The hard part
“You don’t look like someone who has your condition,” my doctor told me. “My patients who share your severity aren’t moving very much, or very well.”
That was a week ago and I’m still trying to process that.
I have stenosis of the aortic valve — a heart murmur. My valve, which controls blood flow from the heart to the the rest of my body, increasingly narrows over time and forces the heart to pump much harder to get the blood out to my body. Using a stethoscope, I’ve heard my murmur. It gives off a “whoosh” with every beat. A normal, healthy person’s valve may open four centimeters. Mine is down to one and my cardiologist projects that to be .8 in a matter of months. By then it’ll be time to do something about it.
We wait because the procedure has a higher risk at this stage than leaving it alone. I’m told that right now my chances of dropping dead from a stroke or heart attack is about .1%. The procedure’s risk is at 1%-2%, and as slight as that may seem, this isn’t Vegas odds, or some free-throw shooting contest where making 98% is lights out. Those percentages represent a 10 to 20 times greater risk and no surgeon would take that risk on a body that shows no real symptoms.
Except I kind of do. From time to time I do feel a weight or heaviness on my chest that is hard to describe. It has always gone away, but my mind is a tizzy: Is this going away, is it worse than before, will it get worse than it is now, should I tell somebody, because I’m not the type that does, nor am I ever the type to worry my wife or a loved one unnecessarily. I mean, my wife and I have hiked for 3–4 miles at high altitude and I’ve felt nothing, and yet I may lie in bed in the wee hours and get that feeling. But I sleep on my left side (my right shoulder is frozen so I can’t sleep on that side for long) and that can cause discomfort from the open-heart surgery I had 4 years ago. It’s so hard to tell, that “is this feeling something to ignore from something to not ignore?” especially when the stakes are too high to guess wrong.
My dad died of heart disease at 62 and my brother, who was six years older, had heart disease and died of pancreatic cancer at 63. I’m 66 and there’s some moment in nearly everyday that I don’t wonder if I’ll be next, especially during the wee hours staring at the dark ceiling as if my future is in there, yet finding a comfort in sensing my heart beating and hearing the relaxed breathing of my wife next to me.
A CAT scan today will determine whether the surgeon can go through an artery in my groin to replace the defective valve or if the team will have to cut through my chest. I’ve had to hope for the best and prepare for the worst before, when I underwent a triple bypass and a procedure to repair an aneurism in my ascending aorta. Like I said, that was four years ago.
I get the results in about a week. I’ve been through it before. And my wife, too. The waiting, that is. That’s the hard part.