The 25 Year Warranty

The 25 Year Warranty

It’s hard to explain the fear. There was anger, too. Why didn’t anyone tell me this would be an issue? I was born with a heart defect. It wasn’t clearly explained to me until I was thirty-six. My parents told me it was simply a “hole in my heart.” My brothers apparently had these ‘holes’ as well. Eventually, theirs went away. 

But mine? 

I’d have to “keep an eye on it.” 

Looking back, the uncertainty in this explanation makes me mad. Crazy. 

I was a fairly heavy smoker. I had my first cigarette under the bleachers at a high school football game at age 12. It was okay. I didn’t cough. My friends were impressed. From then on, I smoked regularly. At some points, up to a pack a day. And so, in the spring of 2013, I got my annual sinus infection. I didn’t let it slow me down. I was used to spitting green mucus from my inflamed and congested lungs. But this time, I had cramping feeling behind my rib cage. It felt like a runner’s cramp, but it wasn’t always there. It would… “pinch” randomly, causing me to make a grunting sound. It wasn’t unbearable. It was most annoying. My girlfriend noted the pain and requested that if it didn’t stop by the week’s end, I’d have to go to the Doctor. 

One chilly spring day, I worked with a friend to install a new front porch railing at my house. It was the end of the week. My phantom “pain” was getting more intense. I went to the urgent care in North Canton, where I lived at the time. They conducted an MRI. I was sure it was nothing and believed I had to go through the motions to satisfy my girlfriend. 

I recall waiting for a long time after the test. There was no nurse update. No knocks at the door for quite a while. Then, the doctor came in and looked worried. He explained that he had other doctors looking at the MRI results to determine whether I should be taken in for emergency heart surgery. 

I felt nothing. I believed there had to be a mistake. He was kidding, right? The pain was under my right rib, far away from my heart. 

The good news, he pointed out, was that the pain I was feeling was simply pleurisy, swelling of the tissue between the lung and rib cage. It could be treated with prescription-strength ibuprofen. 

The doctors also saw that an aneurysm had formed on my aorta. Deliberations were held to review the size of the aneurysm and determine if there was a danger of aortic dissection based on other factors. This is the bursting of the aneurysm in which the heart essentially pumps blood into the chest cavity, and death typically occurs in seconds. 

Though a smoker, I ran regularly and was active at this time. I was on my feet all day, and generally, my life made good use of my heart. 

The doctors’ deliberations ended and determined that I had not reached the critical range where surgery would be needed. But eventually, I would. I’d have to monitor the size of the aneurysm at least every six months. 

I was relieved for the short term, but I had questions. 

Why didn’t the “hole in my heart” go away?

Why were there no side effects?

How come I didn’t feel it?

How come my parents didn’t know?

When would I have to get surgery?

What was that like?

Would they have to cut through my sternum?

What would the doctors do to fix it?

Along the way, I came to understand the cause of the aneurysm. The aorta is a high-pressure valve that carries blood to the whole body. Generally, it’s a pretty hardy vessel. I was born with a bicuspid aortic valve. In my humble understanding, this means that the valve should close off from the heart with three “flaps.” My valve only had two. So this caused the valve to not close all the way, and the blood pumps continuously and with more pressure than a normal valve. Ergo, a bulging or aneurysm can occur. The operation would solve the problem by installing a new valve and grafting the aorta where the bulge had been. 

John Ritter, Albert Einstein, and Alan Thicke…what do they all have in common? They all died of complications from an aneurysm. I also learned that it was the 13th leading cause of death. I don’t know if that’s still true. 

I watched the condition closely. I graduated from grad school, got promoted, married, and lived on. In January 2017, at 36 years old (immaturity-wise as well as age-wise), my doctor commented that I should get the surgery done before I was 40. And so, I booked the surgery for June 12th, 2017. I spent the next six months coming to the realization that this may change the nature of my life. I made a bucket list just in case and completed each item. 

On the day of the surgery, it still hadn’t fully clicked. I was shaved by the nurses, and my wife and her family were there to comfort me. I was wheeled outside the OR in the cold hallway before the operation to contemplate my abundant life. 

I woke up. 

My first two thoughts were, “why haven’t I spent more time outdoors, hiking?” And “I want to see a giraffe…”

I was uncomfortable, but there was no pain. Just…tenderness.

On the first day, they asked me to get up and go for a walk. I was excited because I felt I was recovering quickly. (I know, it was the first day.) But I was out of breath after just one step when I got up. I can’t explain how scary this was. At this point, I didn’t have dreams of being an ultramarathoner. But I did run regularly. I ran seven miles the day before the surgery, and the day after, I couldn’t walk more than a step.

