My Quarter Century Milestone

I started writing this in November of 2012.  I never finished it and obviously never published it.  I just took some time to fill in some blanks and figured I would send this out as many people probably don’t know this about me.

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This has been a very odd afternoon for me and I’m going to do a few things I do very infrequently.

The first thing I am doing differently is that I’m going to take the time to think and write instead of rushing through like I typically do.

You see I started thinking about my heart surgery this afternoon and realized that…I never really think about my heart surgery.

It’s weird.  I got to a point where I just didn’t ever think about it.  It didn’t limit me in anything I did, so short of someone asking me what the huge scar was on my chest I never really had a reason to contemplate it.  Since my achilles tendon issues have kept me from playing basketball over the past hand-full of years, I never really have a need to be shirtless so people noticing the zipper went from minimal to nonexistent.

I really don’t know the whole story but I’ll tell you what I do.  My parents have filled in a lot of the blanks because I forgot a lot over the years.  Thinking about it now this is likely due to the fact that it was pretty traumatic time for me and I must have started blocking things out as a coping mechanism.

I believe I was diagnosed with an Atrial Septal Defect at age 5 by Dr. Devito in Concord and I think I had the surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital in 1987, when I was 7 years old.

This is all really fuzzy but I’ll give it a go.  They gave me oral sedatives.   They didn’t stand a chance.  I was running and fighting with all my might.  I was not the average 7 year old, mind you.  For my age I was in the top percentile of both height and weight (what of my husky pants, eh?!?!) and I was the fastest kid in my class.  I probably put down 3/4 of a gallon of milk per day at that point.  That’s a lot of frightened and furious flub to finagle onto that little stretcher.

They finally slowed me down enough to hit me with a needle.  Not sure how long I fought after that, but I’m confident in saying that everyone involved earned their pay that day.  As much as I battled, eventually I was corralled and brought into custody.  I remember rolling down the hall on the table and a flurry of people around me with a lot of big machines.

This is weird, things are coming back that I haven’t thought of in decades…

I remember the mask being put on and then the bright static tv starts playing in my brain.  And then..it…goes……BLACK.

No clue how long I was out.  I know the surgery was multiple hours, maybe 5 or 6.  My parents can fill in the blanks.  Maybe I’ll come back through and add their edits if anyone cares.

They made a large incision down the center of my chest, sawed through my sternum and opened all my ribs exposing my chest cavity.  At some point during this process they hooked me up to a heart-lung machine and that magical little (or big from what I can vaguely recall) machine kept me alive as they performed the procedure.

Not sure if I remember waking up.  I do remember bits of the post-op room.  Pretty much everything I remember sucked.

I remember a nurse coming at me fast and without saying a word she took the tubes out of my abdomen.  This entailed cutting not only the stitches holding them in but the skin as well, and then grabbing the tube and RIPPING it out.  She then proceeded to do the same thing to the other tube that was inserted inside of me.  I didn’t remember it at the time, but I assume that there was at least one other person there to hold me down because that was one of the shittiest experiences of my life, and I promise you I have had my fair share of shit.

I also remember when they took out the catheter.  That also sucked horribly.  Hurt, but that wasn’t the problem.  The issue was that it felt like I had to pee soooo bad.  I’m talking 5 game beirut winning streak bad, but it would just never come.  I sat pointing at a little bucket in agony for so long to no avail.

I don’t remember much of my time in the recovery room.  I know I was in the hospital for multiple days, maybe up to a week.  I must have spent most of the time in that room but my memories of it are minimal.  I vaguely remember my parents and maybe had some visitors, but that’s about it.

I know it was during this time that the final aspect of the hospital stay that I remember came into play.  The tubes and the cath are solid memories, but they don’t compare to how vivid this one is.  I suppose partially because I was likely much less medicated and more than a day or two removed from living off a machine, thus more alive in general.

