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.
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.
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.