Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Thankful Heart

On February 11 of this year, they split my chest bone in two with a saw. They then found my heart underneath and stopped it, right after hooking me up to this machine which took over the job of my heart and my lungs. They then cut my heart open. Then, they froze me to trick my brain into not needing too much oxygen, and then, they cut off my ascending aorta right out of my chest. After 12 hours of more work on and around my heart, they made my heart beat again. After 12 hours, I came back amongst the living, with a beating heart. I was dead, really. And then, I came to life. To say I am thankful for this would be the grossest understatement. But I am.

Today is Thanksgiving . It seems like a great day to pause and write down just how grateful I am for this crazy roller coaster year.

Anything after February 11, each breath of air, each step, each warm shower, each bite of savory food, each soft paw of a kitty that I got to touch, each amazing sunset and sunrise, each hug of a loved one has been nothing short of amazing and each a bonus. It's like Christmas morning about 200 times a day, every day. I am thankful for that.

I am thankful for medicine and the progress we have made there to keep people like me alive. I am thankful for my amazing surgeon who knew how to kill me gently and bring me back to life, in more or less one functional piece. I am grateful for God for giving me the strength to take one day at a time and build myself back up from physical ruin.

I am grateful for my mom, who, in the midst of untreated COPD fits traveled 5000 miles to cook a pot of soup for me. I am grateful for my sister who took time off from work to wait for hour by hour updates about my surgery. She then came down to make sure “I move the same way she remembered”, once I was a bit better. Her thoughtfulness was healing. I am grateful for my friend, H., who stopped in the middle of her July 4th vacation to come and see me, to make sure I am OK. I am grateful to my mother-in-law who rallied up a group of strangers to me to form a prayer group. They prayed every week for my health. They still do. The benevolence of people humbles me. 

I am grateful for my customers, co-workers and friends who wrote, watched the emails closely to get updates on me, and sent cards and gifts. With each one, I felt a little bit less alone; a little bit more encouraged.

I am grateful for my nephews, and their facetime sessions. With each one, they give me a reason to live and push on. My family has been my rock. Without them cheering me on and listening to my crazy stories, I would have been a depressed puddle of mess.

I am grateful that my company allowed me to move into a job I have dreamed of all my life (I finally have “writer” in my job title), at a time when I needed it the most.

I am grateful for this … whatever it is … that keeps me going, one foot in front of the other every day. This drive, or lust, or meddlesomeness that drove me to see new and interesting things this year, even when I was ground bound: like Hemingway's last home town of Ketchum, ID, and two glorious National Parks that left me in awe, Canyonlands and Mesa Verde.

Through worry and tough days, I have learned to live (I am still learning) with my newly rewired heart, which is still taking its sweet time to find a rhythm inside of my newly put together chest. I am grateful I am sitting here, writing this, more than anything in the world. I am grateful for the promise of tomorrow, but more than that, I am grateful for the present. Every second of every day, every breath is a gift. All wrapped up in the most beautiful package you have seen. Small little gifts, seconds are.

Maybe more than for anything else in the world, more than for my own life, really, I am grateful for my husband. This man does not know the word “no” when it comes to me. He is the most loyal and loving and giving and selfless human being I have met. He washed me, fed me, massaged my numb arm, religiously, every night for nine months straight now, and allows me to lean on him, unconditionally, every day. He is my peaceful shore, where I rest when life gets too crazy, and life has won the crazy record this year, for damn sure. There are no words, really, to express the love, and breathless thankfulness I owe him, every day.

We have a saying in Romanian: “Sanatate. Ca-i mai buna decat toate.” It means “Health. Because it's better than everything else.” This should be the slogan of this past year. And for the fact that I have been given sickness to learn from and health to appreciate life, I am grateful.




Sunday, November 13, 2016

America's Better Half

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama)

I don't know about you, but this week's been hard for me. Ever since writing this blog, 8 years ago (http://wander-world.blogspot.com/2008/11/past-due.html), till just very recently, I believed we live in a tolerant, loving, open-minded country. Not the best in the world, by any means, but striving daily to do better. The past year or so have come to prove me wrong, and it all culminated with this week.

