I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in Chisholm, Minnesota, a small town about 90 miles south of the Canadian border. Winters were cold, windy and snowy. Cars did not start unless you took the battery in the house every night and even that was no assurance of success. Getting a ride to school was unheard of because like most families we had one car and if it started dad took it to work, so – we walked everywhere (two miles to school, uphill both ways). We learned early that when a blizzard was really howling you just put your head down and pushed forward. Sometimes, when extreme winds left us breathless, we would turn around and walk backwards. They did not cancel school in those days and there was no reward in going home, so we just kept moving. Not much could stop us from getting to where we needed to go.
My reminder of this great life lesson came on November 21 this year. Three months post heart transplant and feeling great, I was walking on the treadmill for an hour a day, doing all the grocery shopping, some light housekeeping and even considering resuming my career. Then, ”Bang” I was hit with one of those breathtaking blizzard winds, I got pneumonia and was hospitalized the night before Thanksgiving.
I had been told several times that because the anti-rejection drugs left me with a suppressed immune system, contracting a “bug” was very likely, but I thought, “I’m doing well, it won’t happen to me.” Well, the something that couldn’t happen, did and my energy level was affected immediately. If you have ever seen snow blowing off the roof of a house, then you know how I felt. All my newfound energy was slowly but steadily drifting away. When I left the hospital after five days, I was almost as weak as I was after my transplant. I don’t know where I would have been if not for my previous three months of cardiac rehab; at least I had some strength to lose.
In the face of this storm, I knew that if I gave in to it, I would jeopardize my new heart. Medicine and technology by themselves cannot make for successful transplants; exercise is a crucial element and must continue regardless of the obstacles. My earlier life experience with snowstorms became relevant again, “Walk backwards if necessary but keep forging ahead.” I’m doing that. Now a couple of weeks after being released from the hospital my breathing is much better and while I’m still recovering from pneumonia I know that turning back is simply not an option.
I’m not perfect and yes, I get discouraged, but thanks to the medical and rehab professionals, my wonderful caregiver wife Robin and my own optimistic attitude I will make it through this storm even if I have to walk backwards to do it.
The lesson for transplant patients is that you will have setbacks but they should be temporary and maybe even motivational. We can’t afford to lose site of the fact that new organs saved our lives. Now, we have an obligation to take care of them. To do anything else is not only self-defeating and deadly, it is an insult to the wonderful donors and their families who gave us a second chance.