The Best Sound in the World
In 1999, my dad found out that he needed to have his mitral valve repaired. He was 49 at the time and in excellent physical shape. My brothers and I found it somewhat ironic and disheartening that the man who exercised, ate right, was super skinny, and never smoked needed heart surgery. During the testing, the doctors also found blockages in two arteries, so they decided to do a bypass as well, as long as they were in there.
I probably don't need to tell you that open heart surgery is a big deal. That the doctors have to break your breastbone and pry your rib cage open. That your blood actually leaves your body and is oxygenated by a machine. That you wake up on a ventilator feeling worse than if you'd been hit by a truck. We knew all this, were worried about it, and didn't want to think about the things that could go wrong.
The surgeon did the double-bypass and sewed a small plastic ring into the mitral valve to provide the support it was apparently lacking. Dad came through the surgery just fine and his recovery was exactly what you would expect of a man that (relatively) young and fit. Plus, he had Nurse Mom (my mom, not his mom) to look after him. In an amazing bit of timing, my mother had quit her job just a month before they learned about his surgery. (This was the place she worked for nearly 25 years, so it's not like she's the sort of person who runs around quitting jobs. It was the sort of timing that makes you believe that someone has a plan.)
Within three months, Dad was back at work and everything seemed fine. Until about a month later when he found himself breathless when climbing the stairs or walking short distances. His heart and the ring sewn into it were not a love match. The ring had somehow failed or come loose, resulting in a hole in the valve. The hole was causing the blood cells to get battered, leading to their breakdown, which is what was causing the shortness of breath.
My dad always told me that the second parachute jump is always the hardest. No, he wasn't into skydiving - it's a metaphor. The first time you have to do something scary, it can be a little bit exciting or at least interesting. You don't really know the risks or the discomforts you're going to face. Adrenalin carries you into and through the unknown. The second time, you know exactly how hard things are going to be and don't have the same sort of natural chemical assistance to carry you through.
So it was with the second open heart surgery, which was a mere five months after the first. My parents found a different surgeon, one who was able to go in through the side and eliminate the need for the whole cracking-the-sternum thing. My dad had the choice between a mechanical valve and a pig valve. The plus side of the pig valve is that you don't have to take anti-coagulants for the rest of your life. The downside is that the valves have a limited shelf life, so you'll have to do it all over again in about ten years. If you're just coming up on 50 and you might live for another 20 or 30 years, that's a few pig valve surgeries waiting for you. Since my dad was on the young side, he went with the mechanical valve.
So now my dad is like the bionic man. Or at least the man with the bionic heart. (He also got a pacemaker in 2002.) The little flaps of the valve click when they snap open and shut. The result is that my dad ticks, sort of like the alligator in Captain Hook. If he's wearing winter clothes or a business suit, the sound is muffled and you can only just make it out. If he's wearing a t-shirt, it's like sitting next to a clock.
To my family, it's the best sound in the world. He's a tall guy, a bit over 6 feet, so my ear is at just about heart-level. When I hug him, I like to press my ear against his heart and just listen. (More than once, Peter has had to remind me when I hug him that I'm not going to hear what I'm listening for.)
That click-click-click reminds us of what my dad went through and of the great care he got, from the doctors, nurses, and, most of all, Nurse Mom.