From a hole in my heart to being whole in spirit

by Michele DeMarco Wilkie
(Newburyport, MA USA)

Nearly two years ago, at age 33, at the apparent peak of health, and while recently enjoying frequent peak experiences, I suffered three Spontaneous Coronary Arterial Dissections (SCAD) that led to two heart attacks in the space of a single week. The doctors, even the most renowned among them at Mass General Hospital, all told me they were, and by definition I now was, “sailing in uncharted waters”; no one could tell me with any certainty why these heart attacks happened and if they would happen again. Indeed, I was “the picture of health”: I had no risk factors; I was “in great shape” thanks to a healthy lifestyle; and I had no congenital issues that could be identified with the most sophisticated of tests. And still my heart tore open and twice I nearly died.

With a slew of medicine (that doctors admit may or may not help), the best medical support I could possibly want, and many somber well-wishes for a healthy and long life, I left the hospital dispirited about how to navigate these “uncharted waters” on my own and with little more to go on than a hope and a prayer. My heart attacks caused me to have a literal hole in my heart, but with this precarious send off, I also now felt a hole in my spirit.

Since then I’ve done everything I can do to heal my body: I’ve continued to eat well, get routine exams, attend cardiac rehab, regularly take my drugs, exercise to the limit that my condition will allow, and so on. And I’m happy to say that while my heart did sustain some irrevocable damage, and sadly that I am advised never to carry and birth a child of my own as it would be, in the words of my genetic cardiologist, “likely life-changing, life-ending,” my overall health status is as good as can be reasonably expected.

But health isn’t just of the body, it’s also of the mind and spirit.

As someone who studied psychology and worked as a therapist for a time, I was more than aware that many people suffer mental distress, particularly depression, after such a health scare or trauma; in fact, I’ve worked with many who have. And to the medical community’s credit, everywhere I went doctors, nurses, counselors, everyone really, asked me repeatedly out of concern if I ever felt depressed; I think most actually expected I would be, especially given my age, the rarity of my condition, and otherwise good health. But as I’ve said to folks over and over again throughout all of this, I’ve honestly never been depressed (I know the symptoms and have been mindful of whether or not they appeared). Having said that, I have been dispirited, and there’s a difference.

My heart attacks weren’t just an attack on my body; they were also an attack on my spirit. My experience, like so many other people I’ve encountered, wasn’t only that of heart disease, but also, metaphorically speaking, of heart “dis-ease.” Like countless people, always and everywhere, when confronted with sudden trauma, existential angst, or rapid change, my heart attacks left me, at least for a time, feeling disoriented, unsure my bearings, and uncertain of my direction forward. Indeed, they caused a permanent loss some heart functionality and stamina, but also they caused an enduring loss of innocence. Like others, I’ve since been inspired to seek a stronger and deeper grasp of what it’s all about, what we’re to make of it, and what we’re to do with it while we’re here. In short, my heart attacks and my total experience with heart disease shook up my sense of meaning, purpose, value, connection, resilience, and transcendence (broadly defined), the six essential things that make us happy and whole, and keep our spirit—that is the “heart” that is the seat of our emotions and energy—strong, well, and able to sustain.

The challenge for me, like the countless people I have interacted with both personally and professionally, was not only about healing my body and helping it to survive, but also about healing my spirit, and helping me to thrive!

And through my work, my education, and my own teachings on spirit wellness, I am proud and excited to say that this is precisely what I am now doing everyday, come what may!!

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