My Gift

My heart as taken by the doctors during my heart attack.

My heart as taken by the doctors during my heart attack.

My heart after doctors put in four stents.

My heart after doctors put in four stents.

It has been five years since I stepped onto the stage for an opening night play at Broom Street Theater in Madison and then after the play did not celebrate but instead left the theater in the back of an ambulance. In the middle of my first of two scenes my character lifted his arm in a moment of anger and a pain shot through my chest and I thought, “Damn, I pulled a big muscle.” And in fact I had, as the heart is one of the largest muscles in the human body and I was suffering a major heart attack on stage in the middle of a show and didn’t know it.

So I left the stage after the scene and went backstage and changed clothes for my next scene, struggling even with changing clothes and feeling incredible pain while waiting a couple minutes for my next scene to start. Finally I went on and did that scene, then went back stage, sat down on the floor and started to think that maybe I was having a heart attack. Soon the play was over and I was telling someone I needed an ambulance and I was rushed–well, actually, I wasn’t; that ambulance sat outside the theater with EMTs working on me for what seemed like an eternity. Besides aspirin I think they gave me three doses of nitroglycerin between the theater and UW Hospital. I remember joking with the guys in the ambulance but I can’t remember now what the jokes were. Somehow, despite the pain and the severity of it I knew that I was going to come through it, though I have to say my life partner, Brian, my family and friends, and the doctors were far less certain of it.

It turns out my left coronary was 100% blocked. A nurse friend of mine who was in the audience couldn’t find my pulse before the ambulance got there. I remember asking her if that meant I was already dead. She didn’t laugh. Really, it wasn’t a laughing matter and the fact that it took longer because I didn’t figure it out right away and finished the play left me more damaged than I might have been. I am now living on 60% of my heart capacity.

In other ways, my heart attack was a gift. Facing the possibility of death makes a man think about his life and what is important. While I was confident I would survive it was still unnerving when a doctor told me a day or two later that I had had a major life-threatening event. The gravity of the situation sort of sunk in a little deeper at that moment.

It’s not that I had wasted my life up to that point (although I had wasted at least a good decade of it in an alcoholic stupor). I felt I had accomplished a lot more in my 51 years than many people do in their entire lifetimes. But facing death in that way makes you really look at what you’re doing and evaluate what is important and what is not. For me it also led to a tuning in to my instincts and trusting myself in ways that I hadn’t up to that point. I was able to listen to my heart, so since that day I have trusted it more to guide me through the maze of life. I found that where in the past I would have said, “Somebody should do X or Y” I was now thinking, “There’s a need for X or Y, so I’m going to do it.”

As a result I wrote a very personal play I should have written years before, I organized an event for the release of the Charter for Compassion, protested (a lot) including singing at the Capitol by myself almost every day for more than two and a half years (and still going), organized a benefit concert, a very successful conference on surviving child sex abuse, a Facebook page on the same subject, a monthly peace vigil, photographed and documented the Wisconsin Uprising, created a blog (now with almost 150 posts), etc., etc.

My heart attack gave me a renewed outlook and a renewed life. I don’t suggest it for everyone. Instead, skip the pain part of the lesson and just use what I learned from it. Live your life to the fullest, do what you can to make this world a better place, follow your heart.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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3 Responses to My Gift

  1. marcea0k says:

    Your life is a gift to so many. And perhaps your physical heart is at 60% capacity, but your emotional and compassionate heart is well beyond 100%.

  2. Jessica says:

    Thank you, Callen. You are an inspiring person to know — and the lessons you took from your health challenge are the stuff of the stars. Hug.

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