It has been some time since I last posted about my heart surgery. It took place on January 6 of this year, to replace a defective mitral valve and perform a double bypass. I was in intensive care for five excruciating days, and remained in the hospital for three or four more. My recovery took about two months.
Now, fully six months after the surgery, I continue to experience aftereffects. The two most troubling are memory loss and recurrent, unpredictable and profound fits of depression. The first is especially annoying in that I always prided myself on the quality of my memory, and because memory is essential to my professional life. My short-term memory is affected the most, but my medium- and long-term memories are also suffering. I will be told something and, a few minutes later, have completely forgotten it. This happens almost daily and is quite debilitating. As for my longer-term memory, while I expected that it would diminish with age, I believe the surgery has accelerated or exacerbated the process. Information which had always heretofore been available to my mind is simply no longer there. And while I can still recite poetry I memorized in high school and college, names, dates, events, and especially whom-I-told-what are just disappearing. I had read in my research on heart surgery that some memory loss is to be expected (they actually give you a drug to induce amnesia so that you will have no recollection of the experience), and that it may persist for as long as a year. We shall see.
The intense depression is a greater problem. I have always been a depressive, but formerly I could anticipate, even predict the episodes, and I usually knew what was causing them. Now, powerful, deep fits of depression come upon me suddenly, without warning and with no apparent trigger, and I am nearly helpless to prevent or manage them. At my younger girl's baccalaureate mass the other night, for example, I was suddenly overcome with a depression so profound that I had to fight tears, and was afraid several times during the mass that I would have to leave. But one has to hold oneself together for the sake of children, and so I managed to get through.
These depressions, which are far worse and more gratuitous than previously, seem now to me to be getting out of control. And while I do recognize the root causes of my chronic depression, the post-surgical depressions have taken on a character which is distinctly different, and much more disruptive. It is almost as though the invasion of my heart has shaken loose demons whose power to haunt I had learned in large measure to control. Without those hard-won restraints, they surge up now in my mind and spirit like killer waves, inundating me and threatening to capsize my sanity entirely. And indeed, sometimes, especially at night when I am alone and struggling to sleep, I feel that I may be headed for a nervous breakdown.
I mention all this not to elicit sympathy, but, rather, as a caution to others who are facing or recovering from heart surgery. The violation (I would even say rape) of your personal integrity is going to provoke symptoms of which no surgeon will warn you, and which no course of care is prepared to address. The surgeons should warn us, however, and our course of care should address the non-physical aftereffects, but until that happens, those of us who undergo heart surgery may find ourselves at the mercy of our minds' and emotions' unfathomable powers of retaliation.