(Five and a half years have gone by since I originally wrote this post, and I thought it would be valuable to repost on this blog since it wasn’t available five years ago.)
Ten weeks have gone by since I had heart bypass surgery. I was shocked and stunned to learn that I had to have an operation on my heart. The surgery was a life-changing and life-threatening event, and I’ve started to understand the meaning this event has for me. I’ve learned many important lessons along the way, and I’d like to share my top twelve. Each lesson provided me with an even greater commitment to the work we do as mentors, peer assistants and coaches. I hope that what you read here will not just be a story about what happened to me, but will act as source of inspiration and reflection for what is important in your own work and life.
In January, during my regular exercise workout, I collapsed and lost consciousness while on a treadmill at the recreation centre. When I came to a few seconds later, I thought I was just dehydrated, overdoing it, or unable to catch my breath. Fortunately for me a first-aid technician was there immediately and attended to the scrapes caused by my face plant on the treadmill belt. He also called emergency services. They arrived quickly, placed me on a gurney, and connected me to a heart monitor. I was experiencing a role reversal: typically I’m the helper; however, now I was in the position of relying on others to help me.
The lesson that was highlighted for me was the importance of mutuality and shared responsibility for making our peer assistance, mentoring and coaching relationships work. Not only is this an important way to interact with clients and partners, but we also need to ensure that we have coaches, mentors, and peer assistants in our lives that we can rely on for support.
The emergency personnel asked me questions to determine my level of consciousness and aid in their preliminary diagnosis and treatment, I was trying to convince them that all I needed was to go home. I thought that if I can just get home, I’ll be safe. Faced with severe challenges, I learned we often want to find a safe haven; a place where we can be protected, in control, heard, and supported. That’s what home represented to me. I wonder how often we strive to provide this sense of sanctuary for the people we encounter in our work.
The ambulance crew, despite my attempts to convince them otherwise, concluded that a journey to the hospital emergency room was necessary. What I learned from their insistence was that when someone experiences a sudden traumatic event, denial may play a large role and result in attempts to reject or minimize the need for appropriate assistance. Skilled listening, powerful questions, and persistence are probably the best way to overcome such denial.
I was fortunate that some of the best coronary care specialists and heart surgeons in Canada worked at the hospital that was just a few blocks from both the recreation center and my home. My friends often tease me that I don’t like to leave my postal (zip) code area, and they’re right. I have virtually all the services I need for business and personal use within walking distance. The ride in the ambulance from the recreation center to the hospital only took a few minutes. I was on the gurney in the ambulance lying flat and facing backwards. I started to feel motion sickness and was getting dizzy from the ride. The emergency attendant riding with me said my experience of motion sickness was pretty common. What I learned from this brief encounter was that having an expert recognize and normalize a distressing experience can provide considerable relief.
I’ve never spent any time in a hospital except to visit people I knew who were ill, or when I was a clinical psychology intern in a hospital for war veterans. Being wheeled in as a patient was similar to what I’ve seen on TV, where from the patient’s perspective all you can see is the ceiling lights going by. After examination by an emergency room cardiologist, I was admitted to the hospital for observation and tests. I still wasn’t convinced this was necessary, and wanted to get dressed and walk home.
Maybe I should explain. I never had any symptoms of heart disease; I was physically very fit, exercised regularly, and pretty much had a healthy diet. I couldn’t believe that my recreation center accident was anything but a freak occurrence. I can recall very little of what happened during the next few days in the hospital. What I learned from this memory lapse was that anxiety, fear, and resistance severely reduce attention, focus, and understanding. Even though I appeared to have a calm exterior, my inner turmoil created a protective veil or shield, and blocked the normal sharpness of my cognitive ability. My wife, Sarah, was later able to fill me in on what transpired during this time, and she told me that my exterior calmness helped her to remain calm. I think that I was more likely stunned than calm.
In our roles as coaches, mentors and peer assistants it is important to be able to recognize when a client or partner may be overwhelmed or experiencing inner turmoil that is masked by external behaviour. Sometimes called “bracing against the pain” this conflict between an inner and outer life can result in cognitive difficulties and physiological problems. By having an opportunity to reflect on the turmoil, our clients and partners are more likely to recover quickly, and more actively participate in their own healing.
Some of the diagnostic tests acted as a reality check and confirmed that not only did I have coronary artery disease, but that the only option for me was bypass surgery. The scientist part of me was fascinated to watch the angiogram probe of my heart arteries on the TV-monitor. Although the procedure to explore my arteries was invasive, there was no pain. The cardiologist took the time to explain the test to me, what it would show, and what decisions had to be made as a result. But his explanation was more than just a clinical review. His communication demonstrated compassion, warmth, expertise, and concern that generated immediate rapport and trust.
