How could you relax when facing open-heart surgery?

I consider Luke a massage connoisseur. He has been receiving bodywork for decades and knows what he likes and what benefits him the most. He is a pleasure to work with as he relaxes well during our regular one and half-hour sessions. Luke doesn’t have too much body armoring, whereby the tissues can become rather hard and unyielding, creating a resistant barrier and thus preventing one from deep relaxation.  Instead, his body softens under my touch and he enjoys the myriad of benefits of receiving regular treatments.

Luke is tall and muscular in an athletic way. His mop of unruly dark hair spikes in all different directions giving him a rather rakish look. He has a direct gaze and makes good eye contact. He runs, plays a variety of ball games, bicycles, walks, and generally keeps moving – partly because that expresses his pro-active personality and because he genuinely enjoys exercising. He is one of the lucky ones to benefit from that wonderful rush of endorphins after a workout.

Being a top manager in a high-volume Retail Company presents a different level of stress for Luke. Long, concentrated hours on the floor, a ton of paperwork to constantly catch up with, and scheduling the ever-rotating staff members is an unceasing responsibility that he takes on gladly, but it takes its toll. After decades of being in the same career role, he is reaching a stage in his life whereby he is questioning and wondering what’s next for him.

I was shocked when I heard about his heart condition. He was a pillar of health as far as I was concerned and only in his late fifties.  When he finally returned to me after some months of absence I was presented with a changed body. A long, thick, still slightly red scar ran vertically down his chest. I had to ask about how this all came about.

I was going in for my annual health check-up. After some tests, the doctor informed me that I had 80% blocked arteries and that I needed surgery very soon!

When I first heard the news, I was all over the place with anxiety. I felt angry, bewildered, and kind of freaked out. It was the full range of emotions starting with the shock of hearing that my life was in danger. The fear of having my chest opened up was seriously overwhelming.

I had three severely clogged arteries with plaque. I was looking at a triple-by-pass open-heart surgery.

“And you had no symptoms before your diagnosis”? I asked incredulously.

I realize I did feel an irregular heartbeat occasionally, but I didn’t make a big deal of it. I didn’t look like ‘that’ person that had a heart condition, but I was that person on the inside. So, this was a significant wake-up call. You obviously can’t judge a book by its cover!

I didn’t have a good diet and knew I ate too many fried foods. But I did have my regular exercise habit that kept everything moving through the pipes.

“So how did you deal with this life-changing news”? I asked.

About three days after my diagnosis, I had a long conversation with a close friend who helped me get out of my feeling like a victim to my own body. Negative self-talk was taking over, and I kept asking, “Why Me”?

My friend said, “Trust in God.” Which led to us talking at length about where God was in my life now and where God was in where I was going. And from that point on, I trusted in God. I realized that my fear was gone by the end of that conversation.  It has become crystal clear that I absolutely believe now.

I followed everything in front of me, and I focused on healing rather than anxiety and stress. Put it into a practical plan of how I was going to go forward from this moment, make it through surgery, and then move beyond that.

I am lucky that I was in such good shape before, but another part of me was dying.

Once I accepted it, then it was so much easier. It became a goal-oriented thing for me, and it gave me positive things to focus on rather than what could go wrong. I developed a lighter spirit because of it. I realized what a gift it was to have the diagnosis because the other option would most likely have been a serious heart attack or worse.

Luke was intuitively smart in getting a second opinion from an independent holistic group practice. He was hungry for more information and wanted to educate himself on the causes of his condition. Two weeks after his diagnosis and one week before his scheduled surgery, he got genetic testing, pancreatic sugar testing, oral dental testing, and other possible causes of coronary artery disease.

The results showed that he did have the Gene LipoproteinA, the sticky plaque of cholesterol. If you have that and you don’t eat well, that is how you get to clog your heart. About 23% of people have this gene, so it’s not that rare.

The first thing I learned of significant importance was the consequences of hydration. I drink more water now, early in the day, and throughout. I learned about the water in plant foods. I educated myself by reading about human anatomy and physiology. In retrospect, I realize that I was under-hydrated for a very long time.

I’m also doing intermittent fasting, which I find fantastic. I will fast between 14 and 18 hours on selected days to let my body rest. I feel amazing.

The other thing I tried to do was be more mindful of stress. I am learning to let go of hidden stressors and not take everything in as creating potential anxiety. I am learning not to worry about what anybody else thinks. A sense of acceptance has replaced things that I worried about so much.

“How does relaxation feature in your life differently now than before”? I ask.

I have learned to slow down. I am a sprinter by nature. Part of my process has been not to overdo the physical aspect of my life. I still have that in my work. So, I find other ways to decelerate and smell the roses a lot more than I usually would have.

I am constantly checking in with my doctors about the safety of continuing high-intensity exercising, wondering if I should back off at a certain point. They all say if I can do it and feel good doing it, then do it!

You have to be your Advocate.   Your doctors will advocate for you when you’re in their office and if you talk to them on the phone, but you’re the one asked to do the work 24 hours a day, and there’s no single magic pill you’re going to get to fix everything.

You’re the biggest player in your life story. And, you know, maybe the most crucial thing in this is when you realize your situation ask, where or what you did to help you go off course, and end up where you are.

Forgive yourself for all that and let it go behind you. Open yourself up to go forward without being attached to the past but instead focus on what you’re going to do differently in the future.               

As I thank Luke for his sage advice, he smiles shyly at his own words of wisdom.

Then he goes out to enjoy an invigorating run.