On September 16, 2020

Rutland Roundtables

By Dr. Michael Shank

Storytelling. It’s the one thing that has the potential to cut through the political noise and allow us to see each other in a new way. It’s why we love films, books, and television series so much. We’re drawn to stories. And as our country becomes even more hyper-partisan, storytelling may be the one thing that keeps our communities together before we fracture further.

If we take that risk, not only telling our stories but listening to our neighbors’ stories too, we have the opportunity to build a community that’s even stronger. If we’re intentional about building that bond, we’ll become even more resilient to political shocks that rock our country. That’s how we stay Vermont Strong. We need this now more than ever before, which is why I’m launching the Rutland Roundtables this month to do exactly this, bring people together across all political backgrounds to share a story or two. And listen to one as well.

Too often, we resort immediately to positions and politics, without first understanding what underlies everything we do, what trials and tribulations we’ve all endured, what moves and motivates us. If we go there first, and understand each other’s life story, it might be easier to build a bond. So, I’m going there first, at this virtual roundtable, with a story about my own fears and freedom.

My biggest fear is having a stroke. It terrifies me. I witnessed my dad’s devastating stroke when I was 8 years old, by the time I was 9 I was fatherless. Death restructures your understanding of the world pretty quickly. But little did I know that was just the tip of the existential iceberg.

At age 21, I was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a potentially fatal birth defect. I was born with an extra electrical pathway between my heart’s upper and lower chambers, and it caused my heart to race up to 250 beats a minute. There’s a fix for it, thankfully. It’s a procedure called radio frequency ablation and uses heat and electricity to shut down the extra pathway.

Scary? You bet, especially since my dad died of heart failure and I was admitted to the very same cardiology department he frequented. That’s unnerving to say the least. So is signing a pre-operative waiver acknowledging the multiple risks of having heart surgery (there was a chance that the normal electrical pathway would be severed instead, forcing them to open up my heart and insert a pacemaker).

The first attempt to fix my heart was a daylong process. During that nine hours, I could see the medical team working, hear them talking, and feel them tinkering with heat and electricity in my heart. Worst of all, it failed. All that for naught. So, I was sent to Oklahoma City where a specialist, who helped found the field of radio frequency ablation, was taking special cases.

This next step was an even darker night of the soul. The night before my second heart procedure, I remember reading all of the prayers, cards and well-wishes from my church back home and feeling comforted and carried through this loneliest of valleys.

Nothing quite like death, or anything close to it, to clarify your senses, your values and your commitment to life. This moment was no different. I was very much in the moment, unsure of what the next 24 hours held, but deeply grateful to the family and friends who were lifting me up in prayer.

This time it worked. As I gained consciousness post-surgery, the nurse mentioned to my mom that it was successful. I start weeping. (I remember it like it was yesterday.) I was healed. I was free. Every August I remember that summer day in Oklahoma; it gave me a new lease on life.

No person should have to suffer a parent’s death or their own life-threatening experience at such a young age. I experienced both and it sucked. It made me too serious so early in life. I grew up fast because I had to. If there’s a gift to be had it’s this: I was given the courage to live in the present, to make the most of each day. Tomorrows don’t come with guarantees. I find freedom in that. And the annual heart exams, which thankfully show a healthy heart, are a powerful reminder.

Every morning, I thank the universe that I’ve been given another day. Another day to make a difference. Another day to help someone. Another day to do good. That’s all I have. It keeps me present, but also creates urgency. Why wait to solve a problem, why wait to fix something, why wait to help someone?

An off-putting impatience to some, perhaps, but it is core to my entire approach to public life and why policy that actually helps people is so much more important to me than allegiance to any political party. Thank goodness we had health insurance otherwise these procedures would’ve been financially out of reach; one of the main reasons why I’m so deeply committed to making sure everyone has coverage now.

If we want Vermont to be strong – and rise above the divisive rhetoric that permeates are politics – then let’s build something better. Let’s start with story. Let’s lead from the heart. And let’s do it today. Join me at the roundtable to share a story or two about what matters to you. The schedule is available at rutlandroundtables.org

Michael Shank lives in Brandon.

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