I have read things people said, that I could not believe that they would actually happened. And then, there was the vote – which divides us like no time I remember before.

I am not going to belabor the point, here, because this is a hot topic and all of you have your own opinions that I know could not be changed. I just wanted to share a couple of experiences with you that happened to me this past Friday. I will just leave them here for you, and I just hope it will make you at least think …

I will make one more caveat: I usually do not mention race when I tell a story about people. But I think, given this week and the years to come, I will this time. Again – do with it as you wish.

I went through three experiences this Friday which reminded me of the human kindness that still exists. It is not a feeble, shy or unsure character trait in some people around us; it is loud, vibrant, clear, unconditional kindness. If we only are speaking low enough to be able to hear it.

I went to Target, first. I picked up a few things, among which a hand towel in the bathroom area. I did not realize this, but there was no tag on the towel. I came to the cash register, and this little older, white lady (she was easily in her early 70's and I kept thinking she should be home cradling grand kids or cats, not working the register at Target) asked me “ Ma'am, do you know how much this was?”. I didn't, and I felt horrible. I apologized and I told her to ring up everything else and keep the towel, and I'll go check, stand in line again and come back to pay for it. She stopped me and said: “Well, that's all right. How's $2 for it? Would that be a fair price?” My mouth just dropped. I said, knowing full well that there is no towel to be bought under $5 if you're lucky to find a sale, even at Target. I said, still shocked: “Sure, of course, $2 is more than fair. Are you sure you want to do that?”. She did not waver – she did not want me to go back and through all that trouble and she just gave it to me for $2. I was buying a lot of other things, up to $100, but still.

Then, I went by the mall. I have this medical bracelet that just broke – the metal just snapped, for no reason at all. I have been trying to find a jewelry shop to have them fix it, but no one would fix it, because it's just stainless steel, no gold and silver jeweler would take the time. But I have kept on trying. So, I go to the mall, and head toward Kay Jewelers. This Filipino young woman greets me and I show her the bracelet and ask her if it can be fixed. She examines it, like others before, and she says: “Well, to be honest, I don't know for sure if we can fix it or not. I would have to ship it to our goldsmith and then he's going to evaluate it, and then I'd have to call you and see if you want it fixed for the price he'll quote me, if he can fix it... sooo, I am just going to tell you 'no', we cannot fix it, because this is a LOT of trouble.” I gasped, with a sigh – nothing I haven't heard before. “But,” she says,”there is this jewelry repair shop by the food court right here in the mall, so it would be worth asking them if they can fix it, because they can fix anything.” I was so surprised and shocked at her kindness: evidently, I was not going to buy from her. I did not even ask her for alternatives, but she just came out and offered a solution pro bono-like, if you will. Kindness goes a long way, and now, that I felt so obligated, I want to go back and do buy something from her. I had no idea that the jewelry repair shop existed in the mall, if it were not for her.

So, off I went to the jewelry repair shop by the food court. This middle-aged, Middle Eastern man was running the store. He was chatting with this Indian woman about her kids, as he was taking in her jewelry to be repaired. After finishing up with her and her husband, he addressed me, all smiles. I showed him the bracelet and I asked him whether he can fix it. He looked at it carefully and he said he has no idea how a piece of steel can just snap like that. I assured him I could not figure that one out, either. He put the bracelet under a microscope and after assessing it for a minute or two, he said that, yes, he could laser weld it for $30, which will also include one year warranty. I was sold, of course. Then, the really kind part follows: “Ma'am, right now, we have a 10 day wait for work like this. But since this is a medical bracelet, I will try to get it done by Tuesday (that's about 3 days, if you're doing the math). Will that be all right?” Of course, it would be all right, and thank you, kind man, for noticing that it was a medical bracelet.

