I'm a big fan of TED Talks not just because they're usually on interesting topic but because they're excellent examples of how to present ideas in a compelling and easy-to-understand manner.
I was thus greatly complimented when the local TED Talk organizer asked if I'd like to give a talk at an upcoming conference. I agreed immediately, even though I was recovering from a couple of heart attacks and probably didn't need the extra work
In the end, I decided not to give my TED Talk because I was afraid that the schedule (which involved me getting up about three hours after I usual go to sleep) would likely cause my blood pressure to spike.
While my talk was based on some previous posts (and indeed contains a few verbatim passages), it explain more about how the event impacted my family, specifically how it's changed my relationship with my son.
Because many of you, like me, wrestle with work/life balance, I thought it might be helpful to post a shortened version of the talk:
MY TED TALK: "I Was a Secret Workaholic"
Last summer, I decided to go on a camping trip with my 12-year-old son. To be entirely honest, I'm not all that big on camping. My idea of "roughing it" is an overnight at a Days Inn. However, my son asked to go camping and I knew that in another year he'd be a sullen adolescent who wouldn't be caught dead hanging out with his Dad. So I realized this was probably my last chance to enjoy being my child's hero.
So I dug the tent and camp stove out of the storage unit, made the lists of what to bring, loaded up the car. It was more work than I remembered, but that may have been because I'd been moving a little slower lately. I found myself getting out breath more quickly, too. Also, I was having a lot of trouble getting to sleep and then staying asleep when I did.
Setting up the campsite was difficult. Although the day wasn't particularly hot, pretty soon I was drenched in sweat. It took at least two hours and by the end of it, I was completely bushed. But my son was having a great time, especially when we played catch in a nearby meadow. That evening, though, turned out to be one of those magical moments you remember forever.
We sat around the campfire and talked about life, and what he'd be likely to encounter as he grew older. When we finally went to bed, I heard the words that every dad loves to hear from his kids: "Thanks, Dad, you're the best." He was soon asleep but I was wakeful, thinking mostly about work, and dreading the morning, since I wasn't sleepy at all.
I sat outside the tent and drank a little wine, ate some potato chips, walked to the restrooms and back. As I entered the tent, I felt a weird and sharp burning sensation in the center of my chest and even though it was a bit chilly, I started sweating again. At first, I told myself it was a panic attack or maybe severe indigestion, but as it continued, I realized that something was seriously wrong.
I woke my son and told him: "Get your clothes on. We're going to the hospital." By the time we got into the car, the symptoms were subsiding, but I KNEW something was up, so we drove to the local hospital, which was 45 minutes away.
You've probably already guessed that it was a heart attack but I want to say, for the record, that the correct thing to do in that situation is call 911 and NOT to drive 45 minutes with your son in the shotgun seat.
When we arrived at the emergency room, a blood test confirmed I'd had a "coronary event." Since it was the middle of Friday night, there wasn't a cardiologist present, but they gave me nitroglycerin--which opens up the arteries--and put me in bed. Quick aside: apparently I'm the only person who, when given nitroglycerin for the first time, has ever asked: "will it blow my head off?"
Anyway... at about 4am, my son called my wife with the news. I think I can say with some sense of certainty and reality that it was in that very moment that my son ceased to be a child and I ceased to be a hero.
Some of you no doubt know about heart attacks. They happen when your heart muscle isn't getting enough blood because one or more of the arteries have become blocked with plaque, which is a deposit your blood leaves as it courses through them. All heart attacks are serious, but some are more serious than others, and you don't know how serious a heart attack is until the doctors can get a look at what's going on.
On Monday, I therefore had an angioplasty, where the cardiologist runs a tube with a camera up a vein in your arm or groin, to peek around, assess damage, and, if possible, make minor corrections.
Because I had neither a genetic history of heart problems nor any of the risk factors associated with them (no smoking, not diabetic, not overweight, etc.), the expectation was that the cardiologist would find a minor blockage and then fix it with a little piece of tubing called a stent. If so, I'd go home in a couple of days.
