When the two daughters of my now-late sister and her husband were in middle school, they were inspired by a story they saw on television.
I don’t know much about the story, but it was about a man whose children had save their father’s life by listening to his heartbeat. That is, whenever they gave their father a hug, each of them would pause and put an ear on his chest to hear the familiar lub-dub rhythm of his heart pumping away inside.
But one day, they noticed the sound was different. This news story was about how this man’s life was saved because his children noticed a change in the beating they had heard all these years, and they got him the care he might not have gotten otherwise.
Inspired, my sister Laurie and my two nieces decided to take that lesson and put it into practice. They routinely would pause during a hug, and stopped like a guide who would put his ear to the ground to hear what might be coming or going. The hug with a listen became part of their ritual as a family.
Years passed and they continued to carry out that tradition that was sparked by that original story. The hearing hug just became normal.
Tragically, my sister died in a car accident three years ago, but her daughters, now all college graduates but still living at home, remained close and provide company and comfort to my brother-in-law, a widower and their only remaining parent.
Jeff does home remodeling, snow plowing and numerous odd jobs. He puts in long hours, and without a wife to urge him to come home every night, those days have grown longer than ever. He’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back to help you. In fact, you could make a good argument that he spends all his time helping others, and probably not enough time taking care of himself.
So as the calendar was turning from 2020 to 2021, one of his daughters gave him one of the routine hugs and noticed something different. His heart was racing. He was not exerting himself, but it was thumping at like three times the normal rate. She called her sister in and she confirmed the sound.
My brother-in-law did not exactly poo-poo the story, but he kind of dismissed it for the moment. As he began to think about it more, he started thinking about how he was increasingly tired half way through the afternoon. He was winded after taking one flight of steps. He was routinely falling asleep with little provocation. He had written it off as just another sign of getting old.
He spent the holiday weekend working, plowing, snowblowing and helping people clean up after the storm and he noticed again how fatigued he was. He was exhausted.
His daughters offered another of the usual hugs and were this time more alarmed. This was not a fluke. His heart was again racing. Other than fatigue, he had not noticed any symptoms.
So he visited a neighbor next store who was a nurse. He admitted he had not seen a doctor for a physical in years and probably should get back there one of these days. Alarmed by what she heard, the nurse said he should go to the doctor not someday, but immediately, and, in fact, he should go to the emergency room. She could feel his pulse racing when she felt his wrist, even before using the stethoscope.
Still unfazed, my brother-in-law took the advice to heart and they did some tests at the hospital. With a couple hours, they decided in the midst of all this COVID craziness, to admit him for two days.
He was later fully diagnosed with atrial flutter, a disorder in which one of the chambers of your heart beats too fast.
Many people don’t know they have it, because the symptoms are subtle, especially if you don’t know what to look for. There’s no telling what might have happened if he had not been diagnosed, but he was. And he is now on blood thinners to rule out clotting and a possible stroke and he is going to have an oblation procedure next month, which should cure him permanently.
I share this story, because it seems like there is a lot of craziness in the world right now, and we could all use some good news. I share it, too, because I believe in angels. My sister was an angel in real life and I think she remains one in the hereafter. I have no doubt that she is still at work. That would be just like her.
She lives on in that hug that she helped instill in her children and, even though she is no longer on this earth, it is still doing the good that it did. There’s always more meaning to a hug than merely a warm embrace. And I am eager for the time when hugging makes its grand return everywhere.
We could all use another hug. Our lives depend on it.