Re-springing Your Step – Tell us about the last experience you had that left you feeling fresh, energized, and rejuvenated. What was it that had such a positive effect on you?
It was just about a year ago when I discovered the heart murmur I’d had since early childhood was not just noise. It was a badly damaged mitral valve, and the aortic valve was in trouble, too. The heart muscle, trying to compensate for the inefficient mitral valve, had grown huge, trying to push blood through the ventricle. The muscle was so oversized, it was blocking the valve. I wasn’t getting oxygen.
I was having trouble breathing. I was pale, weak. And I didn’t think much of it. Heart problems don’t manifest dramatically. They creep up on you. You are tired. You do less. You avoid stairs, limit activity.
I believed my heart was the one organ I didn’t need to worry about. I ascribed all my symptoms to other conditions. Asthma. After-effects of cancer. Arthritis. Bursitis. Other stuff.
When one has many overlapping medical conditions, it’s easy to assume whatever is going on, is probably one of them. It will pass, I told myself.
The local “doctor” colluded with me in pretending everything was hunky dory. I’d been getting an EKG every year. Every year, they told me “you’re FINE.” I took it at face value, a gift horse. I wasn’t about to examine its teeth.
My supposed cardiologist showed no interest and even less alarm, at my situation. He didn’t have time to see me personally. Dr. Brownstein — a very busy man I was assured and my so-called cardiologist of record — never actually saw me. He sent me to his young nurse practitioner to pass along messages, omitting to mention the cardio myopathy in the left ventricle. At that point, no one suspected I also needed a bypass for a clogged artery. No one ran any tests.
Dr Brownstein when I finally saw him — 6 months after it was determined my mitral valve was failing — said I should wait until my heart completely failed, then deal with it. He said — this is a quote — “You can manage with a bad valve for years.” Big happy smile. The asshole.
I was coming out of my self-induced fugue state. I went online and searched for surgeons specializing in minimally invasive repair of mitral valves. I knew, from reading about it, that the best course was always to repair ones own “original equipment.” Not always possible, but always worth trying. If it didn’t work, the surgeon would use a replacement valve — fashioned from the tissue of a pig or cow — or a mechanical valve.
I didn’t want a mechanical valve because they require a lifetime of blood thinners. Also, my first husband died of complications following implantation of a mechanical mitral valve. Bad history.
I found a doctor. An excellent cardiac surgeon. He ran tests, including an expanded EKG. It showed the mitral valve to be in very poor shape, but he though there was a slight chance he could save it. As for the aortic valve and the big muscle blocking it, he’d carve that out. He was sure he could save the aortic valve.
Heart surgeons cover emergencies and Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston is a premier cardiac facility, so patients come from everywhere. I was rescheduled four times before my number came up. Finally, I was in the hospital. More tests. Intrusive nasty tests. They didn’t give me nearly enough drugs. There are things I’d rather not remember.
Finally, D-Day. They opened me up. It was evident the tests hadn’t told the whole story. The mitral valve was not working at all and there was almost no blood passing through the aortic valve, either. How I was managing to survive was an interesting question. And I needed a bypass. And some other stuff.
The surgery lasted almost 8 hours and they kept me in a medical coma for 48 hours afterwards. If you think you can’t feel pain when you are in a medically induced coma, you’re wrong. You can feel pain just fine. You just can’t do anything about it. I was hurting. But it was a very fine hospital and at no point did I feel anything but safe and protected. These people had me. Never was there a moment when I felt in danger, even if I was. After determining my heart would not beat on its own, I had one final surgery to implant the pacemaker.
I got home at the beginning of April. I was a physical and emotional mess. Over the weeks and months, I sorted it out. Pain eased off slowly. The the 6-month mark passed and my breast bone was not healed. Now, at almost a year …. it’s close. It doesn’t grind as much.
More important, the spring is coming back. It’s a tiny spring. I’ve had cortisone shots in my hips and walk better. My back is the same. It can’t get better, but applications of heat and gentle exercise might keep it from getting worse. I’m beginning to feel like someone I know.
So, what put the spring back in my step? Heart surgery and lots of it. A mitral valve replacement. Cardiomyectomy and aortic valve repair. Cardiac bypass. A pacemaker. Two big shots of cortisone in my hips and a year of healing.
Everything isn’t perfect. I’ve got so many replacement parts, it’s funny. Two breast implants, a pacemaker, something else in there that works with the pacemaker, and of course, a replacement mitral valve. And each piece has a serial number. I carry a wallet full of cards with all the serial numbers.
That’s what brought a semblance of spring to my step. Not quite like the spring of youth, but I can walk, climb a few stairs. That’s something. That’s a lot of something.