This is a long story. It is sincere, raw, and sometimes funny. As with all of my blog stories, I have written it for myself. In this story I remember my life three years ago when I had a heart attack in Budapest, Hungary where I was living at the time.
I survived with God’s grace and the help of gifted professionals, loving family and friends. My recollection may be vital for you to understand about your own mortality and how God is always waiting to hear us and guide us. Sometimes it takes a while (in this case, three years) for the inspiration to write about a subject. I hope you enjoy reading it.
“Where are you from?” the emergency room nurse said in English. Those were the final words I recall as I handed her my passport and passed out at Kozpont Hospital in Budapest, Hungary on June 13, 2018, three years ago. On regaining consciousness, I was met by the Chief of Cardiology. He knew from my passport and belongings who I was and that I was planning to return to the USA in a few days. Thus began a journey that changed my life in several ways.
Two days prior to the beginning of my one month stay in Kozpont Hospital I was exploring ruins at Aquincum, an ancient outpost of the Roman Empire. Aquincum is just outside present day Budapest. I was easily tired and had to frequently stop to feel better. My body was telling me that something wasn’t right but I didn’t listen. “This can’t be my heart,” I told myself.
Having had stents placed in my heart two years prior, I was aware that I have heart disease so on the evening of June 12 I consulted the U.S. State Department website and identified the nearest hospital specializing in cardiac care. I decided that I would go to Kozpont Hospital first thing in the morning if I wasn’t feeling better.
On the morning of the 13th I woke feeling fine and decided to go by the underground metro for my routine cappuccino. This normal trip was to the opposite side of the city.
On leaving the front door of the apartment building, my chest began to feel intense squeezing and I was having difficulty breathing. I was having a major heart attack. Immediately I abandoned the cappuccino idea and in desperation began looking for a taxi to go to the hospital. Luckily, I found one at the Westend Shopping Center three blocks from my apartment.
Because I don’t speak Hungarian, I carried a piece of paper with “Kozpont Hospital” written on it. I gave the paper to the driver and put my hands over my heart. His face turned white as I surmised he thought I might die in his car. He went speeding to the hospital by those backstreets only cab drivers know in order to get me there in a hurry.
On regaining consciousness I met the Chief of Cardiology in the emergency room. “You are fortunate to be here,” he said in English. “Now, you must make a decision. You can leave the hospital and fly to the USA. But if you do, you are likely to die somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.” That didn’t sound too good so I recall thinking that I needed to find out what was behind door number 2. “Or,” he continued, “you can stay here and we will do emergency heart surgery.” I said I would stay. Later on I discovered that the Chief of Cardiology vouched for me to stay a full month in Kozpont (which is also a military hospital) because I am a former U.S. Army officer.
I was very fortunate that my Hungarian landlord, Zsolt Feher, was on top of things concerning my wellbeing. Zsolt speaks perfect English and immediately made critical contacts with my family, friends, and medical staff.
Zsolt kept my family informed about my status throughout the entire month-long ordeal and he brought food, water, and anything I needed. He helped me understand what was happening and what to expect. He was very compassionate and went far beyond what most landlords would do.
In the USA, word had been received that I was in a crisis. I contacted several high school friends in the USA. I talked with Henry Cook and Kathy Lioi about thoughts for the upcoming high school class reunion. They both refocused me on getting well as my top priority. Doug and Linda Berkley got in touch with air ambulance companies as an option to consider to get me home. John Heist was in touch with my brother and posted on Facebook what he was able to learn. Johnny Johnson and I prayed together.
Prayers were uplifted for me by hundreds of people, most of whom I don’t know. Messages of concern, support, and prayer were posted on Facebook. The day prior to my initial surgery my phone was taken from me as I was told my attention had to be on healing and recovery. The phone was considered to be a distraction and to create stress.
I said that I had an experience that was life changing. As if having a heart attack in a foreign country (where very few speak English) was not enough! As I was being wheeled into the operating room, God spoke to me. It was clear as anyone speaking in a calming voice. I know many of you are skeptical of this. But I was told to do two things. I was to not be afraid and I should continue talking with Johnny. Johnny is my long time high school and college friend John Johnson. He is a preacher now in Pennsylvania.
As the time for my surgery was nearing, the healthcare staff prepared me. All the hair from my chin to my toes was shaved off while I was still awake. The doctors didn’t yet know the extent of the damage or what may need to be done. I was put under with a strong anesthetic. My sternum was cut from the bottom up, my chest was opened, and I was placed on a heart-lung machine for what became a four hour triple bypass surgery. My heart was stopped. Several veins were removed from my legs and used for the grafts.
