The Hardest Year of My Life

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The last year has been a tough one to say the least. It has been hard in a number of different ways, but especially when it comes to my health. Over the past year, I have been to the emergency room 7 times (8 if you include my lime’s disease visit). I have had 4 overnight hospital stays in 3 different hospitals along with 2 surgical ablations on my heart. Along the way we moved our family of 6 to a different state as I transitioned to a new pastorate. This may sound like a lot to handle (and it was), but God’s grace has been with us every step of the way. As I tell our story of the last year, I will try to avoid getting too caught up in minutia and give you more of a big picture overview should you decide to continue reading.

 

By this time last year, we had already candidated at Mountaintop Alliance Church and had a pretty good feeling it was where God wanted us to go. I had already put in my resignation at our previous church and was scheduled to finish off December 27th, 2015. That was the plan, but things didn’t quite work out that way. On December 13th I was going through my regular Sunday morning routine when I noticed that my heart was racing. In the months leading up to this, I had noticed minor episodes where my heart rate would pick up, but it would always slow down after that. But this time was very different. I knew it was going extremely fast because it felt like my heart was beating through my chest. I laid down, hoping it would slow down, but it didn’t. Finally, I went downstairs and told Steph that she needed to take me to the emergency room. When we got there and they put me on a heart monitor, we discovered that my heart was racing at 265 beats per minute! The doctors were eventually able to get it slowed down. I ended up staying 4 days at the hospital and had an ablation done to my heart. As I talked to the doctors, they were quite confident that they had fixed the problem. I was relieved that this was behind me, and now we could focus on getting ready for our move.

 

Back in the Hospital

 

Originally, we had planned to move in early January, but after my surgery, Steph and I decided to postpone it to January 23rd instead, just to give us more time as I recovered. In the days following my surgery, I quickly realized that something was still off with my heart. Though not as serious, it was clearly racing again in a way that it shouldn’t be. Once again, this was quite scary for Steph and I. We knew that having an ablation was never a sure thing, but from what the doctors told us, we had been hopeful. Finally on January 8th, after doing everything I could to avoid going back to the emergency room, Steph took me in once again. This time my heart was (only!) racing around 200 beats per minute. The doctors were able to get it slowed down and back in rhythm. But instead of admitting me to the hospital (which is probably what they should have done in hindsight) they sent me home with a heart monitor. I was skeptical and sure enough, the next day my heart was racing again. I hoped and prayed that I wouldn’t have to go back in, but after several hours, I couldn’t take it any more and my dear wife took me into the hospital….again. This time it took quite a while (around 2 hours) for the doctors to get my heart slowed down. Not surprisingly, it was not a fun time for me, but I will never forget how I got a call from David Linn, our District Superintendent at the time. I am not sure how he heard so quickly that I was in the hospital, but Steph took the call in the emergency room because I was not in a state to talk. I praise God for his timely call. Thankfully, the doctors decided to admit me and I ended up staying a couple more days. The head doctor that performed my ablation was on vacation, so another ablation was out of the equation. The other factor that prevented anything further from happening was that we were planning on moving in less than two weeks. The doctors decided to put me on some more meds to hopefully get me through the move.

 

The Move to Central PA

 

It is amazing to think back on this time in our lives. Every moment of every day, we are dependent upon the grace of God to sustain us. Of course we know this as Christians, but during certain seasons of life, we are more keenly aware of God’s grace and this was one of them for our family. I am not quite sure how our move came together, but it did. We got a ton of help from lots of different people and we are so grateful to them. Around noon on January 23rd, we had our moving truck all packed up, but that was the weekend of the big blizzard that hit all over the country. We decided to postpone our move another day in order to get some rest and wait for better travel weather. The next day the move went really well and my health seemed to be holding up, praise God.

 

Settling Down in our New Digs

 

For the next 5 months, things went fairly well. With me now on medication, my heart seemed to be staying in rhythm and I was able to function in a manner that allowed me to continue to serve as a pastor. I was definitely not back to full strength, but God gave me what I needed to get by – His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9). We started to settle down in our new town of Snow Shoe, PA and our new church and have really fallen in love with the place. In April we started to look for a new home (we had been renting) and by the end of May we had an agreement in place that would have us closing on our new home July 20th. We would be homeowners for the first time. The other event that is worth mentioning is that my new specialist in State College decided to take me off my meds. After a couple months of being weaned off, by June I was drug free and optimistic that my heart problem was now gone, and that I could finally focus on ministry and family and serving the Lord. Of course, I was quite wrong.

 

Another “Episode”

 

In mid-July we vacationed at our favorite family destination – Virginia Beach. We had a great time and I was definitely more active that I had been over the past several months, but my health seemed to be holding up. Then on the last day I had another “episode.” We were packing up and getting ready to leave when I noticed my heart racing. I tried to relax and see if it would slow down, but it was to no avail. I tried “bearing down” like the doctors had taught me to do, but it was met with the same result. Steph and I had a decision to make. Either we could go to an ER in Virginia Beach, knowing there would be a good chance I would be admitted. Or, we could try to make the 8-hour trip back home. I knew it would be hard on our family if we stayed, especially my dear wife, so I didn’t let on how bad I was feeling. Instead, I told her we should try to make it back home. I admit, it was kind of crazy, but what was even crazier is that I insisted on driving! I reasoned that it would keep my mind off of how lousy I felt.

