One year ago, on March 16, 2014, I began a very unexpected journey toward simultaneous heart and pulmonary failure. It was a day that I will never forget.
It was a chilly Sunday morning in Fort Worth as I drove to 7 City Church. After preaching in our two morning services, I stepped outside to head to a nearby restaurant for a guest lunch with several newcomers to 7 City. Immediately I noticed a burning sensation in my chest. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the cold air was mixing with fluid that was slowly filling my lungs.
Thinking nothing of it, I enjoyed lunch before driving home that afternoon. But as the evening progressed, I wondered if I was coming down with the flu. By Monday morning things were worse…much worse. I sat up in bed and said to my wife Karen, “I think you need to take me to the ER.” Those words started a domino effect.
I went to a nearby ER where they gave me oxygen, took blood cultures, administered an EKG, and started an IV with antibiotics. The doctor said, “Something serious is going on. I think you might have pneumonia.” His assessment was based on the condition of my lungs. “You’re very sick. We’re not going to be able to treat you here,” he said. By this time, with every breath I took, I could hear the fluid in my lungs.
That afternoon I was transferred by ground ambulance to Harris Hospital Southwest in Fort Worth. My breathing was noticeably strained, and I had an irregular heartbeat. I explained to the medical team that I had Mitral Valve Prolapse (a fairly common heart condition that I had monitored for several years), so an Echocardiogram was ordered immediately, and someone went off to call my cardiologist, Dr. David Parrish.
By 3:30 that afternoon, Dr. Parrish showed up to listen to my heart. I could tell he was concerned, but if he thought my situation was legitimately dangerous, he wasn’t letting on yet. He said simply, “I’m going to order an Echocardiogram.” “Oh, they already did one,” I told him.
Within minutes, someone had brought him my results. He looked them over carefully, and then, with urgency in his voice, Dr. Parrish told me:
“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 CareFlite to have you transported immediately to the Heart Center downtown.”
By this time my lungs were in no condition for surgery. They had filled with two liters of fluid, and I felt like I was beginning to drown. The CareFlite team arrived, sedated and intubated me, loaded me on the helicopter, and transported me to Harris Hospital’s Heart Center near downtown Fort Worth. That night three doctors met Karen in the waiting room. Their words were sobering:
“Stephen is simultaneously experiencing congestive heart failure and pulmonary failure. He’s between a rock and a hard place.”
After an emotionally draining night, Karen was greeted with a little good news Tuesday morning. They had successfully managed to drain two liters of fluid from my lungs during the night. While I still had a low-grade fever, there were no signs of infection, so the surgeons were willing to attempt open-heart surgery. That afternoon they rolled me into surgery where they made repairs to my heart, strengthened my remaining cords, and – because only fifteen percent of my mitral valve was salvageable – they installed a mechanical valve.
The surgery was successful, and after eight days I was finally able to leave the hospital. For the next six weeks I slowly recovered at home. [You can view a video of our stories at the end of this post.]
So here I am…one year later.
A year provides a great deal of perspective, and offers plenty of opportunity for reflection. So what have I learned? There are seven lessons that surfaced as the most impactful during those initials weeks and months after my surgery. Karen and I captured them in our book, Unexpected: What to Do When Life Disrupts Your Plans. Here’s a quick summary of those lessons:
During this experience, I can say unequivocally that prayer made the difference. Literally hundreds of people prayed for me, many of whom I’ve never even met. Strangely, I struggled to pray for myself. All I could do for weeks after my surgery was offer prayers of thanks. The tick-tick-tick sound of my heart valve is a permanently embedded gratitude gauge that reminds me of God’s faithfulness. The lesson became clear to me: Use prayer as worship and as a weapon when the unexpected appears.
