The Work I Am Here to Do

The first time I died was on November 8, 2017, at 7:52 p.m.

I had already been in the Critical Care Unit of Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, Washington, for 20 days following an emergency open-heart surgery to repair my aorta. The aorta is the large main artery through which blood pumps out of your heart to every organ and cell in your body. I had an aortic dissection, an acute disorder in which the inner lining of the aortic wall suddenly tears and separates from the middle layer of the aortic wall.

There are two types of aorta dissections, and I had the type that required an immediate ten-hour open-heart surgery to save my life. I would later learn that it was years of uncontrolled high blood pressure that enlarged my heart and weakened my blood vessels, creating the conditions for the dissection to occur. About 20% of people who have an aortic dissection die before they reach the hospital. Given the many complications that can happen before, during, and after surgery if the patient makes it to the hospital, Type A aortic dissection has a 99% fatality rate.

When the dissection occurred, my brain and kidneys were denied their full supply of blood and oxygen. Even though I survived the surgery to replace part of my aorta with a synthetic material called Dacron, the doctors warned my husband that I might have mental or physical disabilities due to the damage my body had sustained. I was in kidney failure after the surgery and required daily dialysis. However, my mental functions were slowly returning, and I was recovering and regaining strength.

I was just a few days from being discharged and was able to walk around the Critical Care Unit. Based on recounts from my husband, doctors, and nurses, I returned to my room the evening of November 8, 2017, after taking a short walk to the waiting room. I was wearing my son’s Santa hat while on a three-way call with my husband and our friend in New York. Shortly after going into the bathroom, (yes, I intended to potty while talking on the phone), my husband said I stopped talking in mid-sentence—and all he heard was the cracking sound of my phone hitting the floor.

They both started shouting my name but got no response. Soon, they heard the nurses shouting, “Oh my god, did she break her neck…where is all the blood coming from?” and “Code blue!”

That night, as I chatted on the phone in the bathroom, my heart had suddenly stopped beating. My body collapsed towards the wall closest to the toilet, and the weight of my body sliding down pulled the string to signal to the nurses that I needed assistance. That was how they found me so quickly and alerted the staff that a code blue was in progress, meaning a patient was in fatal distress.

When my body hit the floor, I severely bit my tongue, creating deep gouges that spilled my blood onto the tile. The doctor and nurses were still trying to resuscitate me when my husband made it to the hospital and up to my room. According to my hospital chart, it took 23 minutes of manual CPR for my heart to start beating again.

I died again on November 17 and 26 and was back on the operating table after each episode. On December 8, 2017, after 50 days, 3 deaths, and 3 open-heart surgeries, I was discharged from the hospital and went home to heal.

Soon, I could see the importance of a few scientific facts from the American Heart Association:
• I nearly became one of the 50,000 Black women in America who die each year from heart disease–related causes.
• Cardiovascular disease and stroke kill women more than any other cause and disproportionately impact African American women.
• Only 36% of African American women know that heart disease is their greatest health risk, and only 1 in 5 African American women believes she is personally at risk.

It didn’t take me long to understand the connection between my life-long toxic beliefs and my health crisis. I knew I had to write and speak about personal transformation, as it was critical for my recovery, important for others to hear, and requested by my ancestors.

I am here to do this work. I am here to join with others on a transformational journey that is both individual and collective.

And so I write, and I speak. Do you hear me?

About the Author | Barbara Pamplin

Barbara Pampling is the author of From Fat, Black, and Unlovable to Beautiful. Powerful. Love., a memoir/self-help book that looks through the lens of family dynamics, personal narrative-making, and the legacy of slavery and racial stereotypes to examine the core beliefs that took a toll on her heart and shares how she is transforming those beliefs to reclaim her well-being.

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