An Overload of Success
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An Overload of Success

An Overload of Success

One morning my heart stopped and at age 37 I died. Here is the story of my demise, my physical recovery and my spiritual rebirth.

by William F. Askinazi

Something was terribly wrong but I wouldn't admit it. I couldn't awake. My mind struggled to shape the predawn darkness and accept the significance of the events which were unfolding in my bedroom. The pounding of my heart drowned out the voice of my wife Lori. My pulse was racing and my mind was awhirl with anxiety-ridden thoughts. Perhaps the overbearing stresses of work were presenting just another disconcerting series of nightmares.

Lori's muffled voice became clearer as I realized she was repeating our address to the 911 operator in a steady yet distraught voice.

I came to. "It's just a bad dream; I'm okay," I convinced her and myself. "I have a big trial in a few days and an important meeting at my law office tomorrow. I'm okay. Please hang up the phone."

With an agonizingly desperate look, she helplessly hung up the telephone. By force of will, I convinced my wife that I was fine. I was wrong.

Two hours later I was in full-blown ventricular tachycardia. My heart was firing and quivering uncontrollably, and not enough blood was getting to my brain to keep me conscious. I remember feeling as if I was in a long dark tunnel, and an unknown oppressor was stepping on my oxygen line. I was fighting for every tiny breath.

I was fighting for every tiny breath.

I had fallen off my bed in an uncontrollable spasm, arms and legs flailing. Time stood still. I was trapped in a netherworld of uncertainty, but curiously I was not in pain. I felt Lori's arms around me and heard her calm, soothing, and reassuring voice that led me slowly down the tunnel to light.

I barely perceived my children silhouetted against the doorway, still in their pajamas. I was worried for them. I wanted to go over to them and tell them that "everything was okay," as I had told my wife earlier that morning. But I was frozen in a seizure and could not move. I worried for them as they watched me struggling to breathe, their secure world shattered with this confusing scene.

"What's wrong with Daddy?"

Lori directed Matt to run across the snowy cul-de-sac to summon a neighbor who is a doctor. He ran with purpose, in his bare feet, in his pajamas, in the snow. Within minutes two neighbors were in my bedroom lending encouragement and prayers as the ambulance arrived. Lori rocked me as I silently slumped in her arms.

A CHARMED LIFE

I had a glorious childhood growing up in the 60's and 70's in a modest home in Flushing, New York. My dad, the youngest of seven children, grew up in a poor Sephardic family on the Lower East Side of New York, and he was determined that his children would have better lives. He spent 35 years of his waking hours in a factory where, with my grandfather, he ran a successful business manufacturing curtains and bedspreads.

He was the first one in his family to buy a home. He put me through college and law school, my brother through college and medical school, and my sister through college and graduate school with his decades of toil and sweat.

I learned the value of respect, hard work and pride from my dad. I learned that I could succeed at anything I tried from my mom. My father is my source of grounding and work ethic; my mother is my source of self and inspiration.

My relentless drive and desire to please everyone nearly proved to be my undoing.

As the youngest of three children, I benefited from the adoration and love of both my older siblings. I have always been extremely close with my brother, sister and brother-in-law. Their love and support had infused me with confidence, even brashness. My ambition was to excel at everything and have everyone like me along the way.

Blessed with ambition, drive and a triple-A personality, I excelled at an early age. I was the Athlete Scholar of my high school class, the Georgetown Law grad who made law review, the youngest corporate officer in the 75-year-old history of a Fortune 200 company. I had nothing but blue skies ahead and worlds to conquer.

But my relentless drive and desire to please everyone nearly proved to be my undoing.

MEDICAL CRISIS

The paramedics fitted me with an oxygen mask, strapped me into a stretcher, carted me down the stairs of my home that November day, and rushed me by ambulance to the hospital.

I still harbored thoughts of returning to work that afternoon.

In retrospect, the absurdity of my intention to return to work in the midst of a medical crisis was proof-positive of my distorted sense of priorities.

