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Surviving Heart Failure
It is not supposed to happen when you are only forty-three years old. It was late June in 1995, two months after I received tenure with distinction at Rutgers University. I was based at the Camden campus and lived in Philadelphia. I had worked very hard for tenure, perhaps too hard. My third marriage went as tenure came. I was now living alone.
The walk around the corner from my third floor apartment in the University City area in West Philly to the neighborhood grocery store was less than five minutes, and in the slowest of times, in fresh snow, it should be no more than ten minutes. But there I was walking for nearly twenty minutes and hardly halfway to the store. There was sludge where air should have been, and I felt like my inside world was turning into cement. That night I could not sleep unless I was sitting up, propped with pillows behind me.
The next day was Sunday, and I had planned to go to church, six blocks away from where I lived. Thinking that I had some kind of respiratory problem, I took a taxi to Hospital University of Pennsylvania or HUP, although it was easily within walking distance in the best of times. The walk to the store the night before had been much too long, so I thought that taking a taxi would save time. I could get something for this awful cold or slight pneumonia and then still make it to the morning services. However, when the time came for the morning services I was in the intensive care unit (ICU), HUP’s intensive care unit. I was in the onset of congestive heart failure or CHF.
CHF is congestive failure of the heart, and you can think of congestive in terms of traffic. If you imagine your heart as a major intersection between two interstate highways in Texas with the several levels intersecting and looping, congestive failure is the overloading of all the ramps so that the central function of this intersection, or your heart in this case, is slowed down to where all roads leading into and out of our heart are weighed down with their own business, and that business is the flow.
Most important in the case of the failing heart is that the fluids back up into your lungs until you are essentially drowning in your own fluids. My blood pressure was higher than it had ever been. I had been diagnosed with hypertension in my twenties and I took the medication fof awhile until I started doing Taiji and was able to normalize my pressure, but I was living in Baltimore at the time and working as a factory laborer. Leaving that life and going into sedentary academia was such a traumatic shift that I fell away from my Taiji practice and gained a good deal of weight, going up to 264 pounds in the year before my heart failed and weighing in at 240 at the time it failed. Much like the intersection of the highways the heart manages the traffic of your body and thus your life. The flow of blood is also the flow of events in your life, and bad stress can make a mess.
In ICU the fluid was drained from my lungs with intravenous doses of Lasix, and I was wheeled into a room where later that week I would watch the 4th of July fireworks from a window with one of the nurses standing with me. After three marriages, I was depending on the kindness of a woman I did not know. She helped me to the window and then back to my bed. I could barely walk. I was there for one week and then sent home with a prognosis as heavy as the weight of all those cars in the highways in Texas. When I asked one of the attending cardiologists about the seriousness of it all, I asked him to be straightforward with me.
He said, “We’d like to think that we can keep you stable, that is where you are, with the medications you’re taking now, and if so you have about five years. To increase your chances of living beyond five years you will need another heart. We want to put you on the transplant list.”
Afaa Michael Weaver is a highly respected poet, playwright, author, and journalist. Visit his website here for details about his published works and other events. Stay tuned right here for the next installment of his story of surviving CHF.