So, I realized after a few comments that I kinda left the end of the whole “I almost died” story with quite a few loose ends.
At some point in the ICU, I asked the doctor what the timeline is on this sort of crap. As you may or may not know, I live in Costa Rica full time. Since I had already seen a good chunk of the USA over the years, I really didn’t want to be there. I had fish to fry back home. “18 to 24 months,” came the reply. Well shit. That wasn’t acceptable to me. I had already confirmed a show for The Eastbay Shitbirds in late December there in the Bay Area and told him as much. “Look man, you’re in really bad shape. The best I can do is say aim for New Year’s (barely 3 months away) and be happy with anything less than 18 months.” That whole “no means yes” thing kicked into ludicrous speed. “Mega Maid, she’s gone plaid….” All I had in my head was that show and January 1st to get the hell out of there and back home to Costa Rica. “It’s nice to have goals, but please try to keep them realistic,” he said. I told him that I was being realistic, and January 1st was the fucking day I was leaving the USA and heading back home.
One month later in October at the follow up appointment when he told me 70/30 I should have been dead. He also congratulated me on the progress. He was shocked that I was walking around 1.5 hours a day, although as long as it wasn’t winding me, he said I was good to go with that. I figured it was time to plug in the guitar and rock out. Nope. Exertion like that would likely put me back in the hospital (or worse, kill me). He said so no music still. That SUCKED. Playing live is my therapy…my escape. That December show was still in my head and there was no way I was gonna miss it….along with that January 1st flight. In fact, not a snowball’s chance in hell, regardless of what the doctor said. He told me to return right before Thanksgiving and he’d give me another update and an echocardiogram. He reminded me (a few more than a few times) that I really shouldn’t be getting my hopes up, but maybe 12 months would only be needed to get home, not 18. “Uh huh,” I thought. “This fuckin’ guy has no idea who he’s dealing with,” was all that ran through my mind. I had already missed that band tour to Colombia….I wasn’t missing the first Eastbay Shitbirds show in 7 years, and I wasn’t missing summer in Costa Rica either.
Over the course of the next 45 days, there were only 2 things on my mind – neither of which had anything to do with heart failure. 1) I was playing that show (and the rehearsals that came with it), and 2) I was leaving January 1st, 2018. I wasn’t walking miles a day to get healthy, I was doing it to be able to play live again. The meds weren’t for my heart, they were for my plane ticket. “Please don’t get it in your head that you’re leaving January 1st,” I heard from quite a few people. Pffft. I couldn’t even tell you who said that aside from the doctor as it was a foregone conclusion that I WAS, and I wasn’t hearing anything different. Sandra and I walked the hills of San Francisco for six hours one day until our feet had blisters. I ground that old Rancho Arroyo Park quarry path like I did back when I was a little kid – miles every day. We went to a ton of punk shows. We saw Depeche Mode and Metallica and Dead and Friends. I was having a great time. I was taking it super slow, but inside I was still in ludicrous speed plaid. Walking around for hours and standing around not being able to dance or play at punk shows wasn’t cutting it at all. I wanted the gold ring….the show and the plane ticket.
It was almost Thanksgiving 2017 and the big follow up appointment was upon me. My thoughts that morning ranged from, “This dude said as long as my EF is above 30%, I’m straight,” to, “Fuck, if my EF is still below 20%, I need a fucking heart transplant.” You wanna talk about a roller coaster of emotions? Try that on for size. Turns out my EF was 26%. Fuck. Right down the middle. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear at all. What came next was a shocker. Doc said that I was OK and cleared me to go ahead at least with band rehearsals, no getting crazy though. As long as there weren’t any setbacks, they would put in a defibrillator in a small surgical procedure near Christmas time and then I’d be maybe cleared to play the show. The fact that my heart was healing was huge to him. He said with cautious optimism that I might might MIGHT be able to make that flight home in February.
