Good wingmen make a difference

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- I cracked a couple of puns with a masked man I assumed to be a doctor. He said he was sorry, but I knew it wasn't about the puns. He showed genuine regret.

About seven hours later I woke up disoriented, in a room full of people I couldn't really see. Loud beeps seemed to come from everywhere, each signifying various degrees of urgency.

The first clue I remained amongst the living was gagging on what felt like a large piece of drain pipe stuck down my throat.

I heard my wife's voice, sweet, comforting and… worried. Right about that time pain began approaching from the fringes of my upper body, like a big blanket of searing, sharp hurt engulfing my torso. Memory rushed in along with the pain and I recalled now: I just received double bypass heart surgery and a valve replacement. They called it cabbage (Cardiac Atrial Bypass Graft - CABG) and because of the reference I will never look at cole slaw the same way again.

My sternum was cracked open, they said it was surgically cut, but I knew better. My heart was lifted, scraped and had two arteries replaced using the radial artery from my left arm. A replacement atrial valve was put into my heart – yes, inside of my heart – and the mitral valve was repaired. “Repaired” is a highly technological cardiology term, probably Latin, meaning “scraped clean.” Maybe even wire brushed.

They reconnected my sternum with something like baling wire, stitched my chest and left a nine-inch zipper-looking wound behind. Add that to the 10-inch scar on my forearm and I was set to terrorize small children and the squeamish. After a night of excruciating pain in the intensive care unit I went to the room that would be my home for the next eight days.

Nights stretched on, pain visited regularly and I admit there were powerful waves of hopelessness washing over me. I wondered if I would die soon. I wondered if I would ever again do things I loved doing. Simple thoughts like, could I ever drink my beloved coffee, or eat my favorite things haunted me. Would I walk more than 10 feet without rest? It was really pathetic at times, but none the less, between pain medicine and long, dark nights alone with the beeps and the glow of the vital signs monitors, I was not in a great state of mind. It felt like I would be there the rest of my life.

My wife spent time with me and that was always wonderful but, due to life continuing outside of my misery, couldn’t be there around the clock. Things turned positive on Friday, May 12. It was Wingman Day and I was about to experience the benefits of this process first hand.

A knock at my door started it all. The familiar faces of my 21st Space Wing Public Affairs team mates filled the door frame and many of my coworkers filed in to the room. My heart swelled at the show of care and camaraderie, a risky thing in my position if you recall. But none the less, there they were. We talked a little and goofed off a little. It was not a long visit, but the impact was amazing.

At the risk of sounding very cheesy, I say that show of solidarity, friendship and yes, wingmanship had a profound impact on my frame of mind and resiliency to push through pain and things out of my control. They may not know how much it meant; they will after reading this.

The message I want to convey is simple, yet within the power and ability of anyone reading these words. It is just this: the support you give to your wingman in a time of need – be it a visit, a text message, or note – is powerful stuff. It is the stuff that bolsters resiliency and the stuff that lifts a person to press forward and not give up.

To my public affairs family, I and my family thank you deeply. To the rest of the 21st Space Wing Knights, the Airmen, civilians and contractors making up Team Pete, the few moments you give to support your wingman is going to make a difference. No, it will make the difference.