I died twice on Maundy Thursday, April 9, 2009, after suffering a major heart attack. Although I was over-weight and not inclined to exercise, neither my blood pressure nor my cholesterol had ever been above normal. Just six months earlier, I had passed a stress test with flying colors.
The day developed with no warning of what was to come. I enjoyed a routine day at the office, then came home and mowed the yard. After a shower, I felt increasing discomfort, though not pain, with what I first thought was indigestion. The “indigestion” quickly evolved into tightness in my chest, shortness of breath, and a cold sweat. My wife was not at home, and I had a growing sense that something was seriously wrong. I felt oddly unable to move from my favorite chair. My cell phone was within reach so I decided, against all odds and thanks entirely to God’s inspiration, to dial 911.
Within 10 minutes, an ambulance arrived. While emergency medical technicians were assessing my condition, I passed out. As I would later learn, a clot had completely blocked my proximal left anterior descending coronary artery, and subsequent ventricular fibrillation resulted in cardiac arrest. This heart attack was the notorious “widow maker” that has meant sudden death for too many.
The EMTs shocked my heart back to life twice before I was stable enough to be moved to Duke University Medical Center. Though I have no memory of any of this, I know that I was rushed into surgery for heart catheterization and the placement of an arterial stent. I understand now that prompt treatment is critical with cardiac arrest. This attack could have happened anytime and anywhere with a very different outcome.
Expert health care and good insurance are huge advantages. My long and very expensive stay at Duke included three memorable days in cardiac intensive care (simultaneously connected to five different tubes) followed by nine days in the telemetry unit. Doctors also implanted a cardioverter defibrillator — a remarkable piece of technology, though it doesn’t download music — in case my heart acts up with further arrhythmias. I enjoyed consistently excellent and compassionate professional care at every turn. While visitation was restricted, I still had plenty of company and the room was literally filled with flowers and get-well cards.
Timing (kairos — God’s time) is everything. On Easter Sunday morning, my father, James C.P. Brown D’51, and stepmother joined me in ICU (with rotations of other family waiting for their visit). Together we shared the broadcast from Duke Chapel of Sam Wells’s thoughtful sermon and the powerful performance by the choir, soloists, brass, and tympani of the finale from Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.
Homecoming on the evening of April 21 was very special. I am blessed to be married to Jane, a loving and patient wife who is also a retired registered nurse with more than 20 years’ experience in cardiac care. Initially I was exhausted by climbing stairs, or even talking. I have lost more than 20 pounds — good for me, but I don’t recommend the method. I take a handful of medications every day, and I will have to continue them for the rest of my life. One pill helps the stent to stay clear, another treats cholesterol, and others ease the work of my heart. I have gradually overcome many of the initial physical limitations, but I know I am not the same person.
My first Sunday back at worship at Epworth United Methodist Church was Pentecost, and we sang “Spirit of God Descend upon My Heart.” I was tearful seeing friends and receiving their generous welcome. So many people care. My name has been on prayer lists in churches I have never seen. More than 250 cards and almost as many e-mail communications have shared words of encouragement. It is a wondrous and humbling experience to be remembered in prayer.
Recovery demands time and reordering my priorities. As I write in late July, I am still out of the office and not allowed to drive — a great frustration. Thankfully, the fine efforts of our external relations staff yielded a strong fundraising close to the fiscal year despite uncertain financial times. My cardiologist insisted that my work this summer should be to allow my heart to heal as much as it can. At least three days each week I participate in a cardiac rehabilitation program that includes both monitored exercise and classes at the Duke Center for Living. There I am in the company of a splendid variety of new friends in various stages of recovery, and I am sweating under the supervision of an expert staff who know just how hard to push.
I have enjoyed new disciplines of diet and exercise and the opportunity to read without interruption, but I miss the excitement of life in the Duke community, the challenges of leadership, and the daily interchange with friends and colleagues across the university and the church. I hope to return to work, at least part-time, with the beginning of the fall semester.
God is with me providing abundant goodness and mercy. I cannot yet adequately analyze or understand all of this. But suddenly I see heart references everywhere. In fact, heart is mentioned 931 times in the NRSV Bible, meaning, in addition to the physical organ, the center of emotion, self-consciousness, and the moral, intellectual, and spiritual life.
I have always known my heart to be blessed, but now I reflect upon my walk through the valley of the shadow of death with amazement and thanksgiving. By God’s grace my heart is still beating and this life continues with purpose and possibilities.
I shall endeavor to move forward in the spirit that St. Paul expressed so beautifully in Philippians 4:4-7: rejoicing in the Lord always; not being anxious but living gently, confidently, and gratefully; and knowing God’s peace beyond understanding that truly sustains my heart and mind in Christ Jesus.
Wesley F. Brown D’76 is associate dean for external relations at the Divinity School, where he has worked since 1981. He is now back at work part-time, as he had hoped, and his health continues to improve.