Truthfully, as I write this entry about what has otherwise been a fantastic physical recovery, I wonder if I'm overdoing it, or if something else is going on, or if this is related to the "new sensations" my cardiologist told me I'd feel for the rest of my life.
I've had a nagging chest pain for the last three weeks, and it feels very similar to what I felt right before I went in for surgery. Then again, my muscles are perpetually sore and I'm stretching out a lot of scar tissue in the rehab process. There are moments when I convince myself that I'm fine, because look at me – I'm doing great in every other way! – but then there are moments when it doesn't feel like the pain could not be anything other than my heart.
I want to see a doctor to put my mind at ease, but that could mean another $600 in billings. I'm already way deeper in debt than I thought I'd be when this all started, due to the way our medical system operates so ambiguously (you have to ask the exact right question to get any answers around here, and every hospital, every region, is a little different; basically, there is almost no way to avoid expensive, hidden charges). I'll dive into the medical bills and my experience with Obamacare in the next blog. I'll tell you now that I think the Affordable Care Act is a good step in the right direction. It's our profiteering medical industry that's screwed up and laden with exorbitant costs. You can expect the next chapter to have a sharper political edge than usual as I share how I relate to Steven Brill's January article in Time Magazine, "What I Learned From My $190,000 Open-Heart Surgery."
For now, as promised in the previous blog, I'll focus on my physical recovery and my return to rock climbing. Just know that it hasn't all been a perfect bed of roses, and it's scary how reluctant I am to call the doctor. Aside from the nagging pain in the left side of my chest and occasional tingly numbness in my left shoulder/arm and neck, yes, the recovery has been going well.
My First Hike
My first hike was near Moab, Utah, the day before Thanksgiving, 2014, almost one month to the day after my open-heart surgery. Until then, I'd stuck to flat, easy walks around town, partly because I didn't want to risk a nasty slip on the icy Rocky Mountain trails. I wasn't even walking the dog everyday before work, which is our normal routine. Mandi did that, getting up at 5:30 a.m. so that I could save my energy for my job at the gear store where I work. (We were also concerned that the dog pulling my arm attached to the leash would be bad for my delicate sternum.) By the time Thanksgiving came around, I was so ready to get out of the house and find a warmer, drier place to hike around.
Just driving to Moab, three hours away, was exciting. I've seen all the sights along the way plenty of times, but this time they felt very new and stimulating. That was when I realized the mental toll from an entire month of restricted mobility. It was literally a breath of fresh air.
We stopped at the Fisher Towers just northeast of Moab to stretch our legs. The Fisher Towers are truly a Martian landscape on Earth if there ever was one. Red spires of petrified mud twist into the horizon for hundreds of feet like the tentacles of a Kraken, and a few trails wind through them. The sun was setting when Mandi turned off the car (I still wasn't driving per doctor's orders, plus I knew the stick shift would be difficult to tolerate). The air was still and spirits were high.
My feet crunched over the gravel and slickrock, and I remembered a different time as a college student on fall break when I came here to climb these spires I was merely happy to look at now. As a 19-year-old, I'd huffed along the trail with my chin down, humping my heavy climbing pack to the base of a climb as fast as I could, fixated at reaching the more exciting, vertical terrain. This time, though, I had no pack and no expectation of how far I might hike. It was wonderful to appreciate the unique landscape from a more humble position.
Every so often I had to stop and catch my breath, but my legs still carried me along at the only pace I've ever seemed to know – full throttle. I had to consciously dial it back. I was weak from surgery, but I could already feel how much stronger my heart was!
We made it a little over a mile up the trail before we turned around. On the way back, we watched several BASE jumpers leap from the narrow fin and spire of a 400-foot tower called Ancient Art. Their parachutes caught the air in a resounding WHOOMP and allowed the men to glide soundlessly to the desert floor. The idea of jumping out of, or off of, anything with a parachute scares the hell out of me, but on that evening in the glowing sunset and crisp November air, I yearned to express myself in such a way. My heart was leaping with life!
