March 25, 2014

Marine for Life: Took a licking; and kept on ticking

By Rob McDaniel
Staff Writer

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — A little more than seven years ago, I walked in to a New Orleans Navy Medical Clinic for chronic nose bleeds and walked out with terrifying news.  The Corpsman didn’t know what was wrong, but he knew it was something major.  He said he could hear my heart leaking, badly.

I remember going through all the tests in New Orleans and then calling my parents back home in Albany, Ky. to tell them the latest reports on my health. 

My last visit to a cardiologist in New Orleans was devastating.  He said he believed the bacteria and mold from Hurricane Katrina had infected a preexisting heart condition and I was in bad shape.  He gave me a year to live at best, but he expected that I wouldn’t make it more than six months without surgery.

I held it together until I got to my car and then I called my dad and started crying hysterically.  I was 22 years old and I was dying.  I was terrified.

It doesn’t take the Marine Corps long to send you home when you get news like that.  So a few weeks later, I was medically retired from the Marines and sent home to be with my family.

It didn’t take long for my health to really start to deteriorate.  I was sick, and it happened fast.  I couldn’t sit up without help; walking without help from my dad was completely out of the question and, at times, I couldn’t breathe.  I stayed in bed most of the time and either watched TV or played video games.  I had a lot of time to think and to pray.

I chose to have my surgery at Jewish Hospital in Louisville.  My grandfather had surgery there just a few months earlier and we really believed they would take care of me.

I had one pre-op meeting with my surgeon before the diagnosis was confirmed and surgery was scheduled.

On March 21, 2007, my family pushed me into the hospital; I was in a wheel chair at that point, and I was prepped for surgery.

It’s weird going in to a surgery that you’re not sure you’ll come out of.  People don’t want to say it, but they’re not sure if this is goodbye and it shows on their faces.  When I was wheeled away from my family, I saw my dad cry for the second time in my life.

Before the anesthesiologist put me under, I made the entire surgical room stop what they were doing and say a prayer for me.  I don’t know who prayed, but it seemed like they had just said “amen” when everything started to fade to black.  I don’t remember much after that. 

And just like that, I was awake.  I was disoriented, I couldn’t see and I had a breathing tube down my throat, but I was alive and my family was right there with me.

When I finally came to my senses and started realizing what was going on, I noticed a ticking sound.  I looked all over the room and didn’t see any clocks; I asked one of the nurses if they heard it.  She smiled and said that ticking was a good thing, it was my new aortic valve and, as long as I heard it, that meant I was still alive.

It took a while to get used to the ticking.  It kept me up at night sometimes, but I did eventually get used to it.  It’s part of who I am.  A ticking heart is a small price to pay to still be alive.

Today is the seven-year anniversary of my surgery and I can’t help but thank God that I’m still here.  I didn’t think I’d see 23, and here I am getting ready to turn 30. According to my doctors, my heart will keep ticking for a long, long time.

I never got to thank the Corpsman, HM1 Donald Kline, for saving my life. He retired from the Navy shortly after finding out about my heart problems and I never saw him again.  If it weren’t for him, I’d have died.  I truly hope that someday he comes across this and realizes how grateful I truly am.