I learned two things from this: that developing trust is essential when it comes to making important life decisions; and that having a preview of what was going to happen enabled me to feel more connected to the process. This not only reinforced for me the importance of trust and compassion in our coach, mentor and peer assistance relationships, but also the importance of giving the people we work with a better idea of how we intend to work with them.
I was released from the hospital to spend a few days at home before my scheduled surgery. My cardiologist made me promise to return for the surgery, which I thought was an unusual request. I had no intention of fleeing the country or not going ahead with the procedure. I guess that when some patients get home, the security of their own place creates an increase in denial.
While the cardiologist was well-intentioned, he didn’t tap into my deeper motivation and my commitment to have the surgery. How often do we as coaches, mentors, and peer assistants participate in the action phase of our interactions while missing what is truly propelling another person to take (or resist) such action? The cardiologist reinforced the i importance of my having the surgery by saying that I wouldn’t be permitted to drive a car until he gave approval some time after the surgery. I laughed when he used this prohibition as a “carrot” to get me to come back. He asked why I was chuckling. I told him I didn’t like to drive anyway, and to have a reason not to was a great relief.
Assessing current reality and setting goals
After a few days at home I returned to the hospital to begin the “pre-op” phase of my surgery. I was given a tour of the surgery and recovery areas, met the surgeon and the anesthesiologist, both of whom explained with compassion what I could expect. They described the procedures, the high degree of success of the operation, the likelihood that my heart would work even better afterwards, and that I would be able to resume all my normal activities a few weeks later. These were all goals that were at the highest priority on my list.
My time at home prior to this experience gave me considerable opportunity to review and reflect upon the balance sheet of my life. I thought about what I wanted to have happen. I became extremely calm and felt a serenity that surprised me. I realized that I was not afraid to die. I wanted the surgery to be successful, and I wanted to continue to enjoy the love of my wife, family and friends. I felt I was in the hands of the best that was available to us on this earth. If I didn’t survive, I felt accepting of it because up to this very day I thought I had lived my life with passion, purpose, and meaning. While I may have had some regrets about things I had done (or not done) in the past, I had no present baggage, uncertainties, or unresolved connections. The love and intimacy I have with my wife and family had never been stronger. My life felt complete. Mostly what I felt was gratitude and appreciation.
Following surgery I was connected to a number of machines, tubes and drugs. I had my own cardiac care nurse. All of these were crucial for my survival and recovery. After a few days I was allowed to go home (without the equipment but with a number of prescription drugs the names of which I couldn’t pronounce). Before I was released from the hospital I had to demonstrate to the cardiac rehabilitation physiotherapist my ability to walk around, tie my shoes and dress myself. I even had to show that I could walk up and down two flights of stairs. When the physiotherapist accompanied me on the stair climb, she congratulated me on the success and let me know that going up and down two flights was equivalent to the energy needed to have sex. I said to her, “I think I’d rather climb the stairs.”
For me the lesson here was the importance of humor. Throughout this most serious of all surgeries, I continued to find humorous elements. One of the cardiac care nurses showed my wife and me a video tape made by a previous cardiac patient who had gone through the same procedure. Near the end of the tape, it showed the former patient playing golf. I turned to my wife and said, “Oh, no, honey; I don’t have to learn to play golf when this is over, do I?”
On another occasion when I was in recovery and was still feeling the impact of the tubes that had been placed in my throat during surgery, I was having a hard time getting my vocal cords to work and pretty much had to whisper. A nurse, hoping to aid in my recovery, said to me: “You’ll have to try to speak louder.” I replied in a whisper, “What’s the matter; are you afraid of intimacy?”
I mention these three examples because the first two represent humor that relieved a possible tension- or anxiety-producing situation, while the third example, although funny to me, could have easily been interpreted by the nurse to be a rebuke or rejection of her interest in helping me. Humor is an important element of our work, but it requires attention to making sure it adds to rather than detracts from what we hope will happen.
While the hospital staff, including the nurses, doctors, food services personnel, and lab technicians all contributed to my recovery from surgery, it wasn’t until I returned home that my healing really began. My wife Sarah created an email network to keep my friends and family informed about my progress, and they responded with messages of great care and concern. The messages I read showed me a level of caring, compassion and love I didn’t know existed. Some of the messages brought me to tears; some of the messages were inspiring; and some of the messages revealed a depth of relationship that most people can only dream about.
What I learned during this healing period was not that coaches, mentors and peer assistants must provide this kind of care to others, but that we must assist each person we work with to develop and access a social network of support that includes people who love and care for them. Without such a social network of intimacy, friendship and compassion available to those we work with, our efforts as coaches, mentors and peer assistants will have only short-term impact. For those in our field that are strongly results-driven, we must attend to the social context within which those results are taking place.
