Why “No” Means “Yes” to Me, and How That Saved My Life…Twice (The End)

So, there I was in Costa Rica and I had just been told that without a heart transplant (healthcare in Costa Rica is insanely cheaper compared to USA standards, but a heart transplant without medical insurance was still out of the question financially) I would most likely die. I was really screwed to say the least. My heart’s ejection fraction (basically the MPG my body was getting out of my heart – a normal 42-year old’s EF should be around 55 to 65%) was down to almost 10%….I was toast. WTF. I had already been down this near-death path before and I wasn’t stoked about it the first time. My father came down to Costa Rica to help me get through my day to day life, and he mentioned that a doctor friend of mine said to fly up to San Francisco and check in to Stanford Hospital. Since I was only 42 and was dying from something that usually kills older folks, he said they would admit me no problem.

There was a problem however. All my life I had wanted to go on tour with a band in a foreign country. My current band was leaving in 4 days for Colombia and 10 days of punk rock heaven. I’ll write someday about what a tour is like, but like I just said, it’s heaven. Clouded by the fact that I was dying and didn’t really appreciate my situation, I was totally going on that tour. My mind was made up. My sister, my mom, my ex-girlfriend (who had now moved in with me to take care of me) and all my friends said it was a bad idea, but as I said, I wasn’t listening to anyone.

Another 2 days passed, and things got worse. I wasn’t really coherent (so I’m told now), and was really on autopilot. I was finally convinced to go up to the SF Bay Area and to check into Stanford Hospital. I still wasn’t sure how I was going to figure out that whole transplant thing, but I had my stupid plane tickets purchased. I still wanted to use that ticket I had to Bogota, but Stanford Hospital was now my destination. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it seemed like I was just going home to die…. the prognosis wasn’t good.

Suddenly, I was in California again. I hadn’t seen the USA since 2012. Aside from the fact that I was dying and could barely walk 100 feet without feeling like I was going to pass out, I felt like the old me again and went to Santa Cruz to visit my old friend Johnny Pacheco. We went to our usual hangout and got a bunch of Jack Daniels shots. The date was September 23, 2017, and I was shitfaced and looking at the prospect of checking myself into the emergency room at Stanford Hospital sometime that coming week. I hadn’t seen Johnny in a hot minute and we had a good old’ time shooting the shit and catching up on the last 10 years of our lives. I didn’t really mention that whole heart failure thing, and I crashed at his house and headed home the next morning. It was clear that no one was very happy with my hungover ass. I figured I’d hold off on the booze until I got out of the hospital, and then the good ol’ Johnny Shitbird would be back. I had no other reason to think otherwise, as I had cheated death 20 years before. No big deal I thought.

Two days later, I found myself in the ICU of Stanford Hospital. My cardiologist Dr. Michael Fowler is this super rad older British doctor with a sense of humor that would make Robin Williams blush. Unfortunately, he had no laughing news for me. He said shit was really bad and that I was in bad shape. I came to a few lucid conclusions that day. I spent the better part of my early 20s doing lots and lots and lots of drugs. Meth was really the drug of choice, but I’d do just about anything short of mainlining heroin. I also was a raging alcoholic for the better part of my life. I figured that the devil was coming to collect on the deal that I had “signed” with him over the course of those years, and was pretty honest about it to the doc and said just about as much to him.

The next step was to document my entire life to him and his team of medical students – they had taken particular interest in my case. Fucking great. Not only was I dying, but here I was in an ICU bed having to tell my entire life story to show these kid doctors -- including how much of a drug-addled, loser alcoholic I was and how it was now killing me. Not to mention the bullshit, “I don’t know what my family medical history is,” that comes with any damn visit to any damn doctor. Well, I had made that deal with the devil and was pretty much ready for him to collect. It took 4 hours to go through all of this. Me in the hospital bed, and these 10 med students huddled around hanging on my every word. “LSD when I was 14, meth when I was 18, ass loads of liquor since then, etc., etc.” The Valium they were pumping into me made it easier to talk, and so there it was in 4 hours, my life story.

“Well son, you did a pretty damn good job of killing yourself. Should have learned this lesson way earlier in life,” was the response I was ready to hear. My mom sat by for most of this – we have a great relationship and if I was gonna tell a complete stranger this, I may as well tell her too – she’s my best friend. I was waiting for her to lay into me right after the doctors did. Funny thing happened though. The doctor said while my stupid behavior and habits definitely didn’t help, this wasn’t the devil calling for his debt. Nor was it my biological mother or father’s fault either. He said basically that I got a shit end of the deal and got dealt a shitty hand. The damage to my heart was traced to years ago and there was no concrete evidence as to the root cause.

It was then and there that I was forever thankful that I have never found my biological parents. “Why would you say such a shitty thing?” you might be thinking. It’s pretty simple. I’ve made it my point in life to do what I want to do regardless of the consequences. Have I made all the right decisions? Hell to the no. Have I done it my way? Hell to the yes. I never wanted to be one of those people that blamed my life and its path on the events that I had no control over. Even if it had been a hereditary thing, I would have never wanted to know that. I always made it a joke when doctors asked me what my family medical history was. “Hell if I know,” was always my response. I was way more comfortable with my original thoughts that my lifestyle had killed me than the thought that this shit was passed on to me by my bios. No way I want to live my life based on the health of a “family” I never even knew. That’s no way to leave a legacy. This topic is a whole other blog entry, but I find it key to mention here to make it crystal clear that I never blame anyone for my condition except myself, and it turned out that it wasn’t even my fault.

