“Sometimes it takes a journey to come home” is a quote I came across while reading on the flight back from Dallas to Columbus last weekend. The American Heart Association had flown a group of us out to tell our stories in preparation for a National conference called the Scientific Sessions in New Orleans the following week. We all had a chance to sit and talk with one another. Together we represented two strokes and three heart attacks. Each one of us under 50… and runners.
One was a 27-year-old stroke survivor who had set her iPhone lock screen to a picture of her brain scan. It was one of those colorful medical imaging things except for one small very white spot that had died. She was the one who had her stroke during a 5k she was running. While she noted a heaviness in her left leg, she ran a good race and came out the other side of the finish line. She kept encountering people asking her if she was OK. Suspecting it was race fatigue she brushed it off until she saw her friend. When she did, she saw the shock of concern looking back at her which told her something was very wrong. It was then that she realized she needed immediate medical attention and soon learned that she was having a stroke.
Another woman I met was a stroke nurse oddly enough. Her event happened while driving in the car with her son who had gone through elective stroke training for school. She told me about the moment she lost control of her left arm. She was talking with her son about it then realized, through his responses, that he could no longer understand her. She’d lost her ability to speak but not her ability to do math. She knew exactly how many brain cells she was losing per minute, 2 million if I recall correctly, during what she knew immediately was a stroke.
Then there was the 39-year-old father, also in the medical field, who realized he was having a heart attack as he battled through the improbability of it happening to him. He was young and in great health. Not possible. But when face to face with it, knowing the signs, he jumped on the situation and acknowledged it to his family. Like the stroke nurse however, he found it difficult to communicate what was happening to him not because he couldn’t speak, but because it was happening to him.
The other person who suffered a heart attack was a woman, also in the health care business, whose condition was brought about by taking birth control. Talk about a whammy after having done everything right, planning and raising a family and… boom. Sadly, her stents developed restenosis and she suffers from chest pain after too much exertion so she’s patiently waiting for her return to the running trails. Oddly enough her Dr suggests that her arteries not as hard as an older person which may be the cause for her stent issue. I was deeply impressed with her ability to take two whammies in stride.
Like me, these people all retreated, briefly, at first. Not fearful but sensing something was deeply wrong. This feeling is hard to explain. Logic, reasoning, denial and emotion all get involved in this conversation. That’s where the fear comes in because it’s a fucking scary conversation to have. When people talk about “a sense of impending doom” … that’s it.
All of the persons at the table were runners. While I was humbly impressed with myself for completing my first year in the sport and putting 4 half marathons under my belt, the father had done 4 marathons over 2 years since his heart attack. The stroke nurse… 12 marathons in a year’s time period. These were serious runners. Not a happy fool like myself who picked up running as a way to slow down my head and balance the moments between cardiac anxiety on top of getting a hopeful health boost along the way.
As we shared our stories there was a point where each one of us had tears in our eyes. I think the stroke nurse joked about it being almost like a support group of sorts. It was when we were talking about those very personal moments we faced the reality of what was happening in the presence of our sons, spouses and friends. It was something like knowing that this may be the last time we see these people, or them us. Every day afterward became a gift. Every Holiday became one more we would not have been there to celebrate. Enter the tears, not crying, but definitely tears on every face when it got to this part of our stories. Five open hearts talking and sharing deeply personal experiences intersecting on love from across the table.
We met as strangers. It’s what the opening Levine quote says to me. “Sometimes it takes a journey to come home.” We were just as powerless as our loved ones to stop what happened. And yet we were at that table in Dallas together.
We met somewhere between the fear on the 27-year-old runner’s friends face and the concern in the 39-year-old father’s son’s eyes as his dad knew exactly what was happening but could not guide him through for once as dad’s do. We met in the recognition of the stroke nurse’s son who could only tell his mom he knew what was happening and then get help as quickly as possible as she calculated the size of the dead space being burned into her brain as the blood flow had stopped. Again in the moment where me and my spouse were sitting in my hospital bed together watching the “Wizard of Oz” the night after my heart attack and stent surgery. Just happy to be there together.
There was another passage in the Levine book about dying “One Year to Live” that I was reading on the plane.
“It is said that we must love ourselves before we can love anybody else, and this is true. But the opposite is equally true: we must love others before we can love ourselves, before we can recognize ourselves. Seeing the universality of our shared condition offers a broader path of healing.”
All five of us walked away from that table as friends who had something amazing in common that day. Love. That is the strange gift inside of any life threatening condition however… and the journey you take to find it and bring it back home.