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Mike's Blog: The Heart of a Runner, Part 13

Laughter therapy

Editor's note: Mike Ashland loved running. But after he moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Oregon, and began working on a home renovation with his partner, he found himself more and more exhausted. Medical tests revealed that without his knowledge, he had suffered a massive heart attack that destroyed nearly half of his heart muscle. Within a month, Ashland went from being a marathon runner to a critically ill heart patient. With no job and no health insurance, he found himself facing the most serious crisis of his life. Ashland chronicles his perilous journey in this blog.

March 2

Assuming blood tests today go okay, my last stomach shot will be tonight at 9:30 p.m. I have a ring of bruises around my belly button. Frankly, I'm ready to be done with this particular part of my treatment. One of my cardiac team cardiologists admitted that he has a bit of a needle phobia and doesn't think he could give himself a shot in the stomach. Hmmph -- enough said!

Yesterday we went out for pizza, and it's the first I've enjoyed eating in months! What a treat. It was probably more sodium I've had in one meal than any in the last months, too, but you've got to live, man. I made meatloaf for dinner, baked potato and corn -- ha! Another meal enjoyed. Maybe I've turned the appetite corner.

My blood pressure is hanging in there, although my heart medications have been dialed back by about 50 percent. I'm hoping these will be increased so we can get close to the target maximums and see if my heart will respond with better output. I'm aiming squarely at a heart transplant and anxious to get to the end of the medication trials.

I had joked with some residents in the hospital about writing a song called "My Heart Sucks." Laughing has been the most healing treatment in this ordeal, and for that I have to thank my soon-to-be son-in-law. He's like having our own personal Robin Williams. In the blackest moments he has turned us into laughing, crying idiots.

After five years, he and my daughter are finally engaged and are planning a September wedding. I was to marry them in the Rose Garden in Portland. When my heart suddenly went on permanent vacation and I was hospitalized five times in six weeks, I know everyone was preparing for the worst. And meanwhile here I am walking around packing a portable defribrillator -- and not for fashion's sake. Will I make it to September? We've had too many moments in the hospital and out when just living through the night was not a guarantee.

So we've been talking about an earlier wedding, "just in case." It's become known as the "Wedding Just In Case Dad Dies," or WJICDD. In our usual black humor style, we are talking and planning and laughing. I so love these guys.

You can't be thinking about dying every day. I think about living. Laughing in the face of fear and tragedy is more than satisfying. We're cheating the dark forces and it feels so good.

Last Friday in the hospital I had already gone through two exhausting procedures and was at my worst. My cardiologist showed up and wanted to do a procedure where a catheter is inserted in my neck and a wire is run down into my heart. I thought this was something we'd been avoiding. "My job is to keep you alive tonight," he said. "We need to find out what's happening inside your heart."

While I was on the table, for the first time I actually thought I could die. My blood pressure had fallen, and I was running a fever (they treated me for pneumonia). I was gray and scared and feeling very alone. Most of my thoughts were about the people I love. I just planned to see them in a little while.

I don't know if anybody has ever died during this procedure. Maybe it's not such a big deal. But I learned something from facing the prospect of dying. It's really a simple thing: Take care to love while you can.

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