Heart surgery

It has been a year since my open heart surgery. It almost took my life to rediscover my desire for it | Andrew Stafford


TThe scar on my chest is seven inches long. At the top of my breastbone, the incision site, it’s white and waxy, slowly fading as it travels south. But the last centimeter is a button of rubbery red keloid tissue – a constant reminder, not that I need it.

It will be a year on Tuesday since I had open heart surgery. I haven’t been quite the same person since; something that I am most deeply grateful for, as much as I am still alive.

Above all, I am calmer. I had been warned of possible depression following the operation. For years, especially over the past decade, I have lived in a constant thrill of anxiety, having at least one very public fit. I have written openly about my mental health over the years.

These days, in comparison, I feel like a Zen master. Not that I would recommend heart surgery as a solution to psychological trauma, but at least it gave me a radical sense of perspective and gratitude, an attitude I wasn’t familiar with before.

Which means I can’t help but ask the question: How much has my psychological well-being been affected by my literally broken heart? I will never know the answer to that question. Only that I didn’t know how sick I was until science and surgery saved me.

It was at the end of January of last year that I was diagnosed with advanced valve disease. Stressed and worried about a delay, I had severe palpitations. I waited for it to pass. It doesn’t: for half an hour, an hour, then 90 minutes, until I have pins and needles in my arms.

It wasn’t until the paramedics wired me up, measuring my heart rate at 173 beats per minute, that it finally and inexplicably reversed. I begged to be allowed to return to my deadline. They held up the receipt spat out by the EKG machine and shook their heads.

Sometimes your real problems aren’t what you think they are.

I’ll spare you the history of the operation and the aftermath, other than to say I’m now walking around with a bovine aortic valve and a repaired mitral valve. The problems were congenital; I didn’t know the flaws until they tried to kill me. Basically my ticker was a time bomb.

Journalist Andrew Stafford after having heart surgery in 2020

The other changes are more interesting. It was a very different kind of existential crisis than what I was used to. I started to reassess my life. I was 49 years old at the time of the surgery; I turned 50 in April: relatively young, but time is no longer a luxury either.

He would be remiss not to mention the little affair of a relationship that fell apart three weeks after returning from the hospital. Once it would have been overwhelming. This time my reaction was a comparative shrug of acceptance – which isn’t to say it didn’t hurt, of course it did – but that was in 2020, afterwards. all. It wasn’t personal.

It’s a cliché but true that you find out who your friends are in these situations. Those who were already close to me rallied. I was also overwhelmed with support from strangers and forged new, unexpected alliances. These people have my love and thanks forever.

Those who were less present, again, only reminded me of my own past failures; the times when I had let others down, because I was too distracted or self-centered or simply unable to give of myself as I wanted, because my own life was messy enough.

So I found forgiveness. I have always been hard on myself. Now I realize how hard I had been on others too. It was all good life, and humans being humans: beautifully multidimensional, unbelievably incoherent. I was no different.

Little by little, I got back to work. The surgeon told me I would feel like Superman in a month and he was right. I felt ecstatic, like I was on an oxygen plane after years of deprivation. It probably cushioned me to some extent against the blow of the breakup as well.

In November, however, I was battling what was probably post-infusion syndrome, or pump head. I felt cloudy and vague, and had difficulty processing complex information. The fog still hasn’t quite dissipated. Writing this is difficult; everything takes longer than before.

But even if we’re running out of time – all of us – I don’t mind taking mine. Every second is a second chance. The future always fills me with existential terror but, without my own children to protect, I try to protect myself as best I can. I find fleeting moments of joy everywhere.

I used to be drawn to extremes, especially musical ones (my aesthetic could be summed up by a quote from Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, later adapted by Motörhead: everything is louder than everything else). Now, with everyone screaming, I’m digging the quiet time.

Above all, I am grateful to live in a country where, in the midst of a global pandemic, I was admitted to one of the best heart hospitals in the country, under the care of a brilliant surgeon and medical team. , and I walked away with a $ 74 drug bill.

I am outrageously lucky. The chance of my good fortune is never lost on me. And yet, I almost ruined my own life more than once. I almost had to take it off to regain my desire to love it.

Sometimes I think I should remove the keloid part of my scar. It often itches, especially under restrictive clothing, and continues to grow. But it’s also a badge of honor, a part of me that it would be wrong to cut or burn. Maybe I need to be called back after all.


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