25 Years On: The Story of the Day I Nearly Died

A quarter-century of living a miracle


Today marks the 25th anniversary of a very significant event in my life. It’s significant enough that under normal circumstances I should have died that day. I’m posting it here because there is a soccer connection (the lead pic is a hint), but mostly because I don’t have a personal blog and even if I did I doubt many people would read it!

So what was it that happened a quarter-century ago? Well, it’s a complicated series of events, so much so that I personally attribute it to the intervention of God, as the number of potential coincidences is far too large to be real.

But to start the story, we have go back a few months to late 1998. To Boxing Day, to be exact. Which is the December 26th holiday observed by most of the English-speaking world other than the US (Tyler Pasher would know what it is). On that day in England my father died as a result of a botched hip replacement surgery at the relatively young age of 70. He was otherwise completely healthy and it was a huge shock to the whole family.

His wishes were that he be cremated. The ceremony was performed in early January 1999. I was present, of course, as were several other US-based members of the family – but not all of us. My mother opted to leave the ashes on display at the crematorium for a while until arrangements could be made to inter them in the family cemetery plot.

Skip forward to early May 1999. At the time my family and I were living in Rhode Island. Barrington, to be exact, a suburb of Providence. We had moved there a year earlier and were preparing to move from a rental into a house we had just bought. Being a family of 5 with just one income and a few financial setbacks along the way, we could not afford to hire a moving company, so we were working on doing the entire move ourselves.

That of course meant a ton of packing. Moving boxes are heavy and I began having a few chest pains. Although at 38 years old I was 270 pounds and had a cholesterol count in the 700s, my doctors gave me a generally clean bill of health other than the cholesterol – which they believed to be genetic – and bad knees. So I figured the chest pains were the result of pulling a muscle with all the heavy lifting. And besides, the pains always subsided.

Until May 7th. That day I was riding the bus to work and my chest began to hurt. By the time I arrived at work, poured myself a mug of coffee and sat down, the pain had not gone away. If anything, it was getting worse. This was not good. I called my wife Kelly and asked her to come pick me up and take me to the hospital. “No,” she replied, “Call 911; you’re slurring.”

I was? Uh oh. Then I realized I was sweating as well. So I call 911. Pretty impressive service: not only did they know what building I was in, they even knew what floor I was on. Nifty for 90s tech. They arrive and quickly determine I am having a heart attack. Which you have probably figured out by now. They give me nitroglycerine for the pain and oxygen to help me breathe.

Here’s where the supernatural side begins. The next thing that happens is they ask me which hospital I want to go to. They give me two choices; one is closer. I didn’t know about that one, so I chose the one further away. Not rational, but there you go.

So they transport me to the ER. The doctors there verify the heart attack. And apparently it’s a bad one. In fact, it turned out to be a 100% blockage of the left anterior descending artery. They call that the widowmaker. Yeah, that bad.

Next, though, they tell me that the hospital is participating in a drug trial and that I am a candidate for the trial. Moreover, it would mean going immediately into surgery rather than waiting a while as was standard practice. Wait? Why would you wait for heart surgery? I sign up.

So they put me through prep, take me into surgery and do their work. I was awake during the whole thing but inside some massive machine, not quite like an MRI machine but still imposing. I was talking to the surgeons the whole time too via intercom. Totally weird.

Anyway, they perform an angioplasty and insert a stent. A stent is a springy metal coil intended to help keep the artery open. Here are the before and after pictures of my heart:

Quite a difference in just 46 minutes. The effect was startling. I immediately felt great. The nursing staff had to practically tie me down to keep me from jumping around.

The next thing that had to happen though was that Kelly had to call my mother to let her know what was happening. Well, May 7th was the day she was interring my father’s ashes. Not exactly the time you want to hear that your eldest son is seriously ill. But…my cousin (also named John) from San Diego, who happens to be a Johns Hopkins-trained oncologist, had missed the funeral and was attending the interment. He was a friend of the chief cardiologist who was working on me and, as it turns out, was one of the top 5 guys in the US. John was, then, the perfect person to be there that day.

So I stay in the hospital a few days. When I leave I am under strict orders to take it way for a while until I get the all clear to start both normal activities and an improved exercise and diet regimen. It wouldn’t take much to improve either: I wasn’t doing any of the first and my diet was…not great, shall we say.

But that left the problem of the move. I was now on the injured reserve and couldn’t do anything. We still couldn’t afford to pay anyone. Here the people of our church step up. They do it all for us.

The day of the move was May 26th. Here’s where the soccer connection comes in. To keep me out of the way and relaxed, they bring in a couch and a TV and park me with strict instructions to take it easy. Yeah, not so bad other than two things. First, having to move side to side as people walked through the house between me and the TV. Second, because what I opted to watch was the UEFA Champions League final. Manchester United v Bayern Munich. Well, of course I watched that. I’ve been a United fan since I was a kid.

You may know what happened next. Mario Basler put Bayern up a goal after just 6 minutes. Bayern more or less control the game for the next 84 minutes. I’m pretty upset and my wife (and my mother, who had since come over) kept telling me to calm down. Fat chance. A minute into second half stoppage time Teddy Sherringham got the equalizer. I get a tad excited. And when Ole Gunnar Solksjaer scored the game-winner two minutes after that I was bouncing around like a kangaroo, scaring pretty much everyone in the house, most of whom had no idea what I was watching. And I imagine most United fans consider that result the biggest miracle that happened that year!

The result for me of this unlikely sequence of events was that I had virtually no damage to my heart. Which almost never happens. From there I radically change my lifestyle and by the time we moved to Birmingham a year later (we hopped around a lot back then!) I have dropped almost 50 pounds, my knees have stopped hurting and I literally have a new lease on life.

In the summer of 2012 though I start to have chest pains again. I’m much more cognizant of the risk this time, of course. But I drive myself (not smart) from Hoover to UAB hospital where they determine I’m having another heart attack. What had happened was that my system had treated the stent as a foreign body and completely scarred it over, reblocking the artery. This was apparently common before they started coating stents to prevent this.

When the surgeon came in to explain the diagnosis, he was grinning all over his face. “You’re going to need a bypass,” he said. And the reason he was so happy was that because I was looking after myself so well, I would not need open heart surgery and he would get to use his brand new robot on me.

And so he did. I have minimal scarring from the procedure and no serious aftereffects. I had to take it easy again for a while; this time I got to watch the entirety of the Olympics from my home town of London. At least I have great timing.

The healthy lifestyle continues unabated today. At 63 I now weigh 185 pounds, about what I weighed in my mid-teens, my cholesterol count (which was genetic after all) is completely normal and I can run a 5k in under 24 minutes. About the only downside is that I haven’t had caffeine in a quarter century.

All told, a crazy sequence of events and one I continually thank God for.

Praise Him!

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