Open-hearted writer

By Amy Reiswig, July/August 2012

Gregory Marchand has been searching for the meaning of his near-death—and recovery—for 14 years. Now, the book.

Former Focus writer Gregory Marchand admits it’s a little strange being on the other side of the notebook, as the interviewee for his first book Open Heart Runner: searching for meaning after my heart stopped (Agio Publishing House, May 2012). But over the last 14 years, Marchand’s life—and near death—has come to rest quite comfortably on reversals.

Victorians might remember the story of the 40-year-old Marchand who collapsed in cardiac arrest at the finish line of an eight-kilometre road race on January 11, 1998, and lay without a pulse for 20 minutes. Fellow runners took shifts performing CPR, trying to give him every chance to survive when there seemed no hope he would. But he did. That was reversal number one: essentially coming back from the dead.

Reversal number two was waking up from a coma and recovering fully, over time, from what doctors thought would be significant anoxic brain injury. Reversal number three was surviving open heart surgery soon thereafter to correct the severe blockages in three arteries—blockages he’d had no knowledge of and which could have killed him at any time. Doctors told him they might have resulted from childhood illness (perhaps Kawasaki’s disease) or a genetic predisposition, and that his body had developed a complex set of collateral arteries to feed blood to his heart (running had likely helped his body compensate in this way).

A year later, Marchand ran, admittedly slower, the same race—and walked triumphantly away, no doubt feeling a thousand times more victorious than whoever it was that won. 

Ideas of victory and strength have forever changed for Marchand. His book, besides relating the drama of the events around his heart-stopping collapse, shares his story of change during his long recovery, as well as his insights into the relationship between mind, body and spirit as a runner, a husband and father, a Christian and just as a vulnerable human being.

Born in Alberta, the wiry, wide-smiled Marchand originally came to Victoria to study English and history at UVic. He has since worked as a teacher, counsellor and prolific freelance writer. He has written previous articles about his ordeal, but over heart-healthy tea in Chinatown, Marchand explains how the book differs. “It is a search for the larger meaning, 14 years later. How do you look at an event like this and understand what it means?” he asks me, before responding to his own question: “I don’t pretend to think I’ve found the answers. Everything we do in life is a search for meaning.” Or at least it should be.

In defiance of the classic advice to “write what you know,” the event Marchand seeks to understand through this book, though, is one he himself does not remember. Therefore, a big part of Marchand’s memoir is mystery. And the writing itself is part detective story: his piecing together of what happened, from his own memories and those of family, friends and medical people. No one, including his doctors, quite knows why his heart was the way it was; no one quite knows why he didn’t suffer lasting brain injury from lack of oxygen; no one can decisively define the effect of prayers said over him on the road and in the hospital. 

While Marchand includes practical, body-based facts about CPR, coma scores, and rates of heart disease in North America, he also addresses less explainable facts pointing to less physical realities, peppering the book with philosophical and spiritual questions such as “Is prayer more powerful than paramedics?” “How can you prepare children for death?” and the simple but poignant “Where did I go?”

Such questions lead Marchand, and the reader, to contemplations on the mysteries and beauties of life—like simply being able to breathe. But an attendant anxiety is given voice as well, which makes the book more than just a breezy, feel-good summer read. For the tone is reflective and celebratory but also confessional, revealing a man in more than medical crisis exploring very un-traditionally male topics such as self-confidence, self-esteem and deep fear—especially, in Marchand’s case, the ongoing fear of cognitive impairment. 

“Looking in my shaving kit in the bathroom,” he writes of his early recovery, “I’d find myself puzzling over the purpose of the tin of shaving cream…Even the shape of the razor was a puzzle to me.” His relationship to his surroundings, including his family, was compromised, tenuous: “Sometimes I felt like less of a father and husband and more a visitor.” And he admits that “Sometimes, death felt easier. Without my family to think about, death might have been welcoming.”

“It was hard for some of them to read it,” Marchand says about the family that stood so closely by him. “I had trepidation putting it back out there because they’re having to relive it.” But one of the many paradoxes surrounding the whole experience is that Marchand’s pain, and the pain it caused others, opened new opportunities for communication, sometimes very emotional and cathartic and sometimes humourously human, like when Marchand’s youngest son, then five years old, walked up to his father covered in tubes and wires in the hospital and just said, “Guess what, Dad…We had bagels for lunch today.”

The ability for Marchand’s experience to open or inspire new kinds of communication isn’t limited to family and friends; writing and speaking about his story also opens other people’s stories. “When I spoke to a group recently,” Marchand explains, “people stayed behind, and they all wanted to tell me something. I only sold one book,” he laughs, “but I left feeling buoyant because I made connections with people. My aspiration for the book is to open things up for readers. The story allows that to happen. That’s why I say it’s a search for meaning: it’s an ongoing process. And one important message for people is we’re all alike in that, and there are very few of us who don’t live paradoxes.” 

From the weakness of illness comes strength to share; from fighting fear comes courage to be honest and emotional. It’s clear the title of Open Heart Runner refers not only to the surgery Marchand survived but to a way of being in oneself and with the world. Marchand’s call to live more open-heartedly means being open to lessons, to mysteries, to contradictions and to one another, and the book itself, in that sense, is a call for all of us to come back from the dead.

Due to high arches and a painful tendency to pronate, writer and editor Amy Reiswig plans to spend summer as a meditative open-hearted cyclist.