For the past two weeks, I’ve suffered from a surprising physical ailment that not only rendered me incapacitated, but forced me to into some needed depths of focus and renewal. It began over the course of my finals, crunching away on papers up in my office, I began to feel tight chested and struggled to get my deep breath. One time I felt so faint, that I had to lay on the floor to avoid crashing into the bookshelves. I didn’t know what was going on, it was just the beginning.
For the next few nights, I would go to bed, but as soon as my body would begin to relax and really rest, my heart would begin to palpitate. Usually this hasn’t been a big problem, it’s a pretty common thing in my family, and usually means I need to cut back on the caffeine. This time however, it persisted so strongly that as soon as I began to drift off, I would startle myself back awake, usually gasping for air. Sometimes, the lack of oxygen feeling was so intense that it felt like when you are swimming under the water and are in that panic when you can’t reach the top quick enough. This caused me to begin sleeping on the couch, upright, as it was the only way I could find sleep.
At first, in talking with one of our Board directors, who is a seasoned surgeon, we tried the breathing route, getting an inhaler mask (nebulizor) which is really more for constricted airways, like asthma which I’ve had small bouts with in the past. That didn’t seem to work. After about a week of struggling with this, panic set in, and compounded everything. I believe it was stress, poor nutrition and lack of exercise that was the root of all these problems that acted like the perfect storm over the past several months. What was usually a nighttime problem was now beginning to seize up on my days, and for a few days I truly couldn’t rest, or breath properly. I felt my body very tense, and though I was trying to rest, the mind was actively filling me with dread of what was truly happening inside my lungs and heart. I needed to go to Kyiv to a proper hospital, but where? We’re not in the US or Canada were you can pretty much guarantee a standard procedure on most medical emergencies. Here, I’d bet you could go to 10 clinics and come out with 10 solutions and medications. The other day a friend when to our local clinic and with a prescription to the local pharmacy – the lady behind the counter shook her head and disagreed with the doctor’s prescription and gave her instead what she suggested.
I decided, after informing our Board and some close friends for prayer, to go to Kyiv and visit the American Medical Center. I’ve been there before, they speak english well, language isn’t something you want to be guessing with when it comes to your heart right!? I didn’t have insurance, so I was just hoping things would work out, and at this point, I started to think it really wasn’t even going to matter. I felt fairly helpless, and hopeless. The more I read about my symptoms the more I was convinced that I had had a heart attack – one of the signs of this is dread, so that convinced me even more!
My first round of testing didn’t show anything urgent, but I did find high blood pressure and cholesterol. I wasn’t surprised, and this was something the Lord was already working on me for the past several months, I felt his warnings at times when I’d eat a bag of chips or sit for 5-6 hours straight without getting up, or drinking anything. I knew I was stressing and pushing my body too hard, but it’s how I’ve lived for the past 20yrs… I’m no longer 20 however, and I was starting to break. Anyway, I took a 24hr heart monitor (halter) and stayed over night in Kyiv by myself. It’s a solid 3-4 hour trip to just go in and out of the city and I was determined to get answers. I came back the following day and the reported to me that the halter didn’t work! They said I’d have to do it again!
With Deb in the city with me this time, I did the 24hr monitoring again. I had a wonderful sleep that night, almost sleeping the entire night without an episode. I thought, “great, they will think I’m crazy, my heart is acting normal with this thing on!”. I returned the halter to the clinic. After a few hours the doctor contacted me and informed me that they found a heart arrhythmia and that I needed to see a cardiologist, but that couldn’t happen until the next day. We decided to return home, which I think was a mistake in my condition. We started back home, Deb driving behind me in her car (my truck was at a mechanic, always multitasking.. )
It was the most surreal trip of my life. First of all, I was struggling to breath, and the trip became very difficult. A few times I had to slow down, worried that I might faint or crash into another car. As I got about 20 minutes to my house, I just broke. These weren’t tears I’ve cried before. I was convinced that I was not going to make it, I had reached my physical end and after a solid week of struggling didn’t feel any hope towards healing. I began to think of my wife, my children, and began praying for them like I’ve never prayed – it was the kind of depth of prayer that moved my heart (I think both my hearts!). I was letting go, and embracing surrender, and my faith was emerging into something fresh again, but at the moment, it just felt like a deep, deep valley.
As I reached my house, I turned off the truck and continued to weep. I couldn’t open the door, or think to stand up. I then heard Claire on the deck, she was yelling, happy to see me and ran down to meet me. I thought, “Oh Lord, don’t let her find me here dead!” I really felt like was dying. I managed to get out of the truck, walk to meet her and sat on the steps of my house where I hugged this little beautiful thing like it was the last time. I realize as I type this it sounds so dramatic, but I want to record this, it was such a meaningful moment for me. Claire knew something was going on, she hugged me back and I heard her say, “Daddy, you are crying because you are so happy to see me?” “Yes Claire, I am so happy to see you!”. After a while I was able to see straight, I was breathing normally, and went to the house.
