Leadership Thoughts


Walking With a Purpose

May 13 is a special day.

It’s the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk here in Omaha, and I’m so proud that dozens of WoodmenLife associates are participating, along with their friends and family (I will be there, too!).

It also would have been my parents’ 66th wedding anniversary.

Nine Lives

My Dad died earlier this month. While far from a happy occasion, I am glad he is not suffering anymore and is free of pain.

He died from complications of heart disease. He was 84 years old – and it’s no exaggeration to say that the last 30 years of his life are a tribute to the work of the American Heart Association. The research they fund and the educational tools they produce means that heart disease is no longer the death sentence it once was.

My Dad’s Story

My Dad was always an active guy – he was always working around the house. He was slim in stature, yet he was a smoker and a high stress kind of guy.

He had his first heart attack in his 50s. He tried to quit smoking but it didn’t stick. Then, he experienced another heart attack in his late 50s. It required bypass surgery and left about a third of his heart non-functioning. Two cat lives down.

The experience of his bypass surgery made him a vehement non-smoker for the remainder of his life (he probably gained a cat life or two from this decision). He led a full life after his two heart attacks and eventually needed to have a pacemaker and defibrillator put in as a preventative measure.

After undergoing knee replacement surgery in his late 60’s, he suffered a stroke while still in the hospital.  There were some after effects that required therapy (primarily speech impairment), but he was diligent and yet again, he recovered and continued to lead a full life.  Another cat life down, but still alive and functioning.

Independence Lost

Since the things that affect your heart health often affect your brain eventually, my Dad was diagnosed with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s eight years ago. Out of all of the things he’d overcome with his heart disease, this sneaky thing cropped up. It was the final blow to him living a full, independent life.

At first, only small behavioral things were detectable, but then it came on more rapidly.  My Dad spent the last six years of his life losing his faculties – first it was his ability to reason as it relates to handling money and medication, then it was his ability to safely drive himself, next was his ability to live independently. Heartbreakingly, it advanced to loss of all short term memory, then the majority of long term memory, and his ability to care for himself in any way such as independently bathing and dressing himself. Eventually, he could no longer read (which was his greatest passion), carry on a conversation, show expression like smiling, walk and more.

This cat was now still alive in body, but it was never the life that my active, energetic, passionate Dad would have wanted.

Life Lessons

In the end, my Dad’s life was very limited and had zero independence. But he was amazingly resilient and accepting of the cards he had been dealt. I probably learned more from him about life and dealing with adversity in those last six years than in the previous 44 I’d spent with him.

I know I would have NEVER had him in my life as long as we did without the amazing work of the American Heart Association. And for that, I am thankful.

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Written by Denise McCauley, WoodmenLife Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer

Denise McCauley

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