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One year ago today, I had open heart surgery to repair “malignant origin of the right coronary artery.” A month earlier, this congenital abnormality was discovered when a cardiologist placed a stent in my left anterior descending artery. At 51, all of the sudden, I was unexpectedly facing my mortality.

As a physician, I have treated many patients who were facing their mortality. People die in the ER and over the years, I have watched dozens pass on from this life. It is always sobering and profoundly final to watch someone take their last breath. When I was diagnosed, I found myself reflecting on my own life for the first time and aching for more of everything. More life, more love, more good times and even bad. I’d be willing to take anything, as long as I lived.

I write about this experience because it changes you. While I would never wish open heart surgery on anyone, the reflection and self-assessment was life changing for me. I would not say I was “worried about dying” or “scared of the unknown.” Instead, I found myself begging God for a few more years.

365 days later I reflect on the last year and it has been a wild ride. 2020 will go down as one of the most tumultuous in America’s history. But for me, these days have been precious and I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Perhaps the health trials of 2019 gave me the perspective I needed to survive the chaos of 2020.

I’ve helped my son and his wife move to Baton Rouge where she completed her first year of law school. I have cherished each teenage moment with our two girls still at home. Since we adopted them, they have filled our home with joy and excitement. Finally, Shanna and I welcomed our first grandchild into the world. Cash was born in January. Words are not adequate to express the joy of a grandchild and I was ready for those feelings. What I was not prepared for was the overwhelming emotion when I saw my daughter love her baby and in one moment, she knew how much we love her. Language does not have words to express that love. It is felt. It is real. And it is not of this world.

My point of sharing a few very personal experiences is to plead with each of you to look for the goodness in this world, even in the darkest of times. Choosing to live life with gratitude and grace is a sure way to live an abundant life. Regardless of circumstances, we can look for good all around us or work to create good for others. Especially now, with the uncertainty of a global pandemic, civil unrest, and divisive politics — we can be the difference, we can be the good.

I am reminded often that the answers to our prayers usually come when we are serving others. Feelings of despair tend to dissipate when we commit ourselves to the selfless service of others.

In a time as volatile as now, I ask that each of us reach out to our community and connect on a personal level. Not along party lines, not on notions of right or wrong, and certainly not on an “us vs. them” mentality. Connect person to person. Share those personal experiences and listen when others share theirs. If we can free our minds of the chaos of the moment and learn to separate the news from the noise we’ll find common ground to stand on.

Tommy Ahlquist, a former emergency room doctor, is the CEO of BVA Development and co-owner of Saltzer Health. He ran for governor as a Republican in 2018.

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