The first time I could have died was on the morning of August 23, 2021. It would probably have occurred somewhere on the greenway trail in my hometown. I parked in the parking lot of the church my parents helped start, which is about five minutes from my house, and started my usual five minute walk to warm up and stretch before taking off on a three to five mile run. The initial trail is an abandoned tree-lined road that winds between a golf course and a gated community before a short and steep bridge over a railroad track and then connecting with the greenway, which parallels the tracks, and then runs beside a beautiful stream. The greenway also runs behind our city library and if I was going to die, I cannot imagine a lovelier place than in close proximity to thousands of books. However, after walking about a tenth of a mile, I decided to pay attention to the dull numb pain in the back of the top half of my left arm, and the tightness in my upper chest that felt like heartburn, but I knew wasn’t heartburn. I turned around, walked back to the car and drove home.
The second time I could have died might have been if my wife, Leann, had already left for her own morning walk, as was her normal routine. Instead, I caught her before she left and told her I thought I needed her to take me to the ER because “I may be having a heart attack.” “Oh sure!” was her laughing response. I had lost 50 pounds over a ten month period beginning with my time of Sabbatical in the summer and fall of 2018, and not only kept it off, but had been faithful in almost daily runs of three to five miles, and on occasion even taking on a six miler without much trouble. With no real history of heart disease in my family, and being in top shape, I was the least likely person to be having a heart attack…she thought. I didn’t feel my condition urgent enough to go to the hospital for what might be an overnight or even a few days without taking a shower. In spite of Leann’s protest, I showered, and she drove the seven minutes to our community hospital where she let me off at the door to the Emergency Room and went to park the car.
The last thing I remember, until being brought out of a medically induced coma twenty four hours later, was walking to the ER reception desk, being COVID screened, and the young lady asking “what is going on with you?” When I described the pain in the back of my arm and my upper chest, she stood up, commanded: “Come with me,” and we walked down a hall. Everything else until my coming to consciousness in another hospital in downtown Nashville on the next day, I only know by listening to Leann tell others the story.
The third time I could have died was after Leann returned from parking the car and was escorted to my ER bed. The doctors had already done an EKG and they reported: “Mr. Steinhauer, you are not having a heart attack. The EKG is pretty normal. Your blood pressure is high, so we are going to come back to do some tests,” and they left the room. Leann reports that about five minutes later I told her: “I feel faint…” and my eyes were dilated as much as possible–she described my eyes as looking “black”–and then I started convulsing with a cardiac arrest. Had she decided she needed to go to the ladies room (which is life-long-pretty-regular-occurrence for her), and had she not been in the room when I went into cardiac arrest, there would have been no one there to know it was even happening. There had been no need to put me on any sort of monitor.
It took a bit of yelling on Leann’s part to get any response as she called for help, as the just-conducted testing hadn’t shown I was in much danger, and maybe they were thinking I had used the “chest pain” claims as a rouse to get fast-tracked to the ER for an examination for some other reason. I’ve heard of people doing that. I wish I’d thought of it myself three years before when I sat in the same ER waiting room about 45 minutes with the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life–which turned out to be kidney stones. Nonetheless, after a fair amount of “you’ve got to get back in here! Something is happening to him!” they did come running. And then they ushered her out of the room
From the small room off the ER, there for a doctor to consult with a family member of a patient, and report on the outcome of procedures, Leann was alone–by her own choosing–until two friends and my brother showed up. She heard them quickly call “Code–ER…Code–ER,” and since there were only two other patients in the ER at the time she figured it had to be me. She texted her friends: “Pray. Matt is in the ER having a heart attack. I don’t know whether he is alive or dead.” She called our daughter, Kerra, in Columbia, Missouri, and Leann reported she was quite calm and helpful and talked her mother out of going down the hysterical route with a solid: “God has this and if it’s his time to go it’s his time to go.” I’m grateful for both my daughters’ close relationship with God and deep prayer lives. But I’m going to have to talk to Kerra about next time she might think about diving headlong into the most fervent prayer she has ever prayed for healing and saving and all that…instead of just trusting that “God has this…and if it’s his time to go….” 🙂 It wasn’t long before Leann heard another “Code–ER…Code–ER,” and not long after that: “Respiratory–ER…Respiratory–ER,” which she later found out was when I was intubated–put on a respirator. It took three attempts to complete that procedure as I was still conscious enough to fight it.
