At 3:30am on April 22, 2017, I awoke to the inability to take a deep breath.

 I just couldn’t hit that satisfactory finish of a good deep breath.

I laid there for a while and created a minor panic attack and finally woke up my wife, Debbie. “I think I need to go to the hospital.” “Why?” “I might be having a heart attack. I don’t know but something’s not right.”

Now, looking back there were some other minor signs that might have indicated my problem but were not the generally accepted YOU ARE HAVING A HEART ATTACK signs. A couple of days previously I felt as if I had a sunburn on my shoulders but had not been in the sun. I had also been a bit fatigued but work was busy. I had a cough for about five months which repeated doctor visits didn’t cure.

I asked Debbie to get my wallet as I wanted to call my insurance carrier. “Why?” “In case they send me home with a diagnosis of hypochondriac and a $7500 bill, I want Insurance on this with me.”  The insurer encouraged a hospital visit by ambulance.

I can’t really pinpoint why I thought something was wrong other than to say that I knew my body well enough to know something wasn’t right.  As we arrived at the hospital I noticed a feeling similar to bronchitis in my chest like congestion.   A very efficient ER Team determined something was going on, and our odyssey began as the search for the cause was on.

The following morning a CT scan indicated an ascending aortic aneurysm and a follow up EEG confirmed a defective aortic valve, a congenital defect which had never been diagnosed in 57 1/2 years.  As the cardiologist explained full open heart surgery would be required, I was shocked.  I was never in pain.  I never fell to my knees clutching my chest.  I never felt a 800 pound gorilla sitting on me. I have had this my whole life?

Successful surgery followed and then recovery began.

I began with walking then cardiac rehab.  Then it was time to go back to work.  Now I’m walking walking regularly with a bit of running thrown in.  The journey back is long.  While my EF is still not back to where we want it, the battle rages on. I didn’t control the first chapter, but I can control the rest of them.

Shortly after leaving the hospital I wrote the following about the ten things that I have learned:

  1. When they tell you they are going to stop your heart a lot of little, bothersome, trivial things just don’t matter any more.  So here’s the deal. We all get bogged down in stuff we can never control.  We stress and worry about many, many things.

The great Bill Gothard used to say “worry is assuming responsibility for things you were never intended to be responsible for.” I have also learned that many of the things I have worried about never occurred. It was simply small stuff as Richard Carlson said.  This influenced the song of the day choice from Frozen to just – “Let It Go”.

My recently departed friend Leo Thorsness, Vietnam POW and Medal Of Honor recipient, said, “When you are drifting down under a canopy of a parachute and men in black pajamas are shooting real bullets up at you, not much matters, not the size of your portfolio or anything else. Except your family. That’s what matters.”

Hug your family today.

  1. When you are facing difficult, potentially dangerous times there is nothing – no nothing – more important than family and friends.

How can I say thanks?  Words don’t come close. They don’t begin to describe the extreme, overwhelming, all-encompassing feelings of love and support Debbie and I felt during our recent challenges.  From the absolute moment word began to spread about my situation, you were there. Whether it was a text, a call, a visit, an email, an offered prayer, a thought or even sharing my situation with another common friend, you all amazed me. You were THERE.

I have never, ever, positively never felt more loved.  Words will never begin to express my gratitude and appreciation.  As we didn’t know what the outcome might be, you weren’t scared to be there.

I will never forget your support of Debbie as long as I live. As tears fill my eyes, my pledge to you is that I will be there.  My prayer is that if you never need my support, you all have it. To the best of my ability and until my last breath I promise to try to be the friend you have proven to be.  Please just let me know.

The doctors, nurses and hospital staff played an important role but make no mistake, you and God healed me.  May God bless you all.

  1. No matter how much information is available free of charge online, I believe in the power of wisdom, experience and expertise of professionals.  A lot of people learn to care for a poinsettia online. A lot of people learn how to bartend or play poker online.  A lot of people learn how to work on a car online. But please, please don’t try to self diagnose a medical issue online.

There is a place for the information on the Mayo Clinic or WebMD site; however, when in doubt check it out with a trained medical professional. Trust me, in the last six weeks or so I have learned more about our heart and it’s systems, congenital heart defects and heart disease than I ever dreamed I would know.   But if it hadn’t been for the knowledge and patience of the professionals into whose hands I literally placed my future, I might be dead. My story might be over. Thankfully it’s not. There is more to do.