Against everyone’s advice, I booked the fucking plane tickets home. January 3rd was the date. February wasn’t going to work. Summer started in Costa Rica January 1st. The show was confirmed. Pretty brazen of me, huh? Maybe, but I’ll tell you why I did it: it never crossed my mind that it was going to end any differently. Call me crazy, but waiting for 18 months in the San Francisco Bay Area to “get better” while my entire life in Costa Rica was on hold was out of the question, and if I had entered October with that mindset, I’m fairly certain things would have gotten way worse for me, especially in that first critical couple of months. It’s all in the attitude.
Now on that whole defibrillator thing, that’s a different story. They have to cut you open and then wire electrical leads into your heart’s blood vessels so that the thing can fucking shock me if my heart decided to give up the ghost on me. I didn’t care about the surgery – my main concern was how was I gonna play a show and leave January 1st (still hadn’t let the doctor in on that whole plane ticket thing) if I had to have surgery December 19th? The show was on December 29th! Shit. This is the day I really found out how fucking punk rock my doctor was. “Johnny, as long as you don’t do the fucking (yes, he said fucking) Pete Townshend shit (he stands there and does the Pete Townshend windmill move on the air guitar) you’ll be fine as long as you can handle the pain. The key is your pain threshold.” I explained that the pain was temporary and that wasn’t my concern….no problem there. I also told him I was right handed so if I WAS going to do that “fucking Pete Townshend shit” that it shouldn’t affect pain on the left side where the incision would be. “Well SHIT,” he almost shouted. “You’re all set as long as you don’t pass out from the pain,” as he’s doing more windmills on the air guitar. Punk fucking rock doctor indeed!
The surgery went fine (except that in a Deluded/Valium induced haze, I tried to break out of that hospital again a few times), and my follow up was December 27th. My echocardiogram said 31% EF. The doctor said, “I’m not sure how you did this, but you’re looking good all things considered, and seem to be on the rebound. I asked about flying back to Costa Rica and sheepishly admitted to him that I had purchased the plane tickets weeks ago for a January 3rd flight. He chuckled as he took off his glasses, “You’re truly one of a kind Johnny. One of a kind.” Right back fucking at you doc. Right back at yah. “Well, go rock the house, and get on that damn plane back to Costa Rica. Congratulations.”
I left the main hospital building and sat down at the bus stop bench that I waited at. Everything came tumbling down at one time. I sobbed harder than I had ever in my life. It took 30 minutes to compose myself. One of my built-in defense mechanisms is that it’s really hard to get me down. I think that if you don’t believe in yourself and get down on the little or big things, it will only end in detriment. Besides, I never felt sorry for myself and I certainly didn’t want to put the impression out there that that is what I was doing – it’s even worse for me for people to feel sorry for me. I had been a rock the entire time, not just for myself, but for those surrounding me as well. That whole facade came crashing down for that 30 minutes and the whole weight of the entire last 3 months was on me like a 747. What a fucking life. What a great day to be alive. What the fuck? A trillion thoughts went through my head. And then, it was all ok. Just breathe. Just breathe.
On the 28th, The Eastbay Shitbirds got together for final rehearsals for our show. The next night I was so fucking nervous it felt like I hadn’t done this ever before even though I’ve done it over a hundred times. The show went great and, less than a week later, I was in sunny Costa Rica to begin a whole new chapter in my life. My last meeting in May with my punk rock doctor went awesome. My EF was 45% which 2 different doctors told me was impossible to ever reach again – I should be happy with 37 to 40%. I feel better than I ever have in my life. The End.
(The next blog won’t be as heavy, I swear.)
“I’m at a junction
But I just don’t know which path
I’m proud of all the work I’ve done
But it never seems to last
It’s not for money it’s for love
And it just might break my back
Everyone keeps telling me
Everything’s going to be alright
Just sit right down
And tell you lies
Sometimes it seems as though
Some things might go my way
I’ll never give it up
Too many things I’ve yet to say
I’ve done it by myself
And I’ll do it all again
Everyone keeps telling me
Everything’s going to be alright
Just sit right down
And tell you lies”
Swingin’ Utters – “Tell Me Lies” (1998)