Lying on the gurney next to the echocardiogram technician, I watched the images of my heart pumping, the feathery valves opening and closing with the pulsing sound of my own heartbeat. As the technician worked with the instruments to record every side of my heart, including marking various measurements and other activities, he commented more than once about how hard my heart was having to work.
I was struck for the first time about how my life literally depends on how well this tiny pulsing thing, slightly bigger than my fist, works. Obviously, I had always understood that in theory, but now it was in stark focus. I felt equal parts fear and awe, thinking about what now seemed like a very fragile thing. I had always taken it for granted, rarely ever even thought about it. I didn’t have that luxury anymore: I silently asked my heart to forgive me and thanked it for working so hard.
Last February, when my doctor referred me to a cardiologist due to an irregular heartbeat and upon a series of tests, I was diagnosed with a heart condition that my cardiologist said was due to a birth defect. He explained that my condition had slowly worsened over the course of my life and was now approaching severity. I learned new terms: “Persistent atrial fibrillation, mitral regurgitation, tricuspid valve insufficiency, ascending aortic aneurysm.” In plain English: all four of my valves leak, especially the left side of my heart, and I was at high risk for a stroke or heart attack.
My doctor’s treatment plan at the time included starting me on various medications and ongoing monitoring. He said he would repeat some tests every six months to determine whether my heart condition was worsening. At some point he told me I would definitely need surgery, but perhaps they could put it off for a time, provided that there was no significant deterioration. The first of the follow up tests were scheduled in July, which occurred late last week.
The diagnosis? Enough deterioration had occurred since February that my cardiologist recommended we do the surgery now. While the exact date is to be determined after I meet with my surgeons and have a few more tests, it looks like my surgery will be scheduled for October. While he patiently explained all aspects of what would occur, I sat quietly, letting it all sink in.
My first reaction was fear, of course. The thought of my chest being opened up and arguably the most important organ in my body being cut into is not something I can wrap my head around very easily. It took me a few days to work through the shock of it. I was on a roller coaster of emotion, including some depression and sadness. Eventually, however, I started to concentrate on the benefits this surgery would provide and how grateful I was that they caught this before it worsened. I have had fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms for awhile and the doctor said I would no longer have those symptoms after the surgery.
I also have excellent medical care here — obviously, since they found a birth defect I never even knew I had. It could have gone on undetected, causing more damage to my heart, and worse yet, could have resulted in a debilitating stroke or heart attack that could kill or seriously impair me. I feel very fortunate.
It is said that our bodies, especially our vital organs, reflect in physical form an underlying emotional or spiritual condition. I know this borders on the mystical, but I believe it. Of course, how we eat and exercise and genetic factors will contribute to the physical aspects of any condition or disease, but equally, and some even say more affecting is the ability to manage stress, our temperament, environment, and personal choices.
Specifically, I have always known that I feel things very deeply and partly as a result of my difficult and very chaotic childhood, I’ve always been an anxious person. While I have learned to manage it better over the years and it has given me some gifts, such as the motivation to set and achieve goals, work hard at my job and a desire to be the best person I can be, it has a downside. I can also be high strung and edgy, I have a perfectionistic tendency which causes me to be too hard on myself, and I worry far too much about circumstances and the people I care about (most of which falls under the category of “things I have no control over”). All of this is very hard on my body, especially my heart.
These are some of the things I will need to change so as to reduce my stress levels and live a more healthy lifestyle. “My heart issues” are, in other words, certainly wholistic in cause: one part genetic and structural, and one part spiritual. The “mind-body” connection I have almost nonchalantly referred to my entire life has now become real and very serious. But it is also a portal and an opportunity for change that I am very lucky to have.
Most importantly, I have reached out to family and friends, and will continue to, as my relationships are the most important thing to me. I had some very touching conversations with my sons and my daughter (who are my rock), and talks with my sister and other family and friends. My boss has been really supportive and I have family nearby to help when the time comes. All of this gives me strength and courage, just as it always has. For those I have not spoken with yet, it is not because you aren’t important to me, you are. But this seemed the best way for me to get the news out there, so please forgive me while I get my mind around all of this and I will reach out to you soon.
I will also write more in future blog posts, but for now – please wish me luck. (And send a few prayers my way, if you are so inclined). Cheers!