My dad and sister had flown in from New York to join my wife and friends at the hospital. My condition had not been stabilized despite the intravenous infusions of lidocaine and amioderone, a powerful heart relaxant.

My dad sat across from me in the intensive cardiac care unit as a drum roll reached a crescendo inside my chest. I felt strange, prescient of an impending event. We were alone. The wheeze of the oxygen tanks and the electronic hum of the heart monitor were the only sounds. "Dad," I said through my oxygen mask, "if anything happens to me, please see to it that the kids are okay."

I sat up to reassure my dad and in mid-sentence a lightning bolt hit me square between the eyes. I was flat-lined.

The gravity of those spontaneous words surprised me. This was my first expression of doubt; ironically my first connection with my true feelings and almost tragically my first connection with my soul. My dad, without hesitation, replied, "Don't be silly, you will be okay." We both began to cry.

I sat up to reassure him, and in mid-sentence a lightning bolt hit me square between the eyes. Blinding, dazzling whiteness and warm silence engulfed me. The next several minutes I was flat-lined. No pulse, no sounds, no sights. Just an enveloping, intensive, pervasive holy calm.

I awoke to a masked gaggle of doctors and nurses. To my right, holding my hand, was a gentle elderly woman. I looked at her and my first words were, "Hello, who are you?" She said she was the chaplain and was summoned to stand vigil. I smiled, thanked her and told her that I would not be needing her services, and besides that, I was Jewish.

That night I cried again, terrified of dying in my sleep. What would become of me? What would become of my family? Who did I let down?

God bless the nurse, whose name I have forgotten, but whose shadowed face I will eternally preserve in memory. She clasped my hand and stroked my face and sat with me that first long night, telling me that I would survive.

OVERLOAD

Over the next several days an angiogram confirmed that I had suffered no heart damage, but a severe episode of ventricular fibrillation caused my heart to shut down. I also suffered a partially collapsed lung and phlebitis and post-traumatic stress.

We are all electrical beings, and my electrical components went haywire -- 80 out of a 100 people who have this condition die on the spot. Well, I had always been in the top 20% of everything, so something must be said for consistency.

I had literally overloaded with the stress and the self-imposed pressures of "success."

My electro-physiology cardiologist, Dr. Robert Gold, opened up my chest and implanted a defibrillator. This device is the size of your fist and contains an electrical charge which, if needed, will restore the heart to its rhythm.

I had literally overloaded with the stress and the self-imposed pressures of "success."

During those first two long weeks of hospital convalescence, Lori did not leave my side. Over countless hours of joy and tears and emotional roller coasters, we fell in love all over again -- without the burdens of material objects, without the clutter of career decisions, without the interference of trivialities.

In the aftermath of a near tragedy came a stripping away of years of accumulated insensitivity to each other. We looked at who we were and not who we pretended to be; we whispered renewals of our dreams of simple peace, of a slow and calm lot.

She slept in my hospital bed crammed alongside the hoses and handles on many a night. No matter, we had each other. I was amazed at her strength and poise during this trying time.

The outside world and my business colleagues did not appreciate the gravity of the situation and everyone was calling my home incessantly with important business messages, trial dates and requests for conferences. She managed all sternly and professionally, taking charge in her quiet way. I had never seen this side of Lori before. Perhaps in my need to "control," I had never given her a chance to show her strength.

SIMPLE THINGS

The children became our sustenance -- their development, their school progress, their lives. Simple things became important again. Life, oh precious life.

When a family faces a crisis, all are affected in different, subtle ways. While in the hospital I had received get-well letters from my daughter Jessie, then 8. She is an exceptionally gifted treasure.

My dear son Matt, then 11, however, did not send any letters. He is more of a sensitive, introspective soul. When I came home, Jessie had lots of questions and I answered all of them.