The fourth time I could have died was reported to me a couple weeks later by my cardiologist, after I was discharged and had returned for a followup visit. An arteriogram was performed soon after my cardiac arrest, and there was a blockage showing in my left anterior descending artery. This is the same symptom of the “Widow Maker” heart attack, and one of the most common ways to address that blockage is running a wire through the artery and placing a stint to open up the blockage. One of the attending doctors thought there was something else going on. His sister-in-law had died of a rare SCAD (Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection) heart attack, that happens in women 90% of the time, and because I was exhibiting the same symptoms he suggested they not attempt the stint. Because an artery dissection is a tearing of the artery–not a blockage–my cardiologist informed me if they had tried to run a wire through, it would have just torn the artery and I would have died on the operating table. Gulp.
Because the great irony of an arterial dissection is that it will–in most cases–heal on its own, the most important thing in my case was to just keep me alive long enough for that to happen. And so that is what they did. A heart balloon to supplement the natural pumping of my heat took some of the workload off the heart itself, and a mind boggling list of medicines and IV fluids did the trick.
Leann said the longer it was before anyone came in to talk to her the better she felt. “At least they weren’t telling me you were dead.” And within a couple hours the doctor came in and told them I was in critical but stable condition, and that I was a very sick man. At least I was still alive. Within a few hours the decision was made to transport me to a major heart center in Nashville, Centennial Medical Center, and because I was on so much life-support equipment the decision was made to life-flight me there; not because I was in eminent danger, but because it was more practical than an ambulance. So I took a sunset helicopter ride over the beautiful downtown Nashville….and didn’t even know it.
Leann recounts the only other “drama” occurred after being admitted to Centennial, when I started coming out of my sedated state, and began fighting the ventilator, and so she and another nurse had to lay across my legs while they restrained me and got a shot to put be back out. She also said the doctors at Centennial at first discounted it could possibly be a SCAD heart attack, but after more testing and an MRI decided that was a correct diagnosis, so from there my recovery and recuperation began. By 11:30am the next day the ventilator was removed. There was some discomfort from all that being jammed down my windpipe, and there was discomfort from the chest compressions when the CPR happened after I coded two times (but no ribs were broken). It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but I must say, I was able to walk around the Coronary ICU by the third day, and the fourth day I was transferred to a regular room. On the fifth day a defibrillator/pacemaker/heart monitor was surgically implanted in my chest, and on the sixth day–Saturday, August 28th, about noon, I walked from my room to the elevator, out the door to Leann waiting in the car to take me home.
I missed the next day (Sunday) and the next Sunday of preaching and presiding at worship, but was back fifteen days later and within a month or so was feeling pretty close to normal (physically). But I discovered there is much more to a critical health event like I experienced than the physical aspects. I wasn’t supposed to have a heart attack. I was supposed to live until I was at least 90 years old. My father died at almost 91, my mother is 90 and still doing fine. I have taken pretty good care of myself over the years. Maybe I would even make it to 95. In actuality, I might not have made it to 66 years old had any one of four or more circumstances been different on the morning of August 23, 2021.
I was strong enough within 24 hours of the heart attack to write on a pad (I was still on the ventilator, so I couldn’t speak. After being taken off the ventilator I was able to text and even talk a little bit (with a very raspy voice), and so I had brief conversations with a few friends and family. In a response to a text to my two dearest friends, about 24 hours after arriving at the hospital in Nashville, one of them responded with this question: “I’ve been wondering what kind of inspiration does a storytelling songwriter get from a near death experience?” I responded about my favorite singer songwriter, Beth Nielsen Chapman, teaching in songwriting workshops I have attended with her as teacher, sharing the experience of writing songs–not from personal experience, but writing for something you don’t even know will happen. I replied to him: “I wrote that song when I was in Italy three years ago, but I’m sure another (at least) will come out of it.” (You can listen to the prophetic song here).
