The day it nearly ended

Five years ago today,  I was struck by a “widowmaker” heart attack while attending  Readercon with my family. My symptoms were more in line with food poisoning or an allergic reaction, which seemed to be the likely culprit for the first three hours. After that, however, my wife called an ambulance. When the paramedics arrived, they took one look at me and made the call. In minutes, we were off in the ambulance to Lahey Clinic, just one block down the road. I can only remember bits and pieces of the trip, the ER, and operating room.

It’s hard to gauge time when you are constantly falling asleep (exhaustion) in a room with no windows. Sometime later, the doctor visited me and explained what had happened. Two total blockages–reopened with stents–in the left anterior descending (LAD) artery, a very critical location. I was very lucky to have survived, but the full extent of the damage would be revealed over the next few months. When blood flow to a section of the heart is cut off, every minute counts. Muscle dies. [Later it was determined that I had suffered significant scarring–what happens when the muscle dies. My ejection fraction (EF)–a measurement of the percentage of blood leaving your heart each time it contracts–was 26. Normal is 55. This made me a candidate for a defibrillator, which was implanted nearly six months after the heart attack.]

As the doctor left, he turned out the lights so I could get some more sleep. At that moment, the gravity of what had happened hit me. I nearly lost everyone I cared about. Tears came easily before I once again fell asleep. [Sleep never lasts long in a place like this. Frequent blood tests, the tangle of tubes and wires, the blood pressure cuff going off every thirty minutes, the strange noises and smells from nearby rooms…]

When I woke, the nurses encouraged me to sit up. After a heart attack, you have a fluid build-up in your lungs and I could feel it. I had to breathe into a device to measure my lung capacity. I can’t remember the number, but it was low. I asked what “normal” was and discovered just how bad I was. When Lisa and the boys would visit, I’d use this device to demonstrate the daily progress I was making.

The doctors and nurses saved my life and I will be forever indebted to them, but the best medicine came from my family. Their visits were the highlights of my days there. The boys were only nine and twelve at the time, so I was worried about the effect this would have on them. Their visits gave me the opportunity to feel like I was actively doing something about that, but honestly, I think they had more of an impact on me. We were hundreds of miles from home, but I had everything that mattered with me.

Word of my adventures quickly spread at Readercon. In addition to updates from Lisa, Sean and Kate, who were also attending Readercon, let me know what the response there had been. The stories of what people had done for me were very uplifting. That response from the science fiction community carried on past Readercon, through my recovery, and still continues to a lesser degree today. I’m never going to forget that.

You have a lot of time to think in the hospital and a brush with death changes your priorities and redefines what is most important to you. The process started there and continued as I recovered back at home–and at my second stay in the hospital a week later. Friends who had been through similar life-changing events started reaching out to me to talk and it helped a lot. [There’s an understanding that comes with going through this that is hard to explain to people who haven’t.]

Weeks later, when my then employer decided to fire me–a story that ends well for me but can’t be spoken about–I gave a lot of thought to my decades-long career in education. It was a career I loved and did very well in, but the field, particularly the administrators, was making it impossible to make a positive contribution to education. I took a job with friends that took me from the top of the department to the bottom. No more supervising. No more overtime. The goals were simple: keep stress low, pay the bills, and put more time towards my new career in editing. I’ve only recently quit that job. Not quite earning a living from this, but I’m moving in the right direction and doing something I love.

During those first months post-heart attack and while all that job stuff was happening, I was in cardiac rehab three times a week. That’s basically nurse-supervised exercise and nutrition counseling that teaches you how far you can push yourself now and what you need to do to stay healthy moving forward. I also considered it group therapy. Put a bunch of cardiac survivors in a room and they will inevitably compare notes and share details. Those informal chats with bike or treadmill neighbors helped me gain a lot of perspective. I wasn’t crazy. We were all thinking the same thing. It also taught me that I was one of the lucky ones, unlike many of the others, my heart attack wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t diet or genetics or anything I could have known about in advance. It’s hard to feel guilty about your situation when what happens it compared to being struck by lightning. [I developed spontaneous blockages. It’s very rare and they don’t know why they happen. It’s not the sort of thing known to happen more than once to someone.] I just had bad luck, followed by extremely good luck.

