I will never forget how clear that April was. Tooling around town on my electric kick scooter brought a major smile to my aging face under a Florida sun that wasn’t just bright; it was effervescent. Small city streets and neighborhood avenues gave way to deserted byways that bisected orange groves and cattle ranches and went on forever; I believed I could see it, anyway.
Breathing the air was effortless; perhaps it was actually lighter absent the exhaust of countless automobiles silenced by the COVID shutdown. And not that it is ever all that noisy in Avon Park, but that same air was peep-less. I closed my eyes for a moment and strained to hear—anything. Only the tires of my e-scooter across the barren asphalt and my own breathing pierced the silence.
‘Surreal’, rarely used properly, is the only adjective sufficient to convey the scene. This antique agricultural hamlet, already frozen in time and now tranquilized by an apocalyptic pandemic, saved my life for the second time...
December 12, 2018 was a cold day in southwest Florida, where I live. It was about 45 degrees in the morning; that’s cold for us. I was in the barbershop alone, no customers and my other barber was outside smoking. I was sitting in my barber chair about 9:45 when The Incredible Hulk reached through my chest and wrapped his huge fist around my sternum. And squeezed. I stood up and started pacing, eventually on my knees. No question I was having a killer heart attack, but I lied to myself that it was gas—the cold sweats, rubbery legs and skin the color of mayonnaise notwithstanding.
Soon the pain began to subside and I dragged myself to my feet, took a swallow from my water bottle. Standing there, gazing out the picture window of my 105-year old building to the Nineteenth-century sugar plantation across the street, the cacophony of sound in my head dispersed, leaving one voice: This is the last time you're gonna see that place, bud.
To clarify, I was dying and one of my personalities knew it. I was not scared. Neither was I sad. I was furious. That was a fast 61 years. (It is fast, don’t waste time.)
When the pain began round two, I decided it was time to intervene and made the unsafe decision to drive myself to the walk-in clinic about a block up the street. Nevertheless, I made it there. Though none of the staff said so, they knew I was dying, too. Unlike me, they called 911 and hooked me up. When the PA looked at my EKG and blurted, Oh, Jesus, all was confirmed. To this day, he will not tell me, but I’m guessing his next thought was, “I don’t want this guy dying in my store,” because the first responders whisked me out of there on the double. When the wheels of the gurney locked into place in the back of the ambulance, my heart gave up.
Luckily for me, a medical assistant named Deli Marte was carrying my shirt and jacket into the ambulance and saw my eyes roll back into my head. She immediately began CPR and the ambulance crew sprang into action. Everybody did his or her job and, five minutes later, I was de-fibrillated. I became one of the nine percent of people who survive Sudden Cardiac Arrest. At least for the moment.
Racing to the hospital in the ambulance, a firefighter named Tom made me keep my eyes open and talk the entire trip. We made it to the catheterization lab just as my heart stopped again. My 100 percent-clogged Left Anterior Descending Artery was stented, along with my Right Coronary Artery. A month later, I learned that had Deli, now a Licensed Practical Nurse, waited thirty seconds, I would not have lived.
But that’s a story I’ve written about a lot, because it is important and writing is what works for me, therapeutically. I find that I digest issues and learn as I arrive at answers for them by writing: books, songs, blogs and articles. (You can find my work and more about my SCA and recovery online, just Google me, Wendell W. Thorne). Now, three years later I find myself discovering new stories within that story as I look back. For me, writing is deliberate and fluid.
Anyway, I was still agonizing in my recovery when the pandemic hit; sixteen months post-SCA and the uncertainty, fear and anxiety—not to mention the always-present pain—betrayed my upbeat demeanor and rather healthy appearance. I was grateful to have the house in Avon Park.
Helen and I didn’t even stop to look at the little rambler near Main Street in the old-Florida city of Avon Park. To say that it had no curb appeal is generous. But when we noticed it again online, we decided to overlook the outside and give the little post-World War II bungalow a second glance. The place had been renovated nicely, even if the floor did slope to the northwest a bit. Together we decided that we could take on the three-bedroom place and it would become our retirement home. This was February of 2018, ten months before my SCA.
