The following story took place a couple of years ago, roughly three months after having open heart surgery.
On my first day of cardiac rehab, I rode the elevator up with a man who was wearing a surgical mask. He was a complete enigma. He looked like a boy dressed in his father’s clothes. His shirt hung loose on his emaciated frame. He wore a baseball cap two sizes too big for his head. It looked to be carefully balanced, as though one quick move would shake it off. He looked like a young teenage boy, except that peeking out from under his surgical mask was a full beard. I never heard him speak. He moved very slowly. There was a woman with him—maybe his wife, maybe his mother—who led him around by the arm so he wouldn’t fall. I didn’t need to know his story to know that whatever had happened to him, he had become a shell of his former self. He spent four minutes on a treadmill set to its lowest speed, and then he went home. I saw him two days later. He followed the same routine—four minutes, then home. I only saw him one other time after that.
Later that same week I met a man named Charlie at the EKG station. Charlie and I are the same age. I could tell when I met him that he had been at this for a while. He seemed to be back to his normal strength. He was friendly and talkative. He seemed to know most everyone there. When he told me he was almost finished with his rehab assignment, I saw a hint of nostalgia in his eyes—maybe even a bit of sadness. I asked if he had enjoyed his time in rehab. He had, very much. Charlie seemed like a man who enjoyed everything.
I had been told it was okay to ask people what brought them to cardiac rehab. People here don’t mind telling their stories because we are survivors, and who doesn’t like a survival story?
I asked Charlie, “What brought you here? Open heart surgery?”
He said, “Not exactly. I had a transplant.”
I said, “Wow. A heart transplant? Really?”
“Actually,” he said, “I had a heart and lung transplant.”
I suddenly felt a little star struck. I needed to know more.
I said, “Were the heart and lung from the same donor?”
He said, “Heart and two lungs. And yes, they were from the same donor.” Then he leaned in a little, smiled, and said, “And get this. The doctors put them in as a single unit.” He tapped on his chest with his fingers like it was the hood of a classic car.
I didn’t know what to say. Who was this guy? The breath-filled lungs and beating heart beneath Charlie’s ribcage had been removed from another person, intact as a single unit, and placed into his hollow chest, and his body had received them. Amazing.
Charlie and the man in the mask stuck in my mind like counterparts of each other—wealth and poverty, power and frailty, life and death.
The man in the mask moved about the facility like a wisp of smoke. He was translucent—like a ghost biding his time on the wrong side of eternity’s door. But there was a certain grace in the way he moved, weightless, like he was already out of the earth’s gravitational pull and drifting slowly toward another world. He had come to rehab to put on some pounds in the hopes that it might anchor him down here for a while longer. There was something sacred about him—angelic even.
Charlie, on the other hand, carried himself like a man who was getting away with something. Every time I saw him, he had this Mona Lisa smile on his face like he was savoring some clever inside joke none of the rest of us would get. I did not know Charlie before his surgery, but there had to have been moments in his life when he came close to fading into the shadowlands himself. He might have even looked like the man in the mask at one point. But here he stood, reborn and strong. He looked like resurrection—bright as Easter morning and as surprised as the rest of us that his tomb was empty.
I am nowhere near the two extremes of Charlie and the man in the mask, but I have come to a point in my recovery where what I decide to do next will chart my course toward one or the other. So I show up. I put on my sneakers, stick the EKG leads on my chest, check in with my physical therapist, and do the work of recovery—me and the other survivors.