Heart Thoughts


In the hospital in 2018 due to an irregular heartbeat. Photographer unknown.

As 2019 comes to a close I am recovering again from an incident with my heart. Eleven years ago I had a major heart attack, with 100% blockage of the left coronary. They put four stents in at that time, which opened things up nicely and that has kept me going for more than a decade.

A little over a year ago I was hospitalized due to an irregular heartbeat. I was diagnosed with ischemic cardiomyopathy, which essentially means my heart is not pumping out as much blood as it should, and my percentage was pretty low. My drug regimen was reassessed and some prescriptions changed to try to improve that.

Two wees ago tomorrow I was at work, sitting at my desk, when suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe, felt dizzy and nauseous, and I literally thought I was going to collapse on the floor and die right there in the office. It was scarier than the heart attack because it was different than anything I had ever felt and I didn’t know what was happening.

It turned out to be ventricular tachycardia, which means that my heart was beating at an incredibly fast pace and could have killed me if it hadn’t been stopped. When I got to the emergency room my heart was firing at 240 beats a minute. Normal is 60-100. For me, it’s often in the 50s, so going at almost five times that was leaving my body in a very dangerous place. Once the doctors figured out what was happening they gave me some drugs to stop it. That didn’t work, so they doubled the dose. When that didn’t work, they put me out and shocked my heart (cardioversion). This effectively stops  the heart from beating and resets it.

Later that day I was given a cardiac catheterization and in doing that, the doctors found new blockage and went ahead and put in three new stents to open up those passageways. Three days later I was in surgery to have an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) put in my chest. This is a combination defibrillator and pacemaker, with wires going from the ICD to both the top and bottom of my heart. The defibrillator will give me a shock if my heart starts racing like that again. The pacemaker will stimulate my heart if it is not beating fast enough. Together, they are designed to keep the heart functioning properly.

Unfortunately, I seem to have inherited my father’s genes when it comes to my heart. While my mother lived to be 92 years old, my father died of a massive heart attack at the young age of 41. If his heart attack were to have happened today rather than 1959, he may very well have survived. But medicine back in that era was nowhere near where it is today. So I am blessed to live in a time when medical procedures have advanced to a point where they can put miniature computers into your body that can regulate heart rhythm and that are able to communicate information to the doctors at the hospital through Wi-Fi. Still, it is unnerving to twice face the possibility of death because of my heart.

This time seemed a little scarier because it was so different, I am older, I had already had one big heart event, and because it just became a little clearer that my heart is not the strongest part of my body, even though it and the brain are the most essential. I could live as long as my mother, but it somehow seems much less likely now. If I look at the longevity of both of my parents and split the difference, I would only have five more years left, and that’s a bit chilling. So the idea of mortality, which I’ve always had an awareness and acceptance of, has a little stronger pull now.

Still, of course, one never knows. With the ICD, drugs, and the miracles of modern medicine, I could outlive my mother, which would mean that I still have about a third of my life left. Or my heart could give out tomorrow despite the advances in science. I can’t know and I can’t worry about it. What I do have control over is how I react to it all. It doesn’t do any good to live in fear. At the same time, having an awareness of mortality can keep one focused on the present, on the here and now, and what a person can do in this moment on this day. I have much work yet to do in this life. I will get that work done, moment by moment, and my heart will revel while it can.

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 Amazon.com (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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2 Responses to Heart Thoughts

  1. Jess Anderson says:

    Good lord, what an ordeal, Callen. I sure hope the situation can be stabilized so that you’re not constantly worrying about another such event.

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