By TOM DOUGLAS
Seventeen minutes without a heartbeat set Jim Poling off in a new and life-fulfilling direction.
“They say you can only survive 19 minutes with a shut-down heart, so it was a close call,” Jim related recently. “Even so, a stroke suffered on the operating table left me blind in one eye.”
The Canadian author had been living on borrowed time for more than 40 years – since the day when, as a 15-year-old, he’d been diagnosed with a congenital heart problem.
“It’s called aortic stenosis — a narrowing and stiffening of a main valve that controls blood flow from the heart,” he said. “I was told nothing could be done. Open-heart surgery was unheard of then. I’d have to learn to accept the situation.”
This medical finding was a double blow. Not only would Jim be living with a biological time bomb in his chest, his dreams of becoming a bush pilot like the legendary Wop May and Al Cheesman had just crashed-landed.
“Ground courses in Air Cadets had won me a flying scholarship,” he said. “The last hurdle was a medical examination. I was stunned to learn I’d never fly with a heart like mine.”
Jim accepted this disappointment with the stoicism attributed to the Native American ancestors who form part of his family history. He would later write a magazine article describing his frustrations.
“Life moved on,” he wrote. “I became a journalist and accepted the prospect of a shorter-than-normal lifespan. As a reporter, I flew hundreds of thousands of miles commercially. On each flight I closed my eyes and savored the thrill of takeoff. I flew on jumbos overseas and on small, high-wing planes in Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, often riding in the co-pilot’s seat and witnessing some white-knuckle experiences. But never could I feel the stick in my hands, the rudder pedals below my feet, and experience the pure joy of piloting on my own.”
While Jim would never become a bush pilot, he excelled at journalism. Starting as a junior reporter with The Sault Star in Sault Ste. Marie, he eventually became city editor before joining the Edmonton bureau of the Canadian Press, the country’s national newswire service.
Jim’s climb up the Canadian Press ladder included stints in Vancouver and Ottawa before he was named chief of editorial for the company’s Broadcast News unit. He retired at age 54 as vice president of editorial and general manager of the entire Canadian Press operation.
Jim didn’t know it then, but fortune smiled on him when he moved to Canadian Press’s Toronto head office and his new family doctor referred him to Dr. Luigi Casella, a cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital.
“Here was a man whose intelligence was matched by his kindness and understanding,” said Jim. “He began preparing me for the day when the chance of dying from my deteriorating heart outweighed the significant risks of a surgical repair. He felt we should wait as long as possible so I could enjoy such pleasures as seeing my first grandchild and having a book published.”
An avid outdoorsman, Jim had written freelance articles for publications like Cottage Life and Ontario Out Of Doors, leading to a contract for a coffee table book about the history of the canoe.
And while he had accepted the possibility it all could end with a stabbing chest pain, he had difficulty living with the knowledge that he’d never pilot his own aircraft.
In 2001, Jim’s condition had deteriorated to the point where a ballooning aneurism couldn’t be ignored. Ironically, that’s when he received some unexpected good news.
“The doctor giving me a pre-op medical suggested the operation would clear the way for me to get my pilot’s licence,” said Jim. “He’d read the note in my file mentioning my desire to fly.”
Jim came through the operation successfully with a new mechanical heart valve and some Dacron tubing for an aorta. But his euphoria was tempered by the loss of sight in his right eye. Once again, his aviation hopes went into a tailspin.
But a friend who was an experienced flyer buoyed Jim’s spirits with the revelation that others with one good eye had been allowed a pilot’s licence under close medical supervision.
“My whole life changed the day my cell phone rang and Dr. Robert Flood of Transport Canada told me the department’s aviation medical authorities considered me fit to fly,” said Jim. “I couldn’t wait to tell my wife Diane, who’d backed me all the way. She continued to do so as the costs of flying lessons and aircraft rentals climbed. She would say: ‘Jim, it’s your dream. Follow your dream!’”
That dream materialized in October 2003 when the wheels of the Cessna aircraft Jim was flying solo touched down on the runway at Lake Simcoe Regional Airport just north of Barrie, Ontario while Jim fought back tears of joy.
The cardiologist’s decision to hold off until the last minute so that Jim could experience a full life has paid great dividends. The Polings have eight grandchildren ranging in age from 5 to 25.
He has seen his son, Jim Jr., follow in his journalistic footsteps as the award-winning managing editor of the Hamilton Spectator.
In addition, Jim, now 71, has written a shelf load of books, including biographies of artist Tom Thomson and First Nations hero Tecumseh. His whimsical tales of cottage life, Bears in the Birdfeeders, and Waking Nanabijou, a gripping account of his early life in Northern Ontario, have enjoyed wide readership.
Today, Jim adheres to the philosophy reflected in the first two sentences of his logbook entry written after completion of his initial unaccompanied flight: “First solo — 45 years, five months after being told I would never, ever fly. Never, ever give up on a dream.”