How Gospel Music Saved My Life

John Sowalsky
13 min readApr 10, 2018


Gospel music asks a lot of a drummer. It’s not stiff, buttoned-down, tidy, four-square music. It’s not well-behaved. To paraphrase a common expression, you have to play like no one’s listening. Descriptors which come to mind include: ebullient; impassioned; unbridled; unreserved; demanding; emphatic; unabashed; challenging. In general, this translates into a real workout for a drummer.

About six or eight months ago I noticed something which I had never noticed before. A little red flag, if you will. After playing the Anthony Evans version of “Ever Be,” a piece with a particularly frenetic chorus and bridge, I noticed a tightness in my upper body. Not a pain, but a pressure. Not centered in my chest, but affecting my entire upper body. I wrote it off as muscular discomfort and didn’t think much more of it. Until the next time I had to play that same song, a couple weeks later. And I experienced the same tightness.

Over a period of months, this tightness became more and more pronounced. In addition, I started to feel lightheaded on occasion. Not every day, not even necessarily every week. But frequently enough that it raised another small red flag. Similarly, I was starting to become easily winded when performing tasks that involved heavy lifting. Not to mention the fact that my strength and stamina were diminishing. The ravages of ageing? Or more little red flags?

Then there were those times when I was in bed, completely at rest, and I could feel my heart beating. Not hear it beating, but actually feel it beating. And sometimes it seemed to be beating in an arrhythmic manner. More red flags.

I should mention that I had not had a full physical exam in over 20 years. The reasons for this were various. There were long periods of time when I was uninsured. And even when I was insured, I was generally in such good health that I avoided the doctor’s office, foolish as that may have been. It was really fear that kept me from seeking an exam. I was a heavy smoker for 27 years. For many years my diet included a lot of flat-out crap: fast food; fried food; prepared food; tons of salt; trans fats; few fresh fruits and vegetables; lots of red meat; plenty of processed sugar; and on and on.

Then there was the fact that my family has a history of heart disease. My paternal grandfather died, at the age of 62, of congestive heart failure, on my first birthday. (“How old are you now…?”) My maternal grandfather suffered two major heart attacks before finally succumbing to emphysema in his late 70s. So there was that, too.

Red flag, red flag, red flag, red flag. All little, but all red, and all flags.

For most of 2017 I was not covered by health insurance. This was due to some glitch in Maryland’s health care Web site, which prevented me from enrolling in Medicaid, despite clearly qualifying for it. I made sure that this was not repeated for 2018, and was able to obtain the coverage I was qualified for. I swallowed my trepidation, bit the bullet, and, on February 12th, had my first full physical in more than two decades. The results were unremarkable: A tad overweight, high cholesterol resulting in a prescription for Lipitor (which most of my family is on), and a couple borderline vitamin deficiencies which could be addressed with supplements. Then I told my doctor about my red flags. And her response (to paraphrase) was: “Well, it could be nothing. But, just to be on the safe side, let’s send you to a cardiologist.”

About a week later I met with the cardiologist. His reaction (to paraphrase) was: “Well, it could be nothing. But, just to be on the safe side, let’s schedule you for a nuclear stress test.”

Two weeks after that I had the stress test performed. I was unable to complete the treadmill portion of the test (which is telling in and of itself), and they had to stimulate my heart artificially. When all was said and done they reported that my heart tissue was not receiving a sufficient supply of blood and a catheterization was called for. This procedure consists of inserting an endoscope into the circulatory system through the groin and snaking it up to examine the various arteries which supply blood to the heart. If the blockages are few and minor, angioplasty may be performed or stents put in place at that time. I had my procedure on March 12th. I was told that I would likely be able to leave the hospital that day, but that I should pack an overnight bag in case I had to stay longer. Talk about foreshadowing!

When a catheterization is performed, they don’t typically use general anesthesia. Instead they give you a sedative and a local. However, in my case, when they administered the sedative I went down for the count. When I awoke I was in a bed surrounded by a dozen people, including my family, the doctors and technicians who had performed the procedure, and the nurses assigned to my case. This, I supposed, did not bode well.

I was informed that at least four, probably five, of my cardiac arteries were seriously clogged and that I would have to remain in the hospital where I would be undergoing bypass surgery the following day. I was introduced to the cardiac surgeon who would be performing the procedure, Dr. Matthew. My mother grabbed her phone and immediately Googled his name right in front of him. Dr. Matthew didn’t even flinch. I suspected I was in good hands when my mother expressed no negative commentary: high praise where I come from.

My first reaction was to request that I be allowed to go home overnight in order to prepare for what was to come. I was told that doing so would likely create an undesirable delay, since they had a bed and a slot in the schedule ready for me the following day. If I were to go home, that bed and that slot would probably go to another lucky customer, and this might create a delay of several days. I should have realized then how serious my case was, but it didn’t register at the time. I did, however, take the doctors’ advice and resigned myself to the inevitable. In some ways, this rapid time-table was a blessing, since it didn’t allow me much opportunity to sit and brood. I felt as if I were on the first hill of a huge roller coaster, gradually creeping up to the top of the big peak which would set all else in motion, strapped in tight, unable to turn back, with only an ever-rising track in front of me and no clear view past the horizon.