One of the elements that peer assistants, mentors and coaches have in common, and that distinguishes these roles from other types of helping, is a sense of partnership. We work to accompany the people we work with on their journey. We often bear witness to what the other person is experiencing. As trusted partners we often provide insights, observations, and feedback. During a period of life transition, such a trusted witness can attend to events, activities, or circumstances that are often inaccessible to us as we journey along the transition path.
For a period of time after my surgery, I was in a daze from the procedure and the post-operative medications. While I appeared lucid and could carry on conversation, my wife, who stayed close to my side daily, was later able to provide me with details about my presence and interaction with others that seemed to disappear from memory. Whether it was a type of trauma amnesia, or the impact of the medications or fear, her recall from notes, observations, witnessing my interactions, and providing me with feedback, proved to be a valuable element of my healing. Friends who visited me during my hospital stay as well as nurses and physicians also were able to fill in my memory gaps. I thought they were making these things up, until I recognized the compassion they demonstrated to describe what I had been going through.
Another element that is common to most mentoring, coaching and peer assistance is practitioner involvement in challenging the people with whom he or she works. Understanding and accepting limits or boundaries is important, but we often don’t realize how much more capability resides within us. When I was snoozing or feeling cozy in my hospital bed, the physiotherapist would come into my room and announce that it was time to get up to go for a walk. I didn’t think I could and I didn’t wanna! But as an expert in what I was going through and the particular stage of my recovery I had achieved, the physiotherapist knew I had much more potential and that my “unwillingness” to get out of bed was expected.
How do we know the challenge will help someone achieve their best or bring them to the farthest limit of their capability? Certainly deep listening to and understanding of how a person perceives their current reality is one of the keys. Another key is having enough experience and self-knowledge to anticipate or empathize with the other person’s situation. My friend Bruce Elkin, a coach and Peer Resources Network member, was the first person to help me learn about the exhilaration that comes from moving something from your “can’t do” area to your “can do” area.
Being the cheerleader and paying close attention to how the other person is reacting to the challenge, enabled the physiotherapist to get me out of bed and to shuffle down the hall. Most importantly, the physiotherapist provided a safety net for my fear of pushing beyond my limits. She walked beside me offering support, encouragement and reassurance. Enabling our clients and partners to experience the safety net prior to creating the challenge is essential for risk-taking and growth beyond their limits.
Adversity is often part of a life transition. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to what happens. At the same time, a life transition provides an opportunity to connect to a deeper level of life purpose. For some, this deeper connection may not happen without people around them who are willing to ask questions that go beyond the ritual, “How are you feeling today?”
Spirituality has played a significant role in my life, particularly as I grow older. Consequently, I think about life more in terms of purpose and meaning, than I do in terms of accomplishments or results. While I have a tendency to attend to spiritual matters, I found it was extremely valuable to have people around me who asked questions like, “What does this experience mean to you?” “What was the best part of your day today?” “How are you feeling about what’s happened to you?” At times these questions brought me to exceptional emotional depth; tears were not unusual, and new insights as well as affirmations of my world view were common. I ruminated about my vulnerability, my perception of myself as a catalyst to help others connect with their own deepest levels, the unpredictability of the future and the importance of now, what it meant to lose my physical strength and my previous way of life, and to be so completely dependent on others.
These reflections, and the meaning-making discussions that were typically prompted by the people around me, became a major factor in my healing. I’m not finished yet in understanding the meaning this event has for me, and I’m glad to be surrounded by people who are dedicated to helping me with the journey. I am still identifying aspects of this experience that bring me to an even deeper understanding of my purpose in life. One thing that really struck me as humorous with regard to life purpose was that for some time I’ve lived my life in accordance with the universal principles associated with the Law of Attraction. That’s not the funny part. What gave me a chuckle was that while I was in the hospital I found out that my blood type was B-positive.
I hope what I’ve had to say in this article will act as a catalyst for reflecting on increased attention to these 12 elements in our mentoring, coaching and peer assistance work. In these roles we may often be in a key position to help others maximize their learning from life experience and not succumb to adversity and challenge. I also hope that this article will act as a prompt for you to have a check-up.
As my recovery improves every week, I am confident in the doctor’s predictions for a fully active, healthy and long life ahead. And, who knew; dark chocolate is loaded with heart-healthy antioxidants. I am grateful to all those who helped me and sent wishes of support. Although this is the third issue of the Peer Bulletin I’ve sent out after my cardiovascular disease diagnosis and operation, it is the first time I’ve been able to write about it. By sharing what I have learned (and am still learning) in the face of adversity and challenge, I hope others will be encouraged to see their own life challenges as opportunities for deeper understanding of their life purpose. (Editor’s Note: Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in North America. Recent developments in research, diagnosis, and treatment make it the most successfully treatable and preventable of all causes of mortality.)
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