Random kindness is out there. It may be muted, closeted, shy, or it may be screaming out at the top of its lungs. We cannot label the content it comes in, we cannot be choosy about how it comes packaged. We can only be grateful that it exists at all, and reciprocate wholeheartedly. We owe these people that much.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

From Life: A Cabin and a Mountain Town in the Fall

I had daydreams and fantasies when I was growing up. I always wanted to live in a log cabin at the foot of a mountain. I would ride my horse to town and pick up provisions. Then return to the cabin, with a big open fire, a record player and peace.” (Linda McCartney)


There is something mystical and secret about sitting still by a mountain river, watching or hearing it hop from one polished rock to another. There is something of the old ages, a story or many told only to few of those who really listen, in an effort to become one with the big world. I crave this experience. I crave the sounds, the crisp air, the unbearable, headaching silence in the night, the dance of the squirrels on the branches, the chasing of the robins in the air. I crave the mountains, the stream, and a cozy cabin just about every day. But we allow ourselves the luxury to escape into this otherworld only about once a year. Not nearly enough, if you asked me, but the rarity makes these experiences that much more special. 
 
This year's cabin was on the Florida river, about 20 minutes from downtown Durango, Colorado. Before the trip, I told my husband I have never taken a trip to Colorado that I didn't love. And this trip was not going to break that pattern. 

This is a state cut out of a National Geographic issue, or an Ansel Adam's photography book, drowned in peace. If you have ever made a mental picture of Colorado after watching Western movies, reading Winnetou or watching The Wilderness Family series – then Colorado is all that times infinite. In my mind, the picture perfect Colorado starts with a yellow pasture where horses roam. They are framed by aspen trees, melted gold in the fall, over which the pine trees arise, and ultimately, the stony peaks of The Rockies. I could not have wished for anything more in the cabin getaway this year, than this. 


 
Timeless Colorado ... 


Our cabin was a duplex, but the neighbors we had for one night were ever so quiet and polite, we hardly noticed them. The sounds of the stream, the gentle wind through the crispy yellow aspen leaves is all I remember. There is something enduring, close and comfortable about log cabins. The raw-ness of the materials, the shortness of the walls, the hard stability of the dirt floors. It's like a cocoon, safe and sturdy, keeping you away from the big bad cold outside. Keeping you away from the beasts. There is restorement and rejuvenation after a solid night sleep surrounded by wood and woods. This is what keeps us going for another year. This, and the dream of another cabin to discover the year next.


I wish you all to find your cabin and your mountain. There is nothing that says “home” more loudly, and there is nothing where you're more “you-er than you”, than your secret, peaceful, getaway place. 


 
Colorado back country ... 


During our explorations around our cabin, we found several county roads that are hardly paved, that took us for miles and miles around horse farms and more log cabins. The hidden country of Colorado was alive and beautifully quiet on these hidden pathways. The silence and solitude reigned supreme, in a perfectly beautiful day of autumn. The air was soft and yellow, the bugs were lazy, trying to find their end-of-the-summer tired wings for one last flight, the deer and elk were everywhere, horses, too, but the people were off that day, tucked away in hiding. Even the windmills were stopped. 


 
Quiet windmill on a Colorado farm 


Mountains have always given me a sense of eternal timelessness. I go to the mountains I grew up in over the years and nothing ever seems changed, except for the new wrinkles on people's faces. The world, the land is still the same – beautiful and untouched, as always. You get this feeling anywhere else in the world, where there are mountains.


We stumbled upon Vallecito Lake, about 20 miles away from our cabin. It's tucked away, like a precious secret, circled by mountain ranges, and it's crystal clear and cold as a mountain lake should be. It reminded me of a diminutive Lake Tahoe. There is nothing I love more than getting lost on roads I don't know, and taking in the nature, and nothing besides. Driving around on Colorado back roads is like that. You're one with the trees, the deer and the brass leaves and you feel bad for intruding and disturbing the eternal peace. 


