One year ago, Friday, March 12, 2021, I had big plans for the day — two Zoom gigs and a Covid surge take-out dinner with my sweetie, wrapped and ready to go from our favorite Mexican Restaurant, Paco’s Taco’s.
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” wrote John Lennon. Instead of enchiladas, I stared down a baby bowl of tepid vegetable soup that a guy from dietary delivered to my hospital room.
Many of you know that my husband drove me to the emergency room at U.C.L.A. early that morning because, well, something didn’t feel right. I was experiencing strange heartburn in my throat, tightness in my neck and jaw, mild pain that radiated down both arms, a little pushy-pushy in my chest. No drama, no clutching. But all this stuff happened like an arpeggio in music, one note after another until the whole dissonant chord was ringing. When I circled the living room trying to walk it off, I felt sick to my stomach and was breathing hard. “It’s a panic attack,” I told myself, rather unconvincingly, because I don’t get panic attacks.
Like many people, “denial” is my first strategy of defense. It’s a freaking miracle that denial gave way, quickly, to begrudging acceptance. I swallowed an aspirin and got to the hospital where I tried to play down the whole thing as the emergency room nurse greeted me at the door and asked what’s going on. “Oh I feel like an idiot being here, but…”
In minutes the nurses and ER doc were huddled around my EKG. X-Rays were ordered, an ultrasound of my heart. They started an IV immediately and brought on the blood thinners and God knows what else. The cardiologist arrived and did his twenty questions thing. It would take hours before a diagnosis was made because, for one thing, I was NOT “presenting” as someone in acute cardiac distress.
Well guess what…
I was having a heart attack, right there in the emergency room and if I hadn’t gotten help in time, there is a chance I would not have survived. The big firehose of a coronary artery, the LAD (Lateral Anterior Descending), also known as “The Widow Maker,” keeps a big hunk of the heart watered and fed. If it goes, so do you. Mine was 80% blocked with sticky goo.
The doc in the cardiac heart catheterization lab gave me a full report after the procedure and didn’t mince words. I have to take pills to lower my cholesterol (forever) AND blood thinners for one year otherwise my brand new stent may fail and I can kiss my ass goodbye.
So March 12th is not only the anniversary of my heart attack, but it’s the day I can THROW AWAY the Plavix. Bring on the trumpets!
For the past year, a dinky paper cut would bleed until cows fly. Mysterious bruises — colorful splotches of black, blue, purple, red — appeared on my body, out of nowhere. Did I bump myself? Walk into a wall? Take up wrestling? Maybe…maybe…nooooo. My hemoglobin is still in the dumper. I know this is a nothingburger price to pay for being alive. I also know that too many women (and men) do not survive their first heart attack. I wrote several blogs about what happened and lots of people shared their own stories with me. Sometimes things ended well and sometimes they didn’t.
News Flash: According to the American Heart Association, heart disease kills one woman every 80 seconds in the United States. And half of all women who experience a heart attack have no warning signs and only subtle symptoms. “Unfortunately, this has led to worse outcomes in women with heart disease compared to men.” Cardiologist Marcella Calfon Press, MD, PhD, co-director of UCLA Women’s Cardiovascular Health Center
I thought I’d bounce back quickly and resume my way-too-busy schedule. Like NOW. But even while I was building my stamina in Cardiac Rehab, I had to take naps to make it through the day. As a performer and teacher I’m used to standing up in front of an audience and bopping around. But it took nine months before I could jettison the chair and bop once more. Then there’s the “head space” thing. Stuff I thought I had worked through years ago — family traumas — came roaring back and almost knocked me out of orbit.
When something like a heart attack (or fill-in-the-blank) happens, it’s like a body blow that throws you off balance or flat on the floor or over the edge. I remember laying on that hard gurney under the flying angiogram machine as they inserted a stent into my heart and thinking, uh-oh…this could be it.
The curtains parted a little and I got a real good look at the BIG PICTURE. That I am a renter here and the lease will end. That everyone I love will leave, some way or another. Every thing I cherish has a short shelf-life, even when I measure it in spins around the sun. Every tasty bite of guacamole…chew, swallow, gone. Disappearing into the wild, whirling cauldron of life. 24/7 alchemy, it is.