I was truly scared. As a matter of fact, all of my emotions were off the charts. I hid tears from my wife when I saw on the news that a senator had been shot and was in surgery, barely holding on. And, when an apartment building in Europe burnt down, most of its inhabitants were still inside. These news stories from this time will forever be in my heart.

Then I got a chance to speak with people from the On-X company who made the artificial valve used in the surgery. They thanked me and referred me to a “twenty-five-year warranty.”

I did the math…I’d be 61.

Huh.

Perhaps it was my heightened emotional state or something else. But it felt like it wasn’t… over. And that it never really would be. On top of that, no one told me how loud it would be! I sounded like a ticking clock…ALL THE TIME! I took comfort in the warm feeling that I’d have my wife with me the next time I went through this. In coping with the fear, I’d fall asleep beneath the blanket of this fear each night. 

When I got home, I had to defeat my first enemy. I couldn’t accept the fact of being immobile. So I walked. At first, it was just to the end of the driveway. But it extended to the end of the street, then to the park, and then for hours and hours each day. Until one day, I just started running again. 

Once I healed and ran several marathons, I asked for the toughest assignment at work to prove my promotion-worthiness.

I got it.

It caused the end of my marriage, a deep depression, an inability to leave an abusive relationship, and eventually a spiritual awakening and rebirth. 

And here we are.

I’ve come a long way. I’m grateful for the experience. It woke me up and caused me to question, grow, to reach for authenticity.

But another thought crossed my mind for the first time a year or so ago…

What would I do if I knew I only had 25 years to live?

How would the constraint add meaning to my life? How would it motivate me to act differently than before? What kind of life would I create? How would it make me better? Worse? What did I really want to do with my time on earth? What was it that really mattered?

And here I am.

It’s been more than five years since the surgery. I’ve got some time left.

This blog seeks to log this journey and how it is different now that I literally hear the clock ticking… to the expiration of my 25-year warranty on my heart valve on June 12th, 2042.

BOOKCLUB: Breath, by James Nestor

BOOKCLUB: Breath, by James Nestor

At some point, I became aware that the main benefit I received from yoga was the breathing. The Ujayiithe champion’s breath – is my favorite. I do it most of the day, especially when working on tasks. I’ve wondered if this is the most important thing I’ve learned in my practice. James Nestor seems to have had a similar question as is evident by his 2020 offering Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. The book was NPR’s Book of the Year1 and notes Nestor’s journey to discover how breathing impacts our health and well-being. What he discovered is beautiful, terrifying, and all too useful.

Nestor’s Experiment

In the book, Nestor explains how he had a doctor plug his nose with silicone forcing him to breathe only through his mouth for ten days. There were ethical concerns with the experiment and so Nestor both conducted and funded the experiment himself having just one other participant. He recorded several items influenced by mouth-only breathing. His blood pressure skyrocketed, and he began to snore and experience sleep apnea. The quality of sleep was dramatically affected. He experienced dry mouth and felt physically drained.

Nestor reported that recovery after workouts was terrible. The experience was reportedly far worse than he expected. He experienced extreme irritability and anxiety. Nestor questioned his reasons for doing the experiment before the end. Towards the end, Nestor began to get a serious sinus infection caused by the blocked nasal passageways.

The second part of the experiment involved breathing only through the nose. An experience much more pleasant than the first.

Humans Are Terrible Breathers

It is speculated that 25-50% of the population breathes only through the mouth. Sixty to seventy percent of the population mouth-breath while sleeping.

Especially early in life, mouth-breathing impacts the structure of the face. Mouth breathing can cause an elongation of the face, crooked teeth, and swelling of the tonsils. It is speculated that this issue may be predominantly caused by our modern eating of ever softer foods. Ancient human skulls support this theory due to their proportion of mouth-to-face size and straight teeth. Humans are the only animals in the animal kingdom to have misaligned jaws and crooked teeth.

Along with softening food, this phenomenon is due to the enlargement of our brains. The development of the brain is put in higher priority than our ability to breathe.

Benefits of Nasal Breathing

The nose filters, cleans, heats, and moistens the air allowing us to absorb 20% more oxygen than when inhaling through the mouth. The nose plays a role in erectile dysfunction, triggering hormones and neurochemicals lowering blood pressure. The nose can ease digestion, react to a woman’s menstrual cycle, regulate heart rate, store memories, and control blood vessel dilation.