 
Vallecito Lake under the aspen trees   

 
Detail on one of the many carvings (in dead, standing trees) around Vallecito Lake

 
On the side of the road, crossing the stream, on one of our drives. Right before we got to Vallecito Lake

In between our nature retreating and watching, we dropped by in the town of Durango, if for nothing else, but for sustenance and a few drinks. We didn't ride our horse to town, for provisions, like Linda McCartney said, but we did ride the 11 mile highway every day, and almost every day we almost hit a deer or an elk. You are truly in nature, even when on a paved road, here. Massive concrete, steel and glass mega-buildings of Manhattan, eat your hearts out!


Durango is your typical Western mountain town. Old buildings, of wood and brick, with their wooden entryways, with no alleys between them, still flank the sidewalks. You walk under wooden overhangs, with Western cowboy-book resonance in their names like Lone Spur Cafe, Pine Needle Mountaineering or Duranglers, or El Rancho Tavern. To not disturb the quiet of the setting it's in, Durango is also a quiet, sleepy kind of town, too. Nothing much rushes here. Coffee shops have lines that never move and food takes a while to come to your table. 


 
Downtown Durango - this vision of a train teleported me right back to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman's time 


It's a bohemian kind of town, where they can still keep in business two music stores within 10 feet from one another, still selling vinyl and cd's, and a locally owned, hopping book shop, with new books, not just antiques. The Mac store is called The Mac Ranch.


It's a “feel good” kinda town, too: puppies are not only welcome everywhere, but every store owner has treats to give them, too. There are two establishments (The Himalayan Kitchen and the gift store, Dreams of Tibet) that sell originally Tibetan, Nepalese and Himalayan food, clothes and d├ęcor to support the Tibetan people. It's like a World Market, but … not a chain.


And don't let me forget about the local grub and drinks! I had heard that Durango is famous for its breweries, and it did not disappoint in the selection of beers, everywhere. The Main Avenue Madness breakfast at The Carver Brewing Company tastes exactly like what The South West should taste like: it's a mess of all things you can find in your kitchen – which is the only way to go for real food, really: perfectly roasted potatoes, black beans, peppers, mushrooms, onions, verde sauce. Like everywhere else in The West, we looked for hours for trout. We finally found it at The Mahogany Grill in the historic Strater Hotel, and it was fishy perfection. 


 
The trout at the Strater Hotel 


The clocks spin by a totally different speed here. No rush and no high blood pressure. Just a smooth feeling of passing the days, from dawn till sunset. Just like the river which does not know what it rushes itself onto, people and much of the world don't either. They live, they die, and pastures are still filled with horses, deer and yellow, brassy leaves, every fall, unmistakably and unplanned.

You'll find that in all mountain towns people speak slower, walk even more so, and they smile more. Here, they have decoded the secret of life and there is no more rushing towards any other goal. A cabin on a river is the only reality. The Rockies. A lake. A hideaway long weekend. The love of puppies, cozy sweaters. A fireplace at the end of the day. A journal. The love of life. What more is there to seek?! 


https://wanderworldpics.shutterfly.com/22435 
The Florida River, behind our cabin, in the sunset. Click on the picture for more shots of Durango and around.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Stepping on Sacred Ground: Exploring Mesa Verde

I mean no disrespect to call these grounds truly sacred, in the Native American sense, so the Ancient Puebloans of Colorado should forgive me. The designation of “sacred” bears heavier meaning and importance for these folks. I call them sacred solely because the incredible feeling of piety and respect that they instilled in me.

Like any national park I have seen so far, the true beauty of Mesa Verde is hidden. There is no way to drive by it, on the highway, and to see the real true beauty that springs at every corner, and most importantly the many years of history that it stores like a well-kept secret. In many ways, though, Mesa Verde is like no other Park I have seen before, nor like many to come, I am sure.

You drive up a steep paved road to the Visitors' Center first. The Visitors' Center building is built out or the yellow sandstone rock that the mountains in the Four Corners are known for. The building reminded me of the American Native Museum in DC – http://wander-world.blogspot.com/2005/07/days-trip.html. The rounded walls and a feeling of ever flowing are the main characteristics of it. The soft yellow color of the stones wraps around you like a warm blanket.  

