One of my projects during this time of sheltering in place is organizing all of my digital photos. Actually, I started this work during Thanksgiving week 2019. I bought a new scanner and spent several days scanning in old photos, intending to give my kids a digital surprise for Christmas. Instead, the project was interrupted when I had an arrhythmic storm (or electrical storm) in December – repeated episodes of vfib with my heart device (Fiona!) firing to bring my heart back to a normal rhythm.
Well into my recovery now, it is already April, and here again I sit, trying to bring some order to the hundreds of photos on my computer, glimpses into my life over the past (almost) 60 years. My progress is often slowed because as I sort the photos, I want to pause and reflect, remember and enjoy those times past. The photos I especially can’t stop looking at are the wedding pictures for my kids. Tina and Jessica had a beautiful summer wedding in the mountains near Leavenworth in September 2017, just a year after my first cardiac arrest. Andreas and Greta had an elegant winter wedding in Minneapolis in December 2019, just four days before my most recent heart event. I’m grateful beyond measure that I was able to be there for those joyous occasions, celebrating their future lives together and enjoying the presence of so many of our family and friends gathered with us.
In this time of sheltering in place and physical separation, one might think that these photos would bring a measure of sadness, but I find my reaction to be quite the opposite. These photos bring me joy and appreciation for our connections with family and friends, as well as strength and hope that we can continue to nurture the richness of these connections now via FaceTime chats, Zoom bingo, shared photos, spaced walks, and eventually face-to-face gatherings. And our family is just one of many in Minnesota, across the country, and around the world. At a time when it can be easy to lose our sense of optimism, I feel encouraged just by the thought of all of the families and groups of friends who are finding creative ways to take care of one another and stay connected in the midst of this pandemic.
It’s Friday afternoon, and I thought it would be a good time to update my Caring Bridge site since we hadn’t written anything for a while. During the past three months, my heart has been quiet, and Noelle (my new ICD) has enjoyed a slow and uneventful transition in taking over for Fiona (my old ICD). By the way, did you know that some people take their old heart devices and turn them into things like belt buckles, brooches, and wall hangings? Go figure. My Fiona now resides in the back of my sock drawer, along with a few other treasures.
Stephanie and I spent two and a half wonderful months in San Diego this winter, where we rented a condo on Mission Beach. We started our personal rehab/boot camp program right away, walking on the boardwalk along the beach every day and doing some light strength training in our living room. Stephanie also played pickle ball regularly and explored the city on her new electric bicycle. After my previous events, we had changed our diet significantly, but now we decided to focus exclusively on a whole foods, plant-based diet. We spent many hours looking for new recipes, shopping for fresh foods, and cooking many new dishes along with some old favorites. In the late afternoons, we always paused to enjoy the sunset, either as we sat on our balcony overlooking the ocean or as we walked on the beach. It was a time of day to be thankful for the beauty of nature, for one another, for friends and family, and for good health.
Late in January, I was able to see an excellent electrophysiologist at the University of California San Diego Medical Center, and I found out there was a spot for me in the Dean Ornish Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation Program (https://www.ornish.com/undo-it/). I had done cardiac rehab after my first event in 2016, but I did the rehab on my own after the second event in 2018. I was eager to participate in the Ornish program because its goal is to prevent and reverse heart disease and type 2 diabetes by focusing on four main areas:
a whole foods, plant-based diet (low in fat and refined carbohydrates)
stress management techniques (including yoga and meditation)
moderate exercise (such as walking, strength training, etc.)
social support and community
In some ways, I wasn’t a perfect fit for this program because I don’t have the more common heart disease issues, such as coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure, etc. Rather, I have electrical problems with my heart that cause ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest. The doctors still don’t know what causes my arrhythmia, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to see whether this program could be effective for me. After the first session, I knew that it would be transformative for me. To be honest, it makes me nervous to use the word transformative because we are only three months into this lifestyle change, but we are feeling strong in body and clear and calm in mind. However, bear in mind that it remains to be seen whether the program will have any impact on my arrhythmia.