My dad and I went into a room and the doctor told me to sit up on the table against the back wall so he could look at my bandage.  He proceeded to RIP! TEAR! SHRED! YANK!  Whatever work you want.

It SUCKED.  So much so that the new found peaceful ways I had adopted since being put into my regular recovery room imploded upon contact with my oncoming fury.  I guarantee you he has never had a 7 year old react the way I did.  I punched and kicked that dude with absolutely every ounce of aggression in my scared and angry little(ish) body.

So much so that I soon leaned that what he had done on the top 3/4 of removing the bandage was actually him being very nice.  He apparently had enough of the viscous onslaught of portly pre-pubescent rage and really decided to remove the remainder in a big hurry.

That SUCKED WAY MORE!  The bottom 3″ of my scar is probably 4 or 5 times wider than the rest and much more pronounced still to this day.  The black arrows in the picture below show you the length of the scar.  Notice how from this crummy pic you can only notice the bottom portion.  The red arrows notate where I have little scars from the tubes that were providing whatever sort of life saving goodness mentioned above.

As far as I know I was playing sports within weeks of leaving the hospital.  I may have had to take antibiotics going to the dentist when I was young, but I can’t recall having to do that for at least 20 years.

I didn’t know until a couple years ago how much of a toll it really took on me psychologically in those days.  My mom told me recently that I used to wake up all the time SCREAMING at the top of my lungs about not letting them take me and kill me.  I think she told me some other things affiliated with that time-frame but I have no recollection of any of that.

What I remember is being back in action.  I started playing sports: I believe Karate with Jeff Hardy at Bodyworks was the first organized athletic thing I did.  I took swimming lessons, played soccer, baseball and then at 8 picked up basketball.

As you may or may not have deduced from the previous paragraphs, I was a bit husky as a youth. I moved really well for a big kid, but that wasn’t what I was interested in.  I wanted to be a good athlete with no asterisk attached.

So around 12 I started working out.  My dad got a little weight set for the basement.  It was the 1′ bar, plastic filled with concrete for the plates and the screw on collars. We’d play with that stuff a bit and I’d do pushups and ab work every night before bed.

This pretty well coincided with when basketball had taken over as my year round sport.  I played for hours every single day.  No joke I played from 1-4 hours/day from the time I was 12 until I graduated college at 24, typically 6-7 days/week.

At 15 I started to lift and was seriously addicted at 16.

I dabbled in track my Jr and Sr years, but that was more for social reasons than anything else.  Even with my less-than-optimal commitment, I qualified for the state meet in multiple events.  All of the hard work I put in the previous several years must have paid some dividends.

I ended up playing in college and actually did pretty well.  I was undersized for my position but I prided myself on being fundamentally sound and always being in shape and I brought it hard every single day.  Practice, pick up game or intercollegiate game it didn’t matter.  I brought an intensity to the floor no matter what the situation.  At least an hour per day lifting, at least an hour per day shooting, 2 hour practice and maybe a bit of pick up if the opportunity arose.  I worked incredibly hard and never once did my heart ever give me any problems.

Why am I writing this?  I’m not exactly sure and I really don’t have an eloquent way to close this out.

Partly because it is something I have avoided talking about for most of my life.  In one way this has been somewhat eye-opening to force myself to think through this.

Another part of the reasoning is that some people probably didn’t know this about me (I’ve had 5 other surgeries and a bunch of broken bones to boot).   I tend to keep personal things rather tight to the vest I’ve been meaning to share a bit more with people and just never seem to do so.  I figure this is as good an opportunity as any to do some sharing, as my freshman English teacher used to say “sharing means caring”.

I think the primary reason is to show that you don’t have to give up on what you love and that hard work is a universal means of accomplishing what you want.  I am fortunate that my parents encouraged me to get right back out there and be active.  There was never a reason to feel like I was “special” or “different” .  I had some unpleasant shit happen and then it got fixed.  No need to feel sorry and no need to sit around and make excuses.

