Husband & Wife Articles


When a Heart Attack Hits Home

We all need to have an emergency plan

By Kathleen M. Gallagher


The summer is waning, autumn is upon us, and I am not looking forward to the cold weather. This past winter was brutal. After clearing the season’s final 12 inches of wet, heavy snow on our property in upstate New York, my husband, Joe, suffered a heart attack. He had all the symptoms you always hear about but never imagine you’ll witness: shortness of breath, pain in the chest, numbness in the arm. Thank God my younger son Michael and I were home at the time and able to get him to the hospital quickly.

Joe had a top notch cardiology team. Within 90 minutes, a stent was placed to unclog the artery, blood was flowing again, and we knew there was only minimal damage to the heart. The doctor explained everything to Michael and me with precision, simplicity and compassion. He also told us we should have called 911, instead of driving him to the emergency room, so he would have gotten expert treatment earlier. Still today, Joe is eating healthier, exercising more and happy to be alive.

But the episode was terrifying for our family. It demonstrated, up close and personal, the fragility of life. Joe is a relatively young, healthy and fit man. His cholesterol level is so low that our family physician jokes that Joe is the least likely candidate for cardiac arrest. It just goes to show: any one of us can be here one minute and gone the next. Or we can face debilitating heart failure, stroke, illness or injury.

That’s why it’s so important to plan in advance. Because truly, we know not the day nor the hour.

Many people think that end-of-life decision making is only for the elderly or terminally ill. Not so. Quite the contrary. Every one of us – young, old, healthy, sick – should plan now for a time when our ability to reason or communicate is compromised and we are unable to make our own medical decisions. Most states, like New York, have a health care proxy or similar durable power of attorney law for health care. Joe and I completed our health care proxies soon after we were married, and named each other as our health care decision-maker.

We fully discussed what the Catholic Church teaches about the end of life. We understand our moral obligation to provide each other the basics of food, water, bed rest, as well as ordinary treatments that do not bring with them undue burdens or hardships. Yet we know we are not morally bound to use every possible medical treatment available to prolong the life of our partner. As believers, we are prepared to accept natural death when it occurs. We believe death is a doorway to eternal life in the loving embrace of God our Father.

When you stop to think about it, who better to name as your health care proxy than your spouse? Your proxy’s voice will become your voice should you become incapacitated and unable to decide for yourself. In my marriage, my husband’s voice is so often already my voice, and mine, his: we finish each other’s sentences, offer the same advice separately to the kids, mutter similar sentiments under our breath at the talking heads on TV.

Your spouse is the one who knows you better than anyone else, who understands, respects, and hopefully shares your beliefs. Take it from me: talk to your spouse now, while you’re competent, about your feelings, fears, and concerns about the end of life. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Following Joe’s surgery, there were a few medical setbacks and nerve-racking hours in the ICU waiting room where I had no idea what was happening to my husband. A million questions raced through my mind: What exactly are they doing to his heart now? Will he survive? Will he be able to do all the things he used to do?

Fortunately, “Can I legally make medical decisions for my husband?” wasn’t one of them. Copies of our health care proxies are stored carefully at home, at our doctor’s practice and at our lawyer’s office. Thankfully, we still haven’t had to use them. But they’re there, just in case.

Life is fragile. Handle with care.

Kathleen Gallagher is the Catholic Advocacy Network Director and Director of Pro-Life Activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy organization of the New York state bishops. Her husband is a member of Knights of Columbus Council 272 in Geneva, N.Y.