No such luck. Six of the seven arteries were blocked, from 60 to 100 percent. My heart was on the verge of total system failure, so two days later, I had open-heart surgery. You know, I'd known a few people who had open heart surgery but I never thought much about it. In fact, like many people I confused it in my mind with placing a stent. I now know, however, exactly what's involved:
First, the doctors cut open your sternum lengthwise with a jig saw.
Then they pry your rib cage apart to expose your heart.
Then they cut open up your leg lengthwise and extract a vein.
They graft pieces of the vein to replace the blocked arteries.
In my case, they also connected a large non-heart artery to my heart.
Then they close your rib cage and fasten it shut with titanium bolts.
Obviously, this was all done while I was under deep anesthesia, and while I wasn't officially dead, I was in a condition resembling it so closely as never-no-mind.
The next thing I remember is the doctors pulling the breathing tube out of my windpipe.
For the next few days, I laid pretty much immobile on a hospital bed, with three tubes stuck in my chest, draining out blood and fluid that otherwise would have drowned me. Here's a piece of advice for you, if you ever find yourself in this situation. Don't look at your chest. There are few things more disturbing that seeing huge tubes sticking into your body.
On Sunday, the cardiologists yanked the tubes out of my chest and sent me home.
In movies and TV, when people have major surgery (or a gunshot wound or a head injury), they're usually up and around by the next scene.
Well, turns out it's not that easy in real life, especially when they've been tinkering with your innards. I had about 5 percent of the energy I normally had. On top of that, I caught some kind of bug in the hospital.
Even so, as the week progressed, I slowly began to feel better.
Then I had another heart attack.
Back to the hospital I went, where I got another angioplasty. The cardiologist determined that one of the grafts had failed--an event that occurs in 2 percent of these cases. Everything else, however, was working fine, so after a few days of observation, they sent me home.
So, that was the easy part of having open heart surgery.
Now I'm going to tell you about the hard part, which is figuring out why it happened, what it means and what you're going to do about it.
So then, why me? Why did I have a heart attack?
In my case, I had none of the classic warning signs: I wasn't overweight, I didn't smoke, and--potato chips and wine apart--I ate a relatively healthy diet. Furthermore there was no history of heart disease in my family.
However, I was under enormous stress--partly because of family issues (one of my two children is high-needs) but mostly because I was constantly anxious about work and therefore stressed all the time.
According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, you are still a workaholic if you allow work to intrude into your thoughts all the time and if your feelings about work are tied up with anxiety, regardless of how many hours you actually spend on the job.
I was a workaholic and didn't even know it. And it almost killed me.
So now I was faced with a real dilemma--how to change that. Because if I don't change that, I'll probably have another heart attack, even with the medicine that--thank God--will help to keep my heart disease in check.
(Maybe you don't know this, but once you develop heart disease, you've got it. It doesn't "go away" or get cured. I can only be managed.)
Like many people (especially writers), I've always tend to live "in my head" more than "in my body." My internal dialog is so LOUD that it frequently tunes out people and experiences that could greatly enhance my life.
Well, I'm here now. Not that "being in the moment" is always perfect. It forces you to notice things that you otherwise might hmiss. Like how my son changed while I was recovering.
I was right that the camping trip was the last time I'd be his hero, because by the time I was out of dire straits, my son was a teenager. All he wants to do now is hang out with his friends and play Fortnite. He barely has time for his Dad.
But that's OK.
Mark Twain once said: "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."
So I'm planning a trip in about seven years. Not a camping trip! I'm thinking maybe Manhattan. And I'm certain he'll be good company because here's the thing.
When I was sick, he stepped up to the challenge. He did all the things around the house that I used to do. He didn't when we missed the playoffs of our local minor league team. And he's not complained--not once--that, because I can't be workaholic guy any more, we might not have as much money.
So, yeah, maybe I'm no longer my son's hero. But he's become mine. I'll end with one last comment. Nobody ever said on their deathbed: "I wish I'd spent more time at the office."