As a hospital chaplain, Valentine’s Day isn’t the only day I consider matters of the heart. My work in the Cardiac Intensive Care unit gives me daily pause to consider heart matters.
Unfortunately, my work also gives me more than enough fear of being on the receiving end of a heart attack. In other words, when it comes to health matters, I drift toward hypochondria.
That’s where I drifted one Saturday in February 2004, while I was multitasking several writing projects. At that particular moment, I was trying to write a sermon to preach for my vacationing pastor.
Suddenly, I grabbed my chest. It hurt to breathe, and the pain spread from my navel to my throat.
At first, I sang the song I’d heard many patients sing: “It’s just heartburn, I’ll be okay.”
But as a hospital chaplain, I’d heard too many people hum the heartburn tune of denial, and then later heard that tune become their funeral dirge.
With the calm demeanor of a drowning rat, I asked my wife to take me to the emergency room. As we pulled into the parking lot, I instructed her to tell the triage nurse that I was outside with chest pains.
In case you were wondering, it’s not a good idea to say “chest pain” in a hospital unless you mean it. And yes, I do get a lot of exercise jumping to conclusions.
An orderly came outside and wheeled me back into the ER where I was transferred onto a gurney, given a nitroglycerin pill and outfitted with a backless hospital gown.
As the technician shaved my chest for an EKG, he whispered to a nurse that he was looking for an “MI.” A myocardial infarction. A heart attack
Somehow, I managed to text my pastor asking for prayer, a not-so-subtle pretext for shirking my preaching responsibility.
Ten minutes later, I propped myself up on my elbows and released a gaseous belch of the hot air clergy are often accused of being filled with.
“Gas,” the nurse pronounced, as she gave me the stink eye while simultaneously stripping the EKG leads off my now embarrassingly bare chest.
I learned a few things that day. First, if you’re having chest pains, don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Call 911.
But more importantly, the incident reminded me of the spiritual wisdom of James 4:14: “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
That means I now try to live my life in this moment, not in the next and certainly not in the ones that have passed. It means I choose every day to tell my loved ones that I love them, not just on Valentine’s Day.
I live my life this way because one day I will most certainly have a fatal event. And on that day, I hope that as my eyes dim and this life fades into mist, that I will hear the words of my my creator, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21)
Because at the end of the day, the only heart that matters is the one you’ve given to God.