The day of my procedure I was asked to scrub myself down with an antiseptic body wash. I went into the bathroom, which was colder than an ICE deportation, and, before scrubbing myself, took several pictures of my chest. This was the last time I’d have that chest and I wanted to remember it as it was.

The operation took place in the late afternoon, which left a lot of time to wait. My parents stayed with me for a while, but they had a prior commitment which they could not cancel, so they left me in the hands of my sister, Susan. She cleared her extremely busy schedule (which includes running a private school and raising two astonishing, incredibly bright young girls) to spend the hours leading up to my appointment with the saw and knife with me. And when I finally went in for the procedure, she remained in the waiting room and relayed updates to all the concerned parties. She also coordinated with a number of my friends who set up a “meal train” for me so that I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking during my recovery.

I woke up to hell on earth. I was intubated; had two tubes inserted into my chest to drain excess fluid from around my lungs; had wires running from my chest to my heart in case direct electrical stimulation was called for; had a catheter inserted into my urethra; had IVs inserted into my neck and arm; had a web of EKG leads attached to electrodes on my torso; and had an oxygen tube in my nose. My initial panic upon regaining consciousness was from having a tube shoved down my windpipe. I pounded on the side of the bed, unable to speak, yet realizing that I could not remove the tube. The staff immediately understood the source of my discomfort and assured me that they would remove the tube as soon as it was safe to do so. They must have administered some sort of sedative, because I lost consciousness, only to awaken and repeat this pattern two or three more times. Once they removed the tube in my throat my initial panic subsided.

I was terribly thirsty and asked for water, but was told that it was still too early for me to drink. Again, I drifted into unconsciousness and when I awoke begged for water again. My mouth was as dry as a Steven Wright gag. They told me I couldn’t have water, but I could have a few chips of ice. When that ice hit my mouth it was as if I was standing in the presence of God. Never had water tasted so sweet. If I hadn’t been so heavily drugged at the time, I suspect I would have wept like a child.

The first night was a blur, but I do recall experiencing extreme discomfort as a result of the chest tubes, which are inserted through the lower chest and actually wrap around the lungs in order to drain post-operative fluid. Naturally, I had to remain on my back at this point. The result was intense pain in my back in the two spots where the tubes terminated, and I spent the next couple days incessantly requesting pain killers, requests which were, happily, obliged.

The next morning, much to my surprise, I was allowed to order solid food for breakfast. As you might imagine, I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I did order some fruit juice and some fresh pineapple. Once again, when I took that first bite of pineapple it was, without exception, the sweetest food I have ever tasted. In the intervening weeks, of course, I have regained some of my jadedness. But in that moment something as simple as a bite of pineapple was transcendent and revelatory.

After a few days it was time for the wires and tubes in my chest, as well as the catheter and the IV in my neck, to be removed. This was one of the most horrific and grotesque five minutes of my life, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It was an exquisite mixture of pain, discomfort, and horror. But after that point I felt considerably better and my recovery proceeded apace. By this point they had gotten me out of bed and into a chair, and had even started me walking short distances. A staggering array of doctors, nurses, and technicians were constantly attending to me. I was regularly awakened several times during the night: once to have pills administered, once to have blood drawn, and once to have my chest x-rayed.

On my third day I reached an important milestone when I was finally able to poop. Well, sort of. It wasn’t exactly the most satisfying such experience, but it did at least confirm that my digestive system was functional. (If you think this qualifies as TMI, let me assure you that nothing will obliterate your sense of dignity and modesty like having your chest cracked open and your innards rearranged.) My appetite was also increasing, at least to some degree. I was still struggling to take deep breaths, but even this was gradually improving.

On the fourth day of my hospital stay there was talk of discharging me. A physical therapist came to examine me and make sure, among other things, that I was capable of getting up and down the stairs, a test which I passed with flying colors. By this time there was a plan in place for my return home. I live alone in a three-story townhouse, and although my mother was strongly in favor of hiring someone to be there with me 24/7, I vehemently opposed her plan. For one thing, all of the doctors had assured me that I would be fine at home on my own, so long as I observed the restrictions they placed on me. But more importantly, I needed some time to myself. I had been through a life-changing, traumatic event, and I needed to process the emotions which it has stirred up: grief, sadness, fear, anger. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do this with a stranger in my home. As I have noted elsewhere, when your sternum get split into two pieces, so does your life. There’s before the operation and after, and these are two distinct pieces. Just as it takes time for the bones to knit back together and heal, so it is with one’s life as well. Even now I am struggling to knit the two pieces of my life back into a single, integral whole.