When I regained consciousness the next day, the doctor said, “The bypass surgery wasn’t successful; the surgery has to be repeated.” I never really learned what had gone wrong. Still groggy, my reply was simple… “Okay.”
A young surgeon was placed in charge of my second triple bypass surgery. Prior to doing the second surgery a heart catheterization was performed while I was awake on the operating table. I watched him shake his head from side to side as he viewed a monitor. Blood wasn’t flowing correctly and my heart wasn’t beating properly. He told me that the second procedure was even riskier than the first as he discovered a new blockage at a crucial location. My second surgery in three days wasn’t going to be a slam dunk. The possibility of heart failure, stroke and death were like a minefield for the surgeon.
Following God’s previous admonition to not be afraid, I wasn’t. I was calm and confident. Everything was in his hands as the anesthetic was given for the second time.
When I woke from the second surgery, I was in the intensive care unit. I didn’t care that I was naked. I remember the many machines monitoring me and the nurses taking excellent care of me. And I recall vivid hallucinations as after effects of the anesthesia. I had difficulty distinguishing reality from imagination. My chest was sown together like a Thanksgiving turkey and bandaged. My legs were stitched where the veins had been removed from my knees to my ankles and bandaged too. I mostly slept and was receiving nourishment and pain killers through an IV. Amazingly, I never felt any pain the entire time I was in the hospital.
I lost track of time and I really don’t know how long I was in the ICU. I do remember the day I was moved to a “step down” ward. This was a time when I was aware and wasn’t happy that I had a catheter in me to pass urine.
As I was being moved from the ICU, a member of the Israeli Defense Forces was moved in. He was there because he had a stroke. I saw his wife by herself in a windowed room at a distance. I watched with great sadness as life left this muscular man and he was declared dead.
My doctor in the “step down” ward spoke excellent English. She told me she had talked with and reassured my sister Carol. The hallucinations continued. I wasn’t yet eating and I was still on an IV which continued through the step down phase. I slept a lot and was unsure how long I was there. I recall being moved to another cardiac ward where there were other English speaking patients from elsewhere in the world. Zsolt, my landlord, was able to visit me which was wonderful! My phone was returned and I could tell people that I was alive!
The new ward had a few interesting patients. One man (in the bed next mine) was visited by his wife and a young woman who, by her actions, I was reasonably certain was his mistress. One patient received bad news about his heart and left. An English-speaking sailor awaiting heart surgery didn’t like Americans and refused to talk to me. His wife did, though, and was very comforting toward me. His surgery initially was thought to be successful. But the following day he was told that it did not go well and he was to be sent home; there was no more that could be done.
While in this ward I still had the catheter in me and I wasn’t yet eating any food. During this time a military chaplain began visiting me every few days. He gave me a copy of the New Testament in three languages… English, Hungarian, and Romanian. We prayed together and I looked forward to his visits. Johnny and I spoke often by phone and prayed more. Talking with him was comforting and gave me encouragement. He lifted my spirits. He was assuring me of God’s presence in my life. There was an outpouring of love on Facebook and I tried to respond to each message.
As I improved physically I was moved to other rooms. In one the Hungarian patient next to me spoke perfect English on the phone. He wouldn’t speak to me. I learned he was a high Hungarian governmental official. His reputation was a notorious heavy drinker and womanizer. He came into the hospital often. He propositioned every female nurse and aide who came into the room. One night I awoke to see a shapely female leg sticking out from under the curtain between our beds.
Finally after several days passed, it was time to learn how to eat again. The IV was removed. The darn catheter remained because I wasn’t yet allowed out of bed. Two very young healthcare assistants forced me to learn to eat again. It actually took me a whole hour to eat a burger-sized bun and drink a glass of water!
Having demonstrated that I could sort of eat, the hospital food began to be delivered twice each day. I learned I had to retain some breakfast food for lunch. Zsolt often treated me to Asian and other delicious foods for dinner. Sometimes I looked at the hospital food and couldn’t determine what it was. I didn’t like the unappetizing look, taste or smell. Often it seemed to be ground meat like Spam. I couldn’t eat some of the food and in total I lost 17 pounds while I was in the hospital.
