The early spring morning didn’t reflect the shock and turmoil my family experienced after receiving that call from the police. Mom had rushed into my room and started yelling to wake me up. She wasn’t making any sense. All I heard was “Dad,” “heart attack” and “emergency room.” Dad, who doesn’t drive and works as a groundskeeper for a homeless shelter, had suffered a heart attack while walking to work.
He had to be at work before the sun rose. When Dad had felt his heart clench and convulse, he’d tried reaching out to a driver at the stoplight. She must have assumed he was a druggie or one of the homeless men who frequent the area. The woman locked her doors and ignored my father’s cries for help. Luckily for Dad, a police officer noticed his strange behavior and stopped to investigate. When the officer stopped to ask him what was wrong, Dad grabbed his chest and said “My heart” before passing out.
Dad is stocky and not an easy man to lift, but the officer had managed to get him into his vehicle and quickly transport him to the hospital. Because Dad keeps his medical card and emergency phone numbers in his wallet, the hospital staff and police officer were able to call Mom at 3 a.m. on that weekday in May.
I woke my sister up, and Mom called my brother. Neither of my parents drive, and my brother, who is the only other driver in our family, had spent the night at his girlfriend’s house and wasn’t home. So Mom, my sister and I piled into my coupe and I drove to the ER.
I’m not a morning person, so most of the drive was a bit of a blur. I remember feeling shocked and slightly annoyed. Why doesn’t Dad take care of himself? What’s going to happen to us if he passes away or can’t work? Then I was also worried about losing him, too. It was a strange place to be.
When we arrived, Dad had already been into surgery. His case was severe, the doctors said. He could’ve died, they said. All four of Dad’s coronary arteries were blocked. His heart hadn’t been able to take the stress any longer.
“He’ll be in surgery for a while,” the doctors said. “He’s having a quadruple bypass.” They were taking blood vessels from his legs and rerouting his heart with the new vessels. If these replacement vessels get blocked, the doctors told us, there would be no more surgeries in the future. Dad needed to eat better and start exercising.
It would be several hours before we could see him.
I hate emergency rooms and hospitals in general. Because I tend to be healthy and rarely do anything dangerous, I rarely visit the hospital. I hate the smell of the place. The sad shade of green bothers me. But my fear of the hospital paled in comparison to my fear that Dad might not survive this. Surgery was no guarantee he would make it.
I’d gone most of my life without anyone close to me dying. How was I expected to handle it if my father died? What would we do? I felt like I had stepped into someone else’s life. Maybe it’s a flaw, but I distanced myself from pain. It helped me keep a cool head through most of this.
Dad’s surgery ended after the sun had already come up. The doctors told us, “He’s doing fine. The surgery went well, and you’ll be able to see him soon.” I don’t think we got any sleep that day. Because the doctors said Dad would be out for a few more hours, I decided to go to work. Keeping my hands busy seemed more appealing to me than worrying and waiting in the hospital. Mom had decided to stay and wait, of course, and we were only a phone call away from each other. I’d asked my boss if I could visit my dad on my lunch break, so Mom knew I would be back.
Dad’s hospital stay lasted almost two weeks, and he lost a lot of weight. His post-surgery diet consisted of Jell-O and popsicles. Physical therapists had already begun to work with him to get him moving again. He also attended nutrition classes and received a detailed list of what he could and couldn’t eat. My father loves red meat and fried foods. The doctors told him that he would need to cut most of his favorite foods out of his diet, replacing them with leaner meats, whole grains and green, leafy vegetables.
We decided to help Dad get healthy by taking on improved health habits of our own. Before his heart attack, Dad had often been the cook. After his heart attack, we started taking on supper duty. We served baked skinless chicken breasts, steamed vegetables and big bowls of romaine lettuce and chopped vegetables. If Dad told us that he wanted McDonald’s, we told him no. For a while, Dad was following the doctor’s orders. He didn’t even complain.
It’s been two years since Dad’s heart attack. He has regained most of his weight and sneaks a hamburger more often than he should. We scold him, but there isn’t much we can do. Watching him revert to the eating habits that got him in trouble in the first place is frightening. I’ve been attending classes year-round to finish my bachelor’s degree and doing internships, so I’m rarely ever home. I’ve learned that I can’t control what Dad eats.
After Dad’s heart attack, I decided to become a vegetarian. I’m not fond of beef or pork anyway, so giving those up wasn’t difficult. Letting go of chicken has been a struggle, though. The majority of the time, I eat vegetables. I’ll eat vegetables raw, steamed, sauteed, barbequed, baked into casseroles and tossed into salads. Occasionally, I sneak a piece of chicken, and I still eat fish. By avoiding the kinds of foods that clog arteries, I’m hoping that I will never go through what my dad suffered. I want to be healthy and strong well into my fifties and sixties (and hopefully, look years younger too!).
I’m making changes in my life. Preparing for a healthy future is a constant battle. I need to get back to exercising regularly. My schedule has gotten so busy that I rarely work out. But all I have to think about is the pain on Mom’s face when she heard the news about Dad, and it’s enough to motivate me to be healthy for as long as I can.