Vince Gill got scared late last year when he started to get short of breath walking up stairs.
The results surprised Gill and his wife, Christian/pop star Amy Grant: Gill’s heart and major blood vessels were clear and in good shape, cardiologist John Bright Cage reported.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but your heart is fantastic,” the doctor told him. “You’re quite simply just fat and out of shape.”
After their laughs died down, Cage turned toward Grant.
“Hey, let’s check you out.”
“Nah,” Grant said, “I’m good.”
The doctor persisted. “Let’s,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
She felt fine. Yet, her family had a history of heart issues.
And her heart occasionally skipped a beat or two.
And once in a great while, Grant felt like she wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
“OK, how about January?” Grant said.
“Great,” the doctor said.
That appointment led to the discovery of a birth defect, a vein coming out of her lungs was going to the wrong side of her heart. That caused one side of her heart to enlarge. The condition likely would’ve killed her in the next two or three years, Cage said.
Grant had successful open heart surgery in June, and, 10 days later, she shared her gratitude — and a picture of her lengthy scar — with tens of thousands of fans on social media.
Surviving a potentially deadly birth defect made Grant hyper aware of time — how much she has left and she wants to do with that gift.
“It’s made me want to be very intentional about the things that matter, the dreams I still have, dreams that I long realize,” she said.
For Thanksgiving, Grant shares with the Tennessean those dreams, her gratitude and details of the heart repair that fueled her fire to serve others in even bigger ways.
Those efforts, Grant said, will be centered on a farm. Grant has 450 acres in Williamson County, mostly undeveloped, where she hopes to host healing, community-building programs for kids and adults.
The farm already is home to a summer camp for kids.
It’s home to retreats that pair military veterans and songwriters who help the veterans process their tough times through song.
And it’s an outpost for Cereset acoustic brain mirroring, which helps the brain to heal from trauma and to restore hope, a business for which Grant is an investor and a certified technician.
Still, Grant wants to do more.
“I’m never going to stop singing,” Grant said. “But I’ve given so much of my life to that. And there are so many other things that are wonderful as well.
“I’m pouring myself into other things because to me, it’s all about community. And I feel like healing happens in loving community.”
No histrionics or hysterics
Grant’s heart healing started because her cardiologist ordered just one more test at that exam in January. Cage ordered a coronary CT angiography to get high-resolution images of blood vessels supplying the heart.
“I don’t do it very often,” the cardiologist said. “I think God got in my hand to do the right test at the right time.”
That last scan revealed the birth defect, Cage said.
Grant felt disconnected from the diagnosis when the cardiologist said she needed surgery to fix a birth defect that could otherwise be “catastrophic.”
“It’s not histrionics or hysterics, it’s like, hmmm, wow.”
She got online to look at a few entries about the birth defect she had. Then, Grant looked for pictures of open heart surgery scars.
After a few minutes of that, Grant didn’t think about it again much until a week before the surgery.
“I just sort of went, well, ok, here we go.”
While Grant was relatively calm, her husband was not. Gill went to St. Thomas West hospital the day of the surgery, but he was sent home — only a couple of miles away — during the operation.
He spent much of his time at the house crying.
“It was the worst day of my life, scariest day of my life,” Gill said.
“It was fear, but it was also because of the year that’s going on and the crazy stuff going on with the virus. And my best friend of 50 years passed away three weeks before. All the other stuff piled on made it just that much more frightening.”
Gill, who returned to the hospital as the surgery ended, said his fear dissipated the moment he saw her. “I saw her and that peaceful face, and I knew it was going to be fine,” he said.
Grant said that peace came from a feeling of people praying for her.
But her body still hurt.
“You just sort of felt like you’d been hit by a truck,” she said.
The physician’s assistant told her ahead of time that it would be like “an intense mugging” — and he was right.
Grant stayed in the hospital for only three days, about half the time most open heart surgery patients are hospitalized, Cage said.
“Her resiliency?” Cage said. “It’s hard to describe how tough she is.”
Putting the scar on social media
Grant got emotional a few times after the surgery.
The first was when Cage told her in the hospital: “God gives second chances in mysterious ways.”
The second was when Grant sat down with her manager, Jennifer Cooke, to record a short social-media video to thank fans and friends for their prayers.
Grant tried more than a dozen times to record that message, but she got weepy each time, overwhelmed with gratitude, relieved she lived through heart surgery.
“Whether you’re going to a heart surgery or whether you’re at stage 4 untreatable cancer, what you really long for is somebody to feel the presence of love and the absence of fear. And I felt those kind of prayers for me,” she said. “That’s what I felt so profoundly.”
Grant asked her manager to transcribe what she said and post her words with some pictures of her with her scar exposed. The artist didn’t hesitate about sharing that.
“Scars are part of life,” she said. “And it’s part of my journey and probably part of lots of people’s journeys.”
Her husband, surprised she posted pictures of the scar, said he loves that transparency.
“If you tell the truth, you disarm every body. I think that was her mindset,” Gill said. “She was like, ‘Here’s my scar, we’re through this.'”
The surgery, performed by Dr. Clayton Kaiser, did it’s job: Grant said she feels much better.
“I felt like my breathing was so much more effective and that was a great feeling. Still is,” Grant said. “My heart never skips a beat now. And that’s a great feeling.”
Giving away the farm
About five months after the surgery, Grant headed out to her farm — where she and Gill got married 20 years ago — to help build a hilltop pavilion there.
She has high hopes for that addition as an outdoor spot for ceremonies during the pandemic.
And for it to be a shelter for rainy-day programming for the kids at the annual Barefoot at the Farm camp.
The pavilion is the start of a new phase of opening her farm to others, Grant said. And that’s no small gift, her husband said.
“That place has always been her dream place,” Gill said. “She goes there for security and peace. That’s her favorite place.”
Sharing it, though, makes it even better, he said.
“When she came home after they started the build on the pavilion, it was easily the most joyful I’ve ever seen her in my whole life.”
Grant often is hands on with outreach programming there, especially the summer day camp that started there in 2015.
“We didn’t know if Amy was going to be involved that first year,” camp creator Tommy Rhodes said.
“She ended up getting certified as an archery instructor, got a 98 on her exam. Her first week, she taught 200 kids how to shoot a bow and arrow.”
And Grant encourages others to get involved in helping on the farm, especially if they are having difficulties in their lives.
A couple of years ago, Grant heard from a woman who was angry and frustrated with past and present trauma.
Grant listened patiently and empathetically and then told the woman: “I cannot fix anything in your life. Any chance you wanna come teach archery?”
The woman did, and she shed a lot of anger in the process.
“Everybody has a purpose in life to fill that only they can fill. The universe is most effective when we’re all in there and engaged,” Grant said.
“Part of that is having fun and celebrating, but a big part of it is serving others. The pendulum has got to swing both ways. You do things for yourself. You do things for others.”
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Amy Grant open-heart surgery leads to her helping others heal