My Heart Was Fixed, but My Mind Was Damaged

I told my doctor recently that I sometimes experience rapid heart rate. She wasn’t too concerned but gave me an EKG anyway, perhaps for liability purposes. I’m in my 50s, after all, a decade in which important organs often begin to show their wear.

A medical assistant came into the room and placed a dozen little tabs on my chest and legs and then attached little wires to them with clips that looked like telephone jacks.

The technology had certainly advanced from the 1970s, when I had my first EKG at the age of 12, before undergoing surgery to repair a hole between the upper chambers of my heart. By the time I’d graduated from sixth grade, I’d had about a dozen EKGs, as well as a catheterization, a procedure in which a small tube or catheter is inserted into a vein in your leg and photographed as it makes its way toward your heart. The doctors made a short video of my procedure that they let me watch afterward. At the start of the film, my name was spelled out in white block letters on a black background, as an actress’s name might be on her screen test.

That period of my life has become part of the fabric of who I am, like an outside force that makes a tree grow one way or another. And with that period are a spattering of memories that got entangled in it like bits of shell and sand in a clump of seaweed.

I remember watching an episode of “Medical Center” the night before my operation, in which Chad Everett, who played the handsome doctor, operated on someone undergoing open-heart surgery. And how when they wheeled me in to the operating room, I had a stuffed sheepdog on my gurney that was also wearing a green surgical cap. And apparently I kept saying with dramatic flair, “farewell, my lovely,” a phrase I presumably stole from the title of a movie playing at our local theater at the time. I don’t remember it, but I do recall my grandmother saying, “Stop saying that. You’re upsetting your parents.”

After the surgery, as I lay in the intensive care unit under an oxygen tent, a drainage tube connected to my lungs, my father told me my parents would take me on a trip to anywhere I wanted. “Cape Cod,” I said, though being a native of Long Island I’m not sure I even knew where it was. It took me weeks to gain enough strength to climb stairs, but by the time we took our trip, I was well enough to climb to the top of Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown. We celebrated when I reached the top.

But while my heart was fixed, my mind was damaged, as I was left with the perpetual thought that I would die prematurely.

When the movie “All That Jazz” came out four years after my surgery, most saw it as an autobiographical tribute to the choreographer Bob Fosse. To me, it was a movie about a guy who has open-heart surgery and dies afterward.

It didn’t help that when my father tried to explain to me what was going on during this period, putting it in the most basic terms that a child could understand, he may inadvertently have done more harm than good.

“You don’t have to have the surgery,” he said. “But if you don’t, you’ll have to take a lot of medicine when you’re in your 30s, you may wind up dying younger than you would have, and you probably won’t be able to have children, because it would be too much on your heart.”

Fear has a way of defying logic, because when I finally became pregnant, at the advanced maternal age of 47, I kept fearing that giving birth would be too much for my heart, and I might die on the operating table. In the end, I had a scheduled C-section because of an unrelated complication, but the night before, my mind was filled not with thoughts of my new baby but with an image of me being gutted like a dead deer.

My doctor returned to the examining room after my EKG and asked me a few questions about my rapid heart rate.

“How often does it happen, and how long does it last?” she asked.

“Every couple of months, and it lasts about a minute,” I said. I wondered whether every heart has a certain number of beats in it before it breaks down, like a woman is only born with a certain number of eggs, or cars are destined to last only last a certain amount of miles.

“Only a minute? Oh, that’s not too bad. Well, let’s see what your EKG looks like,” she said, pulling it out of my folder. “Oh! You do have a strange heartbeat.”

“I’d like you to see a cardiologist,” she said, pulling out her referral pad. “I’m sure it’s fine. We just want to be sure.”

At the cardiologist’s office, I was the only person in the waiting room under 70. The doctor seemed surprised I’d had open-heart surgery so young.

“Wow. You were 12?” he said. “That must have been traumatic. Do you think it had any effect?”

“Just a nagging fear I’m going to die young,” I said.

As he held the stethoscope to my chest, I felt weepy. He told me to inhale several times and then to stop breathing. He then re-examined my EKG. When he finally looked up, he said, “Your EKG doesn’t look abnormal.”

He then said about a third of the patients he sees feel rapid heart rate and palpitations, which only rarely turn out to be something of concern. He scheduled me for a stress test and another EKG, which I set up for the next day.

When I went in for the stress test, the first thing I noticed was my husband’s name, “Bruce,” at the top of the computer screen in front of me. I figured they kept the name of your next of kin readily available in case something happened when you were exerting yourself on the treadmill. I was wrong. Bruce is the last name of the man who developed the test.

“You did very well,” the technician said at the conclusion of the test. “You just have a premature atrial contraction. You have an extra beat that comes a little earlier, and it creates this pause.”

“But everything looked good, O.K.?” she said. She seemed to say “O.K.” after everything she said, which I initially took as her being curt before realizing it was just the way she ended her sentences. “So you have no problem continuing to exercise, O.K.?” I didn’t even realize that was on the table.

“O.K.,” I said.

I gathered my things and walked out of the cardiologist’s office into the bright sun, feeling as if I’d dodged another imaginary bullet and was waiting for the next one to come along.

Caren Chesler is a writer in Ocean Grove, N.J.

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