My mantra for the last five years has been “life’s too short.” It’s allowed me to let go of a lot of baggage and I’m happier for it. Things still bug me, but not nearly as often. I can laugh at some of those now. Overall, I’d say my quality of life is better for it.

What’s meant the most to me though is the five years with my family. Lisa and the boys, what can I say… I’m the luckiest husband in the world and incredibly proud of my boys, now young men in high school. I’ve had the opportunity to see my sister get married to a great guy and become a mom (twice). I’ve had more time with my parents and brother, including a trip to Ireland with Dad to visit extended family I haven’t seen in years. And then there’s all sorts of little adventures with my adopted brother and sister, Sean and Kate.

Yeah, so I celebrate what was a horrible event, but it put me on the path I’m on today and I have every reason to be happy about that.

Cascade Writers Workshop

I spent last Thursday through Monday morning in Tacoma Washington at the Cascade Writers Workshop. This was my first time participating in a critique group (the sessions were run Milford-style), so I had been building a slow panic in the days and weeks leading up to it.

I printed and read through all the stories prior to leaving and decided to use my 5 1/2 hour flight to Seattle for writing out my notes. What I did not count on was turbulence and a four-year-old that screamed in the row behind me for four of those hours. (In the last thirty minutes, her sister joined her for a brain-scrambling serenade.) I finished that pass on the plane, but the notes were a mess of scribbles.

I was picked up at the airport (Kelli: I will continue to insist that it wasn’t hot there) and off we went to the La Quinta Inn in Tacoma where we were joined a some Cascade staff for dinner. I spent some time chatting with people but soon retreated back to my room to make some more legible notes on the stories in preparation for the next morning.

Unlike conventions, workshops start early. I’m very glad that I was still on East Coast time because 8:30/9:00 is not what I consider my peak operating conditions. Being a night owl helps on the other side of this time difference. Staying up late was not a problem, but the hotel bar closed insanely early (another way it’s not like a con).

There were seven authors in my group and there was a good variety in the stories. There was a mix of fantasy and science fiction, a novella, and two chapters of a novel. Despite the size of the group, this was the part that intimidated me most. Fortunately, group leader goes last. One-by-one they took turns explaining what worked and didn’t (slowly checking things off my list) before it would finally get around to me. I think I was somewhat reassured by the overlapping opinions and didn’t freeze up or pass out as I imagined in my nightmare scenario. I said my bit, the author would then get their turn and we’d discuss things for a bit. We were a bit slower than the other groups, but I liked the dynamic and we got everything done (with a ten minute extension on the last day). Nightmare scenario #2 failed to happen as well… no tears. That doesn’t mean that people loved everything they read. There were flaws to be addressed, but everyone did so quite professionally. Probably helped that I was the only person in our group that had never participated in a workshop. They knew what to expect and came prepared for the experience.

The days consisted of panels, critique sessions, meals, and time in the bar. Many discussions and never a dull moment. There were plenty of laughs as well (I could tell you the pickle-sniffing story, but I probably couldn’t do it justice, so it will remain an inside joke–I hear a sigh of relief). It was a very enjoyable experience.

Saturday night a couple of us drove–an adventure in itself–to Seattle for some quick sight-seeing, dinner, and the Locus Awards party. (The awards were earlier in the day–I lost–but there a lot of friends in town that I wanted to say hi too.)

The evening moved quickly and I didn’t have time to talk to everyone I saw there, but I was really glad to have the chance. It was particularly nice to meet people I’ve worked with but never seen in person. I really need to find a way to get out to the West Coast more often.

After the party, our little group journeyed back to the hotel and gravitated towards the hotel bar where we joined up with workshop participants and the influx of people who had recently left the Roger Waters concert down the street.

I stayed up much too late, but it was near the end and I didn’t want to miss a thing. I ended up with a normal amount of sleep for me, but I forgot how much anxiety or stress takes away from me. (I was working around my impostor syndrome and trying to feel like I was qualified to be there.)

Sunday morning arrived much too quickly. All that remained was our final individual meetings and some panels. It all went very quickly, goodbye were said to new friends and a few panelists I knew previously and I retreated to the lobby. I figured I’d join the other group leaders–we were all leaving the next day–for dinner, but the plug was pulled and I started to crash. I walked up the hill to a Subway to get a sandwich for dinner, came back and made arrangements to join the others in the bar later. Back in my room, I lay down for a minute and woke up three hours later. Never did get a chance to say goodbye to the others. My flight was early–I left the hotel at 3:15AM–so I checked the bar–it was closed–and went back to my room for a little more sleep.

