The Day I Faced Death With a Smile

On March 23, 2015 I found myself on the operating room table with my chest splayed open and machines keeping me alive while the surgeon performed quadruple bypass, open heart surgery.

Unbeknownst to me I had survived two heart attacks in the two weeks leading up to this surgery. I didn't recognize either one of them. There was no shooting pain. There was no clasping of my chest and falling to the ground. There was no serious shortness of breath. Instead, both happened shortly after an intense workout at the gym and felt more like dehydration and extreme muscle fatigue.

On the Wednesday morning, of what I later learned was my second heart attack, I had just climbed the long flight of stairs to my office and noticed that I felt winded, exhausted, and sore when I got to the top. As I stood there catching my breath I thought, "I must have really overdone it at the gym last night." At my husband's request, I called my doctor and made an appointment for Friday afternoon. I took the rest of the day off, rested and by the end of the day I felt completely normal again. Thursday I went back to work and back to the gym. Friday my Doctor ran an EKG and a chest x-ray but nothing unusual showed up. But because of my symptoms and elevated blood pressure, she ordered lab work. Saturday morning I gave blood and went about my day as usual. That afternoon the doctor called me while David and I were grocery shopping.

"Mr. Barrett are you having shortness of breath right now?" She asked me in an urgent voice that made me feel a little uncomfortable. "Are you having chest pains? Are you feeling weak?" These questions were unnerving and surprising. I was feeling completely normal. "Mr Barrett, I want you to stop whatever you are doing and go immediately to the emergency room. Something has happened and you need to have it checked out immediately." I was a little rattled by her urgent tone. David and I finished our grocery shopping, stopped by the house to get some reading materials and headed to the ER for what I assumed would be long wait and some tests before being sent home.

I learned that day that when you have heart attack symptoms, you get the VIP treatment in the ER. I never saw the waiting room. Before I could barely sign on the dotted line I was rushed back and was immediately surrounded by a team who quickly began hooking me up to various machines. I told the doctor my symptoms from earlier in the week and as he looked over the EKG and chest x-ray results he flatly said "Mr Barrett, you've had a heart attack this week on the day you climbed the stairs to your office." Once that was identified as a heart attack, I told him about the one a week prior to that. He informed me that it was only because I was young and healthy that I had not died from one of those heart attacks or dropped dead in the gym while working out. He told me that when someone's main artery is blocked like mine, they call that "The widow maker" because most people die from that.

They admitted me to the hospital and scheduled me for a heart catheterization. I'll never forget the doctor leaning over me after that procedure and saying, "Mr. Barrett, your main artery is 100% blocked. Your other front artery is 80-90% blocked in two places and your rear artery is 80-90% blocked in two places. You are going to require open heart surgery." I cried. I am healthy. I just ran a 10K. I eat healthy. I work out. I am young! Forty-eight year olds aren't supposed to have open heart surgery! That's for old people.

The day before the surgery the surgeon's nurse came in to educate me on what I was about to face. I listened intently as she said "Now we're going to cut you open and stop your heart and lungs while the surgeon installs the four bypasses on your heart and then we'll restart them when he's finished. A machine will keep you alive while we perform the surgery." I do not know what I thought would happen in open heart surgery, but it hadn't occurred to me that my heart would be stopped. I wondered where I would be while my heart was still. I wondered if it would. I wondered if I would die.

I sat in my room and contemplated life and death. I called each of my children and expressed my love to them reminding them that no matter what might happen, I was so very proud of them. I held my husband and together we laughed and cried and expressed our love for one another.

I reviewed my colorful life. I reminded myself that there was a possibility that this might be my last day alive on earth. I'm so happy I had this opportunity to truly face death square in the eye and say to him, "You don't scare me! I've lived a great life and I have NO regrets. So if you want me, I'm all yours, but I ain't skeered!"

It is a beautiful thing to realize that you have lived life to the fullest and have focused on what is truly important. I am grateful for my journey. I am proud of my decisions to face fear over and over again and not live for the expectations of other people, churches, books, religion or family, but rather to be the best, most authentic me I can be every single day.

The truth is, we are all one breath away from death at any given moment. The only reality I am guaranteed is this moment. This breath. I don't live for yesterday nor for tomorrow. I live for today. I choose to make the most of each day. I choose to make a difference in my present reality by being the best me I can be. I choose to invest in the lives of others. I choose to live a genuine life. I choose to be a friend. I choose to love. I choose to LIVE!

Joel Barrett

LGBTQ Writer, Speaker, Gatherer

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Joel Speaks Out

Kansas City, MO