Twenty years ago on this day, my life was extended and I was changed forever.
I had recently returned from Ekaterinberg in eastern Russia. There a few University of North Carolina colleagues and I had visited Ural States University to work with journalism students, faculty and media officials in the city, all of whom were new to western principles of a free press, showing how to put them into practice and how to each about this to their students. During that visit, my heart began sending me messages following brisk morning walks from our hotel to the campus. Those warnings became more urgent on my return to Chapel Hill. A short walk down the driveway to get the mail left me winded. Then one January evening after dinner, Betsy found me lying across the bed. Here is an excerpt of my account of what happened next in my book “Jumping with Mixed Feelings”:
“What’s wrong?” she asked anxiously.
“I had to quit brushing my teeth,” I replied. “It was wearing me out.”
Our family doctor scheduled a cardiac catheterization the next day. It showed major blockage in three main coronary arteries. Suddenly, I was scheduled for bypass surgery.
Ever since our arrival in Chapel Hill in 1977, Betsy had worked as an editorial assistant in the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery of UNC’s School of Medicine, editing medical journal articles, textbooks and chapters, grant proposals and other papers written by the division’s team of heart and lung surgeons. Several top-flight heart surgeons populated the division. Betsy approached Peter Starek, who had been performing coronary bypass procedures for about 25 years, and he readily consented to lead my surgical team.
A nagging post-nasal drip postponed my scheduled operation for a week, then on the morning of Jan. 31, 1997, I was wheeled into surgery thinking, “This could me my last conscious moment ever.” More than seven hours later, I awoke groggily in a post-op recovery room. Dr. Starek and his team had bypassed seven vessels, a record for UNC Hospitals.
Dr. Starek graciously invited Betsy and our daughters to spend the long day in his office in UNC’s Burnett-Womack Building, where a video monitor high on the wall allowed them to see and hear the entire procedure. They couldn’t see much, but Betsy later reported that they were relieved that they never once heard rising voices or any evidence of tension or matters going badly.
Six weeks later, I was back in the classroom, teaching, and that spring, played a minor role in the Durham Savoyards’ production of “Utopia Unlimited.” UNC’s cardiac rehabilitation program helped me back onto my feet.
But my view of life, of everything, had changed. Every new day was a gift to be cherished, every encounter an opportunity. I was still alive and so grateful for every new day. I found myself appreciating everything, especially the people in my life.
So today, January 31, 2017, I invite you to celebrate with me an important anniversary: 20 years of a life extended by a skilled and compassionate surgeon and his team. Words can’t fully express my gratitude. What a blessing.