Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Bonus Year

This story begins with a phone call.  Not a phone call like -- "you're hired!" or "you've won a million dollars!"  More like a phone call when the phone rings in the middle of the night and your heart stops knowing bad news.  A call you never want to get.

Last March I was up at Mount Desert Island Bio Labs helping with a course over spring break.  It was winter's last gasp; I'd gone for a midday run as snow flurries fell and the thermometer dropped.  We'd had dinner, I'd hung out with our students for a little bit, played my uke for a while, and talked to Damon on the phone, and headed to bed.  I was just drifting off to sleep when the phone rang -- at 11:30, not a good thing.  I thought it must be Damon forgetting I went to bed earlier than him -- and it was indeed Damon.  He knew he was waking me up though, and he didn't have good news.

"I don't want to you drive home now," he said, very calmly, "but I'm in the hospital."

Damon hadn't been feeling well all week, it turns out.  And it turns out he was having a heart attack.  At 44.  He wasn't overweight.  We didn't eat terribly.  He exercised, walking to work religiously.  His genes betrayed him, though; early onset cardiac disease runs in his family.

As you can imagine, I drove back that night, despite his asking me not to.  Those snow flurries had transformed into a full-fledged snow storm, but there was no way I was going to be able to sleep.  I left a cryptic note for everyone at the lab, packed my uke, and stopped in Ellsworth for gas and some Red Bull -- just in case.  Then I slowly made my way south.  The last thing we needed was for me to get into a wreck.

By the time I got home, they'd moved him to Portland.  I found the house ablaze with lights and doors left open, plus a confused dog.  I got a couple of hours sleep, dropped Dory with a very helpful kennel staff, and headed to Maine Medical Center.  Damon was just going for a catheterization, but I caught him on his way out.  There was blockage; there was a stent; there were surprised looks on everyone's faces when they found a regular old 44-year old in the cardiac unit.  I didn't know quite what to think, but I knew what to say -- no matter what happened, I would be by Damon's side.  That "for better or worse thing" was meant for moments like this.

It's been a year since that day, and we are making the best of our second chance.  Modern medicine is amazing, and Damon is as good as new.  We believe it was the best thing that could have happened to us.

Ain't he a handsome bugger?
 What do you do when life gives you a pass?

1)  Don't blow it.  There's been a lot of change in our lives.  Diet, of course.  We're meat minimizers now. We still eat meat very occasionally, but when we do, it's lean meat and not very much.  You're more likely to see beans on our plates.  (I must say, I love Damon but yeah, he's become very gassy.  Don't tell him I said that.)  And veggies -- once just a side dish, now a central part of the meal.  Cheese?  Well, it's been a while since we saw that.  I don't miss it, especially since we discovered cashew cheese, my absolute favorite.  Eggs?  Sorry yolks, you're off the menu.  And Damon's gotten really, really serious about exercise.  He placed fourth in his age class at the National Snowshoe Racing Championship just a couple of weeks ago.  Not bad for a cardiac patient.

Sailing in Florida.  His natural element.
2)  Love your friends and family  I know, we say it all the time; friends and family are the really important things in life.  But it's easy to overlook them in the busy work world.  So; for all you people out there who've touched our lives -- thank you!  If I haven't said it enough; we love you.  Now, let's get together and have some fun; good conversation; and good (healthy of course) food and drink.

Okay, maybe THIS is his natural element instead!  Our friends Ken and Kathy in Rhode Island.
3)  Dream  You don't get any younger; only older.  So we're working on making dreams a reality.  What do a couple of marine biologists dream of?  Setting sail, of course; seeing the world; meeting more wonderful people; living simply as we travel.  We have a date in mind and we're starting to look at boats.  Pennies are being pinched and equipment acquired.  We call it "pretirement" and we're actively working to make it happen.  I'll write about it when it does!

A picnic at Wolfe Neck after a long day at work.  The bottle of wine is well hidden!
4)  Thank a scientist.  .  Back in the day, Damon would now be a crippled, cautious man, old before his time.  Or maybe I'd be a widow.  My own grandfather died a relatively young man (before I was born) of a heart attack.  But modern medicine has provided doctors with tools that allow heart patients to reduce damage to the heart during a heart attack, open blocked arteries, and reduce the chances of worsening blockage.  And there are a ton of exciting new ways to understand heart disease -- for example, maybe it's linked to bacteria in our gut that produce a compound called TMAO (linked with heart disease) when we eat meat.  Vegans don't have the bacteria, since it thrives on meat, so they have removed one path to cardiac disease.  I find the current distrust of scientists in America surprising, since they've given us so many tools for understanding our world and our bodies.  So THANK YOU, scientists.  Biomedical engineers, medical researchers, physiologists, and even you microbiologists.  Damon is still kicking around thanks to you.  We'll try to live up to your expectations.  (Now, get back to work.  There's so much more to do!)

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