Last night, I posted the following status update on my Facebook page:
9 years ago, I had never spent a day in a hospital. Nine years ago this evening, I was having my "last meal" with my dear wife Allyne in a Falls Church, Va. hotel knowing I would have to be at the hospital at dawn to have my chest cracked open. Nine years ago tomorrow morning, I was being wheeled into an operating room, only to awaken in the ICU five hours later hearing a nurse saying my oxygen intake was alarmingly low. Nine years later, I am giving thanks to God and his angels at Inova Fairfax for a mended heart that has enabled me not just to continue functioning but to experience boundless joy with my family. These have been nine great years. I pray that somehow I may be worthy of such a rich blessing.
Last time I checked, I had something like three dozen kind responses from family and friends, many of them wonderful heart buddies (as I call them) who themselves have been through the life-saving and life-altering experience of open-heart surgery. They are as good as any friends could possibly be, even though many are folks I have never met in person, finding them instead through a wonderful website called ValveReplacement.org. It is primarily an online support mechanism for people who specifically had to have a valve replaced or repaired as part of their heart surgery. I also have been making new heart buddies in person since becoming part of Grand Strand Mended Hearts after moving to South Carolina. I am currently privileged to serve as president of this organization, which attempts to provide reassurance and information to heart patients before and after their own surgeries. It is a chance to give back in some small way for all I have been given.
Memories are a big part of my re-birthday. I remember a Richmond internist telling me when I was in my mid-20s that he detected a heart murmur and that I had significant aortic regurgitation that someday would have to be taken care of surgically. (Valve replacement was in its infancy then.) I remember at age 63 (by then working in a stress-filled Inside-the-Beltway existence) visiting a great cardiologist of Cambodian descent ("Dr. Siri" for short) who, after an echocardiogram and an aborted stress test, gave me a graphic lowdown on the kind of complicated surgery I needed for both an enlarged aortic root (aneurysm) and an extremely leaky aortic valve. I remember Dr. Siri telling me there was a great surgeon at Inova Fairfax -- Dr. Alan Speir -- who could do expertly in five hours this complex procedure that takes lesser surgeons 11 or more hours to accomplish. (Time is of the essence; you do not want to be in limbo on a heart-lung machine any longer than absolutely necessary.) I remember Dr. Speir patiently telling me about all the options for biological or mechanical valves, and then (gulp!) leaving it to me to choose which I wanted. I did tons of research and he and his staff complimented me on my choice of the Medtronic Freestyle Aortic Root Heart Valve (stentless, porcine).
Other memories flood my consciousness: As I mentioned in my Facebook post, dinner with a worried wife Allyne the night before in a jovial sports-bar setting, trying not to dwell on what was coming early the next morning; my 6-foot-5 son Bobby wearing my brightest-red St. Louis Cardinals' jacket and standing over me as I was being prepped for surgery; and my daughter Kristina organizing my meds with care for me when I returned from the hospital -- a task I was much too foggy to do reliably. Also, as I began to awaken in the ICU, I heard an attending nurse say that my oxygen intake was alarmingly low. It was reassuring to have such attentive and knowledgeable staff. All the way up to Day Five of my post-op stay at the hospital, when I had to do repeated laps around the nurses' station, the nurses made sure that my lazy lungs had awakened enough for them to be sure I could be safely released.
Oh yes, another good memory is of a volunteer for Mended Hearts visiting one day at the hospital and giving me a special pillow I could hug in case I felt a sneeze coming on. (Believe me, you need that kind of cushion when your sternum is tender and just starting to heal.) I resolved that someday I would return that kindness, and thanks to Mended Hearts I am now trying to do that in South Carolina.
Tomorrow morning, I will make my hospital rounds to visit with heart patients. If I am lucky, I will encounter again at least one who is facing an operation similar to mine. It is always refreshing to see faces filled with worry light up with hope when they understand that others have walked this path across the mountain and are now living a good life on the other side. Of course, one can offer reassurance to folks facing any kind of heart procedures for even the minor ones can be scary to contemplate.
Sooner or later, we all must come to terms with our own mortality. I did a lot of soul-searching nine years ago, and more since. As a hospital volunteer, it is my job to offer comfort and support for the here and now, not a spiritual message for the afterlife. We are not chaplains. Nevertheless, this is how I concluded my personal story on our local website, www.mendedhearts117.org:
Going through heart surgery gives us a sense of our own mortality. We know that all earthly trails eventually have an end point, but we are stronger for that realization. We rejoice in our many blessings of the day and have faith that there will come a renewal of eternal trails of incredible beauty and tranquility where we will be happily reunited with all our loved ones.
So now it is time to head out under a bright blue sky with my dog Sadie to enjoy the blessings of this day, my re-birthday.
© Robert G. Holland 2014
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