The fact that I had a heart attack is nothing extraordinary. People have heart attacks all the time – over 800,000 in the U.S. every year. What makes my 2021 heart attack remarkable is the circumstances surrounding it.

On Ash Wednesday that year, I went away on a 3-day silent retreat with a friend. I fast during Lent and find it helpful to get started at a place with Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration and no food temptations. While praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament, I often pray using symbolic images of my heart. Sometimes I sit silently and ask our Lord to make my heart beat in sync with His. Sometimes, I ask Him to heal it. Oftentimes, I imagine Him reaching into my chest with both of His warm hands. Together, they completely cover my heart. I then imagine Him lifting it out of my body and bringing it towards His face where he carefully blows on it with His warm breath, melting the ice and making my heart warm and healthy again.  

As I spent these days in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, I received an unexpected and confusing thought. In prayer, I kept hearing that I actually needed to get my physical heart checked out. At the time, I had no conscious awareness that anything might be wrong with it. Driving home on Saturday, I mentioned this to my friend. We both agreed that given my medical background – 3 bouts of cancer, 2 stem cell transplants, 30 lifetime surgeries, 18 years of constant hospitalizations, etc. – it was probably prudent to get it checked.

Several weeks later as I was walking into Daily Mass, my large research hospital in Chicago called to schedule the appointment. I then went inside to meet my son, Michael, for Mass. While listening to the amazing story of Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego at the first reading, I began to feel some distress in my chest. At first I thought it was a physical reaction to the vivid description of 3 holy men being thrown into a white hot fiery furnace, but when the bad feeling didn’t subside after the reading ended, I became concerned. This distress turn into pain during the Eucharistic prayer. Then, at the moment of consecration, as the priest elevated the Sacred Host, I heard the words, “You are having a heart attack.” Immediately after the elevation of the chalice, I sat back in my pew and Googled “heart attack symptoms” which confirmed this thought. I quickly texted my doctor friend who responded immediately and told me to have Michael drive me to the hospital.

By now it was almost time for communion. As my chest continued to alarm me, I could also see Jesus up on the altar. The priest held up the host and said, “Behold the Lamb of God…” It was clear to me that I needed to wait and receive Holy Communion. By waiting, either I would die while united with Him in the Eucharist, or He would heal me, or hopefully He would help me get to the hospital in time. With Jesus Himself only a few dozen feet away, leaving without receiving Communion seemed very foolish. So we waited. I will never forget the surreal experience of receiving the Eucharist while having a heart attack. After receiving, we headed for the side door and left immediately.

On the way to the hospital, we came upon a traffic light that suddenly turned red. From experience I knew that this was one of those long 2.5-minute red lights. Next to us was a supermarket parking lot. Not wanting to waste any time, I told Michael to turn into it and hustle inside to get me some aspirin to thin my blood. I figured I was at least 40 minutes from receiving treatment so an extra minute or two to get the aspirin seemed like a good investment.

Michael was in and out VERY quickly, but those few minutes were extremely powerful for me. As soon as he left the car, my chest pain began to intensify. A feeling of doom came over me and I looked around in disbelief saying, “This? After all I’ve been through, this is the way I die? In a supermarket parking lot?” I began to pray. I said,

“Lord, I think I understand what is going on here. If you would like to know my preference, then please understand that I would prefer not to die here and now. I think Michael would feel horrible to find me dead in his car and the thought of Margy (my wife) rushing here just to see the lights of an ambulance and my lifeless body really breaks my heart. I also feel that I might have some more good to do here on earth, so I prefer for you to save me so I can continue working on some of the things you’ve given me.”

But that was just the beginning of my prayer. I continued… “HOWEVER Lord, if this is it, if you are about to take me….”

Before completing this sentence, my whole life suddenly passed before me. It’s very difficult to describe but it was like a panoramic photo timeline of my life was presented to me in one glance. I could “see,” in general, every stage of life from my first memory till one minute ago. Witnessing this, a wave of immense gratitude passed over me. I began to cry and smile and laugh all at the same time, then continued…

“If this is it, then…. THANK YOU! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I could never have deserved this AWESOME, WONDERFUL, FANTASTIC life you have given me, so full of beauty, drama, suffering, and love. I literally cannot thank you enough!!!

For a brief moment then, I think I received a glimpse of heaven. I cannot describe what I “saw.” I saw it with my heart, not with my eyes. My heart was filled with joy. It was so beautiful and compelling that in that moment I actually WANTED to die. With heaven presented to me in such a way, all I could say was “YES! YES! YES! PLEASE!” Then quite abruptly I heard a tender but firm voice say, “No, that would be the easy way out.”

Michael returned to the car, I took the aspirin, and with peace in my heart we drove to the hospital. They performed an emergency catheterization, placing a stent in the artery that was blocked. The next day, when I awoke from surgery, my heart burned with love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, and with hope for what is yet to come.

“I will not die, but live. And tell of the works of the Lord.” Psalm 118:17

The beginning of my Facebook post the day after everything happened.