How We Started
Have you ever wondered why we are placed on paths in our lives that are totally contrary to what we have done in the past?
Several years ago, I was a moderately successful business person and a very good basketball referee. One day, I discovered that I had an irregular heartbeat, diagnosed as atrial fibrillation. This condition can produce heart rates in excess of 200 beats per minute. As an active referee, my normal heart rate was 50-60 beats per minute. I didn't have the irregular beats all the time, but, as you can imagine, when they kicked in, anxiety caused by a fear of death could make functioning as a normal person nearly impossible. This fear led me to give up my passion for basketball, as 3 very good friends had died while refereeing games. I was placed on a regimen of medications, but my "breakthroughs" were becoming more frequent. I was beginning to have episodes every day, often for several hours at a time. Doctors decided that I was a candidate for a medical procedure, a Pulmonary Vein Isolation (PVI) ablation of the heart. This procedure involves placing catheters into the veins of both legs with the final destination being the heart. A skilled doctor enters the heart and burns the areas where electrical impulses enter the heart (from the pulmonary veins), causing an imbalance resulting in the irregular beats. Since the meds were no longer working effectively, and because I knew that the heart meds were toxic, I decided to give the ablation a chance. The ablation was scheduled for February 11, 2003. I was to go home the following morning.
The ablation became my worst nightmare. The doctor made a critical mistake, and I died on the procedure table. Fortunately, a surgeon was nearby, and he had time to cut my chest open. My heart had stopped for several minutes. The surgeon cut the pericardium releasing the pooling blood. I was "shocked" with paddles several times, until my heart started beating again. The next ten days were spent in Intensive Care and Cardiac Care. I had lost 24 pounds. I was very weak. One of the meds they put me on had not been approved by the FDA. I had 8 side effects. I still have a paralyzed diaphragm in the right lung and numb feet.
As you can imagine, depression set in. Often, I stated that I wished that the doctors would have just "let me sleep". Most of the next year was spent seeing specialists to fix all of my new problems and the still uncured cardiac condition. I spent a lot of time online, and I finally did research atrial fibrillation. I found an online blog of atrial fib sufferers like me. My story was very compelling to members of the chat room, and it showed all of them the risks of ablations that many of them were considering. I must say, that what I learned from these wonderful people changed my life, in the short term. Several of these people are still friends today. I found a specialist at the nearby University of Pennsylvania, Dr. David Callans. I scheduled another ablation for April of 2004. The procedure was successful. I still have occasional episodes, but I know how to control them quickly.
In September of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Southern USA. I know of the horror stories that most of our citizens have never heard: 1). Ice trucks going to Maine, not Louisiana. 2) Top Canadian rescue teams not being allowed admission to cross the border, although they managed to sneak in anyway. 3) Doctors from all over the USA being turned away because they did not have a FEMA medical license, which would take 30 days to acquire. 4) Amtrak trains and buses that were not allowed into New Orleans, because a contract had been given to one bus company in Florida by the Bush administration. They never showed up, but took the money. 5) 9 tons of British military rations sent to help the needy were burned by our government. 6) Supplies sent by caring Americans were denied at State borders. The list goes on.
I decided that I wanted to help, but I didn't want my efforts wasted. At about the same time as Katrina, I began chatting online with some girls in Europe. You can read Slavka's story in a separate link here on this site. I'll try not to repeat what you can read there.
I do want to say that my life has changed by taking the time to understand a young woman in Slovakia. In our history books, we get a passing glance at most foreign countries, especially countries that may have been under Russian influence. What a history lesson I am gaining now! I'm learning about other cultures and customs. I'm learning about new foods, wines and beers. I'm learning, in an elementary way, new languages. I'm learning history of these countries from the inside, from very intelligent and patriotic people. I've learned that the elementary and secondary education system in these countries in among the best in the world. But, the sad thing is that they have no where to go to make themselves better. If they stay in the country they love, there is little future. Income is often only $300-$500 a month. Some Western countries, like Ireland and the UK, are opening up their doors to fellow members of the European Union. But, think how frightening this must be to start your life all over again in a strange land, especially for young girls! When I started working with Slavka, I had no idea what I was doing. I could tell immediately that Slavka had a gift with the English language (and German), especially with her writing skills. I decided that I would make those writing skills better. I have succeeded. Slavka today writes as well as most Americans. When Slavka and I communicated, I could see that she lacked self esteem. I've worked on making Slavka believe in herself, especially about making her dreams come true. We still have a long way to go, but I'm confident that one day, Slavka will see many dreams become real. I've met Slavka in person two times in Slovakia. Hopefully, we will be able to bring Slavka and her son to visit us soon in the USA, especially now that Slovakia has a visa waiver from the US State Department.