On my fifth day in the hospital I was cleared for discharge. Because I expected to leave the hospital around noon, I didn’t bother to order lunch that day. This proved to be a mistake, since it took considerably longer than I had expected to process all the paperwork and receive my prescriptions and discharge instruction. Happily, a co-worker of mine (in fact, my office mate) had sent a care package that included some dried, unsweetened cherries. Thus, I was able to stave off my hunger until I could leave the hospital.

When I arrived home there was a whole crew of people there to help clean and transform my house into a space conducive to my recovery. My living room was rearranged; my recliner was dragged downstairs; plates and glasses were placed on counters so that I wouldn’t have to reach for them; folding chairs were placed at the top, bottom, and landing of my upper staircase; groceries and a pill organizer were purchased; prescriptions were obtained. At one point I broke down, briefly, and sobbed. It was part grief and part trauma and a big part “bullet dodged.”

Over the next week I fell into a routine of sorts, one which has expanded in the intervening weeks. I was able to remove the bandages on my chest after the first day, and I got my first glimpse of my battle scars. I found that taking a shower was feasible, but also exhausting. Brushing my teeth was exhausting. Climbing up the stairs was exhausting. Dressing myself was exhausting. Thinking about how exhausted I was was exhausting. I had been prescribed oxycodone for pain, but at first I wasn’t taking it because the only time I experienced significant pain was when I coughed (or laughed, or sneezed). But when the physical therapist came for the first of three house calls, she urged me to start taking it, since it would encourage me to cough deeply (a necessary part of the healing process) and would also ease my discomfort at bedtime. An occupational therapist came a couple days later and pronounced my home fit for my condition, admonishing me only to procure a long-handled brush for use in the shower.

Ten days after my surgery, I returned to my surgeon’s office, and he removed my remaining sutures. He told me: “I wish I could find more patients like you.” Most of the people he treats are significantly older than my 52 years of age, and recovery is much more of a challenge for them. In fact, at a follow-up appointment with a nurse practitioner a few days later, she warned me to remain vigilant and scrupulous with regard to my diet, since: “You’re young enough that you could go through this again. And it’s much more challenging at 82 than it is at 52!” From that point on, my recovery has proceeded slowly, but surely.

Now I’d like to wax philosophical for a moment. What I have to say may rankle the sensibilities of some readers, but I believe I’ve earned the right to interpret these events in whatever light I deem fit.

Most people know that I’m a Christian. This is not something that I generally wear on my sleeve, and it’s certainly not something that I try to push on others. But I do, in fact, work for a multi-cultural, service-oriented, post-evangelical church, and this does inform my perspective on many things. In Christian circles you often hear the phrase “God’s timing.” This is usually offered as a platitude to those whose prayers remain unanswered. If someone is having trouble getting a job, or finding a spouse, or recovering from some illness, it is not uncommon for other Christians to attempt to mollify their angst by assuring them that “everything will happen according to God’s timing.” This, of course, is cold comfort, and, in my opinion, only rubs salt in the wound. If it is true that everything will happen according to God’s timing, this is a truism which hardly bears verbalization.

But there is a flip side to the concept of God’s timing, and I believe my recent experience illustrates this perfectly. I am told that my arteries were between 90% and 100% clogged. This means that I was a walking time bomb. And over the past year there have been many times in which I unknowingly put myself in grave danger by overexerting myself. Whether hauling my drum set around, rearranging instruments on stage (one of my job responsibilities), regularly carrying my cymbal bag (a good 50 pounds) to and fro, or other heavy lifting both at work and at home, I should, by all rights, have dropped dead 20 times over. My body was hanging on by the thinnest of threads, and it is hard not to view my survival as miraculous.

But consider: After going without insurance I was finally approved in 2018. Within weeks I set up my first physical in more than 20 years. The doctor, on a hunch, sent me to the cardiologist. The cardiologist, on a hunch, scheduled a stress test. The stress test sent me to the hospital for catheterization, which revealed a deadly-serious problem. There happened to be a room open for me at that time, and a surgeon with an opening in his schedule. All of this certainly feels to me like “God’s timing.” Even the dried cherries seem to reinforce this theme. Everything fell into place with Swiss-watch precision.

Consider: Last December my cat, Spike, who was suffering from congestive heart failure, gave up the ghost, one month shy of his 18th birthday. What would have happened if he had hung on? I would have been gone for five days in the hospital and returned home just barely able to care for myself. Caring for gravely ill cat would have been out of the question. Again, this feels like God’s timing. If Spike had to go, he went at, arguably, just the right time. There are many more similar instances which I could point to that also reinforce this theme, but I don’t want to belabor the point.

It has been suggested that God is not done with me. I’d have to agree with that sentiment. And it all started, remember, when I was playing gospel music.



John Sowalsky

Writer, composer, director, producer, baker, used record collector, drummer, uncle, cat lover, silly person, vulnerable, human. (Not necessarily in any order.)