by Eric Sharpe
I was a bit of a mental health counselor when I taught 8th grade history. Many kids came to me with problems which to them were life ending. A jilted boy, a friendless girl – they all felt the sting of life with the sense that there was nothing more to look forward to. My standby response was to pull out my yard stick and tell them to imagine this was their “life line”. As their eyes fixed on the stick, I told them to imagine that each half inch of the yard stick represented a year of their lives. With that in mind, I’d point to the six and a half inch mark… way on the other end from the 36in mark. It was a rather stark example for them that they were feeling a brief moment in their lives that would not last and that there was so much life left to live.
We, of course, have no idea just how much time we have left. But most of us assume we’ll make it to the finish line of old age and we thus estimate our time remaining on that basis. The elderly are at the end of the yard stick. The rest of us – somewhere along the middle. But to imagine what it might feel like to see that yard stick shattered is rather impossible, unless you are Kristin Wennerberg. To not know how splintered that yard stick measurement of life is, to find yourself considering the finality of life at a young age – that is the condition of existence which prompted me to ask Kristin to help me understand it. And her explanation was not what I expected.
Vital and strong, Kristin was a personal trainer her entire adult life (and still is for Granite Fitness). After college at MSU Bozeman, marriage, and a move to Billings with her husband whom teaches technology in the local schools, her life as a healthy vibrant and fully realized person was in full swing, until 2008.
“I knew something was wrong, I was having symptoms for quite a while” she began during our interview. She was dealing with Tachycardia, a condition where the heart beats abnormally fast (usually over 100 beats per minute) when at rest or doing moderate exercise. “It was so rapid I could not get my own heart rate. It would race, then stop, then go boom, boom, like it was fighting to pump.” That’s when the chest pains started. “I felt so tired – I felt like I was dying.” She was an athlete, “nothing should be wrong with my heart,” she thought. But at the prompting of her husband, she finally got it checked out in January of 2008.
At the age of 38, she sat in her Doctor’s office with a cold stethoscope on her chest… then her sides, and her back. The Doctor then began placing her in different positions to hear her heart. A sincere and concerned tone of voice delivered the verdict: “You have a serious heart condition.” Kristin’s response was simply “Shock.” Everyone in her life was shocked and distressed, with the exception of her husband. His surprisingly level reaction was actually comforting to Kristin. “He is a pretty even keeled guy” she explained. It was his concerned yet steady reaction that kept her “even keeled” in the early days of her diagnosis, which was congestive diastolic heart failure.
A Failing Heart
Most people think of heart failure as a heart attack. But by definition it refers to a serious condition where the heart is failing to perform properly. In diastolic heart failure, the lower left chamber (left ventricle) is not properly filling with blood and thus is not pumping what it should back into the body.
Typically, this issue results when the left ventricle is not relaxing properly because the heart muscle has thickened or become stiff. The heart then has to compensate by increasing the pressure inside the ventricle. Kristin’s heart was fighting to pump blood properly. The repair required open heart surgery.
By March she was in Houston, one of two options for surgical facilities best able to handle her condition. Reality had changed. The yard stick of life had been shattered. This was made clear in a comment by a nurse while Kristin was in cardiac rehab in Billings who commented, “You have an old person’s disease.” It may have been a throw-away comment to the nurse, but to Kristin, it was hard to hear.
Though an inappropriate thing to say to a patient, there is truth to it. While heart failure can happen at any age, according to HeartFailureMatters.org, only 1% of people under 65 years of age suffer from heart failure. Her unique situation is even more unique in that only 30% of heart failure conditions are diastolic in nature. The other 70% are systolic, where the heart is enlarged and weak with the muscle walls being thinned and dilated.
Despite hearing she had an “old person’s disease,” Kristin said it changed her attitude for the positive. She took the comment as a challenge, and she had a serious challenge ahead of her. In ICU after the surgery, “Things went wrong – my blood pressure was so low that alarms kept going off, they were shaking me to breath. I was like a limp rag.”
A New Reality?
She only stayed in the hospital for a week and a half admitting, “it probably should have been longer” but money was an issue. There were many issues. Though successful, the surgery was a temporary fix. Due to the progressive nature of the condition, Kristin faced a new reality. Doctors told her she would, and will, get “sicker and sicker.”