In March of 2007, I met another young girl from the Czech Republic, named Anetka. Anetka is a brilliant girl! She is entering her final year of studies for International Relations at a fine Czech university. Last fall, Anetka had a course load of 48 credit hours. Most US universities question taking more than 21 credits a semester. Besides this heavy workload, Anetka was working 12 hours each day on the weekends. I bought Anetka a computer and I've helped her with some money. Last February 11, my 5th anniversary of the bad ablation, I met Anetka in Prague. We went by train the city where she studies, and then we both traveled by train to meet Slavka. In the Czech Republic, study for a bachelor's degree is for 3 years instead of 4, and it is free. If a student wants to study for a master's degree, they must pay for it. Anetka spent time in Spain during the summer of 2008 to study, and hopefully to earn money towards her master's degree. Unfortunately, jobs in Spain were not plentiful, and Anetka was forced to return to the Czech Republic. Anetka contacted me and told me that her dreams of the master's degree were gone, because she couldn't afford to attend. I'm currently looking into finding work for Anetka for the summer of 2009 in the USA, but if that's not possible, perhaps she can find employment in Canada, the UK or Ireland. Anetka's dreams are twofold: to help unfortunate children in Africa and South America, and to master English and Spanish languages. I can help her with her English. She speaks very well, and her writing is good, but I'm going to make it better. I've given Anetka a writing assignment, which will be as challenging as any university paper that she will write. We will speak to each other enough that her English skills will be like that of a native.
Besides Slavka and Anetka, there have been a few others, like the two girls named Magdalena, both from the Czech Republic. One of the Magdalena's told me that she would only be a kindergarten teacher when she finished her studies. I told her that she should be the "best" kindergarten teacher in her whole country, and that her job was important, because she would be the first teacher in student's lives. She would set the stage for each of her students to be successful in their lives. Magdalena cried for an hour that night. Today, she is a successful kindergarten teacher in Prague. Another Magdalena asked me to help her find a summer job in the USA. I can do that, but I was afraid that she wouldn't find affordable housing. Even if I found her a job, it still would cost about $2000 to come here. Students have to pay an agency about $1000 to get a work visa, and airfare is at least $1000. It was too much for Magdalena, so she went to work in Ireland.
Some people have questioned what I'm doing. Why are you helping these girls, when you can be helping the poor children in Africa, or even here in the United States? My answer to them is that each one of us has our own task in life. Some of us will answer that call, and I commend all for what they do, even if what is done is a small thing. Whether we help one person or thousands of people, the important thing is to take that first step and do something. I've easily spent at least $5000 each on Slavka and Anetka. Both girls received a computer and money to go to school. I'm preparing each girl to be the best that they can be in their country, to fulfill their hopes and dreams. Slavka and Anetka both know that they owe me nothing. Their re-payment is "Pay it Forward". When they are able, they are to help others. Anetka will help others in her career. Slavka is already helping people in Slovakia to believe in themselves.
How we decide to handle assisting others can occur in several ways. We can assist with money to help defer costs of education or day to day living. Maybe, we can buy a person a computer. Perhaps, we can work towards improving one's language skills. Or, we can just be a friend that can give a "cyber hug" when one is needed! I've also looked into working with the agencies and the State Department to bring students to the USA or to Canada to work here in the summer. If monies allow, we could give a grant or a loan to a student to have the opportunity to earn for themselves, learn a language better and see another part of the world!
I don't think I can explain with words the feelings of gratitude that working with the girls brings to me. I can almost see the smiles and feel the emotion when I say something simple like "I'm so very proud of you!" We all need this kind of encouragement. I've been able to witness a transformation of self doubt into self worth. Slavka told me that I am the first person who believed in her. How sad! Anetka says that I make her calm, when times are difficult. Their lives are filled with lies and broken promises. My friend, John, and I, hear all the time, "we never knew that there were such nice people in the world as you!"
John has a saying that I've begun to use regarding dreams. He says there are three parts to a dream: 1) A dream is a wish of something that you'd like to have happen in your life. 2) Envision your dream. Believe that it can happen! 3) Make the dream real! That's what we are doing, helping others to make dreams that seemed impossible a reality. When I first met Slavka, I asked her to write down her dreams for me. After several days, she could only think of one dream. I've helped Slavka achieve other dreams that came later, but that first dream still needs fulfillment. I'm sure that Slavka doesn't remember what that dream was now, but I haven't forgotten.
As citizens of the world, we are all in this life together. We can all strive to be better. We can and should strive to help others to have a chance to make their lives better too. Won't you join me in helping to make dreams a reality? Contribute now to Slavka's Dream Ltd. Let's begin by making Slavka's original dream real. You will be able to read about our ongoing efforts and contribute comments in our blog. I want to thank my friends: 1) John from Canada who gave me the vision and courage to start this undertaking. 2) Jackie, my good friend from Ohio, a fellow sufferer of Atrial fib, whose wisdom and understanding helped me through difficult times 3) Dr. David Callans, who says that I "have a big heart", yet without his skills, my heart might well be of the past. 4) My wife Donna and my daughter Meg, who have allowed me to pursue my dreams by being so understanding and loving. 5) Slavka and Anetka! The girls are the stars. Without them, there would be no story to tell.