That evening, I had the worst bout of breathing and around 3am I really felt as thought I was dying again – it was the longest night, the most scariest night of my life. Some of the drugs were having an effect on me, causing me to both be sleepy but also I was so light headed that I began to feel as though I was leaving my body. My heart was doing its crazy thing, and I was afraid to fall asleep, being almost certain I was not going to wake up. For almost a whole I week I was thinking of nothing but my breathing, like I was manually regulating my body and it was wearing me out, literally. I had another close encounter with the Lord, as I began to see a storm, waves and a boat. The disciples thrashing around yet Jesus sound a sleep. This picture wafted through my soul and I spoke out loud, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, in the storm” … I kept repeating this, over and over, quietly, as a prayer, as a plea, are you with me?
The next morning I awoke. I couldn’t hardly believe I was still alive. It was hard to describe to Deb, as it is to type. We all have ‘close calls’, and I’m sure some of you that might read this have had similar experiences of ‘letting go’ and feeling all hope it lost. I have always believed, cognitively that to die is gain, to leave this world is to enter a better reality, an eternal one. I’ve bravely held on to this as we’ve navigated through Ukraine seasons, and a missional life for Jesus. All that ‘bravery’ was lost, it dissipated like a early morning mist in this trial of the past few weeks. I have been lumbering through my life, caring little about my personal, and holistic well being, with the attitude of “Jesus, take me when you want, I’ll be happy to leave this world!” I have come through a storm of sorts that has shaken me to the core, a core that has revealed that I DO want to live, that I am not finished, and the next life can wait!
That day I returned to Kyiv, and God gave me a really cool cardiologist that took interest, and care of me. He performed stress tests, sonograms and more blood work. He was able to immediately recognize and get to know my particular rhythm issue, and prescribe some meds that immediately knocked it out – I haven’t had any sleeping or problems for now almost 3 days. I still have some breathing issues, but I believe the root of stress was driving all of this, stress on a body that needed to be honored, cared for and who’s limitations are now more clearly defined. I can’t sit for more than a few hours on a computer anymore, not because I can’t, but because it’s not good for me. I’m now walking 2-5km per day, and eating as well as my wife (which is not an easy task!). I haven’t had chips (favorite lifetime snack!) for over week, or coffee. The transition into a more holistic lifestyle as an act of worship is a challenging one for me, a new mental model, but one that I am committed to.
When I was on the stress test treadmill thing, I heard in my Spirit, “I love all of you, your body too.” I almost started crying in that moment, but thought that would be a little strange! Our creator knows our frame, our molecules and vessels. He knows how they all work together, a divine and mysterious symphony. I see that now, or rather, feel it. I can’t read and develop my mind as an investment into my calling to love others and at the same time abuse my body, or neglect it’s most basic needs. We are woven together, our body, mind, spirit, into one magnificent soul. Is my soul healthy? Is yours? What will it take for us to delete the false dichotimany of our flesh being unworthy of attention? I realize we’ll get a new body, and this one is truly fading away – mortality will put on immortality! At the same time, God has designed for us an experience in this short moment of time we have on earth – I want to live more wholly, embrace my children and grandchildren and when the Lord determines to take me, it’s not because I’ve been abusing it, but rather it truly is my time.
To live is to breath. To be present, caring for ourselves in the moments we are given, as we care about and for those around us. Our spiritual lives, as well as our physical are no independently functioning, we are are the vine, breathing and alive only as much as we are held together. He is with me in the storms, He sustains, upholds and I have little to fear but the loss of His dear presence. His promise, that He will never leave, Lord help our unbelief, and prepare us each to die well, without regret.
I’m so thankful for those God gave us to support in prayer. I’m full of fresh gratitude for my wife, who graciously lived with, alongside, and supported me these past two weeks. She took on many of my responsibilities and is so strong. We are now trying to regroup, pack for Canada this Friday, and our month long journey which I had long given up on believing would happen. Thank you for continued prayer, I have one month on this heart rhythm medication, and in the meantime strengthening my heart and lowering blood pressure/cholesterol. I am cutting back on my Fuller course load as well, I had doubled up for the past 6 months when Covid hit, but then life got rolling again, new building project, and some new ministries sprung out and I really got in over my head. I’m learning how to do less, do it better, and care for my body, for my family, the Lord, and myself. Thank you for the lessons, dear Lord.