Had a nice chat with Patrick Swenson as he drove me back to the airport, and that was the end of my Cascade adventure. I’m glad to have had to experience and maybe next time I won’t find the prospect of workshop critiques so damn terrifying. (nah, but at least I know I can survive it now)

And to my group, thank you! I hope my contributions were helpful to you. I look forward to seeing your work in the wild!

If you ever have the opportunity to attend Cascade Writers or participate in some manner, take it. You won’t regret it.

A short break

In keeping with tradition, my family and I just spent a long weekend at Ocean City, NJ. Yeah, it’s a bit early in the season to be at the beach, but the crowds are small and the off-season rates help keep the costs down. The annual clouds and rain gave way in time for Mother’s Day, so at least we had some sun on Sunday and a bit of Monday.

As usual, I didn’t want to come home.

Just curious, does this:

make it a tax-deductible business trip?

Like pictures? There’s more over on instagram.

Two and a half months in

I’m now just a bit over two and a half months into my new life as a full-time editor. Aside from a couple of knock-down colds, things have been moving along rather nicely. One of the big worries I had in going full-time was healthcare. Nearly five years ago, I suffered a major heart attack and the fallout from that continues to require a bunch of prescriptions and regular visits. In short, I require a better-than-average healthcare plan.

I had been on the upgraded plan my former employer offered as an option, but when I resigned, COBRA, financially, was not an option. (Seriously, who can afford those insane rates?) I did a lot of research and ended up with a decent silver plan via the ACA, but the costs are still significant and all on me. (My wife’s employer does offer a plan, but it’s the worst one I’ve ever seen.)

To cover these new expenses, I’ve been taking on short-term projects–ebook design, consulting–but that’s not stable income and it makes me nervous. Having a reliable source of income for this has been on my to-do list, but now it’s moved to the top.

Over the last ten years, I’ve directed money from new Clarkesworld or Forever subscriptions or Patreon pledges towards different projects that have ranged from adding more stories to creating an equipment budget for the podcast. Now I’m targeting healthcare.

As a funding goal, healthcare is anything but sexy. It’s not something I expect to see people rally around or get excited about. Adding new content? Sure, that gives a pretty tangible and easy-to-sell consequence. Insurance, well, you know… Still, it has to be done if I want to continue down this path.

At present, I’m sending a target of reaching this goal of July 12, 2017–the fifth anniversary of my heart attack. It’s an ambitious deadline, but one worth going for.

If you aren’t already a subscriber or Patreon supporter, here are the links I hope you’ll be interested in:

If you’re already a subscriber or supporter, thank you! You’ve made it possible to get this far. If you want to help further, share the above links or leave a review on our Amazon subscription page–good reviews there help encourage new subscribers. You’d be surprised by how much of an impact it has.

Take care,

-Neil

Still Recovering (again)

I thought I’d be better by now, but it’s looking like my prior health issues are impacting my recovery from this cold. It’s become fairly easy to draw lines from my heart issues and a prior case of pneumonia to the lingering cough and fatigue, so I’ve been taking it easy. At least I can look at a screen again without the letters beginning to move. I did get out for a bit this weekend, but even just standing around talking wiped me out.

Today I managed to get some work on my pending mountain of email and slush. I know I owe more than a few people responses, but it’s going to take a bit of time with my current energy levels. I’ll get to the rest as I can, but I know not to push myself or I’ll just make things worse.

Radio Silence

It’s been a rough couple of weeks in our house. A mean little bug has been taking us out one-by-one. Fortunately, it waits until the previous host is better before striking the next. It came home with my oldest and by the time it moved onto his brother, I knew the right medications to bring it to its knees. Unfortunately, it jumped to me next and none of those medications are on my “allowed” list. I’ve had to take the scenic route through death slime valley.

The worst appears to be over, but with pieces still sitting in my chest, it could be a few days before I’m back to 100%. This was probably the worst cold I’ve had since my heart attack and the only one that has really triggered any real concern on my part. It’s serving as a reminder that my life isn’t as it was before. Just trying to do some simple tasks yesterday quickly tossed me back on the couch, exhausted. Reminds me a lot of those first days out of the hospital. Just need to take it easy. Nothing needs to be done today.