After the Visitors' Center (if you don't want to walk through the actual abodes in the pueblos, you don't need to queue up in line for a ticket. The driving tour alone is paid at the entrance into the park which is a bit higher than the Center), we started on the 20+ mile journey into the park, to look for its natural beauty and for the man (or woman) made pueblos that made this park famous.

We drove quite a bit, stopping on overlooks that opened up into the vast Mancos Valley below. The tall Colorado mountains, dressed in snow (a bit early for early October) guarded the horizon, making sure the valley won't overflow into the sky.

Colorado is the state with the most tall mountains in the US. It has 53 of the 100 tallest mountains in the land. And you can certainly see it and feel it. There are no places I have ever driven to in Colorado that won't force you to drive past a pass of some description. The views from everywhere were wide open and breathtaking. The big, openness of the land out here, with the never ending feeling is what's amazing about The American West. It speaks to the “last frontier” concept – it truly feels like there is either nothing or everything beyond it.

I think we drove maybe 20 miles before we saw our first Pueblo – the Cliff Palace. We stopped for the overlook, and we walked down a narrow and somewhat steep paved trail, and we reached a landing over the Navajo Canyon. My husband gasped: “Aahh! Bring me here! I'll pass on the Grand Canyon!” I have not seen the latter, so I cannot be the judge, but the view was once again spectacular. But … we were puzzled. The small pueblo across the canyon from us was not as impressive as the pictures had shown the Cliff Palace. Then we realized: it was behind us, and below us. Once I turned around and saw it, it literally knocked the breath out of my lungs! 


  The Cliff Palace pueblo was probably a place for worship, socializing, or coming together in some way. It is the largest pueblo in Mesa Verde.


You're towering over these 700 year old ruins and your mind just stops in its tracks, really. You can see vestiges of old rooms, their interconnection, their infrastructure, you can tell where the hearth was and where the windows were, clearly. Where they had multiple levels and where they dug under the ground, as if to dig up a basement. That's 700 years ago. With little tools, but much determination, drive and know-how.

I have been in America for 18 years now, and I have never met anyone that talked about these testimonies of time. The first thing Americans tells me, as an immigrant is that they expect me to know and respect the “American culture”. But they mean the Thanksgiving turkey and baseball, really. Not one of them has ever talked about this. It makes me wonder if they (as immigrants by descent) know their culture, too. This is where America starts.

You are blown away to learn the history behind these dwellings. I am sure you can (if you wish) google all the information you need to know about these places. But I just wanted to give an account of what I saw, and felt here. Apparently, the pueblos date as far back as 300 AD, and they were built and populated all the way into 1300 AD. This is the time between Constantine the Great and The Crusades, in Europe, just to give you perspective. It was humbling, to see such intricate architecture, such solid foundations and ingenuity from people that seemingly were not open to the “civilization” of the rest of the world at that time. They had not seen the baths of Rome or the Temples of Greece, or the Asian pagodas. But they had created out of stone, with their bare hands, their own villages that looked just as stunning in functionality and purpose.

There is a beauty all its own in Mesa Verde: you're not sure what's more amazing, the land, or the people's work?! I'd say the truth is in the middle.

Nature reigns supreme in The Park, like you'd expect: steep canyons, crooked, old juniper trees, layers and layers of many kinds of rocks, the usual archaeological rainbow on the South West, wild turkeys, deer, and coyotes walking in broad daylight, unperturbed by traffic and human presence, they all welcome you in their midst. But then, there is the amazing perfection and beauty left by the people. Like precious accessories on a beautiful dress, the pueblos dot the valley in a beautiful, artful kaleidoscope.

