After surgery, grateful for friends, family, and life

In February, the author traded palm trees and piña coladas for a hospital bed and IV drips at Cooper Hospital, where, coincidentally, she was born 71 years ago.

This may sound strange coming from someone who has just had her sternum cracked open during triple bypass surgery, but I feel I am truly blessed.

In late January, after experiencing several episodes of mild but persistent pain around my breastbone and then undergoing testing, I found myself having to cancel a planned (and prepaid) trip to Florida in order to undergo surgery. I traded palm trees and piña coladas in February for a hospital bed and IV drips at Cooper Hospital, where, coincidentally, I was born 71 years ago.

So why do I consider myself so lucky?

I lost my father and his younger brother to sudden death from heart attack or cardiac arrest almost 30 years ago (Dad died on a tennis court at age 72 and my uncle in his mid-50s while playing volleyball). Considering my poor eating habits, sedentary lifestyle, and genetics (Mom died of diabetes at age 58), I could have met with a similar fate. But I was fortunate enough to have my severely clogged arteries diagnosed and bypassed before I had a heart attack, which could have triggered sudden death.

Now I feel myself growing stronger every day, and look forward to living a normal lifespan. I realize that is something my family members and quite a few acquaintances weren't fortunate enough to experience. For this I praise my cardiac surgeon, Richard Highbloom, as well as my family and friends. While it was the skill of my doctor that saved my life, it was the immediate and constant support from everyone I received that got me through the long and painful recovery that followed. I wasn't expecting a walk in the park, but I was unprepared for the difficult physical and emotional aftermath. There were days when I wondered if it was all even worth it.

Almost immediately, however, I was deluged with a steady stream of visitors, phone calls, cards, emails, texts, flowers, meals, and lots and lots of nourishing soup lovingly made in the kitchens of my friends. It was hard to remain cranky and easy to become grateful for the tremendous support I received, which came from both close and not-so-close friends, as did gift certificates, donations to the nonprofit social service agency I used to work for, a visit from a cousin who drove over two hours to see me, and phone calls and get-well cards from people I haven't seen or spoken to in years, including two college friends from 50 years ago. The show of support brought me to tears more than a few times.

My daughters, close family members, and friends were there for me all the way and didn't give me much time to feel sorry for myself. Their gifts of food greatly helped my overwhelmed husband, who didn't even have to cook or go to the supermarket for over a week after my hospital discharge. And speaking of my husband, he has been by my side constantly, serving as my chauffeur, cook, dresser, housekeeper, morale-booster, cheerleader, and just being there whenever and for whatever reason I need him. I look forward to celebrating 50 years of marriage next September with this man who is the main reason I was able to endure this ordeal.

Like so many people, I was bogged down in the day-to-day minutia and tedium of daily life, and had lost sight of what was right in front of me all the time. I just didn't appreciate it.

First and foremost, there was the lifesaving surgery. Though the effect on my body was the medical equivalent of being run over by a truck, my bypass grafts immediately began to do their job, allowing my blood to flow freely to and from my heart. My 90 percent and 80 percent blocked arteries were bypassed, using the veins and arteries from my own body, and no longer posed a mortal threat. A miracle, no matter how you look at it.

I know it's a cliche, but no one can take good health for granted. And when and if the unexpected or scary comes knocking at our door . . . we need to listen to the messages our body is sending us and take action if need be. Then we must be ready to open that gratitude door and marvel at the gifts of love that people are offering.

And even more important . . . to recognize and appreciate the givers long before we ever even need them.

Sherry Wolkoff is a writer in Marlton.
marksher67@aol.com