From Open Heart Surgery To Polar Excursion

I remember the first time I experienced an approaching Michigan winter. I say approaching as it was only November; the reality was to come.

I had gone for a late afternoon walk and returned chilled and grumpy. My wife, who is a Michigan native, smiled bemusedly as I ranted through frozen lips about the extreme cold – an icy 37 degrees!

Ah, the passage of time. Now I would consider this to be shorts weather, if the sun was shining. I certainly would go to the mailbox in a t-shirt.

But, back then, my Australian blood had only been slightly thickened by the previous 10 years in California, northern California at that.

However, all my dislike for the cold changed one fateful day when I received an email informing me of a 300-kilometer dog sled Polar Expedition in April 2018 in Norway. Suddenly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea.

Les 1Had the cold been that damaging to my body that some 15 years later, I lay awake at night dreaming of going on a 300-kilometer Polar Expedition and even sleeping outside, without a tent, one night to see the Northern Lights?!

“Why?” A question my wife asked me, then said she would support me if I never complained about the cold again. Some people know how to drive a hard bargain.

There’s also more to the story.

The surgery
2016 was a rough year. I had a hacking cough, bronchitis and pneumonia, got rid of the cough and then had it return. With colleagues and family encouragement I had had enough and, on Easter Sunday, I went to urgent care to get the cough fixed. My wife pushed them to check my heart. I was sent directly to the emergency room at the local hospital.

I don’t like hospitals, although I greatly appreciate the nurses and doctors, just not the experience. Unfortunately, my preferences were irrelevant. Numerous tests, needles and machines indicated my heart was shutting down. Not only was my body failing me, my ego was shattered. I considered myself fit, well, at least I had been. I had run half-marathons, done a three-day adventure race across Michigan moving nonstop for 77 hours with only 75 minutes of sleep. I rode, I paddled, I swam, I ran; I was healthy – so I thought.

I had always wondered why my heart rate at times would spike to 200-plus beats yet I felt nothing, not breathless, not unable to talk. I sensed it might have been a valve that got stuck open then flopped back or, hopefully, nylon rubbing across the heart monitor, statically charging it causing a false reading. Yes, that must be it; it could not be me. But it was.

There is not much comfort in being fit and dying. I was born with a bicuspid valve and over the years my arteries became blocked. We found out the true state of my heart after being taken by ambulance to the Cleveland Clinic. I had never been in an ambulance before, and after that very lengthy, bumpy and uncomfortable journey, I have crossed that experience off my bucket list.

Les 2With the brilliant and very extensive care of the Cleveland Clinic, it was discovered my body had done an amazing thing. My ‘widow-maker’ artery was completely blocked – 100 percent – and it had created its own bypass, probably due to extensive exercise. As a form of heart rehabilitation it was, unfortunately, rather limited. That artery was fine, but three others were very blocked. Fortunately, I have never had a heart attack. However, my heart valve was barely functioning, pumping blood up and letting most back. Without treatment, it was terminal.

I must point out that there are some positives to being drugged, although I am not recommending it. I barely heard any other this, however, my family did and were devastated. I blithely lived in some space not closely related to reality.

Oh yes, my aortic root also needed replacement, and my heart was in atrial fibrillation. Apparently, my response to hearing my aortic root was to be repaired with Dacron impressed me. I had been a sailor, a passionate windsurfer and lived on an ocean-going yacht in San Francisco for many years, all places where Dacron, a form of sailcloth, was common. As I look back, I wonder if I was living in an alternate universe.

The surgery went well, all eight-and-a-half hours of it. The recovery was unpleasant, but the care and love of family, friends and colleagues exceeded anything I have ever experienced.

So now, I am looking ahead. The road is rough, at times, but there is a road ahead. The love, the care, the attention I received is truly beyond words. I have been given life. The doctors said without surgery I would be dead.

My favorite quote, of the moment, is “it is not the number of breaths you take but what takes your breath away.”

The expedition
So here we are, back to reading the Polar Expedition email. I glanced at it, but moved on to the next email promising me a bargain for something I did not need. But the seed was planted. I had not deleted that email and I began to dream about it. Could I do it? I did not like the cold and I felt it more now than before. Was I fit enough?

LesIronically, I found more information about the excursion on a website for people who had open-heart surgery. Many, though not all, were doing Ironmans (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon 26.2 miles.). If they could do that, I could do a 300-kilometer Polar Expedition. I also think working so closely with the dogs, feeding them, teaming with them and bonding with them will be a unique and profound experience. The dogs are all trained, I am sure I will be as well, by the organizers and the dogs. My own dog, Atticus , a border collie, will not be impressed if he cannot go. I have not told him about it – yet.

I applied to join the group. To be a member, you must have had open-heart surgery. This must be one of the most uncomfortable initiation rites of any Facebook group.

And then I applied to go on the Fjallraven Polar Expedition.

Why do I want to do this?
For a number of reasons. To give thanks to all the people who blessed me with their love and wishes when I was going through the surgery and recovery. To show what is possible to myself, and hopefully, in some way, to others. To celebrate the surgery that gave me my life back as the expedition concludes almost a year to the day I was wheeled out of the hospital into the sunlight and my new life.

Life is precious. I have broken my back mountain biking, cracked my ribs in crashes, dislocated my shoulder wave jumping and broken my tailbone motorcycle racing. But they were all accidents. This time the danger came from within. My heart, my essence, was damaged. Now it is healthier, maybe not cured, but healthier, and it wants to live, to experience the world and to encourage others to do the same.

There are two opportunities to go on this Polar Excursion; one to win the popular vote, the other to be selected by the organizers.

To go on this adventure is a celebration of life. I am nervous. I want to be a team player and a positive contributor to everyone and everything: people, dogs and the experience. I want to ensure I take full advantage of the opportunity. The nervousness, the apprehension adds to the wonder of it all. Overcoming this and experiencing the expedition in its entirety will be life changing for me.

I would be so grateful if you would vote for me by clicking the link below. The voting ends Dec. 14.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope my story inspires you to embrace your adventures in whatever form they may be.

Best wishes,

Les Howard
Oakland Schools Literacy Consultant (Instruction and Pedagogy)
Voice of Oakland Schools Literacy podcasts

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