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Mindful : August 2014
MINDFUL PROFILE A Change of Heart At age 31, Jesse Torrence’s heart wasn’t strong enough to beat on its own. Admitted to a Washington, DC hospital, he was dependent on a bypass machine to keep him alive. Four tubes inser ted in his abdomen circulated blood and oxygen throughout his body while he waited for a transplant. One day, he felt strong enough to dance with his par tner, Oana Cheta, who loves to dance, so he seized the oppor- tunity. It was a remarkable moment for the young couple because they knew: He might not have long to live. As a child in Monclova, Ohio, Torrence had been introduced to mindfulness through his grandfather. “I can’t tell you what his practice was, but he had books on spiritual history and philosophy,” he says. Torrence would see his grandfather in his den and think he was sleeping when he was meditating and ask him what he was doing. His grandfather would reply, “I’m just calming my mind.” After graduating with a masters degree in Public Administration in International Development from Harvard, Torrence became the director of Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme), in Januar y 2011, helping to raise funds and organize retreats where teens learn to meditate. But in the spring of that year, Torrence was diagnosed with pneumonia. Doctors quickly realized it was something far more serious than a lung infection: giant cell myocarditis, a type of inflammation of the hear t. It has a ver y low sur vival rate. “I’ve been an athlete my whole life, per fectly healthy,” says Torrence. “Up to a month before the diagnosis, I was running, exercising, and doing yoga.” The doctors put him in a medically induced coma, where he remained for six weeks and under went two operations. During one of the operations he had a stroke. His family and friends gathered at his bedside, though they couldn’t touch him due to the risk of blood clotting through his swollen arms and legs—any movement in those clots might have killed him. When he finally awoke his body felt like it weighed 1,000 pounds. It took him many months of therapy to learn to walk again. That was when he was able to manage a few dance steps, while still hooked up to the bypass machine. His body and lungs slowly healed to the point where doctors believed he might sur vive a hear t trans- plant. After four months in the hospital, he got a new hear t, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet. “There are all these thresholds you have to cross,” says Torrence. “And in the middle of it I got a pretty bad infection. I went back ward and lost a ton of weight.” Torrence was at the end of his rope. He says his sense of self was stripped away. In that moment of deep pain and fear, he struggled desperately for a way to be thankful for his life. He did it with the help of his par tner, Cheta, who had been at his side throughout. “I was thinking, if this woman stayed with me through all of this—and danced with me while I was hooked to a machine—what more did I need?” Torrence proposed to her and they were married the following year. Torrence was grateful to realize that he still had life goals, like being mar- ried, but he had to accept that there were times when he couldn’t accomplish much because of incredible pain. And then there was acknowledging the gift of that vital organ, now working well in his body. “I’m alive and breathing and there’s a young man who isn’t anymore, whose hear t I have—a community that has a vacuum there. Yes, I’m in pain, but I can breathe, and that’s a miraculous thing.” After his recover y—he spent a year in the hospital—Torrence became the execu- tive director of Minds, Inc. (see opposite page). Mindfulness is a par t of his personal life, too, and played a role in his healing. “People say, ‘ Whoa, mindfulness must have saved your life,’” Torrence says. “No, it didn’t. A guy who knew how to cut open my chest and put a beating hear t into it saved my life. Family and friends’ suppor t, doctors who studied for decades, they all saved my life.” But Torrence’s long histor y of contemplative practice, star ting with the example of his grandfather, was vital for his recover y. “It was not a fun time, but I was able to be present for it. I held that with me throughout the entire experience.” ● Now completely recovered, Torrence is grateful for the support of family, friends, medical professionals, and for the internal resources that his mindfulness practice provided. The doctors put him in a medically induced coma, where he remained for six weeks and underwent two operations. During one of the operations, he had a stroke. 10 mindful August 2014 PHOTOGRAPHBYOANACHETA now