Health Issues (Part 1 of 3): You’re not going to believe this!

If I do this right, you’ll not be bored. Having Open Heart Surgery at 15 years old in the summer of 1965, I became somewhat of a medical anomaly. As unusual and traumatic as that was, I managed to up the ante 50 years later and heart issues have been my primary concern the past few years.  I’ve broken this story into 3 short bite size “parts.” If things medical turns you off, just hit delete. But it’s a pretty cool story. Here goes:

Just short of two years ago, in April of 2018, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN, I underwent an 11-hour open-heart surgery. This highly complex, risky surgery occurred just two years after another open-heart surgery (in 2016) at Mayo Hospital in Arizona where they replaced my ascending aorta and aortic valve. Medical technology and my history have overlapped. Things began when I was 15 years old.

One hurdle to signing up to play football in Fairmont, Minnesota in the 1960s was having an approval form signed by a local doctor. After my ninth grade classes one afternoon I kept an appointment with Dr. Kramer, who had an office a few blocks from the junior high school. After a few minutes in his waiting room with old copies of Family Circle and Life Magazine, I entered the exam room, stripped to my underwear and a routine physical exam commenced. Doing the blood pressure test himself, Dr. Kramer seemed to be having an issue with mine. He asked if I’d run to his office from the school, maybe afraid of being late for my appointment? I said no, I’d been in no rush. He had me dress and asked me to sit in the waiting room for a few minutes. I did. A half hour later he called me back and he began again. Still, no luck finding blood pressure readings that made sense to him. As my mother was a nurse at the local Fairmont Hospital, Dr. Kramer knew her well. With me in the office, he picked up the phone and explained to her what the blood pressure tests were saying to him. He said he wanted a colleague specializing in heart issues to examine me and see what he thought.

A couple of weeks later I had another appointment, but this time my parents both came with me, my first clue that something might be amiss. After an exam that included lots of listening with a stethoscope, blood pressure attempts on my arms and legs and questions about my sports participation and things I could do easily and ones I found difficult, he announced he was fairly certain I had a coarctation of the aorta. This is a constriction or narrowing of the aorta, the large blood vessel that branches off from my heart, delivering oxygen-rich blood to various parts of the body. The constriction forced my heart to work harder to force blood through the narrowed part of my aorta causing an enlarged heart and chest, blood circulation and pressure was very high in my arms and above my chest but almost undetectable in my legs. He also heard some murmurs, indicating there likely were some holes between the chambers of my heart. He said he would call colleagues of his at the pediatric department at the University of Minnesota Heart Hospital and recommend me for open heart surgery to correct these issues. A few weeks later I’d been scheduled for open-heart surgery in August of 1965, a month before my 16th birthday. I was happy, the surgery wasn’t to occur until near the end of summer, not the beginning. At that age, my summers were far more important and interesting to me than the school year.

Next: Health Issues (Part 2 of 3): Yes, they operated on kids back then.

Congratulations! It’s a girl. Oh, and she’s 39 years old.

My cousin Roger Larsen called me from California, early in 2019: “You sittin’ down, cuz?” he asks.  I say I can be. Once seated he blurts out, “You have a daughter!”  “I know,” I say. “She lives in California, name of Ginger, did you forget?” Roger responds, “No, you’ve got another one.  I just got an email from her and she sounds real nice. She lives in Minnesota.  I just forwarded the email she sent me about herself. I’m going to hang up now, but you should read it. And I know you cuz, you’ll do the right thing.” Maggie, who’d come out on the deck as I’d taken the call asked, “What was that all about?”

After a brief explanation, I got on my computer and found the email Christina Will in Minnesota had sent to Roger Larsen.  In this incredibly touching message, Christie communicated how she learned her birth father was “unknown” when her mother tragically passed away when she was nine. It left her longing for answers.   As she grew up she wondered about her birth father and if he knew of her. Did she have a family somewhere in the world?

With the expectation of finding an aunt, uncle or distant cousin who might provide clues to her birth father, she got a 23andMe DNA kit, swabbed her cheek and sent it in. However, instead of a second cousin, on Christmas morning of 2018, she found something else.  23andMe said she had a father – with a name – Steve Larsen.  After a few months of investigating, she asked for my cousin Roger’s guidance: Did he know Steve well? Did he think Steve would want to hear from her? Maybe meet, see his grandchildren?  Would his daughter, Ginger, want to know she had a sister? How would they deal with a potential giant disruption to their lives?

Well, to say this was a shock to us would be the understatement of the decade.  Maggie and I talked, then we called Ginger in San Francisco.  She burst into tears, asked for time to process and said she would call back.  Maggie and I talked some more.  Then I replied to Christie’s email.  In part, I said:

“Christie, Your email was passed to me by my cousin Roger Larsen via his daughter Lori and reached me today.   Wow!  As you have no doubt surmised, this is quite a surprise.  I do remember your mother but was unaware she was pregnant or had you.  Our relationship was not a long one.  Perhaps I had moved to the Twin Cities by the time you were born and was difficult to locate.  Emails and text messages were non-existent in those days. With only a few hours to process, let me tell you my initial feelings:  I am thrilled that you reached out to me and would love to meet you, your daughters and your husband if you want that.  The fact you thought of Ginger and her being your half-sister, and having two nieces she has never met, indicates to me you are a pretty wonderful and thoughtful woman.  In fact, your entire letter was so expressive and beautifully written I can’t imagine any man not being thrilled by the idea he might be related to you.”

I went on to explain a bit more about our lives in Arizona and then flooded her with questions about her and her family.  A few weeks later, Maggie, Ginger and I made plans to travel to Minneapolis and meet Christie in April of 2019. It was a tearful and wonderful meeting I will never forget.

The new family L to R: Chris (Ginger’s boyfriend), Ginger, Maggie, Steve, Christie and Jeff,
with Parker and Emmy in the front.
Christie Will and birth-Dad, Steve, at their first face-to-face meeting.

A few weeks after our meeting, Christie’s pastor asked her to speak about finding her birth father on Father’s Day at her church. She did.  Here is a link to her 14-minute sermon, which touchingly and eloquently explains what happened from her point of view:

Maggie and I chose to alter our summer plans to spend six weeks in Minnesota in 2019, visiting family and friends while getting to know our new family a bit better.

The Will family on their farm in Minnesota.

The Will family on their farm in Minnesota.

Christie, her husband, and my new granddaughters arranged their schedules to visit us in Phoenix, not only for Thanksgiving weekend but for a week right after Christmas as well.  2019 was one of the most momentous years of my life. It will take all the restraint I can muster to not fill this blog with stories of this overjoyed and blissfully happy new grandfather.