Apart from being amazing builders and planners, the ancients puebloans had a sense of geography (they almost always built their homes facing the South, to soak in the sunshine) and functionality. They used the natural caves for some of the walls of their homes. The “House with many windows” construction is a testament of that – the entire house is sandwiched between two rocks (top and bottom), with an exterior wall uniting them on the outside. There are windows carved inside this exterior wall. All the other pueblos are like this: some carved into the natural stone that was there, and some built by people. 

"House with many windows"  

It was amazing to me how they built these massive abodes with almost perfect bricks. They didn't make bricks, they just cut rock in square or rectangular shapes, smoothed them over with other rocks, and stacked them together using sand and water mixed together for their mortar. The walls are so smooth, whether they are a perfect circle or they built a square building, or room. 

 
My personal favorite pueblo: The Square Tower 

Another surprising thing was that not only did they built at very high elevations (their trails were vertical, we were told), directly into the wall of the canyons, but they also built multi-level buildings. 

 
"Vertical trails" - the bronze statue at the Visitors' Center suggests just that

Your head explodes with questions, as you're seeing all these homes, places of ritual, or grain silos: how did they climb this high? How did they walk up and down these steep rocks with their bare feet and sometimes a huge load in their hands, or on their bodies? How did they get water? How did they keep warm in this rocky terrain? How did they have their babies, with no doctor around? How did they survive for 900 years in these parts?! You learn that drought is what made them leave this behind and migrate to New Mexico and Arizona, in greener places, but the fact that they lived here, in this terrain for 900 years is still mind boggling.

Then, you stand still and listen. You almost can hear the sounds and voices of many hundreds of years past. Were there any love affairs? Any feuds? Any passions? Babies crying; women singing; men sharpening rocks. You smell fresh kill roasting in the fire and hear corn boil in water. You close your eyes and are transposed. An odd feeling of guilt and shame mixed in with humility and gratefulness simmers in the chest. So much humanity, so much life, never put into written words somewhere, buried with the centuries in old sandstone.

Then, we went to the museum, in Mesa Verde, and the next day to the Anasazi Heritage Center and learned more about their various stages in history: before basket weaving, and after, all the way into the pottery era. Every stone exposed, every basket, every rudimentary tool gave me the same feeling that I have had in my life when praying in church, or at a Saint's altar. It belittled me. This is how this world started, here in the West. The idea of the white people diminishing this and killing part of this culture made my hair stand on my back with rage, at times.

We left the area moved and deep in silence and in thought. So grateful, and so rich! I looked for books to read about this culture, because I want to know more, and feel more connected to these beautiful surroundings I almost live next door to.

No other National Park has left me with more questions in my head than answers, like Mesa Verde. It opened the door not only to a new universe, but into a new and old world, full of mysteries and stories. I definitely plan to go back, or at the very least to read more about these hidden gems, tucked away for centuries (it was in the late 1800's that they were finally discovered). History, life, architecture, love, politics, farming, cooking, hunting - all opening up into the canyons of Mesa Verde – opened a new curiosity in my heart and mind. I feel more “American” now than ever before, because this earth has spoken to me.


Quotation at the entrance of the Anasazi Heritage Center. Click on the picture for more photos from this amazing journey
 

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Spanish Fork River Walk

But when fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous ass as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and then fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since last he saw you.” (Stephen King, Salem's Lot)

We've been seeing the trees turn leaves for about a month now, on the mountains. And in the past week, the mountains have gotten some snow, too. Actually, a lot of it. You know that joke people tell: “summer lasted for three months and fall fell on a Thursday”. Pretty much how it went, this time.

You all know that I it takes me a while to admit that summer is over. Summer is not my favorite season, but I don't want to store my flip flops away easily. I don't want to say the “f” word way too soon. But this morning, when I woke up to a clear blue, so crisp a sky it hurt the eyes, and mountain tops free of fog and clad in white, while the banks were dressed in red and yellow leaves, I knew. Fall is here.

So, we went out to a nearby walking trail to meet it.

I had to wear a wool sweater and a scarf, so you know it was not summer anymore. When we got there, in the mountains, we could clearly see that the autumnal lady has taken over the hills, but she was still shy in the valley. The colors were just whispers where we were, not shouts, as you could tell they were in the higher elevations.