These are the first things I thought, and some really important reflections from facing my own mortality.
First, Leann saved my life. Had she not gotten me to the hospital, and then, not gotten the attention of the medical staff when I went into cardiac arrest, I would not be here to tell this story. She may have made an extra effort because she may have thought I really did not have any life insurance. On more than one occasion I have told people (in front of her): “I don’t have any life insurance. I don’t want Leann to be more attractive when I’m dead than she already is!” I do have life insurance.
Second–and this may be the most profound experience–is that Hendersonville Medical Center was there. Hendersonville, my hometown, is a city of almost 60,000 residents. It is not surprising there would be a hospital in a community that size. But there was a hospital there when there were a whole lot less people in Hendersonville. The hospital opened in 1979 when there were closer to 25,000 people living there. It was opened in large part due to the tireless legislative effort of my father, John Steinhauer, Jr. In 1967, my 22 month old sister, Julie, drowned in Old Hickory Lake. After she was pulled from the lake she was taken to the nearest hospital, which was in Nashville, about 20 minutes away. Of course no one knows if she might have lived had there been a hospital in Hendersonville, but my dad went to work to be sure no other family ever had to wonder the same if they were facing a critical life event. As an elected State Representative from Sumner County, TN, he appealed to a State committee to get approval for the Hendersonville Hospital. Having been told that it took three committees to approve the request, and being assured that it would not get passed the third committee, his plea was accepted unanimously and the new hospital was constructed. The hospital was not there to save his daughter. But it was there to save his son.
Of course I spent much time thinking about the time I would have missed with my children and my grandchildren, and now, being ever so grateful I might still have more time with them. My daughters, Kerra and Lindsay are capable young women, married to fine husbands. I do not worry about their futures or how they would make it without their dad. I know they would miss me. But they would be fine. With my son, Matt, almost 27 and with Down syndrome, it is a different story. I have often wondered what would be worse: me dying before him–and him having to live the rest of his life without me? Or him dying before me–and what deep sorrow that would be for me? Even now I do not know the answer to that question. Even now it haunts me.
I guess the final commentary comes from the pastor and theologian which is my vocation and call. Where was God in all this? I don’t guess “coding” is the same as “dying.” So maybe I don’t need to worry about whether I experienced actual death, and whether I can describe what it is like to die and come back from death. I know that between walking into Hendersonville Hospital on Monday morning about 9am, and waking up in Centennial Medical Center the next day about 9am, I have no memory, no feelings, no visions. Someone asked if I saw a long hallway with a light at the end? I laughingly told them I didn’t see a light…I didn’t see a devil or burning flames…maybe the medieval Roman Catholics had it right with the notion of the waiting room of Purgatory and that my hero, Martin Luther was wrong! I do know this. There is a long list of life events that I have experienced that involved a great deal of pain and loss, sorrow and surprise. This one was no different. There was never a second in my recollection that I questioned whether or not God was fully present with me, and no matter what the outcome had been, I was and would have been and still am, in the arms of the faithful loving God who breathed me into being–knit me in my mother’s womb–and will hold me when the time comes that I really do take my last breath. “Miracle” is a word I’ve heard a lot since my heart attack and recovery. “Lucky man” is a description I’ve heard from many. I know there were many, many prayers on my behalf and for that I am thankful. But I flinch a little when I hear people remark: “You must have more work here to do,” or “It’s a God thing that you made it through that.” I have no doubt God was with me. I have no doubt God was with the doctors and nurses and technicians and helicopter pilot–whether any of them knew it or not, or recognized God or not. If it is true that: “…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Rom. 8:38-39 NRSV) then I think someone’s lack of prayer or doubt or even lack of belief will also not separate them. It is more important to me that God is here in all the places I am–joys and sorrows–than to need to know God is pulling strings so that people line up in the right place at the right time just so Matt Steinhauer could be saved from a freak heart attack. Because, in the end, whether I live or whether I die, I am the Lord’s. (Romans 14:8 NRSV).