I am a born walker. I love the way my arms and legs swing rhythmically and how my breathing deepens, the close up views of place and people from sidewalks or forested trails. My appreciation of walking likely started when I was a child. I rode my bike often but I walked ten blocks to school and back both alone and with friends. I took leisurely walks around the neighborhood to see friends or just to check out the front porches and yards, see what was going on. Sometimes I fancied myself a spy and kept tabs on the Benfer’s sprawling garden or Stark Nursery’s spindly new trees. And I recall my mother walking rapidly down the street with two bags of groceries in her arms, my short steps hurrying to keep up with her longer, confident steps. When I became a mother, my children often nagged me to slow down. And one of those years I realized they were walking past me, well-trained.
Now I walk daily unless I am constrained by intolerable weather or bed-bound by illness. I hike in the woods and on numerous trails around the Pacific Northwest, as nature nourishes me. I walk during the daytime when I can and at night after eleven hour days at work, my spouse usually joining me. We update each other on the day’s events. I admire the beautiful old homes adorned with graceful gardens in our neighborhood. But mostly I walk not to be sociable or to rid myself of work stresses but because my life depends on it.
Almost eleven years ago my husband and I were hiking in the Columbia River Gorge area. We had taken a well-used trail that had many steep ascending and descending trails that took us deeper into the emerald-green of an early September day. I felt sweaty and a bit breathless but thought little of it. I’d experienced shortness of breath before and since I’d quit smoking months ago. I pushed myself a little harder, never one to shirk at a challenge. I could hear the waterfall in the near distance; I would rest then. As we climbed up railroad ties imbedded in a hill, I felt my legs weaken, my chest compress. I was having trouble getting a breath but my spouse had moved ahead of me. People passed by as I started to crumple. I willed my legs to carry me up the steps. Then I felt it: the elephant on my chest. It weighed so many tons and caused such deep aching I could not cry out. I somehow pulled myself over the top step to where my husband stood and then fell to my knees as Bridal Veil waterfall roared in my ears, then faded.
It was like a hallucinogenic dream trip through the woods as I was half-carried to the car. My breathing was labored and an odd electric sensation shot through my chest from time to time. I felt nauseous and so exhausted that I felt I could sleep for an eternity. But once in the car we did not go to the hospital. I went home and to bed, thinking I had to make a medical appointment to have my lungs checked. I was frightened and knew I was in serious trouble. Tomorrow, I thought, and fell into a restless, haunted sleep.
When I awakened weary and anxious the next morning I held in my mind one clear thought: I had to find a heart doctor. It was as though I had been sent a message. Rather than look online at my insurance providers list, I oddly went through the yellow pages and asked each cardiologist’s office close to my home if they took my insurance. I felt an urgency that superseded all else. After a half-dozen calls, I found an office that accepted the insurance and also had a physician who would see me without a referral. He was a new doctor at a large cardiology practice. After I described my symptoms to a nurse, I was given a slot the next morning but informed I should call 911 if the previous symptoms returned.
I could provide a list of tests, share the discussions we had that day but what really happened was that Dr. P. listened. He heard my symptoms (which included very rapid heart rate with increasingly less physical exertion), asked probing questions and went into immediate action. He told me he believed I’d had a heart attack. I was fifty years old and had no risk factors other than having smoked for thirty years until the last seven months. He seemed nearly as shocked as I did.
Dr. P. informed me he was newer to this work and had done over three hundred angiograms. An attending cardiologist and he would do all they could to help me not only stay alive but become healthier for the long-term. I thought that was good enough. On September 17, 2001 I was provided a way back to health with the first stent implant. The tiny device propped open an artery that had become inflamed and narrowed. It wasn’t cholesterol but inflammation that was the culprit. I had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease and it was not the end of it. I would have four angiograms over the next two years and another stent implant as well as changes in heart medications. I returned home each time with arrhythmias that sometimes still want to bully me. Tachycardia became an intimate foe. But my heart became much stronger than before, and safer.
And so, I started to walk more, first ten minutes and then twenty minutes, in a few weeks forty-five, then finally an hour or two, six days a week, sometimes seven. I had taken time off from work and might have become engaged in swimming or bicycling; I flirted with the idea of flamenco. or something else exotic. But it was walking that drew me out of my painful sense of loss and into the world, walking that gave me the thrill of anticipation and more encouragement each day I felt my heart flutter and jump, pause and startle. Walking reunited me with a life of myriad wonders. Everything tasted, smelled, looked and felt better. My heart pumped hard, oxygen surged through me, my mind clarified, my spirit got braver and lighter. And my heart opened wider to everyone and all I care about. I discovered the path to healing a heart is more challenging but richer than I had imagined. Not a day has passed that I don’t find a reason to laugh for the sheer pleasure of it: my heart is fully alive.
Dr. P. tells me: “You’re a star patient. You’ve beaten the odds so far. Your hard work pays off every day.”
I tell him: “You listened to me and saved my life.”
That day I walked my fingers to the yellow pages? They took me to a person who is a fine and committed cardiologist, one who has always cheered me on my journey. Maybe it was a guardian angel who left me the urgent directive that early morning. But I walk every day out of deep respect for him, for my health, for this invaluable treasure called life. I discovered the power of a mended heart; I intend to use it well.