Over the next two years, we fixed the place up some and made additional upgrades, Helen mostly, and we used the little house as a respite away from the craziness around Sarasota and Bradenton where we lived. After my SCA, I recovered and recuperated there from time to time, alone, when I could. But I still had so many responsibilities with my children and my business, those times were not frequent or lengthy. Until April of 2020.
You’ll recall that at the outset of the pandemic, non-essential businesses in most states were involuntarily shut down in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Eventually, Florida’s governor agreed to a shutdown of non-essential businesses for a period of at least a month. In a nod to common sense and logic, my barbershop was shut down but our golf courses remained open. This was crucial.
Given my condition, Helen and I agreed that I should quarantine, and the place in Avon Park was perfect for that. About an hour from home, it was close enough so I could have visitors, so long as we masked up and didn’t close the gap more than six feet. I used the time to reflect, recover and recharge. I rode my scooter around the ghost town, walked nine holes at a local picturesque golf course every other evening and got takeout from some great places. I cooked and slept, smoked a lot of weed and watched old videos. And I wrote some songs.
At once deeply defined by Florida citrus and crystallized southern values, Avon Park has become quite diverse due to agricultural immigration. In fact, most households are described now as “mixed race” as a result. On either side of our house lived Hispanic immigrant families who quickly became friends. These folks worked hard and took care of their families while seeking to balance their heritage with their love for their new country. I worked on my Spanish at the fence with them now and then, and they would share exotic fruit they grew. Those days were easy. In that time, I found something I hadn’t had in a long while: Peace.
The process of recovery from Sudden Cardiac Arrest is not widely understood or recognized for many reasons. First, with but a 9% survival rate, there are not many of us walking around, so there isn’t a lot of media on the subject. Heart Attack? Sure, lots of information about how to recover from heart attack. But SCA is not heart attack. Totally different. Yes, heart attacks cause SCA, sometimes, but they are not the same animal. So that’s second, People Who Think You’re Recovering From Heart Attack. Lots of people have heart attacks and live long and prosper, so many people think what you’re going through is not novel. Finally, people assume that your heart stopped, they got it going again and you look fine. What’s the big deal? Well, it is a big deal.
SCA Survivors have endured significant trauma. Resuscitation, done right, is a violent endeavor that will break your bones. I had eleven all tolled. My shoulder was separated but I did not know that for three months, when I finally felt safe enough to visit my chiropractor. The level of upper body torso pain is frequently unbearable for months afterwards. I still have shoulder pain over three years later. The cocktail of drugs one is prescribed bring constipation, and I nearly required the Heimlich maneuver many times because of pressure on my esophagus due to the thoracic trauma.
Although I formerly disbelieved in such a thing, fibromyalgia is a real malady, and I have all the symptoms of that now. People who suffer trauma often end up with fibromyalgia, a neurological condition that causes fatigue, sensitivity to touch, light and sound and lots of pain all over the body, among other symptoms. My friend’s mother leaped from the Sunshine Skyway because she could bear its agony no longer.
Survivors also have tremendous emotional and mental challenges, from feelings of unfamiliarity in one’s own surroundings to cloudy thinking to existential questions surrounding their brush with permanent death. Our CPU’s are fried; our servers have been hacked, big time. PTSD occurs regularly in survivors, a condition that does not simply vanish on its own. In short, SCA causes systemic psychological upheaval that leaves behind a squad of pesky gremlins.
When one adds up the physical and emotional pain with an uncertain and fretful future, wondering if you even want to be alive anymore occupies the mind more regularly as “recovery” glaciers on. It is this dangerous thought corridor that finds a survivor wondering if perhaps he shouldn't be alive any longer, that the resuscitation wasn’t ‘supposed’ to occur. I myself have seriously entertained the notion that I’m actually dying there in the ambulance right now, and this thing that looks like life around me is just going on in my mind as I’m slowly winding down for the last time. The point being that we survivors of SCA are not alright. We’re not fine.
Alone in Avon Park that spring, I myself began to wonder if I was ever to be whole again? Would my energy level come back? Would I be able to work, as I had planned, until age 70? Would my scorched brain rediscover those lost passageways? Would I never not be afraid? Yes, I was feeling wonderful amidst the clear atmosphere and yes, I was walking nine holes still. But physically it took everything I had, and I was ping-ponging, emotionally. And I still had no real respect for the PTSD that I mistakenly believed would ease over time.