These are some of the things we saw, fall related and not. A world of mysteries, and hidden gems. A world of back roads, heavy with secrets, life and just the last breath of summer in The Rockies. A world we cannot quit. Nor do we strongly want to … 

I started in the backyard, where my mums are glorious, as usual, and the pears almost ready.

Our trail, book-ended by snow covered peaks. 

Oh, the various layers of beauty: between the spotless sky, and the snow, the rock, the fire-y maples and the golden aspen - everything is a tango of color with texture.

Some bees and butterflies did not get the memo, in the valley, yet. They were still savoring the last bit of sweetness from the last summer blooms. 



Not quite spent beauties of summer.

When the maple leaves start bleeding ...

 We spotted this guy on a farm. He was skittish, though.

Man, hoppers were everywhere!! They were jumping in front of us like someone shook a picnic blanket full of them. They looked slow and dizzy, ready to tuck away...
 
The world through a spider web on an old, rusty bridge. 
 
Wouldn't you love to know the stories behind those upside down cars in the river, or behind those wooden doors on that ghost storage building?! My mind hurts just making them up.  
 
  
A leaf hanging from an invisible thread was dancing in the wind.

Fall on the river.
 
You cannot tell it's fall in this picture, except for the sweet, soft sunlight through the leaves.  

Just a whisper of fall above the water. And inside it ...

These guys were friendly and hungry. And gorgeous! 
 
The valley leaves are starting to turn, on a backdrop of autumnal colors. Time for blankets and knitting needles to come out. Time for long books and even longer naps. Another year almost in the books. A year I never thought I would see the fall of ... But it's here, and I lived to tell its tale, one more time. Bigger, longer, more heartfelt prayers of thanks have never been spoken. Life's good! 
 



Friday, September 23, 2016

In Honor of FH Awareness Day. And Because Media Lies.

Tomorrow is 2016 FH Awareness Day and in honor of this, I have a confession to make. To some folks this won't be any kind of news, but to others it might. I have not previously mentioned this on this blog: I have FH. That is short for 'familial hypercholesterolemia' and a lot easier (and faster) to spell. You can google it and choose your own source to find out what exactly it means, and I encourage you to do just that.

In short, it's a genetic disease that causes very high levels of cholesterol in your body. It does not matter what you eat or what lifestyle you lead; because of this genetic mutation, your body (your liver, most precisely) produces more cholesterol that needed. And there is no mechanism (as in normal people) for your body to get rid of the extra fat, so instead, it stays in your blood stream, and over time, it deposits inside arteries, or your organs' surface (like your liver and pancreas, or even inside your eye), or sometimes on your skin, in big, white lypomas. Whatever it deposits on, it causes havoc and malfunctioning.

This disease is not as rare as you'd think – it affects about one in every 250 people worldwide. Now, I have 270+ friends on Facebook, and some of you have triple that number, so you do the math. It's a genetically transmitted disease, so if you have it your kids and grandkids will likely inherit it. Even if they don't manifest it, they are carriers, and their kids might have it, too.

I decided to share this with you all, my extended network of friends, as I have not done so in the past, just to create awareness, and not to panic you or to cause you to run screaming for the doctor. I wanted to do this for your own knowledge, which I firmly believe is power, and for your lives and the lives of the ones you love.

Why now? Because a lot of things (good and bad) have happened recently. But let's not jump to it. I'll explain it all.

I have lived with this disease since I was born, but I didn't know about it till I was 8. Knowing about it that early in my life has helped me get to the right doctors and to the right medicine and has helped me be alive today, really.

Just to give you an idea – your normal total cholesterol maxes out around 200 mg/dl. Mine was 790 mg/ dl when I was 8. If your cholesterol is high (and if you don't have FH it can never be this high!) your doctor will tell you things like: lose weight, stay active, quit smoking, eat low fat, or “good” fat. This are all good things for all of us. Unfortunately, none of these things apply to an FH patient. Even eliminating all fats, not ever being overweight, not ever smoking, and being active would not help an FH patient at all.