This is really only where this story begins. She began to face a host of problems: extreme fatigue, edema (accumulation of fluid in cells), fluid buildup in the kidney and stomach which led to frequent nausea, sleeping problems, shortness of breath, dizziness, and frequent weakness. And worse.
The day after returning home she was rushed to the hospital with Post Pericardium Syndrome where fluid builds up in the sac (pericardium) around the heart. Then, just under four weeks after the surgery, Kristin suffered a stroke. A blood clot broke into eight separate pieces which affected different parts of her brain. “I couldn’t speak or write.” She was told she shouldn’t have survived. Her doctor had tears in her eyes – wondering aloud “why was this happening” to her? She recovered from the stroke only to face a host of hurdles and medical problems including chronic pain. Kristin also has to sleep with a CPAP device.
It was what she faced which prompted me to ask her if she’d be willing to share her story. I admit my selfish motives to some extent as I was looking for an answer to a question. How does one face that shattered yard stick? How does one deal with concepts of mortality in the face of such a seemingly desperate reality? My assumptions of what that answer would be were wrong. Kristin may have a weak heart, but she is strong hearted. And it is not an act.
My question: “How did the concepts of life and death change for you?” Her response: “The realization that life is going to be shorter has given me a better perspective on life. I’ve learned a lot of blessings about what is important and who is important. My priorities are balanced. It’s helped me stop and look at how I am living my life. It’s changed my attitude about the little things, about everything – for the positive. I never once said why me? That’s the way life is… that is the plan and the path that sometimes happens. I was never angry. I never had those emotions – this is what it is.” But how is that possible? I was convinced she was sincere, but that made the response all the more confusing. She has stepped into a wholly unique dynamic – her reality has changed. In essence, she has travelled into another dimension that few others can follow. How is it that she is stronger?
“My parents, my husband, my friends are a great support. My husband is my best friend.” It is these relationships that have centered her. “We’ve been together for 28 years and our relationship is deeper than ever – it was great before… I never took him for granted, but it is even better… I am a little more fragile yet he doesn’t see me as sick – he sees me as strong and full of vim and vigor.”
Yet the real lynch-pin to her attitude is her relationship with God. I am not religious. But her faith truly moved me. “Things happen to us in life, because it is life. God has my back. And my relationship with God is so much deeper and so much more magnified – it is a sweet thing. If I follow, he’ll lead me.” Kristin’s faith is rather remarkable.
Despite having to mask the constant pain and fatigue, she still works as a personal trainer. “Someone at the gym told me that I seemed like the same old Kristin – I was glad to hear that.” And she attributes that stable core of self to her faith. Her return to her Church, Faith Chapel, after months of recovery from surgery and the stroke, was difficult. But only because of the emotional release that accompanied it. “It was so very hard and traumatic – it is still so real even eight years later.” The return to Church brought out the memories. “It is painful because it is a hard memory, but not in a bad way.” In fact, years after her surgery Kristin was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Her goals and aspirations had to change: “I was really into lifting weights and have been in bench press contests… there’s just things I can’t do anymore – like anything that takes a lot of energy!” she remarked with a laugh. “There are just times that my body just says – you’re done with that… I am a very driven person – that’s hard to accept but I have to accept it. There’s a lot of grief in the losing those dreams and goals – I can’t physically keep up.”
But the experience has not changed her at her core and her faith is largely responsible. “I’m glad it hasn’t. If it had, I would think it would change for the worse… if I did this all on my own strength I would have fractured into pieces. The Lord is my strength. I’m a driven person – that helps too… I don’t want to go down into a hole.”
When attending a class at her church, the instructors asked: “Has anyone ever seen a miracle?” – she responded, surprised by her own coming response with a happy revelation: “I am a miracle!” Kristin expressed that after her stroke “even my Doctor said there was no medical explanation as to why I survived and how I recovered so quickly.”
Frankly, the miracle is not her survival, it is her response to her situation. I expected an interview with a very ill woman. Instead, I met someone whose vibrance eclipses her illness. I met someone who does not measure her life on a yard stick. She does not look at life as a finite event. She sees it as simply living life. She isn’t facing a new reality but rather, and enhanced reality. A great lesson to learn from.