Let me tell you a little bit more about the program. My cohort of about 15 participants met two days a week for four and a half hours, which is about double the amount of most cardiac rehab programs. We spent the first hour and a half working out on the various exercise machines while wearing heart monitors so the nurse could keep an eye on vital signs. The exercise physiologists – all young, fun, and enthusiastic – would circulate around the room, checking blood pressures and offering advice and encouragement to the participants. We also had time to talk with one another as we walked on the treadmills, rode the bikes, did the ellipticals, and engaged in strength training. The next hour was stress management, where we practiced meditation and chair/floor yoga. Some people had done yoga before, but spending an hour at a time each day in meditation and yoga was new for most of us. The next hour was everyone’s favorite – lunch. In addition to the staff offices and the exercise room, the program space included a full-sized kitchen where our chef and nutrition coordinator cooked amazing plant-based meals for us, including falafels, quinoa burgers, smoky bean tacos, pasta with white sauce, chickpea and potato curry, and many more. During the lunch hour, family members could join in, so Stephanie was able to meet the other participants and their families, as well as have lunch and listen to the nutrition lectures while we were eating. After lunch, the program ended with an hour of group support, led by two facilitators. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this part of the program, but it turned out to be just as helpful as the other three areas. It was a safe space where people could feel free to be vulnerable as they talked about what had happened to them and what they were experiencing as the program progressed. Even though we only made it through four weeks of the nine-week program, I feel very connected to all the participants and staff in a way that surprises me. I have had a lot of amazing support from Stephanie, my family, and friends, but there is something helpful and rich and wonderful about being able to talk with others who have experienced similar health crises of a critical nature and who are working hard to make significant lifestyle changes.
When March arrived, we were becoming more and more concerned about the coronavirus news. At first, we thought we would stay in California and ride out the storm there, so we went to the store and bought a lot of groceries (and fortunately, toilet paper). However, just a few days later, the news became even worse and I woke up on Friday, March 13 with the clear feeling that we needed to go home. It took us all day and the next morning to pack, and fortunately Stephanie is a jenga master and thus was able to get everything in the car. We were nervous about the trip home since we would be driving through many remote areas with fewer hospitals in case of heart issues. We also didn’t want to catch the virus. As a result, we brought all of our own food for the trip home and had picnics on the hood of the car, and we stopped otherwise just for gas for the car, restrooms for us, and hotels for sleep.
However, as we passed through Utah, we decided to take brief trips into the four national parks close to our route home: Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches, and Canyonlands. The beautiful natural features in these parks soothed our nervous souls and the hikes in each were an extension of our beach boot camp. Fortunate with good weather and little traffic, we arrived home to a quiet and deserted St. Paul on St. Patrick’s Day.
So, here we are, sheltering in place and doing our best to keep our spirits up and stay in touch with our families and friends. It strikes me that I have similar feelings about cardiac events and the coronavirus. Both seem to lurk in a threatening way with the power to strike when least expected and the ability to cause deep fear and anxiety in all of us. I often lie awake at night and read medical articles about arrhythmia and news articles about the coronavirus. Bad idea. I worry for our family and friends. I worry about all the people who are sick, both with heart issues and with the coronavirus. I worry about how people will pay for their medical bills. I worry about what people who can’t work will do when they run out of money. My worries are many, seemingly endless, most of them about things that are far beyond my control.
What to do? When fear threatens to overcome me, I find that beauty is one of the things that saves me. I listened to Oprah’s introduction to her new meditation series with Deepak Chopra the other day, and Oprah quoted Maya Angelou, saying: “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.” I love that sentiment and find it to be true. But even more, for me, I would say that “beauty and fear cannot occupy the same space.” I often have trouble sleeping at night because two of my cardiac events occurred then, and it’s easy to start remembering what happened and then thinking it could happen again. To be honest, I can’t always make that fear go away, but one of the things that helps me is to put on my headphones and listen to beautiful music. I love Bobby McFerrin’s version of the 23rd Psalm, Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” hymns by the St. Olaf Choir, among other things. I also love reading poetry, looking at paintings and photos, and being out in nature. All of these things represent beauty for me, and in the presence of that, my fear recedes and I regain my sense of balance and perspective. In beauty, I also rediscover my sense of the sacred.