I don’t need to look any farther than our beloved ukulele to feel the kiss of impermanence. We strum four strings, a chord, make a beautiful sound and it ripples in our bones. But almost immediately it changes or melts into the next strum or just fades away. Back to silence.
The best I can do is embrace this moment — this pixilated, messy, terrifying, dazzling moment. The best I can do is trust that somehow, somewhere woven deep into the tapestry of life, everything is okay. Even when it’s not.
“How wonderful to be who I am, made out of earth and water, my own thoughts, my own fingerprints—all that glorious, temporary stuff.” Mary Oliver
Thanks to Stuart and Doug for inviting me to be the guest on their recent Ooktown Podcast. I share a few laughs, some stories, songs and sing my one hit, “It’s A PMS Kind of Day.” You can click here to watch the video version or click here to listen to the Podcast (Ep.105: The PMS Song) on iTunes. Enjoy the whimsy!!!
The CC Strummers are going strong, with four live jams a month and two Zoom classes every week (Monday and Thursdays). New players in SoCal are joining us in person and others from around the world are logging onto Zoom. This is definitely one of those silver lining things that happened because the pandemic happened. I am grateful beyond words for our community of players. We are helping each other bear the heaviness in the world. And feel the joy. Speaking of joy… Click here to watch us play and sing my own song Brand New Day at our most recent jam.
Thank you for sharing your anniversary letter. It is so important to remind us of these symptoms. I did have a girlfriend who died of a heart attack, the widow maker. She had symptoms for weeks previously and stayed in denial and did nothing. She died on a cold winter night. Her husband grieves her loss every day. W.
Cali Rose. As others have stated I was not aware of your medical experience. Really glad to hear that you have rebounded so well and you are so upbeat as well. I am sure many have learned a great deal from your blogs and no doubt have caused many to pay closer attention to their health. In September 2017 I had open heart surgery to correct an ascending aortic aneurysm. Fortunately it was discovered just before it reached the critical stage and thanks to outstanding care by the team of Dr. Marc Crow at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis I have recovered nicely (the local heart surgeon would not perform the procedure due to my advanced age. Thought 4 out of 10 my age would not survive the procedure). Thankfully Dr. Crow did not agree as he regularly performs the procedure and most are in my age group. Again, sorry I was not aware you had the heart attack but glad you are doing well now. I remember quite well the evening you called to inform me that sis Connie had suffered her fatal heart attack. In the event I have not previously expressed my appreciation for that I hereby do so. Best regards to you and also Craig.
Thank you Selden and I’m gratified to hear that you are thriving as well.
I just loved your recap of the year. During this pandemic, we have had the opportunity to reflect on our lives and our perspectives have truly changed. We cherish everyday and moment. Thanks for being a part of our lives. Appreciate your dedication and the joy of music you bring to us. T.
Thank-you for all that you do. You are truly a blessing. You always make smile & happy. B.
Wow. I hung on every word. You write so well, in addition to everything else you do so well.
Glad you are still your darling self. C.
Lord, Cali Rose,
Wake up call, indeed! We question at this time of our lives “When will the big day arrive” when
We check out, but when you almost “Check out” in fact, it puts things in a whole new perspective… absolutely we are on borrowed time.
Bless you and your upbeat attitude throughout the ordeal, and continuing. No matter when the bell tolls for you and me, we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing we “didn’t let our music die with us” but instead have sown thousands of seeds of joy throughout The community.
Hugs and long live Cali Rose and the seeds she sows! S.
I had no idea about this heart attack. I have come so recently into your world. What an anniversary to celebrate! You seem to be doing so well; I hope that is true.
You look great, you sound great, you give so much and share your joy and love of music and the Ukulele
Happy 1st birthday post big trauma. Keep up the good work and thanks for an outstanding description of what happened and how you reacted because, as you say, our first line of defense is to ignore or presume we can quite easily move on.
It happened to a dancer friend of mine, she’s British to boot, and we do a lot of denying. Hers was lung issues and she’s in slow recovery. Her words were so like your – basically deny and ignore it will pass because I am strong etc. etc. Sending you anniversary good wishes. R
Hey Cali, boy what a journey. So very glad you went to the hospital when you did. You are a lovely, lovely bright light and I always think of you with joy and laughter. One never knows when our paths may cross and I hope it’s soon. Keep being the sunny spirit and joy-filled lovely lady I know you to be. A.
