Friday, January 12, 2018

happy birthday heart valves

A romantic soap stone heart and an organically correct tin heart. I also have an embroidered heart, a heart pillow, cards with hearts. Memories of visits in the hospital--a couple from friends who had deep-seated personal experiences that made them loathe to step into hospital, and yet they made their way to the ICU while I was still bloated with anaesthetic, for which I will always be grateful. I have a particular paranoia about lying unseen and untouched while unconscious, and I don't want R to have to deal with that alone. I told my friends and they came.

Six years ago today my ribs were sawed open--sure, I asked to see the saw--and my heart was stopped and attached to a pump so that two artificial valves could replace my valves that were no longer functional because they were thick with rheumatic scar tissue.

I wasn't afraid of the surgery but I was existentially FREAKED OUT about having my heart stopped. Would I still be the same person? Was my "soul" going to be altered? Rationally, these were all silly questions. I don't believe in souls per se. But... my heart! I must have studied too much medieval literature once upon a time. I had this idea my heart was still somehow the centre of my being. True, it is the engine that keeps us breathing and moving. We don't get far without a heart.

The surgery itself went well. My heart was stopped and started again. The mechanical valves clack like castanets inside the cabinet of my ribs. Since one opens and closes with the ingoing blood, and the other with the outgoing blood, I get two clacks per heartbeat which sounds like my heart beats twice as fast as normal. I've gotten used to the speed. When I hear the magnified sound of a normal heartbeat, for example, it sounds way too slow. Like the person might die any moment. Although a normal heart does have a lovely organic sound--flesh and blood pumping. Mine now sounds like a machine. I've more or less adjusted to the loudness of the clacking. What choice do I have? There are some funny stories of how people have tried to muffle the sound of their valves with padding so they can sleep. I tried a wave machine and rain falling. I count in Spanish along with the beat. I remind myself I have two spanking new valves that will apparently function for 50,000 years! How can a surgeon tell you this with a perfectly straight face? It leaves me with an image of myself dissolved to ashes and dust and my valves still clacking.

I don't know how much a cardiac surgeon's time and labour are worth, the cost of an operating room and a heart-lung pump, and a respirator, and the heaps of gauze and equipment and saline solution and all the other attendant doctors, but I priced the valves at the time of the surgery. Each cost about $7,000 US. I quote US dollars because the valves were manufactured in the US, so that's where the figures are available. I live in Canada where we have socialized medicare, so I did not pay for them. 

Here's an aortic valve. I have one of these as well as a mitral valve. Some people show off their new cars. Me, I've got anatomical hardware complete with warranty and servicing agreement. (Servicing includes dental hygiene, blood thinner, bi-monthly blood tests.)

My quality of life has improved significantly. More than significantly since I would be dead without the new valves. I walk every day, I cycle, I hike, I snowshoe. I've been told I can jog but I don't because I don't want to.

I am fortunate that among the many things that can happen to the human body I had something that could be dealt with. I am fortunate that I live in Canada where I've had access to stellar medical treatment.

I have other cardiac abnormalities, which are also a result of having had rheumatic fever, but medication gets adjusted every now and then, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm fine.

Happy Anniversary valves! The sound of your incessant clacking is the sound of me being alive, so... Keep clacking!

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