Matt waited until I was alone one evening. He sat on the edge of my bed. I sensed his apprehension. I asked him if he had any questions about what happened to me. He said he did, but asked none. I suggested that he might like to write them down. For the next fifteen minutes, Matt wrote. Then he asked me to write my responses. Verbal communication was still too painful for my tender son to bear.

The phrasing of a very serious, almost unthinkable question buffered by a near-comical one, gives insight into the incongruent pain and positive innocence of a child:

QUESTION: Dad, are you going to die?
ANSWER: I was very sick for a short time. I am not going to die. You and Jessie helped our family very much. I will have to slow down. This won't stop me from watching you play ball!

Followed by...

QUESTION: Dad, how was the hospital food?
ANSWER: Put it this way, my heart's in better shape than my stomach!

After I answered his questions, he curled up under my blanket and slept a deep slumber, not to awaken well into noon the following day.

LIFE'S SECRET

Life reveals its secrets in mysterious ways. Many would superficially look at me before my illness and say that I was a huge success -- I had money, a family, a big home in Potomac, lots of material possessions, and a powerful job. What they would not have seen was the rushing, the late nights, the trips, the distancing of one's self from one's soul, the living for tomorrow's paycheck.

Many of us share this scenario, even if we know better. We stretch ourselves and stretch ourselves. Finally, something has to give, or it will break. What is the aftermath? Divorce, alcoholism, a nervous breakdown, or as in my case, a heart attack.

Everything has a price. What toll does overloaded schedules, harried commutes, hurried meals take on the spirit?

We can't walk, because everyone is running.

Technology has helped numb our senses to feelings. We can't walk, because everyone is running; we can't smell the roses, because they're plastic. We have become disassociated, disconnected from simple pleasures.

I have learned that success is not measured in acquisition of material things. Success is a state of being. It is hugs and kisses, giving to others, smiles and tears. It is appreciating the beauty of a sunset, the chill of an autumn morning, the whimper of a newborn baby.

It is drinking the poetic fruit of Frost, the wit of Twain, the artistry of Cezanne. It is in the slink of a majestic cheetah's walk, and the growl of a polar bear.

It is all around us if we would only slow down and look at the beauty of creation. If we can appreciate the wonders of God and the strength of prayer. If we would only look deeper into our inherited Jewish values, we would not have to learn this lesson the hard way, as I did.

I have learned to celebrate the miracle of reclaimed life one glorious day at a time.

Published: July 20, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 28

(28) Gracie, November 19, 2006 6:53 AM

MY HEART STOPPED TOO ...

I read your article a couple of months ago and was amazed at how like my own experience it is. I saved it in my favourites and have just re-read it. However, in my case I came out of the experience wanting to simplify my life but I didn't have the understanding and support of my family. I regard my experience as a gift of time, given to me to enjoy, to learn, to cherish all of nature and its beauty. To my family though, I simply changed personality and was no longer the person or the workhorse they knew. And yet I am more myself than I ever was before. When we change and no longer meet the expectations others may have of us that's another lesson about love, I suppose.

(27) Anonymous, June 23, 2006 12:00 AM

Powerful words to learn and live by.

Required reading for every hard working person. The lessons learned sort of reminds me of the old show the "Paper Chase", but renamed, the "Life Chase".

(26) Beverly Kurtin, Ph.D., June 22, 2006 12:00 AM

Memories

There I was, in the hospital,recovering from my first MI when the phone rang. It was my office wanting to know if I could come in for an hour or two to finish a project I'd been working on! I asked the nurse to disconnect my phone. A rep from the office brought the work to my hospital room! Some people never get the message that there are more important things than work. I resigned from the company the next day via messenger.

A week later, after I'd returned home, the CEO of the company wanted to know when I was coming back to work. It took an attorney to get them off my back.

(25) nick, June 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Nice reminder

Thanks for the reminder about what is really important! It so easy to get caught up in the chase for whats not real!

(24) Francis e. Jeffery, June 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Necessity of self examination.

Excellent examination on how type A's kids themselves. A text that should a must read by every clergy and teacher.

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