One of the main reasons I want to speak about this is because of the bad rep that cholesterol has gotten in the media recently. I have come across uncountable articles, some of them from reputable sources where alleged medical spokespersons say that cholesterol is not bad for you, that carbs and sugar are bad for you, that it's all an invention of the food companies alongside pharmaceutical companies to sell us more sugary stuff and more Lipitor (one of the more popular cholesterol drug).

I agree that if you do have a normal cholesterol metabolism and you keep an active, nutritionally diversified and balanced diet and a 'clean' life, then cholesterol in the foods we eat is not intrinsically bad for you.
I have also read articles that try to convince people that cholesterol is not, in fact, one of the major causes for the number one killer in the nation (bigger than cancer), heart attacks, and of strokes. This is actually severely flawed. And I wanted to make sure you all know better than this.

I can only tell you what happened to me and my family, and that is: cholesterol kills. And before it kills, it messes you up! My grandfather on my dad's side died after 12 years of being paralyzed as a result of multiple strokes, all caused by cholesterol and plaque deposits. He died at 62. All his brothers and sisters died in their 60's or younger of either strokes or heart attacks caused by blocked arteries. My dad's sister has had stent surgery to open up blocked arteries in her legs in her early 60's. My dad needs to have the same surgery and has had coronary artery disease for many years now. He is 64.

As most of you know, I have had an overhaul of a surgery this year, that replaced my aortic valve, my ascending aorta with man-made devices and repaired four blocked vessels in my heart (that is a quadruple by-bass surgery, y'all). I also had a heart attack this year, after this surgery. I am only 41. My surgical team was floored at the state of my ascending aorta. Your aorta (and any artery, really) should be flexible and fibrous, like a soft cotton tube. Mine was like a PVC pipe – rock solid, and if they knocked on it, it would shatter. Two of my three leaflets in my aortic valve were calcified shut and the valve was narrowed. All because of cholesterol.

I have been on medication for most of my adult life, but with a genetic disease, they only can help so much. There is no cure for this. All you can do is hope, live your life to the fullest from one appointment to the next and follow doctors' orders, to help your body live with this. And stay informed on what is next. This is what I follow in my 'other' blog which I am sharing with you below.

What you should know if you have this disease, or if you're curious about finding out more:
There are some resources I'll share with you here, that will explain more, but basically:
if you have unusually high cholesterol that will not go down with regular diet and exercise, start getting suspicious and order a cholesterol check at your next physical appointment. Also, interview your relatives and find out if they have something similar going on. If you already have a factor that predisposes you for heart attacks and strokes, be doubly aware of your cholesterol level and intake of it in your foods.

I am not saying this now to panic anyone, I just want you guys to be aware, because you're all important to me.
And now, for the full disclosure:

I have written this blog, called “Living with FH (and Heart Disease)” for about 5 years now: http://livingwithfh.blogspot.com/ . You're welcome to follow it, or if it's easier to follow on Facebook, you can “like” the page and follow it there: https://www.facebook.com/Blog-Living-with-FH-and-Heart-Disease-859449370774490/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel . It's not terribly riveting, but it is a pretty accurate documentary of my 'medical' life, if you will.

Starting this year, my blog has been a feature feed for the FH Foundation's website, which is a huge honor for me. I encourage you to start your research on their site – they are doing an amazing job to raise awareness in our communities about this disease, and to save lives.
Their site is: https://thefhfoundation.org/ . If you navigate to their News & Blog section, you'll see my blog linked there, as well: https://thefhfoundation.org/news-blog/ .

I wanted to share all this with you, to celebrate FH Awareness Day tomorrow and to celebrate the new lease on life I have been given time and again only because I knew. I hope you will read but most importantly share this with people you know this information might help.

If you do have questions or don't know where to start, I hope you email me and keep me posted.

Happy FH Awareness Day, y'all! And happy health!