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It shouldn't take a cardiac arrest!

Public transportation a silver lining in MEC board member's health scare
Jamie and Jack wait for The Rapid bus
I do not recommend life-threatening cardiac arrest as a way to increase awareness of public transportation’s value. But, it worked for me!

Perhaps I should explain:

During routine sinus surgery in September, my heart stopped on the operating table at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. It was a complete surprise to everyone—I never had heart issues before—and the medical staff was baffled. I remained in the hospital for days as they tried to solve my mystery. Ultimately, I had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) device implanted in my chest as an insurance policy in case I ever went into ventricular fibrillation again. V-fib, I learned, is life threatening and often leads to sudden cardiac death, so I was fortunate to have been in a hospital when mine occurred.

On the day of my release, I was so giddy with the thought of seeing my 3-year-old son Jack, and sleeping in my own bed, that it barely registered when my cardiologist told me I would not be allowed to drive for six months.

As I re-assimilated to normal life, I felt great. I had always been a fan of “practicing gratitude,” or intentionally trying to focus on the good in any situation—counting my blessings. Post-cardiac arrest, my gratitude sense was exponentially heightened. I felt lucky to be alive.

Alongside my grateful outlook was the one major change to my lifestyle—no driving. The lawyer and researcher in me Googled and called to double check on this, and my doctor was right. In Michigan, if a patient gets an ICD implanted, they are not permitted to drive for six months.

The day after I returned home, my husband, Dan, drove me to the central station of The Rapid, the public transportation authority for the Grand Rapids metro area. We picked up bus schedules and multi-ride passes for my use over the next six months.

It’s not that I didn’t have alternatives. I was grateful that members of my family were tripping over themselves to offer me their chauffeuring services. But six months was a long time, and I needed to regain my sense of independence. I had never been a regular bus rider, but I had a vague sense that relying on public transit might be empowering. I was right.

I have always been a cheerful supporter of public transit from a policy perspective; but being forced to relinquish the keys to my Prius has reconnected me with the city of Grand Rapids, and with my son, in ways I never anticipated.

I am much more aware of my surroundings when I ride the bus. I love learning about my city by exploring new routes, and my eyes are constantly drawn to examples of striking architecture, or interesting community activity (is that a new farmer’s market?). That never seemed to register when I was behind the wheel.

I am especially fortunate to live in Grand Rapids, where The Rapid was recognized as “Outstanding Mid-Size Transportation System” in the country for 2013. Jack loves riding the bus, and it’s an experience we enjoy together in the mornings as I take him to his preschool downtown. In fact, riding the bus together is a much more rewarding shared experience than me simply chauffeuring him.

I particularly appreciate how riding the bus allows both Jack and me to engage with the city’s diverse population. Jack makes new friends every time he rides, and he will often enthusiastically point out landmarks he recognizes. Overall, Jack is much more stimulated and engaged on the bus, with all its sights and sounds. And our commutes to his school, or to the museum, are positive events in themselves.

The benefits of riding the bus have not been confined to our time on The Rapid. This new lifestyle has encouraged us to walk more and to buy local. Instead of defaulting to a huge big box store shopping trip, we now default to a family walk to our neighborhood store, Ken’s Fruit Market. We make better choices when we know we have to carry our purchases home (or fit them in the “trunk” of Jack’s tricycle).

Why didn’t I do this before? Why did it take a major medical event to connect me to The Rapid? In car-crazy Michigan, home to the Motor City, car dependence is ingrained in our culture. It never occurred to me to ride the bus before my medical drama took away my driving privileges.

I did have to learn the bus schedules and become a bit better organized about when to leave the house (especially with a toddler in tow). But it was easy to make the transition. I find it funny when friends hear about my cardiac arrest, my ICD, and then the fact that I can’t drive. Often, the driving restrictions shock them the most (“Six months is a long time! How on earth will you manage?”).

I used to think of my driving restriction as a small price to pay to be alive. Now, I truly see this lifestyle change as a gift. It’s still an adjustment, and there are times I miss the flexibility of being able to hop in the car for an unplanned errand. But I don’t miss it nearly as much as I thought I would. The rewards of un-tethering myself from my car and re-connecting with the rest of the world through other, less isolating means of transportation, have been wonderful.
-Jamie Scripps, MEC
RELATED TOPICS: MEC Board, transportation policy
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