Fifteen years ago on April 19, I had a heart attack about the same time that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building. A medical transport helicopter was lifting off the roof at Miami Valley Hospital when paramedics pulled my gurney out of the ambulance. As they rolled me through the emergency room doors, one paramedic nodded at the chopper and said. “I wonder if they’re headed to Oklahoma City?”
“What happened there?” I asked.
“Big explosion. Nine-story office building. Maybe terrorists.”
From that moment on, my sense of personal fear has been intertwined, inextricably with America’s sense of public terror. I lurched toward cardiac arrest but clung to life long enough for doctors to save me. Later, in the intensive care unit, I heard one nurse say to another, “Keep an eye on this one tonight.” While they watched my EKG on a screen at the nurses’ station, I watched CNN, trying to understand what was happening in the wider world. By the end of April 19, I had survived one more day, but 168 innocent people in Oklahoma City had not.
I’ve told the story of that day in a thousand small stories, but I still haven’t articulated the whole story, the mystery and hard facts of life and death, at my particular nexus of private and public spheres. The closest I’ve come in writing is Not This Pig:
I was 39. I was having a heart attack. As my heartbeat slipped away in the emergency room, I lost consciousness. I felt as if I’d fallen to the bottom of a well. I didn’t see the apocryphal light that others have reported at the edge of death, but I heard a voice. It was my voice. It was saying, “Mark, what the hell are you doing down here?”
After a jolt of atropine, my heart started again and my eyes opened. I heard the emergency physician say, “Mark, come back.”
Then a nurse ran my gurney down the hall to the cardiac catheter lab. Another nurse jogged along side me. She held up a clipboard and explained, “This is a consent form.”
“I can’t see that,” I said.
“That’s OK.” There was something gentle in her voice that I needed to hear then. “It says that you understand and agree to have a heart catheter procedure. Depending on what happens with that, you may go right into surgery. This form also gives your consent for open heart surgery if it’s needed.”
I don’t know how many seconds it took for that to sink in. As I scrawled my signature, illegible in the best of circumstances, I knew that this might be the last decision I would ever make. In that moment, all my dignity as a human being was focused in the simple act of making that decision. Now, and from this distance, you might say that the act of signing a consent form then was purely a formality, something the hospital’s lawyers required in the name of risk management. Had I lost consciousness again, they would do whatever they had to do anyway, whether I signed or not. But I saw it differently. I was being given a choice, and I was determined to choose for myself.
I flirted with tachycardia in the catheter lab. I heard a remote voice on a speaker shout, “De-fib!” The imaging cameras swung out of the way. A nurse came toward me with defibrillator paddles. In an instant I thought, “Settle down, boy, you’re about to get electrocuted.”
My heart settled down. Another voice said, “Wait.” The nurse was close enough for me to see her face and make eye contact, an intimacy I experience but rarely with strangers. I watched emotions race across her face: fear, mercy, resolve to act, relief at not having to do so.
After another hour of clot-busting drugs and angioplasty, my coronary arteries were open again. I was transferred to cardiac intensive care. I felt a fleeting sense of euphoria when I found my children waiting for me there. Read more.
That night my mind was working overtime thinking about unfinished business that I might leave behind. A hospital chaplain calmed me down when he said, “Other people will take care of that for you. Let it go.” Then he crossed an ethical line by reminding me that there are no agnostics in foxholes. I wasn’t ready for the Rapture, either.
“I can’t check out now,” I said. “I’m not done raising these kids.”
When I saw Chenoa and Brendan again that night, I said to them what a father must say when it might be his last words. I loved them. Being their father was my life’s most fulfilling gift.
I held on to that commitment to unfinished business, then, as a way of clinging to life. Sometime after my son reached the age of majority, when we began to address each other as “George” by way of acknowledging our adult bond, I realized that I needed to move the goal posts. I started saying, “I want to live to see my grandchildren.” Now that gift is happening, too, and I need to move the bar again. I’m going to stick around so I can dance at my granddaughters’ weddings.
About the photos: (top) Charles Porter’s photograph of firefighter Chris Fields holding the dying infant Baylee Almon in the wreckage of the Murrah Federal Building won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1996. [Source: Wikipedia]; (above) my daughter Chenoa and granddaughter Teagan [Photo by Miranda Lloyd].