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(Getty Images/Thinkstock/Getty Images/Thinkstock)
(Getty Images/Thinkstock/Getty Images/Thinkstock)

I had heart surgery at 39 Add to ...

Nothing can make you feel prematurely old like open-heart surgery. I was four months shy of my 40th birthday when I found out I would have to undergo valve replacement, but from the moment I signed the consent form for the procedure, I felt my days were numbered.

I was born with a defective heart valve - a bicuspid aortic valve - and I had known for many years that surgery was in my future. I went for periodic echocardiograms in my 20s and 30s, and the verdict was always the same: nothing to worry about, yet. I had one cardiologist exclaim: "You won't need to worry about surgery until you're old!"

By old I thought he meant, you know, old. But 39? Is that old?

Some people argued that my relatively young age was an advantage. Two days post-surgery last February, I was able to push myself up into a sitting position using my left elbow and the momentum of my legs, the way the nurses had taught me. "Did you just sit up on your own?" my 75-year-old roommate called from behind the curtain partition.

"Uh, yeah. I did," I said.

"Oh well, you're young," she said with a sigh. "These things are easy for you."

It didn't feel easy. Sitting up hurt like hell. The physical effort and sudden shift in position caused my post-anesthetic nausea to return, and I fumbled for the kidney-shaped plastic bowl at my bedside. I retched into the blue bowl, the violence of which wakened the pain in my chest and sent muscle spasms through my back. Without support, I slumped forward on the bed.

Most of the other patients on the post-surgical cardiac ward were elderly. I took my daily hallway strolls with white-haired ladies pushing walkers and old men who took the time to pull their socks up to their knees but couldn't be bothered to tie up the back of their gowns. We shuffled around the ward like zombies, groaning and dragging our damaged bodies aimlessly down vast corridors.

In a turn of events that surprised everyone, including my surgeon, I developed a complication called heart block. Swelling around the prosthetic valve had damaged some of the electrical paths in my heart, and I had a pacemaker implanted to correct the problem.

When I arrived home from pacemaker surgery, my neighbour popped by for a visit. I told him about my new surgically implanted gadget and he said, "Oh yeah? My 94-year-old mother has a pacemaker."

Maybe the pacemaker company had me confused with my neighbour's mother. My pacemaker identification card arrived in the mail a few weeks later, and the information aged me by half a century. Someone had made an error in the last two digits of my birth year: It read 1917 instead of 1971.

The birth date mix-up was a portent of my slow road to recovery. The house I shared with my husband became a nursing home. Pill bottles accumulated on the bedside table. Heating pads and hot-water bottles and back bolsters littered the beds and couches. I ate my meals on a bed tray, and our fridge contained canned prunes and rice pudding.

I took to wearing slippers and cardigans, and I stopped shaving my legs because I couldn't reach them. Walking upstairs became the major event in my day. I tackled it like a mountaineer scaling Everest; every step was deliberate. Once I reached the summit, I usually needed a nap.

I felt like I was starring in the Bizarro World version of the film Cocoon.

When I wasn't negotiating the stairs, I read a lot of novels. I tried delving into my usual literary fare but I couldn't concentrate on the text. My brain was calling out for genre fiction, so I started reading mysteries. I became an Agatha Christie convert after reading Murder on the Orient Express.

Either all the reading was straining my eyes, or the years of sitting too close to the television were catching up with me, but I found myself in need of reading glasses. This was the universe's way of kicking me while I was down.

So, one spring day, three weeks after surgery, I took a walk to the pharmacy to pick out a pair of reading glasses. I needed to fill a prescription, too, and while I waited for that, I browsed. The only other customer was a petite, white-haired woman also browsing while she waited for her prescription. It was quiet and peaceful in the store, and we acknowledged each other with a mutual "just wasting time waiting for my meds" smile.

I was feeling rather Zen when I approached the pharmacy counter, until the cashier started ringing in my purchases: heart medication, stool softener, muscle relaxants and reading glasses.

Deflated, I paid for my items and left the store; the white-haired lady followed close behind. Outside, she thanked me for holding the door open and, looking up at the sky, said, "Oh, it's lovely to see the sun shining."

"Yes," I replied, "but the rain is coming, I can feel it in my bad knee."

She nodded knowingly and we parted ways, moving in opposite directions. Then it hit me. My situation was temporary. I was getting stronger and faster every day. That was not the case for the white-haired woman who loved sunshine. I shuffled home, grateful and happy and looking forward to a lazy afternoon with Agatha Christie.



Julie H. Gordon lives in Hamilton.

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