I hate hospitals. Apparently, in my near-death state, that sentiment came out in spades. Plus, I was really pissed off that my band was playing shows in Colombia while I was lashed to this stupid hospital bed. I got caught a few times sneaking out – once I got as far as the parking lot and was one foot into an Uber (with my IV stand and hospital gown and all) before hospital security caught me. I was a complete asshole to my family and my friends who came to see me. Could you blame me? If I was dying, it certainly wasn’t going to be in a Goddamn hospital bed with tubes and sensors sticking out from all over me. I was getting the fuck out of there. Did I mention I couldn’t even really walk 100 feet without almost collapsing from being out of breath? I guess that heart thing runs more than just the blood through the body. I was released a week later. The doc said to come back in 4 weeks for a follow up. I was instructed to not drink liquor, eat less than 1300 mg of sodium (look up how much sodium is in food next time you bother….1300 mg isn’t SHIT), and was told that I couldn’t drink more than a liter of fluids a day. ONE FUCKING LITER. Try it sometime. The booze wasn’t hard. I could barely get out of bed much less drink whiskey. I still was really unaware of how dire a situation I was in. I auto piloted through that month and then the day was there for my follow up appointment.

This is the day that my whole outlook on life changed completely. First thing the doc said after our greetings and salutations was, “Wow Mr. Alt. Honestly I gave you 30/70 odds of even being alive to make it to this appointment.” What in the hell? Really? For the first time, it really put my situation in perspective. Shit I was dying. I went in for my echo cardiogram to see how much progress I had made. What do you know….my EF was up to 24%. Progress had actually been made. Here’s what made the ENTIRE difference in my experience: he didn’t say NO. His only advice to me aside from taking my meds and making sure I exercise everyday was this, “You can do whatever you want with your life man, but here’s the deal. You can go out to your bar and drink your shots of Jack Daniels. No problem man. Do whatever you want. However, if you decide that is what you want to do, you WILL DIE. MOST LIKELY ON THE SPOT. Go ahead and eat a salty pepperoni pizza. They’re really good, but same thing…YOU WILL DIE THAT NIGHT.”

For once, someone actually gave me options. This guy wasn’t telling me I couldn’t do anything, far from it in fact. For the first time in my life, I felt in control of what I was doing, not just running around doing what I was told I couldn’t. All accountability was laid squarely on my shoulders by this guy. told me. Suddenly, everything was myopically in focus. I know Dr. Fowler is as sharp as a tack, so I’m not sure if it was just his bedside manner or if he actually knew how to get through to me. The guy never told me no. Not once. He never said that no I won’t die, or no don’t do this don’t do that. He said that the result of this insanity was all on me. I’ll tell you it was one of the most liberating things anyone has ever said to me. I knew at that point in my head that the future path (as long as my heart will hold on) for me was clear as day. One thing I don’t do is feel sorry for myself. I was gonna take this by the reigns and run with that motherfucker.

10 months later I am writing this blog, sober as hell and happier than I’ve ever been in my life. My heart’s EF is 45% and still rising. The doctor had said that 40% wouldn’t even be possible. Do I miss drinking? Meh, not really. I had my run, and it was a helluva run to say the least. Do I yearn for liquor? Not at all. I’m over it. Do I want to do lots of drugs still? Nope. Have I ever gone to a therapist or an AA meeting for it? Nope. Why? Because I won’t let myself go out like that. I won’t go down as that guy that knew what was going on and ignored it. I won’t fuck up and blame everyone else. I definitely won’t make excuses either, and I’m not going to complicate someone else’s life by dropping all of my problems on them like an avalanche. This is 100% on me. Perhaps if the doc had approached me differently, I’d maybe be dead. Hmm. Not maybe. For sure.

I’m glad I’m not dead. I have way too much shit left to show the world.

Happy to be here,

Johnny Shitbird

1:17am 7.20.2018

Playa Dominical, Costa Rica

I always post a song that I love here, but not this time. I need to make something painfully clear here for people that don’t know me. The end result of me being alive is NOT all me. Infinitely far from it as a matter of fact. Without the support and love of my family and friends, I’d be dust in the wind. My estranged ex-girlfriend dropped her entire life to accompany me to the USA to be by my side purely out of love. We even managed to turn our differences into our strengths and will be getting married on September 22, 2019 – one year after that fateful last shot of whiskey I had with Pacheco. When someone says, “I’ll walk to the end of the earth for you,” you never know if that call ever comes to indeed make that walk if you’ll have the wherewithal to actually do it. Sandra – I just hope that when it’s my turn to be there for you, that I can answer the call just like you did for me. I fucking love you with all my everything.

My mother and father gave everything they had and then some to make sure that I had everything at my disposal to get better. Without a support network, no chance I’m here writing this today. While I will not really take no for an answer, I will accept love and help that living a real life requires. My bro, Dr. J Lowe, deserves mention as well for without his advice to go to Stanford Hospital, without it, same result of me six feet under. Lastly, Dr. Michael Fowler, and the whole Cardiology Team at Stanford University kick fucking ass. He’s the most punk fucking rock doctor I’ve ever met. Thank you all.

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