April 22, 2017 is the luckiest day of my life. It ranks up there with the day I met Deb, the day I met Taylour, the day I walked her down the aisle, the day I met Tucker, the day I finished an Ironman…  but April 22, 2017 is the luckiest — because of that day I get to have more days. And they are more precious than ever. I appreciate them differently.

I almost didn’t go. I almost didn’t wake up Debbie. I almost shook it off. I almost “manned up.” I wasn’t smart. I was lucky plain and simple.  I am glad I was and still am.

If you feel strange, if something’s just not right whether you have all the symptoms online or not, don’t ignore it.  Please go to seek help.  Hear this – I WAS NEVER IN PAIN. There was no chest crushing.  There was no falling to my knees.  There was no 00 pound gorilla on my chest. I was lucky.

This last week I got to shake the hand of my surgeon and sincerely thank him for his talent and expertise. Next week I will see the cardiologist. My cardiologist is individual who “saw something she didn’t like.”  She used her education, training, experience and brilliance to request the echo cardiogram that saved my life.

Not a day has passed that I don’t think of them and thank God for them. I can tell you I will thank God for all of my caregivers every day for the rest of my life. I was lucky. I wish the same luck for you.

  1. There’s no place like home.

The dictionary defines home as the place one lives permanently, especially as a part of a family. The definition expands to include a place one returns to instinctively.   Home is where family decisions are made.  Home is sitting around the kitchen table. Home is breaking bread with one another.  Home is not a box you live in.  That’s a house. Home is your family. Family is not defined by DNA, it is defined by love. Family is a choice.  I consider many of you my family, not by blood, but because I love you.

Home is comfort food. Some restaurants attempt to duplicate it, but when I think of comfort food I think of my grandmother’s peach cobbler.  I think of her Thanksgiving dressing, the cup towel that was always on her shoulder and always a bit damp, her pecan pie, and her sweet potato pie.   I remember my mom’s fried steak and gravy as well as her chicken spaghetti.  She made chicken spaghetti for me when I got out of the hospital a few weeks ago. I was home.

Home is also that place where the guard is down. It’s where you are you. You are not driven by what others think or how they judge you. It’s a place where you can share fears as well as confidence.  It’s a place where weakness is as real as strength. And it’s all safe never to be used against you.

I wish you home.

  1. Not intending to be political here, but we need to fix our healthcare system. Whether it involves correcting our public hospital system, a government mandated insurance program or some other solution we need to fix it.

As the bills roll in and the totals move into very high numbers, I am thankful for insurance. I also wonder what those without insurance experience. I wonder about their quality of care.  I wonder if they would have been in ICU 8 days. I wonder about the sacrifice their families must make for them to have care.

  1. Nurses are a gift from Heaven. Their dedication, commitment and passion are evident in everything they do.

God looked down and realized Moms couldn’t be everywhere so he created nurses. And then He selected and appointed a certain group of men and women who are uniquely talented and gifted to CARE for others.  They provide comfort for family members, tirelessly answer questions at the end of a twelve hour shifts and even endure 3am conversations of sleepless patients when they know there are others waiting.

I wonder how they control their emotions so well when it is obvious that they know more than they can say.  I wonder how they control their feelings when they know the outcome may very well be unfortunate.  I wonder how they control their concern when there may be a better course of treatment.  I wonder how they control all of these feelings and others when they go home and face all of the issues we all face at home with family.

They are special.

They don’t get nearly the recognition or respect they have earned and deserve.

I will use this as a small portion of my and Debbie’s THANK YOU to the team of nurses who cared for me (and also cared for her) during my adventure in modern medicine.

I am thinking almost every one of us knows at least one nurse, and I am going to ask each one of you to thank that nurse in the next few days. Some of you will do more, some will do less, but please, the next time you encounter a nurse just say thank you for what they do. They are literally, indispensable.

Thank you to all my nurses.