My situation isn’t as severe as many; I know people that have endured more and gone on to accomplish more.  I do think, however, that it is a good indication of someone not settling and applying consistent effort to overcome.  Did I accomplish everything I set out to as a kid?  I don’t have any NBA rings so as far as that goes I suppose not.  I did work really, really hard and to be honest achieved more than what many people thought I could.

I guess what I would like is that this help someone, anyone.  If one person reads this and decides that they are not going to let whatever difficult situation they have encountered dictate what they do, than I am happy and taking the time to write this will be worthwhile.  I mentioned it before and I’m sure I’ll mention it again…

You can overcome nearly anything with hard work and sacrifice.

If you have a story that you think may help someone else, feel free to share it in the comments below.  Thanks for reading.

4 comments

  • Deb Clougherty says:

    Absolutely! It’s much different perspective looking back now. I didn’t realize the negative emotional affects. I think I would always have had a self-esteem issue but I wonder how it would have been if I hadn’t had this experience. Live and learn, right? :)

  • I wanted to share this on your site after reading about your heart surgery (which I never had a clue about), but you have a character limit. Feel free to do what you will with it – up to and including deleting it…
    First of all, I absolutely love what you have shared. I know from experience that it’s hard to open up. Especially when the people around you can’t relate to what you’re saying or what you’ve been through. It’s like being a part of a circus show when you’ve never volunteered. And, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been fond of being under the microscope.
    I knew you in high school and always liked the person you were, but I will always know you as the guy with the red sneakers 15+ years later. Granted, I haven’t lived in the Concord area since we graduated, but from your FB posts, I’ve always wished I could use your gym as I way to catch up or keep in touch with those from my formative years And God knows I could use a workout!
    To the point (and I’m sure there are others with similar stories):
    After high school I went to college (as we are all supposed to do). But I didn’t make it to the finish line. Too much partying? Other reasons? Who knows. I was a kid.
    I ended up living back in the basement of my parents’ house. I waited tables. I went to community college. I got another part time job. And then another. In the end, I was working three jobs and going to school full time, but things just weren’t right. I guess it wasn’t the inability to pay the bills since I had few to none at that point. But, I had been successful in high school and thought I could be more than what I was.
    So… After some research and multiple calls to different recruiters representing different branches, I decided to enlist in the Army. At that point, I was thinking: I want to be able to look back on my life and be proud of what I did.
    After my initial training (i.e. boot camp and AIT (for those familiar with the lingo)), I went off to my first duty station. I was there a total of two months before shipping off to Iraq for the first time. As a matter of fact, the majority of the unit to which I was assigned was gone doing training for the upcoming deployment when I first arrived.

    I wasn’t there very long before we were all shipped off to Baghdad for a 12-month deployment. And against the popular (mis)conception, I was not so lucky to be filing papers in an air conditioned office.

    The Army had taught me Arabic rendering more useful than the average female to the tactical infantry units. (You want to know about 12-hour dismounted patrols? Cordon and searches? Raids? I could tell a few stories…) I was usually the only female on the scene. I also had to frequently improvise as I realized my language skills were nowhere near fluent and/or proficient.

    At the end of the twelve months, I went home and celebrated with beers for all. We all loved being back in the states. I actually met a guy that had been in Baghdad with me and fell for him. We talked about what we were going to do when we got out. We both only had a year left. We dated. We were inseparable. And then we were both told that we weren’t going to be allowed to leave the Army. We were “stop lossed”. We were both being deployed again at the convenience of the Army.

    So, we both went back to Iraq for the second time. But this tour would be for 15 months. I think we were both pretty bitter because we felt like we were no longer volunteering as a service member. No, we were being forced to go back to war.

    Not that any war is better than the other, but the second one took it’s toll on me. I came back after 15 months, and I wasn’t the same person. I’d be out with friends at the bar, and someone would knock their bar stool over, and it would scare the *bleep* out of me. I couldn’t be around large groups of people. I felt like I was unable to control the situation and was vulnerable.

    For the past 6 years, I’ve avoided social interactions. I’ve followed the same routine religiously: home, work, home. I’ve avoided personal interaction to the best of my ability, because losing the people you’re close to isn’t something anyone wants to repeat.
    It’s a hard life. It’s scary. It’s lonesome.
    Recently, I filed some paperwork with the Veterans Affairs. I hurt my knees and my back in the Army. I knew my inter-personal skills sucked in the aftermath.

    They sent me paperwork in the mail and gave me a time and a place to show up (easy as pie to execute when you’re former military). I showed up ready to talk about how much my back bothers me or how much my knees hurt when I run after the “abuse” of the Army. But it wasn’t until a couple of minutes into the appointment that I was told that I was being evaluated for PTSD.

    That caught me off guard. Definitely wasn’t expecting that.
    But after an hour of discussing of some of the things I experienced, and how I’m trying to cope with the differences in the aftermath, I realize that I have been avoiding any “real” talk about my experiences.
    I’ve realized that there are so many others out there that feel just like I do, and that I shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed for how I feel or the things I’ve experienced.
    It took six years for me to take that first step forward. And I can’t describe how positive that one meeting was for me.
    I feel like I can do this. I feel like I don’t have to be in absolute control. I feel like maybe there are other people out there that I can talk to. And it’s liberating!!
    Perhaps this wasn’t what you were looking for when you asked about others’ experiences.
    I’m not usually one to share anyway…
    I felt like sharing on your site. You inspired me. Thank you.
    The only thing I ask is that I’m not fully identified if you want to share my blatherings with others.
    I’m still working on that part…

    I’m really not sure why I felt the need to share. Quid pro quo? Probably. And I thank you very much for that. “They” say opening up is the best thing you can do, but which, of course, is the most difficult thing for me to do. Thank you for encouraging me to do so by leading by example. I appreciate it. Really. Cheers, Eric.

  • Deb, thanks for sharing! It’s interesting how taking some time to think about these things give some perspective over time, isn’t it?

  • Deb Clougherty says:

    So I wasn’t sure if I was going to share my story. It hasn’t shaped my life the way it has for Eric and honestly I sometimes forget that I had major surgeries because it was so long ago. I don’t think I even put it on my registration form for FIT. :)

    When I was 4 years old, it was determined that I was born with an extra ureter (the part that connects the kidney to the bladder). This is turn caused constant kidney infections since the ureter should be a “one-way street”. When I was 6 years old, I had the extra ureter removed and was left with a large scar across my lower abdomen. Most doctors think this is from a C-Section. Because of the many kidney infections, there was a lot of scar tissue in my right kidney which began to spread and was basically killing that kidney. So when I was 8 years old, I had a surgery to remove the half of my kidney that was filled with scar tissue. So I only have 1 1/2 kidneys.

    I was in the hospital so much in those 4 years that all my memories get mixed up. Unlike Eric, I don’t remember pain. Thank goodness!! I remember getting tons of stuffed animals, cards and presents. I remember being wheeled down to surgery and a doctor blowing up a glove and making a smiley face on it. I remember being scared especially when I would wake up after surgery and my mom wasn’t there. My mom tried to be with me as much as possible but she had two other kids at home and my dad worked long hours. I lived most of my life in fear. Fear that I would have to have dialysis one day. Fear that someone would see my scars (one runs along my rib cage on my right side). Fear that someone would hit me it the kidney, etc. etc. Now many, many…many years later, I don’t live in fear. I know my body. I know I need to not wear myself down or I get pain in that kidney. Other than that, I don’t really think about it. I don’t care if people see it and I am quite proud of what I have come through in my life. Then and now. No shame. No fear. I don’t know how it’s shaped me. I guess that would be a question for my mom. :)

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