Unexpected events have a way of testing how much you do (or don’t) trust God. Proverbs 3:5-7 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.” It’s a powerful reminder that trust is built on eternal truth, and that we must acknowledge and act on that truth. Whether it was the unforeseen diagnosis, unstable recovery, or unexpected $22,000 Care Flite bill, God has shown Himself extraordinarily faithful and trustworthy over the past year. The lesson is clear: Trust God by acknowledging him and acting on his wisdom.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Hardship can define you or refine you. The choice is yours. James, the brother of Jesus, captured it well when he wrote:
“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (James 1:2–4, MSG).
I’ve always believed in the importance of perspective. It’s actually considered to be one of the most important separators between good leaders and great leaders. During this crisis, the lesson in perspective came into focus like this: Choose to see what others can’t see, so you can be what others won’t be.
I am grateful for all of my family. Like never before, I experienced their love and compassion at an entirely new level when my heart failed. They each scrambled to get to Fort Worth, lifted me up in prayer, and worked hard to show practical support. I’m so glad that there weren’t any regrets lingering over my head. I couldn’t imagine facing a crisis like this and having to figure out how to mend a broken relationship while you’re fighting for your life. It made me think of others who aren’t so fortunate. If you find yourself in that place of strained relationships, I want to challenge you with this thought: Relinquish regret and relate to, or restore, your family.
Perhaps the most surprising lesson for Karen and I was the extraordinary response of people who loved, cared for, and served us. An amazing community of friends and family walked with Karen in the darkest hours, visited me regularly in the hospital, brought us countless meals, mowed our lawn, and prayed continually for us. We knew community was powerful, but we had no idea just how powerful it really is. That was when we learned a simple yet profound truth: Cultivate community before, during, and after the storm. You cultivate community before the storm by investing in relationships. You cultivate community during the storm by leaning on those relationships. And you cultivate community after the storm by serving those relationships. You have to cultivate community if you’re going to survive the unexpected.
This might be the hardest lesson for people to grapple with when crisis hits. Most of us want the storm to pass quickly. “It’s over” is the only lesson we want to learn. But that attitude is what sabotages the testimony in the test. We have to mine for the gold in our pain. We have to shift our mindset from the purpose OF our pain to the purpose IN our pain. You may never know the purpose OF your pain. But you can find purpose IN your pain when you choose to leverage it for good.
That’s what Joseph did after his brothers sold him into slavery. Later, when his brothers were desperate and searching for food in the midst of a famine, they found themselves kneeling before Joseph (the only one who could provide food). Joseph’s words are simply remarkable: “‘Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you? You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.’ So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19–21, NLT). While pain feels bad, God can use it to bring about good. The lesson for me was clear: Discover and pursue God’s purpose that will outlast your pain.
According to research by Dr. J. Robert Clinton, only one-third of leaders finish well. A stunning two-thirds dismantle their lives and leadership because of the abuse of power and money, sexual misconduct, emotional wounding, pride, unhealthy family relationships, or a plateau in personal growth. These traps permanently mar the legacy of countless leaders. But the leaders who finish well are concerned about character (who they are), contribution (what they do), and connection (who they impact) with an unquestionable value for eternity. Experiencing heart failure shed new light for me as I reflected on my legacy. It challenged me with one final lesson: Choose the character, contribution, and connection to finish well.
Many of these lessons were growing roots in my soul before my heart ever failed. But all of them exhibited fresh dimensions I hadn’t seen before this crisis came rolling into my life. Several months ago Karen and I unpacked these seven lessons in a new book, Unexpected: What to Do When Life Disrupts Your Plans. The book is not only the story of my heart failure, but also the story of a robbery Karen was a victim of when she was a student in college. Five men broke into her house and held her up at gunpoint. It’s an extraordinary testimony of God’s protection. Here’s a video that captures both of our stories:
Together we authored Unexpected to help people, no matter what their situation, navigate the unexpected trials of life.
As I reflect on the one-year anniversary of my heart failure, I am filled with gratitude for the extraordinary faithfulness of God, the amazing love of our family and friends, and the lessons God has burned in my soul. He truly is good…even when the sun has disappeared from the sky.