Don't Go Breakin' My Heart


Don't Go Breakin' My Heart

photos by Kathleen Rodgers

I sat in the cardiologist office.

It was January 2, 2019. Dr. Irwin is an older gentleman known for his direct approach. I was expecting some words like, "You need to exercise more and eat less." I had just failed a stress test and scored over 2000 on a coronary calcium scan where 300 was considered bad. He said,  "You need a valve replacement." 

Not what I expected. I said, "What, like in a few years?"

"No, like within the month. We'll get it scheduled. Which hospital are you using?" 

With my quick wit, I replied, "Huh?"

He was patient and kind and explained that my aortic valve had a congenital deformity, and while it had functioned well for decades, it wasn't unusal for it to become a problem as age and calcium deposits built up. Things were scheduled, more tests, consultations, and suddenly, I was having open heart surgery on January 29th. The nurse sent me home with instructions: "Don't do anything! Don't exert yourself at all!" Before my office visit and stress test, I had almost zero symptoms. There was occasional mild angina, which I first took for heartburn. I hadn't been subjected much to heartburn in the past, but I'm getting older, so I thought it was natural. This went on for a couple of months, and I began to suspect I needed to get serious about losing weight and getting to the gym. The previous year, my doctor had suggested I have the coronary calcium scan, not because of any problems, but because of my lifestyle, general health, and age. I decided to have it, and the testing center strongly suggested that I see my cardiologist ASAP.

A bad valve was quite a surprise, but the surprises kept coming. Over the next two weeks, I discovered that I had an aneurysm and several partial blockages which would require by-passes. On January 29th I went in, and the surgeon cut my chest open, rerouted my blood to a machine, stopped my heart, flipped it around when he needed to, replaced my bad aortic valve, repaired my aneurysm and gave me four by-passes and an angioplasty. A friend told me later to be wary of my mental state after surgery. He said, "The brain doesn't like it when your heart stops." Good advice!

For a fellow whose worst surgery was having his tonsils removed when he was seven, open-heart surgery was eye-opening. Please note: If you're planning to have open-heart surgery, always prepare beforehand by marrying a good woman. Recovery is not fun, but having a supportive, caring, and attentive significant other is the only way to go! Never have I been so dependent on someone else for bathing, clothing, eating, and more. After a week in the hospital, it was another week or more before I could sleep in the bed. Even then, I couldn't turn myself over. A month off from regular life is the minimum. 

I was cautioned that I might experience a great deal of depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Of course, I pondered my new intimacy with mortality. I prepared before surgery by getting my finances in order, making sure that my wife knew all the right passwords because I'm the one who opens the mail and pays the bills. I had three weeks to talk to my daughters and sons-in-law, my extended family, and of course, my church family. 

Was there fear? Was there anxiety? It's difficult when you've been in control of everything in your life to have that control wrested from you. I had to give myself up to a surgeon and medical team. No control. I was intubated, restrained, tubes everywhere; places tubes ought not to be. No control. I had to get help for the simplest tasks in recovery.

No control.

But through it all, the overriding emotion? Peace. A wonderful peace that did indeed pass all understanding. I have never felt so prayed for in my entire life! I have never felt such an outpouring of love, care and support! Sure, I could die, but I wasn't really worried. It was becoming more and more evident to me that God was working His plan. I was a big fatal heart attack waiting to happen, but God intervened. Evidently, He's got a few more things for me to do! By the way, control is an illusion, we're not really in control anyway - better to let go and let God do His thing in our lives.

My church family was supportive and encouraging beyond measure. I received many cards, calls, and messages. And the FOOD! Didn't have to cook for a month! My gratitude is still overflowing toward my wonderful church family. 

Life after surgery is different. I have CAD: Coronary Artery Disease. It's incurable, although it is manageable with medication, lifestyle, and my surgery. Since January 29th, I've dropped almost 20 pounds, but in the gym, I managed to re-rack those dumbbells and lose weight too. I've adopted the Mediterranean Diet and try to walk a lot more. It's complicated, and everyone has a different genetic code and life history. For example, I've been on a cholesterol preventive medication for more than twenty years, never had high cholesterol but yet still developed a build-up of plaque and calcium in my system. The doctor tells me that I could have been 50 pounds lighter, eaten nothing but celery, and have had the same problem.

