The Miracle of My Heart Failure

On Sunday, March 16, 2014, I concluded two morning services at 7 City Church followed by a great lunch with several new guests. I walked back to my car at a brisk pace when I suddenly felt the cold air burn my lungs. It felt strange, but nothing alarming. Little did I know that my journey toward congestive heart failure had begun.

Actually, the journey started 15 years earlier when I was diagnosed with Mitral Valve Prolapse, a condition that affects approximately three percent of the population where the flaps of the Mitral valve don’t properly close. While first detected during a normal doctor visit, my doctor told me I may have been born with the defect. The situation wasn’t life threatening, and he recommended an annual check-up to monitor my condition.

After several years, a daily medical prescription was added to my routine along with an annual EKG and Echocardiogram (and sometimes others tests, too). Year after year the results were the same: no change. That was a good thing. My doctors said eventually I would need surgery, but there was no need for surgery until noticeable changes in my condition became evident. My last heart check-up was just nine days before the events of March 16th. Again, “all was well.”

On that Sunday afternoon, things took a very sudden and unexpected change. I went home from a great morning at 7 City and tried to get some rest. As the evening progressed, I wondered if I might be coming down with the flu.

I once asked my doctor how I would know if I “needed” surgery. He said I would notice an immediate shortness of breath. That wasn’t the case on Sunday. My breathing was more difficult, but I didn’t feel like I couldn’t catch my breath. Karen asked me if we should go to the ER. We even checked my pulse rate and it seemed to be in the normal range. She was just concluding a two-week struggle with a severe sinus infection, so I wanted to make sure both of us got some rest.

By 6:00 am Monday, things were worse. “I think you need to take me to the ER,” I said. A relatively smaller branch of a hospital ER had opened just a few miles from our house. We knew we could get in quickly.

Within a few minutes of entering the ER, the doctor said, “Are you sure this just started yesterday afternoon?” I assured him it had. The concern in his voice was clear: “Something serious is going on.” His concern was pneumonia because my lungs were not clear. He said, “We’re not going to be able to treat you here. We need to get you to Harris Southwest or Harris Downtown right away. We’ll call an ambulance to transport you. Which hospital do you prefer?”

My first inclination was to say, “Harris Downtown.” I figured they were the larger hospital and would be the best place to go. But Karen said, “Harris Southwest.” I later discovered that was God’s providence.

The ambulance arrived and transported me to Harris Hospital Southwest. The medical team was awaiting my arrival. Again, after a short conversation, they asked, “Are you sure this just started yesterday afternoon.” I assured them it had, and pointed to my associate pastor who was sitting in the room: “Ask him,” I said. Klen was fully aware of my day, and he knew I felt good during our services and guest lunch.

By this time my breathing was visibly strained and difficult. Again, they suspected Pneumonia, and I felt like I was beginning to drown. As the doctors monitored my progress, they noticed the irregularity of my heartbeat. I told them, “I have Mitral Valve Prolapse. Just last week I had my annual check-up and everything was good.” Then I said, “My cardiologist is Dr. Parrish, and his office is located at this hospital.” They ordered an Echocardiogram and then called Dr. Parrish to evaluate my condition.

Within minutes, Dr. Parrish looked at my Echocardiogram and said,

“You don’t have Pneumonia. One of the cords to your Mitral valve has snapped. This is serious. You need heart surgery. I’m calling Care Flight to have you transported immediately to the Heart Center downtown.”

I asked Dr. Parrish when my surgery would take place. He said, “That’s the problem. Your lungs have filled with fluid and you’re not in any condition to have surgery. We’ve got to get the fluid off your lungs first. Perhaps your surgery will be on Thursday.”

Immediately the pace of everything around me surged. In minutes the Care Flight team was standing in my room prepping me for transport. Because of my condition, they recommended that I be intubated and put to sleep. I agreed, told my wife and daughter I loved them, and I was loaded on a helicopter and flown to the Heart Center at Harris Hospital Downtown.

Karen and Ashley drove downtown to meet me. The next 48 hours were critical. While the heart surgery was common, my circumstances were not. In fact, Dr. Parrish later told us that since 1996, he’s only seen three of four Mitral valve cord’s snap. Usually surgery occurs before Mitral Valve Prolapse elevates to this level. Furthermore, the compromised condition of my lungs complicated things. I was simultaneously experiencing congestive heart failure and pulmonary failure.

When Karen spoke with the doctors Monday evening, they said, “He’s between a rock and a hard place.” I needed heart surgery, but the surgery couldn’t (or shouldn’t) happen with the fluid on my lungs. To ensure infection didn’t set in, the doctors began draining the fluid.

Monday was the longest night of Karen’s life. Around midnight she called a close friend, Jennifer, and said, “Is he going to be alright?” Jennifer immediately left her home and spent the night with Karen, encouraging and praying with her. Karen later told me that on other occasions she asked, “Is he going to be alright?” and the Lord prompted her to remove the question mark and replace it with a period: “He’s going to be alright.” God used a simple shift in punctuation for Karen to make a gradual shift from fear to faith.

