Saturday, May 17, 2008

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.


At 17 May 2008 at 08:37, Blogger Babaloo said...

"my Dad ticks", I had to laugh at that. Although it's certainly no laughing matter. Wow, he's been through a lot of operations. Hope he keeps ticking for a long time! :-)

At 17 May 2008 at 09:37, Anonymous Anonymous said...

beautiful! My dad is no longer with us, but you've brought back all of the memories of holding him tight- although he didn't tick, so it was a somewhat quieter experience...

At 17 May 2008 at 12:54, Blogger laurie said...

what a lovely post. filled with love. and soon you will be hugging him!

i'm reading blake morrison's memoir of his father. after his father died, he asked if he could keep the pacemaker.

(they have to remove them before cremation anyway.)

it was rather strange, but very sweet.

At 18 May 2008 at 02:06, Blogger Kaycie said...

Such a nice post. I bet you're getting excited for your family to arrive.

At 18 May 2008 at 04:15, Blogger Noortje said...

Thank goodness your Dad ticks! I would hug him extra hard for that. Fathers are such lovely people to hug too. So solid and strong and always bigger than we are. Somehow that feels good.

At 18 May 2008 at 04:55, Blogger -Ann said...

Babaloo - It sort of is now. I hope he keeps ticking a long time too!

Anon - Thank you. I imagine that in the future, when my dad's gone, loud clocks will always make me a little bit sad and happy, that weird combination when you think about a lost loved one.

Laurie - Thanks. My dad's a bit anti-cremation, but I wish I'd thought to ask for Nana Anna's pacemaker. (My own tonsils are still in a jar in my parents basement - I'm a little weird like that.)

Kaycie - Thanks. I've been so busy, I've not been able to get too excited. I'm sure I won't be able to sleep tonight. :)

Noortje - That's an excellent description. My dad is bigger than me, but since he's skinny and I'm strong for a girl, I can lift him off the ground. Not far, but it amuses me to do it.

At 19 May 2008 at 02:47, Blogger Cynthia said...

My father in law ticks also.

But they recalled his valve and he has had some problems.

Each surgery they do seem to improve the methods, though.

At 19 May 2008 at 20:01, Blogger wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

I have enjoyed both these posts about your parents. Both are so well written.

At 22 May 2008 at 18:43, Blogger Fianna said...

What a wonderful post. Beautiful.

At 23 May 2008 at 18:53, Blogger Terri said...

A ticking Dad - Cool! ;-)
My husband has an irregular heartbeat, so when I have my head on his chest it is not a relaxing sound... I hold my breath waiting for the next thud, hehe!


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