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Posted on Fri, Nov 18, 2011 : 5 a.m.

In the wake of heart attack and bypass surgery, I imagine life after my death

By Dwight Lang

Through spring and summer of 2010 I felt uncertain and disorganized. My imagination got the better of me. After nearly dying from an unexpected heart attack on the evening of May 17, 2010 and during weeks following bypass surgery on May 18, I wondered how patients negotiate complex recovery processes.

My mind drifted to countless scenes during day, night and early morning hours. How do familiar social settings change after death?

I’m at home resting on the front room futon. Sunlight dances inside senses while Gregorian chant comforts from years gone by — Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy. I stare over at dining room table and chairs, while the mended heart races here and up there looking down on wife, son and daughter eating under clear glass chandler. My chair is empty, and I'm nowhere in sight.

Life goes on as it has after deaths of billions over countless centuries. But I can't hear family dreams or feel their love. I will never smell my wife's delicious evening meals.

Disappearing to places we humans ponder I've become a lone uneasy rider roaming graveyards exploding into space.

I'm watching Detroit Tiger early season victories when friends and colleagues suddenly appear as if summoned by haunting, World Cup vuvuzela horn echoes. No one notices me and words are untouchable. What do we have in common — perhaps a certain humor regarding human glories and follies? Their conversations comfort while I float above connection: a real nowhere man with no point of view. I search inside invisible mists, but no one takes hold.

Tears flood my eyes as I doze off to chilling solitudes when daughter, son or wife might leave.

I’m in a course I have team-taught since 2001. During recovery weeks unwanted images of two colleagues teaching without me intrude and surround. As I look down they’re content, but I’m absent for the first time since dying on May 17 at 9:11 p.m. in the University of Michigan Hospital Emergency Room.

My body disappears to places where the dead assemble — seeking direction.

I never make it to the Cardiovascular Center for life-saving surgery, and no one opens my chest to pull back a lonely heart for Sergeant Pepper’s Band. The music stops. Who will sift through books and papers? My name vanishes from my third floor office door in the Literature, Science & Arts building on State Street.

I’m detaching through late evenings and early mornings before family awakens. I dread dark hours when I’m physically uncomfortable, fearing sleep might be everlasting now and forever. Amen. Trying to ignore heart beats beneath an eight inch scar I gently touch my chest.

Summer thunder and light rumble through thoughts and diamonds on Lucy’s sky. Time before sun pulls to emptiness spiraling from human contact. Dies Irae: Day of wrath.

How would I carry on after this 2010 magical tour?

Recovery continues in recent months

Separation images remain powerful in 2011, and I struggle with apparitions of oblivion and purpose, as if wrestling with demons lurking inside mysterious emotions. But am I different from others who nearly died and are now on paths to near normalcy?

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t teach during fall 2010. My jogging ways returned after cardiac rehabilitation ended in November, but I was concerned with starting work in January. Would I get facts right while under the gaze of 20-year-old eyes? Would people politely smile after I said something that didn’t make sense?

I continued talking with staff at the Cardiovascular Center.

"Keep exercising — these things take time," they said.

I read about physical effects of bypass surgery, including possible memory problems. Difficulties could emerge after being on a heart-lung machine for over two hours. For someone in my line of work, "cognition problems" sounded like the end.

Then my heart started behaving strangely. I discovered "premature ventricular contractions" (PVCs) can develop after surgery and, even though they don’t pose a danger, their occurrence is troublesome. The ventricles contract in ways that blood circulation is insufficient and, over a 20- or 30-minute period, I feel lightheaded — similar to a pleasant mood after a glass of cool Napa Valley Cabernet. I didn’t look forward to these little episodes while in the classroom.

PVCs are both physical and mental. Irregular heart-chest sensations alter awareness and during extended PVC events I can experience curious alertness and drifting rushes of energy — an odd type of mental intensity. The effect is similar to the satisfaction one feels after enjoyable conversations with good friends.

At this point I’m returning from my recovery netherworld. There are no confused looks from students or colleagues. Elevated PVC moments remain, but I worry less about them while at home relaxing or exercising at Planet Fitness.

Returning to normal through the past?

I still think about ultimate, mysterious passages, but I’m less uneasy about my empty seat or taking a last breath — perhaps alone at night. Thoughts of others living on without me still haunt, especially during some PVC minutes when I feel beyond body and mind. Certain tranquil movements away that beckoned over a year ago still draw me inward.

For now I enjoy everyday interactions with family, colleagues, students and neighbors. Periodic lightness in heart and intensity of mind add fresh levels of understanding. My experiences also reconnect me with a nearly extinct, but ever present history — ancient time that always seemed at odds with my chosen career.

Should I revisit meanings of being raised Catholic — the religion of my ancestors — and studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood between 1964 and 1969 in northern California? Will exploring this deep past during remaining years generate greater peace of mind?

I still pause and listen to Gregorian chant faithfully sung down through centuries: Lumen de Lumine : Light from Llght.

Dwight Lang is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Contributor to