The nose is more connected to the genitals than any other organ. The right nostril appears to be an accelerant. Breathing through the right nostril increases circulation and body temperature rises in activation of the sympathetic nervous system – fight or flight. The right nostril will increase blood flow to the left side of the brain, increasing the ability to solve problems, conduct logic, and perceive language. The left nostril is a decelerant working opposite the right nostril. This nostril activates the parasympathetic nervous system causing rest, relaxation, and digestion. The blood flow is increased in the right hemisphere impacting abstract thought, creativity, and negative emotion.

Nasal breathing causes the sinuses to release nitric oxide, dilating and flushing the blood vessels resulting in more oxygen getting to cells.

Typically when there is nasal blockage it is possible to train your nasal passageways to allow more air to pass through. Nasal dilators are sometimes helpful in this retraining of nasal airways.

Nasal breathing during sleep causes the body to release vasopressin, a hormone that regulates kidney function. This will prevent waking up late at night to urinate and further, will help prevent losing too much water causing dehydration while sleeping.

Many doctors have their patients tape their mouths shut while sleeping in order to force nasal breathing in a practice called “mouth taping”.

Nasal breathing while exercising can actually lessen the number of breaths necessary during extreme physical activity. One study highlighted an athlete going from 47 mouth breaths to 14 nasal breaths while maintaining the same heart rate. The participants reported feeling invigorated while nasal breathing and exhausted while mouth breathing.

Criticism

Critics of Nestor’s book warn that “mouth taping” is riskier than reported. There is some chance of suffocation. And even though it is mentioned in the book, nasal breathing is not always a cure for sleep apnea as is sometimes reported by those citing or reading the book.2

Other criticism points out that the conclusions that he draws are a bit beyond what the research may point towards. The “experiment”, though backed by scientific data remains almost an “n of one” study.

My Take

Simply said, focusing on breathing and realizing the power of nasal breathing can have an enormous impact on well-being. I have spent a lot of time in the past six months doing yoga and working with nasal breathing. I’ve noticed a big difference in my well-being. Specifically, I ran two half marathons both at PR paces. I considered what happened as I did not focus on training as much as I had in the past. I believe what made the difference was increased lung capacity and nasal breathing during the races. This idea actually led me to this book. My experience is very similar to that of Nestor’s.

What’s your experience with nasal breathing?

References

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/50-notable-works-of-nonfiction-in-2020/2020/11/16/37f4c4de-2069-11eb-b532-05c751cd5dc2_story.html
  2. Nestor, J., 2020. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. 1st ed. Riverhead Books.
  3. https://sleepreviewmag.com/sleep-health/sleep-whole-body/lungs/breath-james-nestor-sleep-medicine/

Zoe and the Brain in Love

Zoe and the Brain in Love

Humanity is lonely and heartbroken. Technology attempts to solve these issues.

Recently, I watched the 2018 movie, Zoe on Prime Video. The movie depicts a synthetic human companion (Zoe) who falls in love with her creator, Cole, played by Ewan McGregor. Cole ends up falling for Zoe as well. However, he grapples with the idea that she is not, in fact, human. The story is well done in its nuanced depiction of the complexities of human relationships. Although there is some understandable criticism on certain aspects of the film, I will not address them here. I am surprised that I have not heard of the movie until this point. Even though cliched, the “what ifs” of AI and the potential of creating synthetic humans still hold some promising landscapes to be explored. This movie is an example.

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Awakening From The Meaning Crisis

Awakening From The Meaning Crisis

I discovered John Vervake on the Jordan B. Peterson Podcast. He appeared very passionate about his knowledge and demonstrated this in his expression. I didn’t immediately dive in to learn more, but I did get a recommendation for the YouTube algorithm (I know, I know…they scanned my brain) on a video series entitled Awakening From The Meaning Crisis.

In The Meaning Crisis, Vervake traces the roots back to key idea leaders, societal developments and trends, philosophical ideas, religious institutions, psychological themes, and more, attempting to uncover how we arrived in the current state of the meaning crisis. In fifty-plus videos, Vervake explores a lot of territories. He poses ideas such as we should not limit what we believe to what we know. 

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Nine Perfect Strangers

Nine Perfect Strangers

The new show, Nine Perfect Strangers, is now streaming its fourth episode on Hulu. The show is based on the 2018 book of the same name, by Lian Moriarty.

The show centers around a group of people attending a high-end wellness resort named Tranquilium, for a ten-day retreat. The resort is headed by a Russian woman named Masha (Nicole Kidman). In a former life, she was a driven, ruthless, CEO until she was shot and robbed in a parking garage. The paramedic that saved her, Yao, is her partner at Tranquilium.

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