Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More than just a vacation

View of downtown San Diego, CA during harbor cruise
It's been nearly two weeks since I posted anything on this blog. My wife and I needed a break, so we got out of Dodge for a week for a much needed vacation. Our destination was San Diego, CA. We were there five years ago for the last vacation before my heart transplant. We had been wanting to go back badly but had not had the chance. I wanted to go back for two reasons : 1) the climate is perfect (especially in July), and 2) I had "unfinished business" there.

We had big plans for our first trip to San Diego in July 2006. We planned to visit the highly acclaimed San Diego Zoo, the U.S.S. Midway, and Sea World. Even though I had been in heart failure for several years, we felt like I could handle it as long as I paced myself. The trip was basically ruined on the first day. I had been on a anti-arrhythmic called Amiodarone for about six years. It had done it's job and kept me alive but at a price. One of the many side affects of the drug is increased sensitivity to the sun. In other words, it makes you sunburn easily. I tried many different sunblocks and sunscreens, some prescription strength, while on the drug, but none of them kept me from burning. As a last resort, one of my doctors recommended a new sunscreen made by Coppertone called Sport. It came in a cream or spray. I took some of the spray with me on the 2006 trip and "marinated" in it thoroughly before we headed out for Sea World the first day of our trip. Our first stop in Sea World that morning was Shamu the killer whale's show. Fifteen minutes into the show, I could feel my skin tingling - I knew I was already sunburned, and there was nothing I could do about it. We stayed through the rest of the day ducking into the shade any chance I got. When we got back to the motel that evening, I was as red as a lobster. I hurt so bad I couldn't bear to move, let alone sleep. The trip was ruined. We stayed inside the next few days only going to some museums and taking a bus tour of downtown. No Zoo. No U.S.S. Midway. I was both disappointed and angry. I now knew for sure that there was no sunscreen / sunblock made that would prevent a sunburn while taking amiodarone. We thought "maybe another day." Unfortunately, after we returned home, my heart conditioned plummeted. Three months later, in October, the doctor told me he had done everything he could and without a heart transplant I'd be lucky to live another year. I was only 36 years old. Now, the last thing on my mind was returning to San Diego. Then, February 2007 came along, and without rehashing my transplant story, the "second chance" I was hoping for became a reality.

In 2009, we went to Yellowstone National Park on vacation. Last year, our vacation was the U.S. Transplant Games. We decided that 2011, five years after our last trip there, was the year to return to San Diego and see the sights we had missed out on in 2006. We flew out on July 4th and enjoyed a fabulous fireworks show over San Diego Harbor that evening. The next day we went to the U.S.S. Midway, one of the destinations we had to punt on in 2006. The Midway has a storied history. It was commissioned as an aircraft carrier at the tail-end of World War II and launched the first planes to bomb Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It is a beautiful ship that is well maintained and taken care of. It was a neat feeling to walk out on her long deck and realize I was re-living history. Furthermore, I was getting that opportunity because of a generous organ donor named Kent and the grace of God. If you're ever in San Diego, you have to visit the U.S.S. Midway. It's an experience you will not forget.
The U.S.S. Midway with downtown San Diego in background
On day two of our trip, we visited the San Diego Zoo. It's a very nice zoo with nice facilities and plenty of animals to see. They have a shuttle service to various drop-off points within the zoo included in the ticket price enabling you to save some walking. The food was pretty good but a little pricey. It reminded me of going to a movie. Once they've got you in there, it's their food or nothing, so the prices are at a premium. We enjoyed the zoo but felt that the admission price of about $40 per adult was a little excessive. It was a nice zoo but not that nice of a zoo.
A baby giraffe at the San Diego Zoo
When, we started planning our trip, we decided to explore the possibility of driving from San Diego north through Los Angeles to Simi Valley to visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. It's an estimated 3-4 hour drive depending on traffic. We made the trip on day 3, and if I can offer a word to the wise for anyone else that might consider doing the same thing - go ahead and plan on four hours. I've always heard about how bad LA traffic is, but I learned very quickly that you can't really get a feel for it without experiencing it. I'll say this - after making the round trip, which meant driving through LA twice, I believe I am fully qualified to race with the NASCAR Sprint Cup guys at Talladega and Daytona. I raced, uh ... I mean drove, three and four wide on I-5 for 350+ miles that day without putting a scratch on the rental car. Maybe I'll start looking for sponsors and a crew. Then, it's move over Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr., and Kyle "Whiny" Busch. I'm coming through.

Myself with picture of President Reagan
The Reagan Library was wonderful. It contained copies of letters, diary entries, famous quotes, hundreds of photographs, videos, and artifacts from Reagan's Presidency and his life beforehand. There, you can learn about his childhood, his early career in radio and TV, his life with Nancy, his faith in God, what motivated him, and the highlights of his presidency. President Reagan has always been one of my heroes due to his love for his country and freedom, his character, his faith, his communication skills, the way he stood up to the U.S.S.R. and his other enemies, and because he was a perfect example of "The American Dream." He grew up with very little but worked hard and became successful. If you are a fan of Reagan, you need to make it a point to visit the Reagan Library. It's something I've wanted to do for years and experiencing it may have been the highlight of the trip for me for one reason - I shouldn't be here to experience it. However, because one hero, Kent, chose to be an organ donor, I was able to experience the life of another hero, Reagan, on a more personal level. I found myself getting emotional on a number of occasions while in the library. It's an experience I will never forget.

The rest of our trip included a visit to the Cabrillo National Monument, which overlooks San Diego Harbor, and a cruise of San Diego Harbor in which we got closeup views of a number of Navy ships in port including submarines, destroyers, missile cruisers, and the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson. The Carl Vinson got some notoriety lately as being the place where Osama Bin Laden's body briefly resided before "sleeping with the fishes."
The gigantic U.S.S. Carl Vinson in San Diego Harbor
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip. It will be one I will never forget. For me, it's as if this vacation was about more than just getting away. It's as if it brought my heart transplant journey full circle. Shortly after the last time we returned from San Diego, the bottom fell out of our lives as we began the journey to, through, and after my heart transplant. We visited places we had to put on hold after the last trip making me feel as if we had taken care of "unfinished business. Furthermore, God gave me an opportunity to conquer the demon that raised it's ugly head in late 2006.

Lastly, I can help but wonder if this trip is the completion of one chapter of my life, and another one is about to open. I'm looking forward to whatever that is. There's one last thing that I've thought a lot about in regards to this trip since getting home. Years ago, while working for the state, a co-worker named Tony, who was an old Marine, told me, "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger." He served two tours in Vietnam. He seems wiser and wiser every day.
Sunset over San Diego Harbor with U.S.S. Carl Vinson at left.

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