In addition to seeking out beauty, I can reduce my fear and anxiety by focusing on other things I can control, such as keeping close contact with my family and friends, exercising daily, making healthy meals, and meditating. These last four activities have been part of my life for a while now, but they came into sharper focus during cardiac rehab since they are the four pillars on which the program is based. This post is the last one I will make on this Caring Bridge site for now, but in the days ahead, I plan to write on my blog about each of these five strategies as a way of documenting this time of the coronavirus and my cardiac rehab. You will find the blog here: nancyaarsvold.com/blog
I want to reiterate my thanks to all of you who have supported us in the past few months via email, comments on Caring Bridge, phone calls, visits in Seattle, and visits in San Diego. You give us strength, love, laughter, and so much more.
Much love from Nancy & Stephanie
Gina H. | Apr 11, 2020 Stephanie and Nancy: It is great to hear an update from you. Nancy, your rehab program sounded very beneficial and I‘m glad you have had a couple of enjoyable months near the beach. Happy Easter to you both.
Ragnhild J. | Apr 7, 2020 Thank you, Nancy, for sharing. I am happy for you that you are safely back home. What a journey the two of you have made in these months! Warm greetings from Trondheim 🙂
Sveinung S. | Apr 6, 2020 Thank you for this beautiful and inspiring report!
Kris D. | Apr 4, 2020 Thank you, love.
Shirley F. | Apr 4, 2020 You are a rock, my dear, and an inspiration. I am glad you were able to make some side trips along your way back home and hope you find joy and peace now that you’re there. Waiting now for the best time to make the car-trip home too.
Colleen A. | Apr 4, 2020 Thank you for posting, Nancy! I loved hearing this and am so thankful you are in a good spot right now. Your self care is inspiring. Keep up the good work! Love you!
Heather C. | Apr 4, 2020 Yay Whole Foods plant based diet! I love Dr Ornish and find his work so inspiring. It sounds like you all have had quite an adventure to get home, and I’m glad you made it safely! Be strong and healthy!
Shelley C. | Apr 4, 2020 Wow that was really inspirational! You gave me lots of ideas! So grateful you and Stephanie are doing so well and made the most of your situation!❤️Stay healthy and go with HOPE!
Gloria B. | Apr 4, 2020 Nancy, your words were just what I needed to read this morning. Not only am I thrilled that you and Steph have made it home, are healthy, and are walking this new path together, but I’m calmed by this message of peace, beauty, and hope in these uncertain times. I know we’ve never met, but I feel drawn to your open, thoughtful words. God bless you both. Stay well.
Robert E. | Apr 4, 2020 Welcome home! You’ve had quite a adventure. Good luck for your recovery – it sounds like a great program.
Judith T. | Apr 4, 2020 Beautifully written, Nancy! Thanks for the inspiration and welcome home.
Connie F. | Apr 4, 2020 So good to hear from you, Nancy, and to know you are back in St. Paul. What a remarkable journey you’ve taken. Be well.
Patricia S. | Apr 4, 2020 How wonderful to have you safely back home! Your journal entry touched me. I felt love in every sentence and look forward to a mutual hug when it is safe to do so. Peace, love and blessings to you two!
Joan H. | Apr 4, 2020 Beautiful beyond words. You are amazing Nancy & Stephanie! And you even included the link to Bobby McFerrin! Welcome home. Now it’s time for me to meditate.
Marcia S.-S. |Apr 4, 2020 What a remarkable journey you’re on. Thank you for sharing so much of it with the rest of us. I’m happy to hear you’re safe and back at home in St. Paul. Sending hugs and love to you and Stephanie.
Roberta L. | Apr 4, 2020 Welcome home. Sending love 💕 your way!
Marsha F. | Apr 4, 2020 Thanks so much, Nancy, for this amazing update. The way you are handling life right now has so many good suggestions for ALL of us during this time of great uncertainty. I will come back to your newsy post several times because it is so helpful to me, too. Hey, Steffen Foss, whoever you are, do you think we are related?
Steffen F. | Apr 3, 2020 Nancy, so happy to hear you are home and doing well. I think of you and Steph often among the many friends I wonder about in this strange time and hope you are both hanging in there. Sending you both hugs and good spirit as we trudge through these next several months.