In our latest interview from the Naked Series, we sit down with Park Llafet to discuss prosthetics, compassion and the challenge of accepting death (over whiskey, of course.)
JACY: Okay, when you’re ready I’m going to have you stand back as far as you can.
PARK: ...I’m going to have a drink first.
JACY: Fair enough. Cheers! (clink drinks)
Alright - start off by telling me a little about your heart.
PARK: Well, three years ago I had a heart attack... No chest pain. No tingling down the left arm. No falling to the floor in a dramatic fashion... But I was unable to breathe.
They admitted me to the hospital and after about ten days they said 'it’s time to get up' and I couldn’t walk.
It was absolutely horrible.
PARK: One day you’re doing fine. One day you’re driving - you’re mowing the lawn - and the next day you’re in the hospital and all of a sudden you’re totally helpless.
So after I had a stroke I started rehab. They’d put me in a harness and strap me to this thing on the ceiling and walking was my big goal. I wanted to get into that contraption and I wanted to walk... And it’s interesting how life works because one day one of the families in the hospital had brought their baby and here I am struggling to walk while I’m watching this little baby and what is she doing? She’s walking.
She’s falling down, she’s getting back up, she’s falling down, but she’s walking.
It was a really a cool day when I was finally able to take those steps but I don’t think we talk about the falling down enough.
So anyways - early January 2017 I had this brace on my foot and it was wearing in a way that a wound had opened up on my big toe. The Podiatrist looked at it and said ‘We need to take your toe’ and that was the beginning of it all (both laugh.)
PARK: They love to cut things, Jacy. They really do. And the doctor said ‘Don’t worry, it’s just cosmetic.’
PARK: Well everyone thinks the big toe is for balance - it really isn’t. And so it is cosmetic to some degree. So we took the toe off. But then the foot wasn’t healing, so he told me we we’re going to do a transmet which means they cut all the toes off.
JACY: So this was the first physical alteration to your body that you could see, yes?
JACY: How did you handle that?
PARK: When you’re sitting in the hospital and your foot is all bandaged up, you’re okay. But then the doctor says ‘we need to see how it looks.’ And what’s the scariest part in a movie?
JACY: When they un-bandage it?
PARK: When the man whose been horribly disfigured and wrapped in bandages the whole film is finally unveiled. That's the scariest part. Not so much the cutting.
It’s emotional because you’ve lost a part of yourself. Looking down at my leg in the hospital when it was bandaged I could see that there’s no foot there - but it was all wrapped up. When the surgeon was unwrapping it...
PARK: That’s when I cried. That’s when I cried a lot.
I think that there may be some parallel to life in that whenever we unwrap something that has been altered- your soul is laid bare and it’s emotional because at your simplest core you realize you’re just a human.
PARK: At one point my heart was so weak they didn’t think I would live. Every time I went to sleep we didn’t know if I was going to wake up.
So they tell you to plan. To get things in order and so I did. We planned my funeral.
I started to consider - Do I want to be buried? Do I want to be cremated? We started picking the music - all of that. It’s a very surreal experience.
JACY: Now in a perfect world… One would leave this life having made peace with death. But in reality that’s a difficult thing to force yourself to feel when handed a deadline. Do you feel you were able to make peace?
PARK: No, I really did. The hardest thing wasn’t accepting that I was going to die. You die and it’s done. It’s knowing what you leave behind that’s difficult to accept. That I won’t be there to see my children graduate or get married. Or possibly have children of their own. That’s what’s hard. It’s wondering how they are going to continue on after I’m gone and will they be okay. But for myself, I made peace. I really did.
JACY: What’s it like to be told you're going to die and then live?
PARK: It feels like a second chance, it really does.
JACY: Wow. And what was the hardest part in the process of healing?
PARK: Well after the amputation it’s not like you can just get up and walk. So you’re basically in bed rest for three months. You ever watch Ground Hog’s day?
PARK: What was so difficult about Ground Hog’s day?
JACY: Every day was the same and happened over and over.
I was in this big room with no windows. My wife had to go to work; everybody was gone. And loneliness.. It’s a huge deal. I think tons of people are lonely. You start to feel incarcerated because in a sense - you are. I couldn't walk… There was an alarm on my bed…
You know something that’s really cool about hospitals is they have like a big refrigerator for warming all the blankets. During a real low point there was a day where it was sunny outside and I asked a nurse for some warm blankets and to wheel me over towards a sunny spot in the hall and I had a real ‘ah-ha’ moment.
You know here I am with hot tea, a warm blanket, sunlight on my face and I just thought- what the hell are you complaining about? You’re warm and you’re safe.
How many people are living on the streets with mental illness, or tormented by similar health issues except with no warmth, no security. It makes you shut the fuck up. When I start to complain I take myself back to that.
JACY: What would you say is the biggest thing you’ve learned from this whole experience?
PARK: To extend grace to everybody.
Just because I’m a heart attack survivor doesn’t give me the license to look down on the pain of others. No one has the market on bad health. I think you also value life incredibly more and realize that you’re only given one day. You’re only given one day. That’s hard for people to think about.
You don’t know what it means to live one day at a time until you come face to face with dying.
PARK: You also realize the fragility of life and that you can make a difference while you’re here. You don’t have to be the President of the United States to do something. You can just be Park. Sitting in your little community on a non-profit board helping kids to have a good life. Who cares about being President? Ask yourself what you’re doing for your community.
I get really passionate about that. Whatever we can do as individuals to help children receive an education and find a way out of poverty- we need to do it. Even if you can only read to a child for thirty minutes. Deep down they remember and that kindness is huge. So that's what drives me. I want to build something. Not just for my kids but for others.