How open heart surgery alters your perspective on a pandemic: Glen Irvine’s new year reflections

I don’t remember exactly how we found out that our friend Glen needed emergency heart surgery – it was rather out of the blue. (He’s fitter than either of us.) It was out of the blue and it also struck me as a bit unfair – I tend to think that a global pandemic is enough for any of us to have on our plate… it’s really made me want to stomp my feet in protest when friends have also been dealt a cancer diagnosis, a death in the family, or some other dig-deeper-than-you-thought-you-could challenge, as well. A few months later, I’m happy to celebrate Glen’s continued presence in my life, and also, to celebrate the way he has shaped this experience. It makes me think that there’s a rawness to everything we’re dealt – the situation is there in clay and you can see it in the rough, but you can also finesse it, shape it in your hands into a travesty and insult, or into a blessing and opportunity. I wonder if the speed of Glen’s recovery is connected to his attitude… so I am happy he gave me permission to share this (it only cost me a jar of salsa and a promise of many more from next year’s batch, thanks for the recipe Julie, it really is the best salsa ever). Also, it’s always worth calling attention to our local Medical centre team, and the staff at the Pemberton and District Community Centre, for the amazing service they provide this community.

Glen is a mostly-retired teacher, a musician, a ski instructor, hunting guide and road rider. (He also has a secret history as the founder of the Whistler Singers, and is a thoughtful and wonderful writer.) Regulars at the gym or at Blackbird bakery will undoubtedly recognize him, as will many Waldorfians, where he taught music for a year.

Over to Glen.

It’s New Year’s Eve 2020 and before I settle in with my glass of whisky, I thought I’d take a moment to write down some thoughts. It’s a bit long but I hope you have the time to read it. Your circumstances will no doubt differ but I hope the sentiments expressed will resonate.

2020 was a great year.

By way of explanation, and before you think I have totally lost the plot, I’ll explain.

A mild chest discomfort at the beginning of the summer morphed into open heart surgery (quadruple bypass) in the midst of a global pandemic, a challenging 4 month rehabilitation, and ultimately a return to a normal although considerably more medicated lifestyle.

In a normal non-Covid year I would have been riding my bike in Europe.

Given the state of my heart, a heart attack was likely, and were this to happen on a mountain pass in Albania I don’t suspect the outcome would have been favourable.

In short I got lucky.

An old cliche says that it takes a village to raise a child. In my case it took a community of educated, compassionate, talented, hard working medical professionals and support workers to get me back on my feet. For me heroic frontline workers toiling in the midst of a global pandemic was not an abstraction. These were (and are) real people doing extremely challenging work in difficult circumstances. They will always have my unwavering respect and gratitude.

My conduct in these times of uncertainty has been largely informed by this experience; yes, that includes wearing masks, social distancing, and adhering to provincial health orders and recommendations. It’s the respectful thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.

To Dr. Nick Vagelatos and the wonderful staff at the Pemberton Medical Center, Dr. Warren Mayo, Dr. Jia Lin Soon and his amazing cardiac team at Saint Paul’s Hospital, the incredible ICU nurses, and all those in the cardiac ward at Saint Paul’s, I am forever indebted. You are all truly amazing.

To the lovely staff at the Pemberton Community Center who welcomed me back to the gym with smiles and much needed words of encouragement, you’re the bomb and everything that’s good about small town living.

I largely kept my condition private, but to those who were aware of it, your support made a world of difference.

Long periods of convalescence give one time to think, to appreciate, to rediscover. Sometimes you have to be slapped upside the head to wake up. Sometimes getting things in perspective requires a slap upside the head. 2020 whacked me and among so many other things I was reminded of the following:

To be born in Canada is to draw the long straw. There’s so much to love about this country. It’s comforting to know that when you need a leg up, help is there.

Self-reliance is a wonderful thing, but every so often we all need a hand;

It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: never take your friends for granted, never take your upbringing for granted, never take your life for granted;

Doing a will and a power of attorney is a sobering but necessary task.

Life becomes a bit more precious when you start to ponder your mortality;

It’s never a weakness to cry, but if you find yourself crying while watching a Hallmark movie there’s a good chance you’ve just had heart surgery;

Waking up every morning is a good thing and far preferable to the alternative;

Lingering over a coffee and a cinnamon bun from the Blackbird Bakery ( substitute your own location, beverage and pastry of choice ) is heavenly, perhaps more so now that this will be a very occasional treat for me. Not surprisingly, cinnamon buns are not part of a heart healthy diet;

If you have a creative outlet, you will never find yourself wanting for something to do. In my recovery I played the piano for hours both rediscovering old repertoire and exploring new tunes. Forty years later and jazz piano remains my greatest and most unresolved passion. If you’re lacking a creative outlet, it never too late to cultivate one;

Don’t sweat the small stuff, it will only give you a heart attack.

So is there a moral here? I think so. Upon reflection it seems to me that our greatest challenges can become the fountainhead for our most significant blessings. My hope is that this is the case for you and yours in the coming year. Whatever your circumstances, I hope your 2020 challenges morph into blessings and that 2021 is as good for you as 2020 was for me.

Warmest Regards, Glen

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