“Sure, I’ll walk with you. Call me anytime,” she said. She was in the 12th hour of a 16-hour shift, but she was still ready to accompany me on my rehab-mandated laps around the ward, as many as I could manage each day.

The nurses on the Heart Ward at Durham Regional are special, like nurses everywhere I guess. It’s just that I got to know these folks real well. Like family, they care.

Coming out of the ICU after a triple-bypass operation, groggy patients are told that that first step out of the wheelchair toward their hospital bed is the toughest they’ll ever take. I mean, we’re frightened: patched-up, with tubes and IVs on every appendage, EKG monitors taped to our chests, barely shuffling survivors really. That first day out, coming off the morphine, taking Percocet like M&M’s, I hallucinated I might blow one of my “new” arteries and bleed to death. Or roll over in the middle of the night, pop open my freshly wired-together ribcage and puncture a newly tucked-back-in lung.

I could breathe. Not real deep breaths yet, but it felt wonderful to be off life support. The next morning the nurse told me that if I followed the breathing/exercise program, I’d be ready for discharge in … five days!

It was all about breathing then. It hurt. Short breaths were always easier, but longer, deeper breaths were going to save my life. Sneezing, coughing, even laughing hurt. Pneumonia was the big threat here, and walking the ward was the best way to increase stamina and drive fresh air into the bottom of my lungs.

I loved doing laps on the ward. The first few times, pushing my oxygen tank, it was like liberation. And deeper breaths happened. Round and round with my fellow cabbages (CABG: coronary artery bypass grafts), past the nurses’ station, past the waiting room. Surer footing, longer steps, deeper breaths.

When you’re in pain, you take shorter breaths. Finding the proper balance of pain meds to allow exercise was like a trust exercise. We had to get out of bed, to exercise, to keep taking deeper and deeper breaths. Someone told me that recovering from bypass surgery is like recovering from a gun shot to the chest. Your body aches from the incisions, from the healing, from the stress of reconnecting parts to parts. They give you a calibrated plastic breathing tube. Can you do 10 500cc breaths? Show me 1,000. Always after walking I blew great numbers. The challenge was simply rolling slowly, tenderly out of the hospital bed and just getting started. Out the door, around the corner, down the hall.

Facing south, the fourth floor Heart Ward is designed with serendipity. To the north, our floor mates on the Maternity Ward were walkers, too! Often we did our laps together, hospital gowns and bath robes politely tied, nodding to each other. Often there were smiles and encouragement. We were in something together. You supply the metaphor here. We were all walking to live, to be alive, to provide life.

I was lucky. Going in, I already enjoyed walking, usually with headphones, listening to a Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen concert. Upon discharge I jumped back in, kept up. Miles and miles. A good mile is about 2,000 steps, just 20 minutes. My dogs are delighted companions. Like I’m doing it all for them.

The best part for me is about a half mile in, walking briskly when I have to take deeper breaths. In and out, round and round, my whole body is working, back together again. All my blood is circulating. It’s spring, the birds are singing, daffodils are blooming, and I’m alive.