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.