Monday morning the doctors were encouraged. They successfully drained two liters of fluid from my lungs, and by Tuesday morning the surgeons were willing to attempt heart surgery.

Let me press pause for a second. During this time, my mom and dad were in California visiting my sister (Nikki). My older brother (Chris) was on a business trip and my younger brother (Mike) was working locally. When the seriousness of the situation became apparent, everyone scrambled to get to Fort Worth.

Chris arrived home Monday evening and went straight to the hospital. Miraculously, my parents were able to change their flight (with exactly three spots available on the flight so that Nikki could join them). They took an early Tuesday morning flight back to DFW and actually arrived early. When they landed, they headed straight to the hospital, entered my room, and prayed for me. When they said, “Amen,” the OR team literally walked through the doors to wheel me into surgery. God alone is glorified for the timing of these “divine coincidences.”

The doctors told Karen that the surgery would take 4-8 hours. If things went extremely well, it might take less. They had to make repairs to the heart, strengthen the remaining cords, and because only 15% of the valve was salvageable, they had to install a mechanical valve (and I’ve got my official St. Jude Medical device identification card complete with serial and model number if you’d like to see proof).

Family and friends were shocked when they were summoned to a second waiting room in less than two hours. A combination of fear and anticipation filled the room as everyone waited for an update. Finally, Dr. Lin emerged with the news: the heart surgery went well and my lungs looked good. The next 48 hours would be critical for recovery. They hoped to take me off the ventilator the next day and to move me out of ICU after two or three days.

Tuesday evening Karen and Ashley were able to see me again, and by Wednesday evening I came off the ventilator. My only brief memory was the removal of my intubation tube (That’s a fun experience if you’re looking for something to do with your spare time on the weekends).

However, my first real memories didn’t come until they told me it was Thursday morning. I couldn’t believe it. More than two and a half days had passed since the Care Flight team picked me up. In the coming days I began recovering slowly. The pain lessened and my breathing became better as they continued removing fluid from my lungs. I’ll continue recovering at home for the next 2-4 weeks.

What was the miracle of my heart failure? Well, there isn’t just one:

  • Had we gone to the ER too quickly, I may have simply been diagnosed with the flu and then sent home.
  • Going to Harris Southwest (instead of Harris Downtown) gave me immediate access to my cardiologist, who diagnosed my true condition.
  • All of the details surrounding my family getting to Fort Worth, and the timing of my parent’s “just-in-time” arrival.
  • The fact that Pneumonia, or any infection, didn’t set in.
  • The doctor’s were able to drain two liters of fluid from my lungs Monday night, allowing them to perform the heart surgery Tuesday afternoon.
  • The surgery was completed way ahead of schedule.
  • The love and support of hundreds of people praying for me. And, of course, I survived.

In the coming weeks, I’ll share some lessons and thoughts from my experience. It is certainly a time of reflection. Until then, I simply want to say “Thank You”:

  • Thank you Jesus – I’m utterly humbled by your constant presence through this dark valley.
  • Thank you Karen and Ashley – Your love in this journey has been nothing short of amazing. We’ve always loved each other, but nothing compares to the love we’ve experienced in the last two weeks.
  • Thank you to my Parents, Brothers, Sister, and Families – I have never felt closer to you than I do right now. You’re uncompromised love, and the beautiful conversations and prayers these last few days, is a gift.
  • Thank you to my Extended Family – Roy, Pearla, Bo, Jessica, and so many cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, and nieces…your constant support and presence means the world.
  • Thank you Klen, Audrey, and the 7CC Team – Your leadership, extraordinary hearts of service, and “get it done” attitude is remarkable. Your diligent leadership and servant-minded gifts allow me to rest and recover with peace.
  • Thank you Friends – So many of our friends showed extraordinary amounts of love and compassion. From visiting me in the hospital, waiting through the surgery, preparing meals, praying, sending encouraging messages, to taking time off work to sit with Karen…we are overwhelmed with your generosity. To so many friends, we are forever indebted to you.
  • Thank you Darius, Cindy, and the CC Team – Your support, prayers, encouragement, and willingness to help has been a blessing to our team.
  • Thank you to My Medical Team – Thank you Dr. Parrish for being at Harris Southwest when I needed you most. Your quick diagnosis saved my life. Thank you Dr. Lin, and everybody on the operating team, for your extraordinary surgical wisdom and care. And thank you to the host of nurses and medical staff who have served faithfully to help me heal.

On Monday, March 24th, I celebrated my 45th birthday. The next day I was released from the Hospital. Obviously I will never forget this birthday—or this window of my life. To God alone, through our Lord Jesus Christ, be all of the glory, honor, and praise.

(The full story of my heart failure, and  how to navigate unexpected events, is chronicled in mine and Karen’s book, Unexpected: What to Do When Life Disrupts Your Plans.)