How My Dad’s Heart Attack Changed My Priorities

One call, and it all changed. Put the people you love first. It’s never good when the phone rings in the middle of the night. In September of 2000, it was the Police. My dad had died of a heart attack.

A week earlier, my dad had gone into the hospital with chest pains. I went with him and Dad was scheduled for a bypass seven days later. Meanwhile, they sent him home to wait. Then my grandmother broke her hip, so my mom went to the Netherlands to be with her, leaving Dad how alone.

We asked the hospital several times if it wouldn’t be better for my dad to remain in the hospital since I had to go back to work and Mom couldn’t be there to care for him. We explained that my parents lived up on the mountain, about 30 minutes from the hospital, but the doctors insisted that staying wasn’t necessary and that Dad could do anything he wanted if he just watched what he ate and drank. The doctors, and even my dad, weren’t worried, so I went home and went back to work.

My Dad’s Heart Attack Changed My Priorities
Me and My Dad

Looking back on this decision, I wonder if I would have been more insistent that he stay in the hospital if it wasn’t such a difficult time in my life.

I had a chronic rash that had already lasted six months and had me in the hospital via 911 at least once a month. I was struggling to get through every day and hang on to my job, my relationship. My apartment had been broken into and the startup where I worked was on the brink of bankruptcy. Working all the time and always being sick put a strain on my relationship. And to top it all, I had been diagnosed with uterine cancer, which I had not told my family yet.

As Dad used to say, the devil always poops in a pile.

And so, I went home. I wanted to delegate work and reschedule my own operation so that I could be there for Dad when he had the bypass. Except for that day never happened.

A lot of what happened right after “the call” is fuzzy. I called my boss, who lent me his car.  And I dumped the latest work on a desk for the team. I cried the whole 3-hour drive to the hospital.

Someone needed to ID him, because Dad had been home alone. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I remember vividly what he was wearing – his favorite jacket. I don’t remember any of the other details. I don’t remember who received me at the police station, who was there, what the doctors said, or calling my family.

But I do remember the time I spent alone, waiting for family to arrive. In my head I went over every conversation with my dad that day. We usually called at least once a day, and that day, we had talked several times. He was doing stuff around the garden and he gave me advice on my projects as he usually did. The last time we talked was around 1:00 AM, and I couldn’t help but think that I should have noticed something, because only 3 hours later, he was gone.

But that’s the thing with a heart attack. It can come suddenly. There is no way to prepare. Even after it happened, the doctors still were adamant that it was the right call to send him home.

It took me years to deal with my guilt: I should have refused the hospital’s discharge. I never should have left him alone. I never should have put work first. Apart from the guilt, there was no real chance to say goodbye. It seemed like it should have made it easier – like ripping off a band aid – but the opposite was the case. I vowed to never put work first again. Of course, today, we could have just done all work remotely. But then, that wasn’t an option.

Unfortunately, the rest of the year didn’t improve. A week later, my brother had totaled his car, which was another middle of the night call. He miraculously survived and spent the next week on my couch (I wasn’t letting him out of our sight). And my Mom stayed with me till we knew where she would go. She couldn’t stay on top of the mountain by herself.

I had my own operation to deal with. The day after the operation, I was called into work. The entire company closed down and we were sent off without pay for the last 6 months. My boyfriend decided this was a good time for him to move to London – without me.

The combination of heavy doses of cortisol for my never-ending hives and pain killers for the operation left me feeling numb in my mind. And with nothing but time on my hands, I spent hours going over and over in my head how much I had lost in just two weeks. My career. My boyfriend. My apartment. My health. My brother’s accident. But only one really mattered: My dad.

This is usually when I write about the positive in the experience to get over a loss like this. But it is hard to see anything positive in how he died. People say, At least it was quick!  Yes, but compared to what – being healthy for another 30 years? I still can’t make sense of it.

I still feel his loss, twenty years later. My dad supported me on all my major decisions and every time I now must make a tough decision, I feel the loss again. It changed my life in so many ways.

My Parents at their Wedding They were married for over 40 years.

For years I was scared every time the phone rang, and to this day I hate unplanned phone calls.

I am the first to offer help and am often taken advantage of because of that. But I fear the alternative. And so, here’s what I want people to know: Love the people that you love. Be there for them as much as you feel good about it. Because you never know when the phone will ring. Parents at their Wedding: They were married for over 40 years.