  1. Love is a powerful drug.

When you are laying there scared, there is a blanket of comfort that can only be described as love. To see my wife, daughter, mom, brother, sisters in law, brothers in law, son in law, lifelong friends of the family, as well as more recent friend acquisitions, and of course, the Greatness of Tucker, my grandson, walk into my room immediately brought comfort and a feeling everything would be okay. I was in your hands of loving support as I fought my battle.

Deb and I had some tough conversations that week which served to not only bring us closer than ever but also after over 24 years of marriage remind us of our love for one another. Sometimes with words, sometimes with tears, the communication was at a level never before attained. I love you Deb. The hardest thing I have ever done is say goodbye to you the morning of my surgery.

My mom is 84. She never acted her age. She was up, by my side, walking with me, praying for me, making sure I didn’t get out of line just as she has every day of my life.

My brother and sister in law were the first ones there to be beside Debbie and to go with us into the land of the unknown. With all of the countless visits, calls and texts – y’all will never know how much they mean.

Deb’s family was always there from Mark and Catie’s medical wisdom and guidance to Paul and Michelle’s visit as I interrupted their travel to Emma’s graduation to Dan and Lorri’s constant concern and communication.

TNT (that’s Taylour, Nick and Tucker) I’m sorry that I messed up the regional golf tournament for you girl, but words will never express the feeling when you three walked in the room. I will never, never, never be able to repay that debt. I am sure my heart got better and stronger on that day.  On April 27 at 9:34pm I received a text I will cherish the rest of my days. Thank you Nick.

I have said it before and I will say it again Lou Gehrig is now in second place. I AM THE LUCKIEST MAN IN THE WORLD. I am humbled by the outpouring of love from all over the country, blown away by your sacrifice. From special trips made to family events altered you all amaze me.  I hope I honor our friendship as you have.

You have all taught me to be a better friend. I will do my best to be better.

You are ALL good medicine.

  1. Attitude has always been, is and will always be EVERYTHING.

I try to be a positive person.  It was hard. I was scared.  At times I even felt I got a raw deal. Why me?   Then slowly it would change to why not me?

I would not have changed places with anyone. And if you were in the same boat, you wouldn’t either. I don’t mean that to sound like martyrdom, but I don’t believe any one of you would give a similar issue to another person. We deal with our problems, our issues, our challenges.

We are positive.  We are promised a better tomorrow. I believe in that promise.

As I recover and rehab, there remain questions and challenges. But we move on. We battle. Let me know if you want to go for a slow walk.

Attitude is everything. And I love you all.

  1. Sometimes you just have to slow down, take your time and do what they say.

I go. You go.  We go fast. Now I stop.  No choice. I have to. And guess what there are roses, and trees, and squirrels. Slow down and smell them. Touch them.

It’s time to turn your “some days” into TODAY. We have all heard “tomorrow is not promised” and well I am here to tell you it’s not. It may not happen.

The nurses put goals for the day on the white board in my room. They put up things like “shower” and “walk.” I added “WAKE UP.”.

In 2016 I said I wanted to focus more on moments and less on minutes. I wanted to hold onto and make memories.

I recently wrote to Taylour and Nick in Tips From The Top to “play in the puddles for that is where memories are made.”  I am going to play in more puddles.

Doing what they say is sometimes hard for me. Now it is easier. It is also critical. I am trying to be patient. I am try to heal. I am amazed after nine weeks to still hurt. To still be “symptom limited.” That’s the way it is. There is no pushing through. I now go slowly.

  1. I believe in the power of prayer.

It has been said that as long as there are math tests there will be prayer in schools. I can also add as long as there is open heart surgery there will be prayer in hospitals too.  Thank you to everyone who prayed for me including my doctors, surgeons, nurses, orderlies, technicians and everyone else who entered my life during this adventure.

Thank you to the Keller Methodist women’s group who quilted me a quilt, prayed over it and delivered it for comfort. What a wonderful ministry using the gifts God gave them.

Thank you to the Chaplain who visited me in the hospital. On the first visit he said “if there’s anything you need just let me know.” I said “pray for me,” and he did. Right then and every other time I saw him he prayed.   We can never have too much prayer support.

As I wrap up what I learned my hope is at least one of these touched you. At least one caused you pause. I hope I have touched your life, and I know you have touched mine.

May God richly bless you all.

Bryan Reece

Fort Worth, Texas