Still there are ways to manage the risks. I take a few extra meds now. I walk more. I have dumbbells (Sometimes I use them.) In my research, however, the most significant factor which I can control is my diet. I was definitely a meat and potatoes guy. And cheesecake. And a double burger with cheese. But now, those are no longer in my nutritional vocabulary. I've replaced them with lean meats and well-prepared vegetables. It's not bad, honestly.

The Mediterranean Diet is expansive, allowing many choices with few restrictions. Red meat is limited and should be a good lean cut. I eat chicken, fish, pork, and other kinds of seafood. Don't fry anything and don't eat processed meats like bacon. Watch out for bad carbs, so stick to whole grains like brown rice and wheat bread. Choose sweet potatoes over white potatoes. Eat lots of green veggies.

I've cooked since high school, so I don't have a problem navigating the kitchen. I like to make big pots of stuff that I can eat on for several meals. I'm not afraid to experiment, so I've treated this as a new adventure. I've got a couple of new pans and a new Instant Pot. Dinah's a great cook, but I don't depend on her to make decisions for me. Nota Bene: I'm not cooking for kids or a big family. I cook for myself and hope for the best. Don't allow your spouse or your kids to dictate your food choices! And just because you keep snacks for your kids, doesn't mean you have to eat them. And you don't have to deprive your family of certain foods because you can't eat them, although healthy eating is good for everyone. There are healthy foods that still may not be good to control CAD. 

So you can't fry foods, at least not in bacon grease or battered in corn oil. You can't use bacon. How can we make any of our great southern vegetables? Learn to use spices and olive oil. Learn to embrace some non-southern grains like quinoa. Here are some of my favorite heart-healthy ideas:

Sweet potatoes are GREAT when they are sliced, tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh dill and then baked. Forget the sweet potato pie; these are better!

Green beans are a staple. The traditional method is to boil them with bacon grease until they're lifeless. Instead, try this with either fresh or frozen green beans. (Don't use canned unless it's reduced-sodium, but it's better to go fresh or frozen.) Heat a tablespoon or three of olive oil in a skillet. Dice up an onion and let it wilt in the pan. Add your green beans and stir to coat evenly. Here's the fun part: add spices. Salt and pepper. (I like fresh ground pepper!) I also love garlic. If you're using fresh garlic, either dice it up or press it into the onion mix before you add the green beans. If you're using dried garlic, use garlic powder or garlic flakes, not garlic salt to taste. We haven't added any liquid yet. Keep stirring the green beans, making sure they don't burn. It's ok if they get a little color. Add some low-sodium chicken broth and turn the heat down. Let them simmer a bit and turn now and again to distribute the flavors. Try it!

One new goal of mine is to try a meatless meal at least once a week. My favorite new recipe is a Vegetarian Chili, which I make in my Instant Pot. I don't miss the meat at all. It's actually pretty good in the summertime too. It's lighter than a beef chili but very filling. If you don't have an Instant Pot, there are many variations on this recipe to use for stove-top or slow-cooker. Google away. 

Vegetarian Chili (from

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium yellow onion - 1/4 inch diced

2 medium sweet potatoes - peeled and ½ inch diced - about 4 cups

4 cloves garlic (minced)

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 ¼ teaspoons salt

2 ½ cups low-sodium vegetable broth

1 8 ounce can low-sodium or no-salt-added tomato sauce

½ cup quinoa

1 15 ounce can low-sodium black beans, rinsed and drained

1 15 ounce can low-sodium dark or light red kidney beans, rinsed and drained

½ teaspoon sugar

For Serving: (Note - I dislike cilantro, use low-fat cheese, and nope on the chips)

Sliced avocado

Chopped fresh cilantro

Shredded cheese

Crushed tortilla chips 

Plain greek yogurt 


To a 6-quart or large Instant Pot, add the olive oil. Turn to SAUTE and let the oil heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onion and cook until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the sweet potatoes, bell pepper, garlic, chili powder, chipotle chili powder, cumin, and kosher salt. Cook for 1 to 2 additional minutes, until the garlic is fragrant.

Add half of the vegetable broth and stir, scraping up any stuck-on bits of food (this will prevent a burn warning). Stir in the remaining broth and the quinoa. Pour the tomato sauce on top (do not stir again).

Cover and seal the Instant Pot. Cook on manual (HIGH) pressure for 8 minutes. Immediately release the pressure. Carefully open the Instant Pot.

Turn the Instant Pot to OFF. Stir in the black beans, kidney beans, and sugar. Place the lid back on top and let stand 10 minutes to thicken. Uncover. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Serve hot, with any and all the toppings!

Tom Jenkins