PTSD disregards the reasonable, and responds to a perceived threat by relying on primally driven emergency action of the type necessary to survive the harsh world of pre-history. Unfortunately, there is little in the life of a PTSD sufferer other than perceived threats, to which the response is either Fight or Flight. Extreme. On or Off. Right or Left. Life or Death. The many other possible choices on the arc between these extremes are invisible to PTSD, which is why I call it ‘ignorant’. I was deeply in its throes, but didn’t know it at the time.*
Even so, I felt lucky to be able to decompress in a peaceful place for a while, alone, and to ‘stand down’ from the responsibilities for a bit, something I hadn’t had the opportunity to do after my SCA.
One evening, I decided to revisit a song I had been writing for nearly a year, off and on. It’s called, “19 in Dayton,” and I found myself late one night wrestling with the last verse. The song is a good-natured jab at Florida’s Snowbirds, those northern residents who come to Florida to escape the winter each year. Whenever I poke fun at someone in a song, I try to find a way to poke fun at myself, and I planned to use the last verse to do that, but it wasn’t working. Sometime after midnight, I gave up and lay down in my bed. Only the quiet accompanied me.
In a short while, I perceived the whistle from a faraway train. As I listened, the sound got louder as the train approached the sleeping town. The nearest crossing was but a few hundred yards from our house, and I listened as the locomotive violently raced into town. I listened. Had to have been an Amtrak headed to Miami with a load of passengers, she was flying. I listened. Soon the sounds began to tail off, the clickety-clack faded into the darkness and somewhere in the faraway nighttime, she whistled me farewell. My quiet returned.
“I want to live in a town where the train comes through every night,” is what I uttered into the darkness of my room. My eyes popped open: That's a lyric. I scrambled out of bed and hurried to the living room and my guitar. The words fell from an opening in the heavens and the tune? The tune was given me by the train herself. I scribbled the words down having no idea what they meant, and fine-tuned the piece on the guitar as I went. In half an hour, the thing was done. I played through it again; I liked it. I beheld the page on which I’d hastily penned the lyrics and realized that each verse begins with the words, “I want to live in a town…”
And that’s when it hit me.
During the darkest of times in the past three years, I cannot say if suicide was ever an actual option. A madly devoted dad, whenever I would seriously consider the idea, the thought of my kids pulled me back from that abyss. Still, there were times when the pain and hopelessness nearly blocked everything good and positive from my view.
But I know for certain in that Florida highlands early morning the universe erased any dilemma I may have had by giving me “I Want To Live”.**
Around mid-May, we got the OK to open our businesses back up. With some regret, I packed my things and buttoned up the bungalow. I backed out of the driveway, stopped to latch the gate and headed out of town. At the stop sign, I glanced at the little lake in the middle of town and made the left on the boulevard that is Main Street. When I eased over the railroad tracks and accelerated westward, I sang my new song.
Last year we sold the house. Having observed that the Florida migration would not stop at her coasts, and noting that a large portion of those Snowbirds are making it permanent along Florida’s spine (including our beloved Avon Park), we thought better of our decision to plant stakes. But for that brief couple of years—and that blissful, cathartic six weeks—Avon Park, Florida was my personal oasis.
At one time, I thought I’d perhaps build a light sport plane, buzz around the groves for the rest of my life and walk the front nine at Pinecrest Golf Club every other evening, year round. I once thought of it as a fine place to await death a second time. Instead and somewhat ironically, the little, diverse-by-necessity town saved my life, for a second time.
*Through SCAF, I learned about the AMBET Psychological Therapy Model and was fortunate to be selected to participate in a study conducted by Columbia University Psychology department that sought to discover whether SCA-induced PTSD would respond to traditional PTSD psychotherapy. This became another prong in the comprehensive approach to my recovery.
**It has turned out that the song is very powerful and meaningful--to me. However, should you wish to listen, here 'tis: https://soundcloud.com/user-161946500/i-want-to-live?utm_source=clipboa…