In the third week of my hospitalization I was told it was time to learn how to walk again. But first the catheter had to be removed. I had waited a long time for this day and it was an adventure to remember! One of the nurses seemed to be the specialist in this procedure. OMG!!! The catheter was yanked out and I momentarily stopped breathing and was so stunned I couldn’t move from the intense, sharp stinging caused by snapping it out of me! The nurse, who must have been a descendant of “Vlad the Impaler,” laughed!
A physical therapist came to my room the following morning saying it was time to take a walk. She brought a walker and held tightly onto my pants belt rear. I recall my first 15 steps in several weeks. I remember my first visit the bathroom by myself. I looked into a mirror and saw that I not only needed to shave but also trim the spiking hair growing from my nostrils. I was desperate to shower even if I had to sit on a stool, which I did.
The chaplain and I prayed together three times each week and Johnny and I prayed often by phone too. My son Josh’s pastor called me and we prayed. Prayer became a very important part of my daily life and recovery. I became so grateful to God for each day I was alive.
Zsolt continued to bring water, food and other necessities for me. However, a new problem developed. I hadn’t had a bowel movement in quite some time. X-rays revealed I had “stones” which I interpreted to be kidney stones. But no, the staff meant I was constipated. I was told to bend over and hold a solution bag while a nurse administered an enema to me! She obviously is related to the nurse who removed my catheter as the procedure was quite uncomfortable. But it was necessary and it worked!
In the fourth week I became increasingly mobile. Near the end of the month-long stay some additional decisions had to be made. My European health insurance company said they were not going to pay my bills even though they insured me when I revealed on my application that I had three stents that were two years old. A barrister in London (the insurance company’s headquarters is there) convinced me there was very little chance of prevailing in court. So the hospital charges were mine alone to pay. I was holding my breath about the cost.
As I approached my hospital discharge, I was getting increasingly irritated removing my gown regularly and being poked and prodded 24 hours every day. So I decided to leave my gown off. I was under bed sheets, anyhow. That is another story I have published in my blog when Nurse Etta made a specific requirement that there be “No Nudie in Hospital.” You might guess from the title that I wasn’t appropriately attired at times and that it wasn’t appreciated. She required me to wear pajamas.
A few days after the decision was made to discharge me, I arranged for myself and Zsolt to fly to the USA on July 13, 2018. It was exactly one month after my heart attack. On the evening prior to my discharge day a wheelchair and transport person showed up at my hospital door. I was requested to bring a credit card with me to pay my bill.
In the USA, the entire cost for the hospital stay, this type of surgical procedures, and drugs would likely approach $150,000. The invoice I received was for approximately $16,000. I was relieved and glad my credit card was sufficient to pay the bill.
Zsolt collected me from the hospital and took me to a hotel outside the Budapest airport. He arranged for the Airport Emergency Medical Services to get me through security and into the airplane the following day. You should have seen the look on an inspector’s face when I told him that the little bottle I was carrying was nitroglycerin!
Zsolt and I flew to Philadelphia where we stayed overnight at the Airport Marriott. He remained in Philly and I flew to meet my brother and his wife at the Greenville Spartanburg Airport in South Carolina.
When I landed at Greenville, a wheelchair was waiting for me. I was exhausted and slumping in the wheelchair. The person pushing it was so concerned about my state-of-being and was reassuring me all the way to the car. I was with my family, finally!
I had warned my brother Dave in advance that I had not yet regained control of my bladder and the Jeep was appropriately prepared in case I went (but I didn’t). I stayed at my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Hendersonville, North Carolina, for several months. They took great care of me.
Soon I began to regain strength. My cardiologist authorized 12 weeks of heart rehabilitation exercise and 3 weeks of physical therapy. This part of the journey ended around Christmas. I was once again able to live on my own. However, praying, eating healthy food, taking medications, and exercising became, and continues to be, part of my daily life.
This story is from my experience three years ago. There has been so much outpouring of love from so many people. Three years later I am so moved by everyone who became part of my life. Zsolt and I often exchange messages. He says he will visit me when the pandemic ends and his travel from Hungry is once again possible.
I have also consciously made decisions about my lifestyle, my faith, and placing myself in God’s hands. My longtime friend Johnny Johnson and I talk about faith in God and how thankful we are that our paths have crossed again. We talk at least once each week. I have spoken to his worshippers about this story and testimony. I am alive only because it is God’s will.
Johnny has helped me to know that God has a plan for each of us before it is our time to depart from earth. God’s presence in my life, continued prayers, and resilience became and are a major part of my recovery experience which continues. God gets the glory.
I am alive!