An E-Book in 40 Images
This is a story, in images and words, about the journey of healing after a heart attack.
In September 2000, I woke up from a dream of a malfunctioning red four-cylinder engine with these words in my head—you have heart problems.
In February 2001, from out of the blue, I experienced dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing and chest pain.
The world turned gray, and I had an emergency stent placed in my heart.
In November 2005, I experienced a massive heart attack and had to be medically evacuated by airplane from Fairbanks to Anchorage.
Six weeks later, in desperation from depression, I began drawing and painting on the computer, inspired by images that came to me.
I had no previous experience making art. Over the next nine months, I completed a series of 27 paintings.
In February 2007, something in me decided to spend the next forty days reviewing the paintings and posting a daily comment about them on a blog.
Each day I wrestled with how to express how the heart attack had affected me, and then finally posted an illustrative image and a short commentary.
In that intense process of thinking, painting, and writing, a profound spiritual awareness slowly emerged, transforming my perception of myself and the world around me.
This is the story of that alchemical transformation.
Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt.
Fate leads the willing, the unwilling it drags.
Seneca the Younger, 50 A.D.
A heart attack is a deeply wounding event.
I have been struggling with this never-ending wound for more than a year, and still it haunts me by the hour.
A heart attack is also a deeply isolating event. Others act as if their lives will go on forever, but how can I participate in this charade, knowing deeply and irrevocably that any moment could be my last one? I identify much more with people who have terminal illness than with those who are caught up in the illusions and routines of everyday life.
In hopes of reducing this isolation and finding a way through this purgatory, I thought I would try to post a daily blog about the experience.
I am fascinated and struck by the story of Chiron, that mythical Centaur who had a permanent wound in his knee that would not heal. Here, in Puget’s painting, Achilles is being dragged by his rationality, his head, and it looks like there isn’t much he can do about it.
Not particularly wanting to be trahunted– to be dragged by fate –, I have to somehow find out just where this heart attack is leading me.
A dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is unread.
Premonitions from a Dream
In September 2000 I dreamed:
An airplane with a red four-cylinder engine is leaking oil, and smoke is coming from the engine. The plane takes off, but then immediately crashes.
I woke up, and the first thought in my head was—you are having heart problems. I immediately set up an appointment with my doctor.
We talked about what to do. I had no symptoms. I had no difficulty exercising. My cholesterol level was good. He told me that the best diagnostic alternative would probably be to run a “thallium treadmill test,” which involves injecting a radioactive dye into a vein after maximum exertion on a treadmill and then scanning the arteries for blockages. I wondered how I could justify doing this test on the basis of a dream. I didn’t particularly want to have some radioactive substance pumped into my bloodstream, or to needlessly run up a large medical bill.
Four months later, I was walking up a hill at midnight about 100 yards from my house when I started getting dizzy and sweating. I had to kneel down three times to rest before I finally made it home. I telephoned the physician on call, and was told to go straight to the emergency room. Six hours later I came home, but only after promising the doctors that I would fly to Anchorage, 350 miles south of Fairbanks, and get evaluated by a cardiologist there the next day.
When I reached the cardiologist’s office, I was dizzy and sweating again. The cardiologist said he wanted to wait two weeks before he did an angiogram. (In an angiogram, they insert a catheter up through the femoral artery near the groin, inject dye, and take pictures of the blood flow and plaque in the coronary arteries.) He was concerned that I had an infected tooth, which could increase the danger of additional infections during the angiogram.
He sent me home.
When I arrived home later that day, I quickly went on the Internet and researched my condition. Everything I read about my symptoms indicated that I probably had “unstable angina,” which was a life-threatening situation. I called Dr. C. in San Francisco, a friend from my college days. He advised me to fly down to San Francisco immediately and to put myself in the care of the heart experts at the California Pacific Medical Center.
The next day I was on a flight to California with my family. Walking made me lose my breath; I experienced everything as very gray and muted. I kept thinking of Emily Dickinson’s last words, “I must go inside, the fog is rising.” For the first time, I accepted a ride at the airport in one of those motorized carts for handicapped people.
The cardiologist I was scheduled to see, Dr. H., called me at the hotel. When he learned that I had recently taken three nitroglycerin tablets (which oxygenate the blood and prevent heart attacks) and was still feeling strange and weak and nauseous, he told me to go the emergency room immediately. The angiogram they performed there showed a ninety-five percent blockage of the long left descending coronary artery, and a stent was put in to open up the artery. I had just missed a massive heart attack.
The story continues at: