What My Brachial Artery Taught Me

Seventeen years ago this week I almost died. I’ve written about it in bits and pieces over the years, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so. It was a defining moment in my life.

Because of a genetic disorder, the vessels in my body are weak and prone to tears. At times the tears are minor and easily fixed, in my legs, in my nasal cavity. At times they are more significant, in my brain, in my heart.

An aortic dissection, a tear in the inner lining of the largest vessel in our body, causes significant internal bleeding and needs immediate and significant intervention to prevent death.

That’s what happened 17 years ago this week. I told that story a few years ago, but today the story on my mind is what happened 3 months later.

I noticed on a Saturday that my arm was cold to the touch. Weird. Sunday was the same. By Monday a friend whose brother-in-law is a doctor told me that I needed to get it checked out. Fine. I’m stubborn, but I’d learned the hard way to check it out when something is off.

It turned out that I had a new dissection. This one was in my brachial artery. I had no blood flow to my arm, no pulse could be found. I ended up in the hospital for more days for this far less serious condition that for the open heart surgery months earlier.

My friend saved my arm.

I know now that the tear in my brachial dissection was a secondary trauma. The vessels in my body were impacted by what happened in my aorta.

It’s all connected. Physical trauma has an impact beyond the original crisis.

So does emotional trauma.

For the last year, we have all been experiencing a trauma. Some people have suffered physically. Some people have suffered financially. Everyone has suffered emotionally.

We can see a light ahead. Vaccinations are rolling out. We are learning how to safely navigate the world.

But there will be secondary trauma. 

As we emerge from the emergency response to the pandemic, we will have to address the long-term impacts. Be it learning loss (or unfinished learning or learning gaps or whatever we choose to label it) or bankruptcies or the very real health issues that are lingering for many, there will be secondary trauma. 

My brachial taught me this.

It also taught me that it can be overcome. It taught me not to spend too much time admiring the trauma. Assess the reality of the situation and get to work addressing it. 

Make a plan.

Get help.

Be honest and realistic about what you need.

Recovery is never really over. We learn how to manage and more importantly how to thrive in spite of (and sometimes even because of) our experiences. They become part of who we are. It’s all connected.

My brachial artery taught me that.

4749 Extra Days

Thirteen years ago today I almost died.  It’s not something I’ve ever written about but now feels like the right time.  Someone shared with me this week that the thing they enjoy the most about this blog is the reminder to tell our stories.

Every person on this planet has a story.  This is mine.

I was a teacher, and it was the last day of spring break.  Kelsey had just turned nine, and Hunter was almost seven.  The girls and I decided we’d spend our last vacation day going to the mall to Build a Bear.  I can’t honestly remember what animals they made.  Hunter would know.  She remembers all of it.

As we were checking out, I had a sudden and painful feeling in my throat.  I felt dizzy and nauseous.  The girl checking us out offered me a mint.  In hindsight her gesture of kindness has provided us plenty of laughs.  “Like a mint was going to save your life.”  How could she have known?

I have a connective tissue disorder called Marfan Syndrome.  It causes parts of my body to weaken over time, the most significant of which is my aorta.  And on that day I was having something called an aortic dissection.  There was a tear between the layers of my aorta, but I did not know it at the time.

We paid, left Build a Bear, and headed to the food court where thankfully a friend of mine was there.  We call her my Guardian Angel.  I knew something was wrong, but I was insistent that this could not possibly be an aortic dissection.  She took over in that moment and drove my children and me to the hospital.

The story gets long and complicated from that point, and I’m sure someday I will write it all.  But not today.  Suffice it to say that several hours later I finally had a CT Scan, was diagnosed, and was taken in to surgery.  The surgery lasted five hours, but the recovery took months.  Those five hours were so much harder for my family and friends than they were for me.  I honestly only know the details of the next few days from the things people have told me.

So many people.  One of the most important things I took from the experience was the power of our tribe.  A friend prayed over me before I went in to surgery. Friends and family spent time in the waiting room and countless hours sitting with me over the next days, weeks, and months.  People cleaned our house and brought us food.  One friend who lives out of town sent me a card and a package of some kind every day, every single day, for weeks.  My students wrote letters, and one even recorded her piano music to soothe me.  People are good beyond measure.

I also learned to be patient.  I dissected a week before my Master’s Degree comps and a week before my first interview for an administrative job. Obviously neither of those thing happened then.  But they did happen.  Eventually.  I have learned that for me things work out eventually, just not always in the way I envisioned or on the timeline I choose.

I also tell people that the most powerful lesson for me was to enjoy every day.  Every single day is a gift. We say that, and it is true.  Thirteen years ago today I almost died, but I didn’t.  I have had 4,749 extra days to learn and love and laugh.  I have had 4,749 extra days to make mistakes, to fall down, and to get back up. Each one of those days is a gift.

My scar has faded.  I feel like it is no longer the first thing people see when they look at me.  It’s a good analogy.  For a time, the experience consumed us.  It was all we thought about.  Over the years though that has faded too.  It is now but one of many stories.

Still, I am grateful for the scar.  It is a visual reminder that each day is a gift.

I was wrong when I said that every person on the planet has a story.  In fact we all have countless stories, countless moments that changed who we are and how we see the world.

Share yours!