Maximizing Life-Changing Events

I recently had a heart attack and it got me thinking… about life in general, my life in particular, and what I was going to do with this second chance I had been given.

I had not been wasting my life per se, but recently some questions had been cropping up in my head, what with my wife and kids in Idaho, 800 miles away, while I was living out a life of quiet desperation, I suspect like many of us, making great money in the North Dakota oil boom, but wondering what had happened to the hopes and dreams of my youth. Does anyone’s life turn out like they planned? Have my priorities gone askew? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with the rest of my life?

When our family business failed after 10 wonderfully busy years developing a rural transportation service, I suddenly found myself in the unenviable position of making a bunch of changes I wasn’t ready to make. I had dreamed of retiring from the transportation service in some 20 years and was at a loss of where to go from here- surprising how a decade of doing something you enjoy can do that to you.

The economy had recently tanked, but that had not made it any worse to find a good job in, or near, our rural community, which has traditionally struggled to move beyond forestry and logging- so after a summer of minimal opportunity, I made the mental leap to offer my skills and experience to the oil boom in western North Dakota- where hundreds of men in my small community had already gone, seeking a golden opportunity to make a pile of cash in the new oil patch- even if it was a 12 hour drive away from loved ones.

The summer landscape of ND is a bleak treeless expanse, broken by occasional gullies with a few scraggly trees eking out an existence within that low-lying washout, adding yet more desolation to the otherwise blank skyline. The recent addition of oil jacks dot the landscape, lighting the night sky with an eerie glow from the gas flaring off, further increasing the feeling of isolation. Then the North Dakota winter arrives- as early as October and often overstaying its ‘welcome’ until April- with 40 mph north winds creating whiteout blizzards driving the snow sideways for hundreds of miles with no landscape features to lessen the effects of the storm- save for the occasional building with a mountainous snow drift collected on the leeward side. And the 60 below windchill- indescribable unless you’ve been there- cutting into your skin like a knife!

Did I mention that I’m from the Pacific Northwest?

North Dakota is a far cry from the 4 seasons of the eastern Washington of my childhood and northern Idaho where my home currently is: mountains in all directions, full of evergreen trees and elk, moose and bear; rivers, lakes and countless streams full of fish and fun. The winters are glorious- with crisp beautiful days for skiing, ice fishing and snowmobiling. There are a myriad of outdoor activities for every season- winter, spring, summer and fall!

The barren landscape of western North Dakota notwithstanding, the average workweek for me in the oil patch was an amazing 84 hours- and for as many as 7 weeks in a row- 12 hours each day: not much time to do anything but eat and sleep! The money was obviously great, but home life not so much, since my family was 800 miles away and I was choosing to sleep in my minivan to avoid paying $1000 or more per month for little more than a bunk; I was grateful to eventually get on with a company which provided discounted mancamp housing- a very good thing since winter was on its way.

Following one 49 day stint without a break, I was eager to make a trip home, but my engine blew driving through an Indian reservation in eastern Montana; I was glad to catch the Amtrak at the next town and make it home- only to head back on the train to the oil patch a scant five days later. On my first shift back I felt pain in my left side and suspected an old nemesis- kidney stones- and began to feel my body declining as I tried to deal with the issue without going to the ER. I missed a shift for the first time and felt worse each day, but driving 40 miles to the nearest town after working 12 hours was just too much trouble, so I thought I’d just suck it up and deal with it. A few days later brought kidney pain like I’d never before experienced- and as I lay on the office floor waiting for the pain to subside, I wondered how I was going to get myself to the ER at the end of my shift.

My body made the decision easy- I began to shake so violently that the truckers hauling saltwater to our disposal facility were alarmed and my coworkers called for an ambulance. Nine days later I was finally released from the hospital in Bismarck diagnosed with pyelonephritis and bilateral pneumonia, with a stent installed in my infected kidney until the infection subsided enough to blast the stones after I returned to Idaho. My white blood cell count had been over 25,000 so there was concern regarding my body’s immune system. My mom, along with my wife and kids, had made the long drive to support me during my health crisis and I was grateful to be nothing more than a weak and tired passenger for the 800 mile trip home. I looked forward to following the doctor’s advice to go home and begin the recuperation process from my dual life threatening illnesses.

It was nice to be home recuperating- arriving home just in time for my 48th birthday and the 4th of July, never suspecting that less than 3 days after arriving home I would experience the “widow maker” heart attack and live to tell the tale!

Next: Midlife crisis?

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