids were driving him nuts and he had needed to take a break.”  WOW!!! In the immediate aftermath, I underwent a second intervention to install a portable defibrillator/pacemaker in my chest in order to guard against further arrhythmia.  After seventeen days in the hospital (twelve in intensive care) I was now miraculously ready to go home.  My final night in the hospital brought a new and unexpected trial, however.  As the result of heavy morphine sedation I experienced horrible hallucinations.  My private room came alive with blasphemous images and I recall feelings of abject terror.  Praying, the images ceased as quickly as they had begun.  Shortly thereafter, I began to vomit.  Upon being discharged the next day, after all that I had experienced, it was determined that I had contracted the “twenty-four-hour flu!” My professional career was twenty-eight years in the insurance and investment business.  Our firm specialized in Pension planning.  In 2001, the last year that I was active, my parent company MetLife produced approximately $330 million of new group pension business through their twelve thousand person sales force.  Of that number, my one hundred sales reps in Wisconsin produced over $100 million.  Now at the very pinnacle of my career, my world changed dramatically…  I always thought that it would be great to retire before the age of fifty.  Be careful what you wish for!  At age 49, I was told that I could not return to work and went on full and permanent disability.  Thankfully, my family and I were well provided for and have been financially secure for these past thirteen years.  God has truly blessed me! My focus has shifted and I have spent the past decade in Christian ministry as a Bible teacher and writer.  Thanks in great measure to my superb health care, pharmaceuticals, and physicians; my wife Lynne and I have traveled during that time to nearly seventy countries on all seven continents.  Nonetheless, my health has been severely compromised.  For many years I have suffered with periodic Atrial Fibrillation.  Dizziness, difficulty breathing and fatigue are all symptoms of having congestive heart failure.  As if that wasn’t enough, four of my prescription drugs actually list dizziness as a potential side effect!  I often sleep sitting up or propped with three to four pillows to aid in breathing.  It is often difficult to fight off common household illnesses such as colds or flu due to my impaired immune system.  You learn to plan your daily routine around your diuretics schedule.  I know every public rest room in my home town.  One must also be exceedingly careful of sustaining cuts or lacerations due to the daily use of blood thinners to prevent strokes.  In 2012, I was hospitalized seven different times for heart related problems.  On one occasion, I underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor that had manifested itself in my chest as a result of a medicinal side effect.  My defibrillator went off twice during that year, with each electrical shock saving me from cardiac arrest and certain death.  Within four days of arriving at our winter residence in the Southwest, I was shocked twice within forty-eight hours.  Hospitalized, I was advised to have a ventricular ablation to repair the problem.  My physicians in Milwaukee instructed me to return home for the procedure, but I knew better. Unfortunately, I came out of the surgery much worse than I had entered it, I had sought the services of a well-meaning, but sadly inadequate local electro-physiologist and now my problems really began.  I developed severe daily ventricular tachycardia with regular occurrences sometimes lasting continuously for seventy hours or more.  Imagine that your heart is racing at 170 beats per minute, non-stop for 72 hours…that was my constant routine for the next two months.  Once again this seeming disaster was actually a blessing in disguise. Upon returning to Milwaukee, my dear friend and cardiologist took charge, and shared with me the need for a new ablation to correct and hopefully remedy my dire situation.  As I said earlier, having the right physician is invaluable.  Dr. Port decided once again to call in the best physician possible.  I feel that I am not at liberty to mention his name but the electro-physiologist that was invited was no less than the man who had invented and performed the very first ventricular ablation in medical history.  He consented to fly to Milwaukee; consulted with the team that was there assembled; and finally decided to personally do the surgery.  The doctor told my wife and me that he was reasonably certain that he could help my situation.  Do you remember my saying that my seeming disaster was in fact a blessing in disguise?  The specialist in question was no longer routinely practicing, but rather was now fully occupied with teaching and conducting research.  My situation was so uniquely bad, however, that he felt that something new might be learned from the intervention.  In other words, if my first ablation had not been so disastrous, he would never have taken the summons.  I am grateful to stand here today and to inform you that I have had no “V-Tach” whatsoever since the second ablation three years ago! My cardiologist now considers me to be his “Poster Child.”  At my last check-up, three months ago, Dr. Port confided to a new young physician on his staff that they had treated me for virtually everything in their arsenal except a heart transplant.  Of course I insisted that we should draw the line there.  Today my life is good!  I will never run a marathon, my libido is not what it once was, and indeed if I bend over to tie my shoe I get light-headed.  In addition, because of heart failure I have completely given up alcohol, cigars, coffee, and chocolate.  I asked my physician, “If I eliminate all those things will I live forever?”  “No!” he said… “But it will seem like it!” Nonetheless I am truly blessed!  At age 62, I would likely still have arthritis, grey hair, and need eyeglasses even if I didn’t have congestive heart failure!  I enjoy every day that God has given me with great relish!  For nearly three decades I have been wonderfully supported by the four “PH’s” of cardiac care…Physicians, Pharma, Phamily, and Phaith! Without Christ’s mercy, I would never have been able to remain this past 28 years with my wonderful wife, nor see my three children wed…I would never have been able to visit Antarctica… Or see Aaron Rodgers play for my beloved Green Bay Packers …Without faith I would never have published a book… Never have received my post-Graduate degree…Without the Lord’s grace I would have never met, and held each of my six grandchildren!So once again, “Be careful what you wish for!”  My wish has come true in a way that was totally unforeseen.  I now dedicate whatever time I have left to becoming a useful servant of God.  By His grace, I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” 

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR...

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