A year ago today, my husband, Gary, was recovering from a serious heart failure incident brought on by a botched nuclear stress test. Today we are filled with so much joy, we have created a Christmas tree of gratitude angels for the holiday season.
The heart failure incident last year landed Gary in cardiac ICU for several days and necessitated the implementation of a lengthy plan to get him healthy enough to survive a quad bypass, aortic valve replacement and pacemaker/defibrillator implant. All I could think of last year at this time was keeping him alive to celebrate more holidays in the future. I knew it would require my laser focus on a positive outcome, including vigilant advocacy on his behalf to seek and support the best possible medical team.
Our medical team was indeed amazing. I won’t share all their names, but they are part of St. Joseph Health/Mission Hospital here in Mission Viejo, CA. They are our angels, especially one very special cardiovascular nurse practitioner, Peggy, our dear friend who guided us every step of the way. Today she is the shining star at the top of our Christmas tree of gratitude.
When Gary exited the hospital just before Thanksgiving 2013, he was given a dozen med’s to keep him going. Unfortunately, one combination of med’s put him back in the hospital in February with super low blood pressure and the beginnings of kidney failure. I would never have thought to review and compare all the med’s online had it not been for my girlfriend, Christine, who lost her husband to heart failure a couple of years ago. She told me her story while we were driving to a conference in San Diego early one morning. Three days later, I took Gary to the ER and his life was saved again. Christine is an angel on our gratitude tree this year.
In August, after an exploratory procedure, Gary was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm in addition to all the other problems. This made the surgery he needed way more complicated and made me extremely scared. The surgeon ordered another procedure to evaluate the aneurysm and the night before, I remember sitting on our sofa alone, talking out loud to God. I said, “We deserve some good news! We have been good soldiers. We’ve worked hard. We’ve been good friends and neighbors. We deserve good news! Thank you!” And sure enough, the next morning after the procedure, the cardiologist came out to me and said, “Mrs. Ingram, I have some good news.” My heart went immediately to my throat. “There’s no aneurysm.” He showed me the before and after photos and said, “It was a shadow.” For Gary and me, it was a miracle. Our cardiologists are two more angels on the tree.
On September 5th, Gary entered the hospital at 5:30 AM for the open-heart surgery. Our son, Cory, and his family hit traffic on their way that morning. They arrived at exactly the moment Gary was to be wheeled out of pre-op and I had to run to the hospital lobby to guide Cory back to see his dad. Emilie and our grandchildren, Keegan and Kendall, went directly to the waiting room. Meanwhile, the pre-op nurse had gotten permission to delay Gary’s exit by five minutes so he could visit with his son. While they were chatting, I heard a voice outside the curtain say, “I have two children crying in the waiting room because they didn’t get to see their papa. Is there any chance they could come in and see him before he goes?” Peaking around the curtain, I saw a hospital volunteer looking at the charge nurse, who said, “Sure, bring them in. We can wait a couple more minutes. I’ll let the O-R know.” Keegan and Kendall came in and got to hug Papa. Instantly, the caring volunteer and flexible charge nurse made it onto our angel tree, along with our children and grandchildren, of course.
When I, the paragon of strength, smiled and said, “Good luck and I love you,” to Gary as he was being wheeled out, I admit to a very vulnerable moment. He waved, gave me a thumbs-up and was gone. I turned to walk out of pre-op and started to sob. The doors opened and I fell into the arms of my girlfriend, Muff, who just happened to be standing there with her husband, Pete. I had no idea they were coming.
Muff and Pete stayed with us for eight long hours, till we learned Gary was being “sewn up” and would be transferred to cardiac ICU within the hour. Other close friends, Pam and Kymry, came to sit with me. Now Muff, Pete, Pam and Kymry are in our gratitude tree! I didn’t expect their company and appreciated it way more than I could ever describe, except to say it was heavenly. This was undoubtedly the scariest day of my life so far, even worse than the day after my first husband’s untimely death. One thing I know this lifetime, the gifts of friendship and unconditional love are divine.
When Gary was wheeled into cardiac ICU after nine hours in surgery, Cory and I were allowed to visit him. He was attached to a gazillion tubes and machines and surrounded by several nurses and doctors, including his amazing and talented surgeon, affectionately known as “The Bear”. I remember thanking “Dr. Bear” for getting Gary through the ordeal. Our angel nurse Peggy, standing next to me said, “He accepts hugs.” Wow. He gave me a big hug. He’s more than an angel – he’s one of the angel bears we have in our tree this year.
Little did I know that day the most challenging time was ahead. Recovery from heart surgery is a brutal, frightening process. One little misstep and the patient pops the incision, then infection instantly sets in. “Dr. Bear” warned Gary, “If 100 patients come back to the hospital with infection, only 20 go home.” His description of the process of trying to save a patient with an infection was gruesome. Gary had a hard time following the “sternal precautions” for the first week at home. Yes, it was probably because of the meds clouding his mind. But his unwillingness to use his heart pillow – which he’d named “Chester” – finally caused me to go ballistic one morning, screaming at him and crying until I said, “I can’t do this any more. I’m done.” Thankfully he heard me. He became compliant. The morphine had worn off and he began to demonstrate his commitment to staying alive – another timely miracle. “Chester” is sitting under our tree today, a gift from angels.
By mid-October, Gary was able to start cardiac rehab. His “gym” is on the St. Joseph/Mission Hospital campus. He couldn’t drive yet, so I began driving him to his early morning appointments three times a week. I would sit in the waiting area and work on my laptop till he was done. I struck up a conversation with Janie, the office manager, and she suggested I join the gym next door that was open to anyone. I had recently stopped walking 3 miles every other day because of a foot problem, so the thought of climbing on a recumbent bike was something I embraced. I joined, and now that Gary can drive, we still go to our gyms together. It’s become a fun activity! Most of the people on “my side” are spouses of people on “Gary’s side”. For her fitness recommendations and encouragement, angel Janie secured a lovely spot in our gratitude tree.
During the long recovery process, there were special angels carrying me with their loving support – bringing us food, helping with housecleaning, looking in on Gary while I worked or had to go out of town on business, sitting outside with us late in the afternoon when it was ok for Gary to do so. These angels are our wonderful friends and neighbors – Bonnie, Bob, Cindy, Raul, Maddie, Sol, Eric – and our precious friends – Karen, Linda and Teri – generous souls who have a special place in our gratitude tree this year.
After being cleared with no restrictions by his cardiologist, Gary was able to return to work at his beloved BevMo mid-December. His co-worker angels – Jeff, Ryan, Kim, Jessi, Karen, Steve, Andy, Melis, Annette, Michelle, Mike & Mike – welcomed him with open arms. Now they grace the bountiful lower “BevMo branches” of our gratitude tree.
There is something blessed about having jobs we love, and I love mine too. After all, I work for Caring.com – it doesn’t get any better or more appropriate than that. My co-workers who supported me – especially angels Karen, Brennan, Megan, Sho and Katie – are on the Caring.com tree branch.
All of you brilliant angels have brought us an abundance of love, comfort and joy! You helped to mend Gary’s heart, to heal and dissipate our anxiety, and to fill both of our hearts with gratitude – a peaceful, happy feeling after a couple of challenging years. We are delighted to have you blessing our gratitude tree, along with our extended family and friends, near and far.
To everyone who graces our lives with your love, care and respect, please know we appreciate you. You make us want to pay it forward, over and over again. We’ll keep the gratitude tree with its magical angels and bears, and seek to add to it next year with some equally magical and meaningful pay it forward garland.