I am the senior chaplain at Auburn Memorial Hospital and coordinating chaplain at Auburn Correctional Facility. I have been in and/or around or lived with health care (my wife, Carole, is a registered nurse) for more than 30 years.
How each person handles questions about health care is very personal, but there are some similarities due to personality styles and social experiences. I am putting pen to paper as it were in order to share a recent personal experience with people in the hope that my experience might serve to help others make critical and timely choices. Let me add at this point that just because I am the one helping others to cope with life and spiritual issues and fears does not necessarily mean that I can apply that to my own life in an effective way in every given situation.
On Monday, Sept. 26, I was packing my bag, preparing to leave for a weeklong conference in western New York for New York State Catholic Corrections Chaplains. I felt an odd tickle (literally) on the front of my chin. In retrospect, I might call it a gentle “whisper” (see 1 Kings 19:9 — 13 NIV) This, and an odd sense of something not being right were the only things that I observed or felt that day. I had no previous symptoms of any kind in terms of suspected ill health. Four years ago, I had undergone bariatric gastric bypass surgery — this in spite of my virtually paranoid fear of needles and pain — and I subsequently lost more than 150 pounds. This wonderful surgery, a gift of new life and stamina, may have played a huge role in saving my life.
When I first noticed this “tickle,” it struck me as odd and I sat down for a few minutes to see if resting a bit would influence it. I had come to believe that if you were having a heart attack (don’t ask me why I thought about heart attack) due to overexertion, resting could make the symptoms go away (wrong) — I also knew that one should take an aspirin at the first sign of a heart attack (right), which I did not do (wrong) — I called another chaplain, who was on the planning committee for the conference, and told her that I would probably be there later but that at this moment I felt that I had a medical issue that I just needed to have someone look at (right).
By the time I arrived at Auburn Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Care Unit (ECU) at about 1:45 p.m., I had been feeling the tickle for about 20 minutes. (Note: I was not out of breath, short of breath or experiencing any classic symptoms.) I was beginning to feel a little foolish. I actually thought about just telling them - sorry, I made a mistake and need to go. But, I didn’t. Some inner urging, some unheard small voice was telling me to stay put. That gentle whisper again?
The initial tests seemed to confirm that I was being foolish and wasting everyone’s time (and my own money, already paid out for the conference that was beginning to look like I might actually miss at least part of). This was the point that the medical staff, charged with the care of the person who has come to them with concerns, stepped up. My ECU doctor urged me to stay. In fact, he came in and said they were going to admit me for observation and possibly send me to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse tomorrow for further testing. Whoa! Not so fast! I had just been told that my electrocardiogram (EKG), a test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of your heart, was normal and the initial blood tests were normal. And, remember, I had that conference to get to.
The doctor explained that the initial blood work could be normal, even though there is an underlying problem. The telltale changes in enzymes often take up to six or seven hours to show up. He urged me to at least remain in the ECU if I wasn’t willing to be admitted, so that they could take another test at about 6:30 p.m. to see if my enzymes had changed. OK, I said, fair enough — but by this time, I had not had any feelings of discomfort since 2:15 p.m. and I had never felt pain — so I was not happy — but there was that gentle whisper which was still keeping my attention and somehow, I listened. About 6:30 p.m., they took another blood sample. About 7:15 p.m., the doctor came in and said that they were going to transfer me to St. Joseph’s! Wait! What happened to check the blood? What happened to my options? What happened to my input? I was hearing words but not ideas — I was in “fight or flight” mode!
With further explanations by the doctor, Carole and I became convinced of the potential heart trouble that I had experienced. We informed the ECU physician that I had a cardiologist — I had undergone a nuclear stress EKG four years earlier in preparation for the bariatric gastric bypass surgery — he contacted him, he accepted me as his patient and I was transferred to Crouse in Syracuse.
My cardiologist came in to speak with me on Tuesday morning. He went through a number of scenarios. And while I truly did not want to undergo a “cardiac cath” (a process that involves threading a catheter through an artery up to the heart and then having dye injected so that a doctor watching live X-ray can see the blood flow through the heart and its arteries), I decided (listening to that gentle whisper again) to go ahead with the procedure.
I was honestly fascinated as I watched the unfolding of the video images above my head. That’s my heart! All of my questions, fears and concerns faded as I became absorbed with the drama unfolding before me. I asked if this all meant I needed stints (small wire mesh tubes that would be inserted via the catheter and expanded at the site of the blockage to open the artery). The reply sent me back into “fight or flight” mode on the spot. “No, there is way too much to consider stints, you will need bypass surgery. Probably five bypasses but at least four. The surgeon will have to determine that once he is in your heart.”
There is an old saying: There are no atheists in foxholes. No matter what you say you believe, you cannot be absolutely sure until tested. Well, here I was facing what could be the end of my life (nevermind the 98-percent success ratio — remember, I was hearing words, not ideas) and somehow it seemed to me that God should be doing a better job of protecting and comforting me with happy and peaceful thoughts.
I met the cardiothoracic surgeon who spent as much time as I needed to have in order to understand. He also said he wanted to come back later that day and talk with Carole so she could ask any questions and be reassured. I felt reassured, but back in “fight or flight” mode and looking to God for some “handwriting on the wall” (See 1 Chronicles 28:19 NIV), some sort of direct reassurance from the Boss, so to speak.
After the doctor left, I decided to take a walk around the unit floor and as I came around the corner by the elevators, a priest was getting out of the elevator. I ask him if he was a chaplain or just visiting. He smiled and said that he was just there to visit a patient. I thanked him and began to resume my walking. He called after me and asked: What can I do for you? How can I help? I simply replied that I wished to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. He immediately said: Are you ready? We can do it now.
We sat down right there in the hallway on a bench by the elevator, I celebrated the sacrament and he gave me absolution and a blessing. I felt much more peaceful and happily introduced myself to him. “Hi, thanks, I’m Deacon John Tomandl. I’m a little nervous and concerned, as I have just been told that I need bypass surgery and may require five bypasses for my heart.” He responded with an immediate smile and reached out to shake my hand. “Deacon, glad to meet you. I’m Father Tom (I never did learn his last name) and I’ve had six bypasses and now have a pacemaker!”
Well, I had wanted God to break into my life in an extraordinary way. I believe that God did just that! So God was listening! God not only cared — after all, remember the gentle whisper? — but, God wanted me to know that God cared and that everything would be OK.
The remaining time up to the surgery flew by and the day dawned (for me) about 5 a.m. After some preliminary preparations, a wheeled stretcher took me from my room at Crouse Hospital to SUNY Upstate Medical University’s surgery preparation area. The time from when I was rolled into the preparation area for surgery until the following morning (Saturday, Oct. 1) at about 5 a.m. is nowhere in my memory. This was the goal of the anesthesiologist, and she met it perfectly!
From the time I became aware that the surgery was over until I was discharged to home was only about 80 hours! Saturday, the breathing tube was removed. By Sunday evening, I had been visited by my wife and sons, fellow chaplains, friends and family. On Tuesday, Oct. 4 (St. Francis day! The loving deacon!) I was discharged to the love and care of my family and was home by 1 p.m.
My recovery continues, but I am confident that I will be back offering whatever spiritual support and pastoral care I can to those who are facing the unknown, dealing with fear or pain very soon.
I can only urge everyone who reads these reflections to check out those unusual pains or changes to normal bodily functions sooner, rather than later. I believe that God has given each of us certain gifts and graces. We each use them for the good of others within the context of our daily lives. God has given someone the talents and gifts to help you — please don’t let fear keep you from that help!