Grateful Dead? Grateful NOT Dead! (My Five Words of Gratitude for the Thanksgiving Season)

I have a new lease on life as my old lease nearly expired on August 3, 2015…but more about that in a moment. 

This blog runs in the United States on my own website ( and on the Tamarack website ( in Canada. Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving the second Monday of October; in the United States we celebrate it the fourth Thursday of November. To honor both traditions, I decided to publish a blog on gratitude that runs roughly midway between the two holidays.

However, this blog is not the one I envisioned last May when I posted a request for readers to submit five wordsBroken Heart that expressed their deepest sense of appreciation and gratitude. I have received a lot of responses and, in fact, am still receiving them at Five Words of Gratitude. You are welcome to add your own! In May I imagined using them to write a sweet and inspiring blog for this Thanksgiving season. I could not have predicted then I would be writing such a personal piece on gratitude instead.

About 18 months ago, when I turned 60 years old, I had a lot of people say things to me like, “You know, 60 is the new 50!” The real optimists would say it was the “new 40” and the totally clueless would say it was the “new 30.” In fact, it felt like 80, even 90, to me.

By my 60th birthday I was utterly spent. Fatigue was my constant companion. I attributed the exhaustion to my decision to begin a doctoral program at age 55. I went to school full-time and worked full-time, and then pushed myself to finish my research and dissertation before my 60th birthday. For nearly five years I had sworn, “I will NOT still be doing this at age 60!” I achieved the goal in September, 2013, finishing about 7 months before the big birthday.

Shortly after I finished my doctorate, I noticed that not only was I very, very tired; I was also having some other challenges. While walking our dogs I would occasionally lose my balance and stumble forward, nearly falling. My eyes were increasingly sensitive to light and my vision was occasionally blurred. I sometimes had difficulty swallowing when eating. Most frightening of all, my thinking did not always seem very clear to me.

However, none of these symptoms were ever severe enough to warrant calling my doctor. In fact, each had logical but not very urgent explanations: Balance issues? Inner ear out of whack; it will pass. Light sensitivity and blurred vision? New prescription for my glasses at my next check up. Difficulty swallowing? Probably an allergy; just avoid the problem foods. Exhaustion and difficulty thinking clearly? Dude, you are getting older!

Unfortunately, the problems did not go away and only grew incrementally worse. For two or three weeks in June, it seemed I was viewing everything from underwater; you know, where you can see everything but it seems slightly distorted and, if it moves, it seems to move in slow motion? My balance was quite bad enough I was scared to walk our dogs. Then it all seemed to pass and I was doing well…until August 3.

On the morning of Monday, August 3rd I was not feeling very well. My balance was off a bit yet I drove 120 miles to St. Davids, Pennsylvania to teach my final class of the summer at Eastern University. When I reached Eastern University I felt very dizzy and nauseous. I staggered wildly down the sidewalk to the front door of the building where I met a woman going inside whom I recognized as faculty from the nursing school. She recognized I was not feeling well – it was particularly obvious after I demonstrated how unwell I was feeling with the assistance of a nearby trash bin. While I was recomposing myself, she was calling 911.

When the EMT’s arrived, they assessed me for a possible stroke and took me to a nearby hospital which had a special stroke and cardiac trauma center. Once in the ER a myriad of tests were performed. As a result, I can say with high confidence that I have a structurally sound heart, with very little plaque, that has never been physically damaged and I have no indication of brain tumors or cancer. I was seen by an ER physician and a whole host of specialists within only a few hours. The initial assessment led them to believe I was having inner ear problems. A nurse stuck a scopolamine transdermal patch behind my ear to alleviate the dizziness but the team decided to keep me overnight for observation anyway. It made sense – it was getting late, the patch needed time to work, and I would have had to drive 120 miles back home at night. They also seized the opportunity to hook me up to every available type of monitor they could find at that hour in the hospital.

At 1:30 AM everything changed. My heart paused…for four seconds…and my heart rate was abnormally low, between 35 and 45 beats per minute. Only elite athletes, or nearly frozen people, can even have such low heart rates and still be alive. From that point on, every person that came into my room would ask, “What’s your name?” “What is your birthdate?,” and “Are you an elite athlete?” Really…they asked that, albeit with a bit of polite disbelief once they got a better look at me.

At 6:00 AM my heart paused again…also for about four seconds. At six seconds, by the way, a person passes out. By this time they were already preparing me for additional tests and by noon I had a new diagnosis: sick sinus syndrome. It is a relatively uncommon but pretty straightforward problem with the heart’s natural pacemaker. The fix is just as straightforward: a titanium pacemaker implanted in my chest to “pace” the heart properly. It is really pretty cool technology: if the lower chamber of my heart does not beat within a half second of the top chamber, the pacemaker (whom I have named “Jude”) shoots a 2 volt shock to the lower chamber to wake it up. Jude is also set to regulate my heart rate at no less than 60 beats per minute, which is not a bad ballroom dance tempo either. Jude is monitored each night by a small computer that sits next to my bed and sends real-time data to my cardiac electro-physiologist in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I cannot wait for the version that will “beam me up” to the doctor’s office for my annual appointment.

Of course, living out the story I have just told was not as fun as I have tried to make it here in the re-telling. It was scary and not everything went well. In fact, I had to have two surgeries to finally get Jude to “seed” properly to my heart. The second surgery was done without general anesthetic because I did not do well with anesthetic the first time around. It was a truly surrealistic, but not unpleasant, experience to be awake and talking to the surgeon while he reattached the pacemaker leads to my heart muscle.

Today, though, I am truly grateful not to be dead. It could have happened so easily on August 3rd. I might have passed out while driving to Philadelphia; the woman at the door of the school might not have been a nurse and not known I was in crisis; Bryn Mawr Hospital, nationally recognized for its cardiac care, might not have been the nearest ER and hospital; and, had the ER team at Bryn Mawr not kept me overnight for monitoring, my heart pause might still be undiscovered.

In this Thanksgiving season I have a sense of gratitude unlike any I have ever had before. In part, it is also because I am feeling stronger and better than I have in many years, and all of my symptoms are gone. Wait…maybe 60 really IS the new 30!

Happy Thanksgiving – belated or in the near future!

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.


4 thoughts on “Grateful Dead? Grateful NOT Dead! (My Five Words of Gratitude for the Thanksgiving Season)”

  1. Oh my gosh, Tom!!! I had no idea until Barb Kellogg sent this on to me. So glad you are doing so well….but also so sorry you had to go through it! I’m sure it was frightening, but thank God for the outcome!

    Pam Erickson

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