I am so grateful your presence in my life, and your survival!!! I listened to the pod cast when I first saw it and meant to comment….. beautiful!!!! I got teary with amazement and appreciation in being reminded just how special you are and how many lives you touch, making a huge difference in their/my life. Writing so candidly about your medical experiences and life in general serves as a huge role model for us all. Thank you Cali. G.
Wow, I was just thinking about this the other day. I remember my heart sank when I read the blog about your heart attack. But the good thing is that not only did you get help quickly, but you raised awareness. You may have helped people, and you’ll never know it! I’m so glad everything turned out! I know our paths have only crossed a couple of times but those were good times and I will always cherish them. R.
Always love your blogs. I can’t believe it’s been a year already. And I STILL can’t believe you had a heart attack. G.
Thanks for sharing your latest blog. We are all certainly glad to have you around for this one year anniversary. Once again, your wisdom and willingness to share and educate rises to the top. The joy and wisdom you share at our online classes has kept so many of us going during this pandemic. I look forward to each class and consider getting to participate in your online community one of the positive things to come out of this crazy last few years. Once again, thanks for sharing your knowledge but even more importantly your “philosophy and humor.” W.
Thanks for this blog post. I remember your similar posts from a year ago VERY WELL! If it weren’t for those posts, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Kaiser last March 18 when I was feeling some intermittent lightheadedness. I got the pacemaker the next day!!! Thank you for putting out your heart experience into the world – and just for being the delightful person you are! We all hope you will be happy and healthy for a LONG time!!! C.
I love love love your blogs and stories. I remember when this happened……your heart, your wonderful BIG BIG heart❤❤
It brings me to tears, REALLY! The experience, emotions, but especially your IMMENSE talent in telling others about it….in telling others about the
blessing music has brought you. The blessing YOU bring to others. D.
I quoted heavily from your blog today in my newsletter – hope you don’t mind! So good, and congratulations too on getting to your one year anniversary. What an ordeal that was. Sheesh. It just never ends, does it?! I’m so glad you’re here at the same time as me! 🙂 C.
Happy First Year Anniversary of the rest of your life! Bet you feel like you learned more this past year than any other, and those lessons will help you make every minute you have, as you continue to spin around the sun, even more precious.
You write beautifully, but even more important, what you write has the power to help people live better on so many levels. Keep up the good work. You are teaching us lots more than music! W.
I’m more than glad you are here! I’m sure I don’t express my happiness properly, but that you received the medical care you needed and are vertical on the planet is such a blessing! As I add years to my itinerary each moment becomes more salient. Familial ties become more precious. Memories, impalpable, become more important to capture.
I love your blogs so much. You are capturing your life, and the life of our family, so beautifully. S.
You are such an amazing writer. I’m so glad you are still with us and wish you a long happy life. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your reactions to them. You were indeed lucky to go to the ER when and as soon as you did. Keep the music flowing. M.
I, for one, am very thankful that you are here to write your blog! Look at all the lives you’ve brighten with your uplifting/fun music and bubbly personality! I found your article at the end a real eye opener! I never knew one woman dies every 80 seconds from heart failure! B.
Wow, Cali! That’s quite a story but here you are, looking lovely and healthy and creating joy and happiness for so, so many!! We need you so you better stick around, you are too important to us!!!! With much appreciation… T.
Joni Rae Russell
I guess you learned alot from your dad including your captivating
writing skills. Yes, the best time to do “it” is ‘between now and right now’.
I love how you maneuvered the pandemic and are bringing so much joy to so many.
You are an excellent entertainer and teacher and your consistency is extraordinary.
As an outsider, I loved watching you overcome what life dealt (Farewell Plavix). Thanks for sharing your story and your PSA on women’s heart attacks.
I enjoy your personality and that special something that only you have. Keep going Cali Rose – so glad the worst is behind you -Thank You for all you do.
Thank you Joni and thank you for joining us at our jams. I absolutely love what you say — to do it between now and right now! May you go forth in joy and good health!
I am SO glad you didn’t “Buy the Big One”, a year ago! Look at all the joy we would have missed. No one is promised tomorrow! Living “In the Moment” is the only way!
Looking forward to making more music and memories!☮️
Thank you and we are all mightily fortunate that you are here too!