Similar to my new appreciation of simply standing at the bottom and looking up at the Fisher Towers, my limited hiking ability was a fine excuse to visit some popular areas closer the road around Moab that I tend to dismiss because of the inevitable crowds. I was happy to be there at all, so the swarms of tourists didn't seem so offensive. On our 2.4-mile roundtrip hike to Corona Arch, it suddenly became so much easier to ignore the circus of human activity and admire the natural wonders (and yes, we got to see one person do the rope swing while the rest of the large group rappelled in fear).
As I sat on the warm, smooth sandstone, my heart got that leaping sensation again. I wanted to jump into the sky. Though it felt mildly foolish, I was compelled to scramble up a long, steep ramp of slickrock and look down on the huge arch, where a guided tour group was doddling with ropes.
The climb was easy but very exposed on the brink of a 200-foot drop, and it was longer than I expected. The rock lacked good handholds, so I was mostly dependent on the friction of my shoes on the angled surface. One slip would have been meatballs for me. But after 20 years of technical climbing, I knew what I was doing. In fact, the only reason I could to the climb was because it was so leg intensive, for my arms were not yet ready to pull me up the rock. Higher and higher, I crawled up the narrow passage, which had bolts that roped parties clip for protection. Fear caught up with me when my calf muscles started to burn and I realized I still had a ways to go to reach the top. I milked a couple rest stances to catch my breath and conserve my energy and focus. I would have to climb down the same way I came up. That would be scary. I thought about turning around, but I knew I could do it.
Sometimes you need do something because you know you can, just to remind yourself that that you can handle the risk and fear, I thought.
Before my surgery, when I was climbing some of the hardest routes of my life, such a scramble would barely register on my nerves. In my humble, weakened state, however, huffing out of breath with nothing to hold onto, the slab above Corona Arch was a healthy reminder of the power of perspective.
The climb was barely technical, but it took all the mental tools at my disposal to overcome it in a safe manner. In a way, it set the stage for my return to rock climbing and the new mindset in which I find myself.
I've mentioned several times in this series that I've struggled with depression and low self-esteem in the months after surgery. Well, climbing continues to pull me out of the darkest recesses of the mind and into the light. It gives me attainable goals, near and far, to look forward to, and a way to express that wild, leaping feeling in my heart that acknowledges how alive I am, and how trivial the day-to-day bullshit like medical bills is in the grand scheme of things.
A Return to Rock
My first day back on a rope was, appropriately, Valentine's Day, 2015. I wrote about it a little here. I've been sending my old warm-ups, mostly on toprope. I even took a mild lead fall on a 5.12c at Rifle Mountain Park the other day. I'm getting stronger every week!
Of course I've been doing some simple exercises to help ease my body back into climbing shape. I've been doing some pushups, plank and sit-ups as well as some assisted pull-ups (using a stool for my feet to control how much weight I put on my arms). Before surgery I was averaging 18 pull-ups per set. Right now, just doing two or three pull-ups is a challenge, so I'm doing flexed arm hangs for intervals that started at 20 seconds (barely) and have increased to sets of 30 seconds. I plan to start doing pull-ups again when I can hold a flexed-arm hang for a minute.
My most sensitive area so far is a triangle of scar tissue, about 2 inches wide, where my abdominals connect to the bast of my sternum. I think it's related to the holes where the pericardial drain tubes came out. When I first tried using my hangboard for pull-ups or even a flexed-arm hang, I felt like I had a hole in my chest – there just wasn't any muscle there, only scar tissue. Plank felt better, along with sit-ups, so I focused on those exercises and now the hangboard exercises don't feel too bad. It seems the muscle is finally rebuilding.
Like I've said before – and I'm saying it again because it can't be stressed enough – caution is my friend. Through my life I've been very practiced at pushing through pain during workouts. Now I'm getting better at noticing when my body starts to hurt and backing off (hopefully) before I do more damage than good.
For the most part, my strength is flooding back faster than I dared to hope. The main thing now is to not get too excited and do too much too soon. I'm doing my best to keep a humble attitude and be content with repeating my old warm-up routes while spending time outside with good friends.
At this stage of the game – and perhaps now and forever – gratitude is definitely the best attitude.
It's in these situations that having a passion – a hobby, a pastime, an obsession – will carry you through and help you grow that much more in the process. Follow your heart! And be glad for the opportunity to do so.