Friday, February 4, 2011

Link O'Day: and My Personal Story

Do you know someone who has had or is facing open heart surgery for heart valve repair or replacement? If so send them to this wonderful online support group for valve replacement recipients and their families:

Watching tonight's Barbara Walters special about open-heart surgery was more interesting than I expected. I got to see what went on in the operating room when I had my heart valve replacement in 2000. I got to see the heart lung machine like the one I was on. They even showed the saw that they use to open your chest and it really does look like a buzz saw. Her scar is similar to mine; in fact anyone having open-heart surgery has the same scar.  After surgery she stayed home for two and a half months. Wow. I was off work for about three weeks. I only missed one teaching day. Barbara had an aortic heart replacement. That is the most common valve-replacement surgery. Mine was the “out” valve, the mitral. Less common. Also, unlike Barbara and Robin Williams, I was not a candidate for a tissue valve. I have an artificial valve made of titanium. I think it is about the size of a nickel with two little flaps. If I am in a quiet place the ticking sound is audible both to me and to others. One day I had been out walking and got on the elevator to go back up to my office. A student looked over and said…is that your watch? Nope, I said, it’s just my heart.

Robin Williams talked about the “brotherhood of the cracked chest,” and he likes to make a big deal of it. Same with Letterman. For them, it is comedic material as well as a life experience. Dave had a quintuple bypass. using arteries from his chest and legs. One thing I related to was when Dave talked about how bad he wanted to get them to take out the breathing tube because I felt the same way.  In fact, Dave’s description of the aftermath of surgery sounds more like mine.  I do remember being in ICU, as does he. He remembers the challenges of getting back on his feet and then taking walks in the hallways. Dave says he is different after surgery.  He also talked about the fact that his problem may return and he may go through the same thing again. Like Dave, I may have to have another surgery though there is no indication at this point. Sometimes the titanium valves just wear out! So if I live quite a few more years that could happen…it’s like the good news and the bad news.

Newsman Charlie Rose had aortic valve surgery, and then four years later while in the Middle East later he had a spell with difficulty breathing. He was flown to France. In Paris he had both mitral and aortic valves replaced. His surgery was 14 hours. Wow. That’s a long time on the heart lung machine. He nearly died. He was in an induced coma for three weeks. Now he is back full force. He expects that at some point he will die a sudden death. This is something I think is possible as well, because I know about valve recipients who did pass this way. If the spare part malfunctions, that’s it! But the truth is, I don’t worry about it. I have already had ten years instead of the two I was told to expect without the surgery. I am very, very lucky…even if I am not a star!

So how am I today? I get breathless climbing stairs or going up steep inclines. Pretty much that’s it; except for a bit of short-term memory loss that I am told comes from being on a heart lung machine for several hours. Since 2000 I have written two books and am working on my third. I have taught travel study classes, taking students to London four times, and also to Canada, Chicago, Ireland, New York City, and Washington DC.

Conclusion…I learned that heart disease affects more women than men. Women have no chest pain. Their number one symptom is fatigue. That was true for me. The first time I went to the doctor for fatigue and shortness of breath I was misdiagnosed. I had to get a lot worse and have my husband insist I go back to the doctor, at which time I saw another doctor since mine was on vacation. He diagnosed me right away. For my own part, I would urge anyone with fatigue, shortness of breath, and/or swelling of extremities. Barbara’s final words were moving. She said her doctor urged her not to put off the surgery. He told her about another woman who had waited. While she was waiting to go in for surgery, she died. Barbara said, “That could have been me.” Like Barbara, I am lucky.

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