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Today is a Gift

Editor’s Note: Doug Risser of Goshen, Ind., almost died from a cardiac episode in early January. In 2014, he retired from working with MennoTravel agency for 40 years. He is a first cousin of columnist Melodie Davis.

I remember telling Sharon that the odds were not good but doing nothing meant zero percent chance of survival.

Late Sunday afternoon on Jan. 4, I was at my computer in my den on the lower level of our house. My wife, Sharon, was upstairs on the sofa, drifting between watching TV and a nap.

I felt a sharp, knife-like pain in my chest. I thought immediately, “This is not usual and not at all good.” I headed upstairs, got to the sunroom where Sharon was, and face-planted on the floor.

My fall woke her. “Doug! What are you doing on the floor?” Sharon recalls saying. I was unresponsive. My eyes were open with pupils fixed and dilated, but I was out.

Sharon called 911, worked to maintain an airway, and was scared. While it likely only took five to seven minutes for the ambulance to get there, it seemed like forever to Sharon.

On arrival at the emergency department of our local Goshen Hospital, the ER doctor determined there was a cardiac tamponade, with fluid in my chest. She called the local heart specialist, Dr. Mark Smucker, who arrived within ten minutes. More tests showed the likely cause, bleeding near the heart. Sharon knew it was not good. I somewhat remember being asked some questions to see if I was coherent and I couldn’t answer them.

They made plans to transfer me to Elkhart Hospital, which has an on-call cardiac team. Dr. Smucker accompanied me in the ambulance and Sharon rode in the front. As an RN with experience both in the ER and cardiac care, she knew this was very serious.

With winter road conditions, the 25-minute trip took 45 even with the red light and siren on. My body was shutting down. On arrival, we learned that the surgical team that had been assembled had been called to another emergency case. So a second team was called.

A surgeon traveled 15 miles from South Bend. I somewhat remember being prepped for surgery, and the surgeon saying my chances were not good. I remember telling Sharon that the odds were not good but doing nothing meant zero percent of survival. Sharon later told me that she had been told that I had a 10 percent chance of coming through the surgery. I went into surgery around 7 p.m. and Sharon was told I would come out between 3 to 5:00 a.m.

Our pastor, Brenda Sawatzky Paetkau, prayed with me. I can’t say that I remember the particulars except that it was good to have her there with Sharon and me. I went to sleep again.

As I was being transferred onto the operating table, I cardiac arrested. I was given CPR until I could be transferred and able to be put on the heart-lung machine. In the next 28 minutes my chest was opened up, a 3-inch patch was installed on my ruptured aorta, and my heart was re-started. During the time my heart was stopped, my body temperature went down to 64 degrees. The surgery continued.

Around midnight, the surgeon came out to see Sharon. She thought it was not a good sign when he came out early. “What happened?” Sharon asked.

“The surgery is over. Doug wouldn’t let us take our time,” he said.

I woke up Monday morning with a lot of tubes and wires but I never felt any fear. I was at peace. This was just something that was happening to me. They called Sharon when I awoke and she joined me. The first day I sat up and walked a (very) short distance.

I stayed in critical care for three days and then I moved to progressive care. I was released on Friday when it was clear that my blood pressure could be controlled. I am now recuperating at home and having restrictions slowly lifted. I’m gaining strength. I never lost my appetite even though the hospital food was tasteless and overcooked compared to the great food I eat at home.

Several things worked in my favor. A blood clot formed close to the tear in the aorta and as the chest cavity filled, that blood clot reduced the flow from the tear. Also, the tear was close enough to the pulmonary artery that the artery may have also exerted some pressure. While I needed some blood, plasma and platelets, the surgical team was able to recycle much of the blood from my chest cavity and re-use it: a good match!

I’m fortunate that we have access to great emergency service. Less than two weeks earlier, we had been in India and Southeast Asia. They would have had to ship my remains home. It’s good that Sharon was also at home and that I made it upstairs. Had I passed out before getting upstairs, Sharon would have found me a couple of hours later at dinnertime. I was fortunate that they were able to assemble a great second surgical team with a top South Bend surgeon, Dr. Michael Steinberg.

Two Sundays later during sharing time at church, I was able to say “I’m Doug Risser and I have a joy to share” to applause from friends who knew my story. I’m thankful for a supportive church group, friends who came to the hospital to be with Sharon that night, our pastor Brenda, and others who visited and sent cards or flowers.

I beat the odds. Now I need to figure out what it means for the rest of my life. I’ve always been one to plan for the future, often years in advance, never expecting life to suddenly end. It can, without warning, whether I’m ready or not.

Life is a gift and will continue to be great. I look forward to many years of enjoying life, our grandson, and planning for the mystery of the future while appreciating the present that is today.


To comment, respond, or send your good wishes, write to Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802 or

Posted 2/26/2015 7:00:00 AM

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