Saturday, March 14, 2009

Heartaches 11

It has been six weeks since my heart surgery, and I suppose I should update you.

I have learned that there are two components to recovery: the physical and the non-physical. My physical recovery is nearing its end, I think. I am no longer in significant pain, and my chest seems to have healed for the most part. But the jury remains out on the non-physical aspect of the recovery.

I ought to have known that it is impossible to cut one's chest open, saw through the sternum, pull back the ribs, freeze the heart so as to stop it, hook one up to a heart-lung machine, cut open the heart, rebuild it, then put one back together, without there being what we might call metaphysical repercussions. These repercussions include the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual. Like Humpty Dumpty, they can break you, but they cannot necessarily put you back together again.

I had read that one result of open heart surgery is that one's mental acuity may be impaired for as long as nine months. In my case, this is certainly true. I would say that I have returned to about eighty percent of my former mental abilities, and for someone who earns his living with his brain, that is a troubling concern. I find that I cannot concentrate as deeply or as long as I was used to doing, and that my memory, especially in the short-term, is affected. I always prided myself on the quality of my memory, and it is certainly not now what it was before the surgery. Why this should be so I cannot say, but as I observed, you cannot dissect a living human being without consequences that go beyond the merely physical.

Emotionally the scars of the surgery are as distinct to me as the livid ones on my chest. I have mentioned before that I feel as though I had been raped by strangers, and this remains true. Yes, I understand that they were trying to help me, but many molesters, especially clerical ones, insist that what they are doing is for your own good. And though I know that there is nothing to connect molestation with my surgery, on a visceral level I feel that they are very much the same experience. I am prone now to sudden, unexpected and profound depressions. Today I took my little boy to a birthday party, and discovered to my surprise that I was beginning to cry. I have been shaken by this surgery experience in ways that I can scarcely understand. How long this aspect of the recovery will take I can only guess.

The spiritual aftereffects are the deepest and most elusive. Once you have surrendered yourself to the absolute control of others, the question of who you are becomes acute again. I thought I had dealt with this question of identity in my twenties, thirties and forties, and I think I am simply too old now to have to deal with it again. But to those who are contemplating heart surgery, I would say that you must ask yourself who you think you will be when you wake up from the anesthetic. If you are confident that the experience will not significantly alter your sense of self, then, by all means, plunge ahead. But if you have any doubts that the surgery may reconfigure more than the pump that is your heart, think again. At the very least, get professional counseling to prepare you for the surgery and help you to make the adjustments that will follow it. Do not try to manage all this yourself, or you will find that the physical recovery is immensely complicated by the metaphysical one, and the whole process will be slowed to a disabling crawl.

Indeed, I would urge all surgeons and their staffs to consider whether heart surgery patients ought not routinely be given counseling as part of the pre-operative preparation. For, as I have said, the heart is not just a pump, and the experience of having it exposed and handled by strangers and rebuilt is as least as traumatic as discovering that you were, in fact, adopted, or that your life's love has turned out to be a faithless stranger.