 

About 9 hours later, by God grace, we made it back to State College and I checked into the ER. As I told the doctors what had happened that day, they were amazed at what they heard. During the whole trip home, my heart was racing, and when I got to the ER, it was still in the low 200’s. I discovered that day that I had a strong heart…..that was just messed up. They told me that most people would have passed out after a few hours or even less, but I had lasted 10 hours! This time, I did not get admitted but was sent home and told to set up another appointment with the specialist.

 

Another Move

 

Just two days later, on July 20th, we closed on our new home. We were officially homeowners, but our “new” 50-year-old home, needed some updates. For the next month we worked very hard to get it move-in-ready. Again, it was only by the grace of God that I was able to do what I did in terms of physical labor. With the help of several people from our church and some friends from New York, we moved into our new home on August 20th. Although this house has required a lot of work and investment, we have really grown to love our new home – such a blessing from the Lord. It was also during this time that I met with my cardiologist. He laid out three options for me – Another ablation, Get back on meds (likely for the rest of my life), or….. Nothing at all. Ever the optimist, I opted for #3. I was feeling good, doing lots of physical labor, and was confident things were on the up and up.

 

Another Episode

 

In late September, about a month after our move, I ended up back in the hospital. The day before, my heart had started to race, but on its own I came out of it. Once again, this gave me hope that I could get through this without either meds or surgery. But this hope was short lived as the very next day after several hours in tachycardia (racing heartbeat), Stephane took me into the ER. The doctors got my heart back in rhythm, but I was admitted and spent a couple more days in the hospital. It was now clear that something further had to be done. I didn’t want to be on meds for the rest of my life so we decided to go ahead with the ablation. For that I would have to travel 2 hours away to the Hershey Medical Center. They scheduled me for the earliest date available, which was November 10th. More waiting would be required, but I knew God was in this and that His timing was perfect.

 

The Lead up to Surgery

 

For the next few weeks, things went pretty smoothly. Once again I was feeling good and we even hosted my parents who had travelled all the way from Saskatchewan for a visit. Then on October 27th, it happened all over again. This was becoming an all too familiar pattern. We had been hoping that I could just make it to surgery without any other episodes, but it was not meant to be. Out of all my ER visits, this was the worst. One of our elders drove me to the hospital and during our half hour drive I started vomiting pretty bad, but at least I didn’t pass out. The doctors were able to get me down from 220 to about 110. However, like I had been for the past month (since my last hospital visit), I was not in sinus rhythm. In other words, my heartbeat was more of a “flutter” than anything, and the chambers of my heart were not working together like they should be. They sent me home that day, and later on we found out that my surgery got bumped up a few days to November 7th.

 

As I look back on this season of uncertainty in our lives, it is amazing how God gave us His peace, “the peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). No doubt we had our moments of doubt, but God always encouraged our hearts. We were also blessed with a loving and incredibly supportive church family, along with many dear friends that God provided during this difficult time. On November 6th, after peaching a sermon titled “Making Sense of the Election,” Steph and I were loading up the kids to head back home when, you guessed it, my heart started to race again. It felt like I was so close to the finish line, but I was not going to make it there without one more ER visit (If you count them up, this was #7). Steph and I decided that rather than going in to Mount Nitany Hospital in State College, we would just go all the way to Hershey, seeing as my surgery was scheduled for the next day. It was a beautiful drive down, but as you can imagine, very uncomfortable for me. When we got to the ER, I had to answer the same old questions for the umpteenth time, but it was kind of funny how I was able to tell the doctors something along the lines of… “that medication doesn’t work for me, but this one does.” Such was my knowledge of my heart condition, I guess. After getting my heart slowed down, I was admitted and it was just a matter of waiting until my surgery.

 

Surgery

 

The next day, right before they took me down for my operation, Steph handed me a card. It was an encouragement card from our church family and as I read through all the names and the little messages, I got a little teary eyed. I am not an emotional kind of guy, but God used this card to encourage my heart at just the right time. A minute later I was headed down to the operating room confident this surgery would do the trick. In addition to our church family, I knew there were people praying for us all over the place. People we didn’t even know were praying for us. One verse that the Lord continually brought to mind for me was 1 Peter 5:10: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” Even though I was putting myself in the hands of the surgeons, I knew in an ultimate sense that Christ was my healer, and that He would be the one to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish me.

 

The surgery ended up being a lot longer than the first ablation I had back in December of 2015. This one clocked in at about 4.5 hours. It turns out the doctors had a really hard time finding the problem area in order to ablate it. But their persistence paid off, as they were eventually able to take care of the problem. As you can imagine, I was wore out when I got back to my hospital room. I spent the next almost 24 hours resting and recovering, before Steph and I headed back home late afternoon on election day. I spent the next week or so recovering and by God’s grace, I was back in the pulpit on November 20th. Our prayers and the prayer’s of friends and family had been heard.

 

Follow-up

 

If you are wondering how I am feeling now, the answer is….great. It took me a few weeks to get my strength back and I am probably still not back to full strength, but I am feeling a lot better and my heart has not given me any problems. I know that our health is never a guarantee and that it is very possible that I could have recurring heart or health problems in the future. But I know that God is sovereign in the affairs of this world, including every detail of our lives, and this brings me great comfort and assurance. He will not give us more than we can bear.

 

In early December, I preached a 2-week sermon series on “suffering” that was well received. I praise God that when He takes us through the valley He often uses those experiences to minister to others. God doesn’t waste our suffering, not at all. As I reflect on the past year, it has been a hard year no doubt. But in many ways the hardest year of my life was also the best year of my life. Praise God for His grace and mercy in our lives. What an awesome God that we serve!

 

Romans 5:3-4: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” James 1:2-4: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials or various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”1 Peter 1:6-7: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

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