The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

April 6, 2013

JIM SIEHL | One year into a different world

— It’s been a year already since my life not only began unraveling (never to be the same again) and in the process swept along my wife of 62 years to Heaven’s doorstep.

Quite unlike the miserable March we have experienced with the extended cold and snow, March 22, 2012, was hot.

In the morning, I had been spreading crabgrass-preventer, taking my time because of shortness of breath that caused frequent pauses anytime I walked the smallest of distances.

I had been diagnosed with asthmatic bronchitis after first thinking my health issue probably was nothing more than a combination of old age and poor physical conditioning.

Never for a moment did I have reason to think my

83-year-old heart was suspect; that it was down to just one third of normal pumping power. Blood work and regular checkups with our family doctor gave no indication that I had a heart problem.

Hitting the pause button for a moment, one of my unexpected joys in retirement has been the privilege of coaching tennis at Bedford High School. I was recruited by the then-desperate husband and wife team of Tom and Marilyn Otis, whose son, Matthew, was the star player.

The Bisons were coachless with the season just two weeks away. It could be argued the team was still “coachless” when I fell for Tom’s reassuring persuasion that son Matt would do the coaching and I would handle the administrative end.

So here it is, March 22,

10 years later, and I am at our brand new five-court state-of-the-art tennis complex preparing to welcome Coach Mike Kush and the always potent Westmont Hilltoppers in our season’s opening match. I found myself perspiring and finding it increasingly difficult to function.

I barely got through the shortened welcoming remarks and player introductions before seeking rest in my nearby parked car, hoping that the stressful situation would go away. It was not long before I realized I was in trouble and called to the mother of one of the players to phone 911.

Breathing was becoming more and difficult as another mother slid onto the seat, placed her arm around my shoulder and began praying.

She soon gave way to an off-duty Bedford paramedic, who had been walking nearby and came running, portable radio in hand after hearing the 911 summons. I remember him saying: “Hang in there. Help is coming.”

At no time did I think I was dying. I just wanted relief. I wanted oxygen. Even then, I gave no thought that my problem was my heart. But soon, I would be treated for congestive heart failure. In simple terms, my weakened heart could no longer pump out the fluids building in the lungs, and I was in danger of suffocating.

I remember confidently waving to the players from a cart and once inside the ambulance watching one of the attendants approach with an air hose and mask that would be applied to force oxygen into my lungs. I recall him saying:

“This is the lifesaver!”

Beth Bittner, mother of our current No. 1 player, Jack Bittner, drove to Schellsburg and brought my wife to the hospital.

I remember Lois describing her reaction to seeing Jeff Welsch, our United Methodist pastor, as she feared the worst with him already present.

I received excellent emergency care from the ER physicians. I was told they may have saved my life. As dusk settled, a decision was made to transport me by helicopter to Conemaugh Hospital rather than risk the  chance that an ambulance would encounter an emergency of its own.

Six days later, on March 28, following a lot of testing, I underwent quadruple bypass surgery, complicated by an aneurysm in the heart.

There were reservations.

Even a late phone call the  night before the surgery to the home of brother Ron and Doris Siehl, where Lois was a house guest. I told my sister-in-law that because of my age I was having second thoughts. Doris wisely reminded me that nothing had changed; that I had consented to the surgery because of my need to care for Lois. How prophetic! We were back in our own home three weeks later, and in another three days Lois surprisingly was admitted to Bedford hospital with double pneumonia and fibrotic lung disease, of which there was to be no recovery. But that is a whole different story.

Suffice to say, I was able to care for Lois with help from some wonderful home nurses, fulfilling my promise that she would not return to the hospital. July 27 was graduation day!

I had been holding her hand at her bedside. She was going through some scary times, releasing very loud sounds at the end of each labored breath.

The ordeal went on for several hours. She became quiet after I used a syringe to apply a small dose of morphine. I left for about a half-hour, appealing strongly to Almighty God that there was no reason for Lois’ continuing anguish. When I returned, she was in the same position – on her side, her hand still outstretched – but gratefully and mercifully she was gone.

Following the heart-failure episode, I had benign prostrate surgery, still in the spring, and on Jan. 31 a top-of-the-line pacemaker/defibrillator was surgically implanted.

I am much stronger than a year ago and assisting coach Mark Anderson with the tennis team.

Dealing with the absence of someone who had filled your life is the unwanted reality for all survivors. The daily obituaries detail examples of how suddenly lives are impacted by death. Each is a story on to its own.

My cousin, Paul Singer, whose mother, Nellie, and my father, Matthew, were siblings, also had quadruple bypass surgery in early 2012 and also cared for his wife, Marge, until she died in his arms at home after a lengthy illness. This loving, compassionate couple over the years provided a home for 68 (that is correct) foster children.

Thoughts of empathy go out to the family of Barry Hartman, a retired Everett state trooper whose countless friends were shocked by his unexpected passing a few days ago. I knew Barry as an affable man, always smiling with a wonderful sense of humor and charming personality. He had been lifting weights with a close friend when he complained of chest pains. He went home and died a short time later of a massive heart attack.

Schellsburg neighbor Joann Phillips and Bedford good friend Betty Davis are adjusting to new lives after losing their spouses. Betty’s loss is compounded by the death of her 100-year-old mother Helen Judy, who died shortly after the death of her son-in-law Bob Davis. I miss Helen’s loving smile and jovial Bob’s perpetual enthusiasm for life.

Faith and hope play important roles as to how we respond to close personal losses. Easter’s resurrected Jesus and His promise of eternal life to all believers become even more meaningful as we age, knowing a spiritual existence awaits where loved ones will reunite. How comforting!!

Jim Siehl of Schellsburg, formerly of Richland Township, retired in 1991 after 44 years as a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat.

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