Getting a new aortic valve (from a cow)

The stress test is just the beginning of the stress

Illustration by Brad Fitzpatrick

In a few days, I’ll be on the operating slab, having a valve job done.

Years ago, when I was told an echocardiogram showed my aortic valve to be bicuspid rather than tricuspid, my first reaction was, how positively molusky it all sounds! But not to worry, my doctor said. Lots of people have funky valves.

But now, increasing fatigue and bouts of breathlessness, plus more echocardiograms and sadistic stress tests, all indicate that my valve isn’t just funky, but gummed up to the point where, says the surgeon, if I don’t get it done now, in a couple of years I’ll be pushing up hawkweeds. Since I’m not quite ready to party down with worms and moles, I’ll have my breastbone sawn asunder, my ribs pried open (“rack of lamb,” my 17-year-old cardiologist quipped), the old valve hacked out and a cow valve installed, and that’s all I want for Christmas.

After meeting with the surgeon, I went for a mess of tests at the Portsmouth hospital, starting in registration, where a woman slapped on my wrist one of those bracelets with my name and birth date on it, and then printed out reams of orders for the tests.

First, a nurse, who went over my meds, asking all the usual things: Do you smoke? (How long?) Drink? (How much?) Then, blood pressure, pulse, oxygen level, peeks and pokes into the ears, nose, throat and eyes. (“Look straight ahead while I blind you with this light.”) Next, an EKG, chest x-ray, and blood draw. Between tests, I was dragged through a maze of corridors, passed from one nurse to another, every one of whom looked at my bracelet, checking: “Your name? Date of birth?” (Jeesh! And this isn’t even the Big Day yet! Well, I guess they gotta make sure they don’t screw up and yank a lung.)

Then I met with an anesthesiologist, who told me (aargh … too much information!) how the valve job will go. I get knocked out, then it’s Slitski Time. I’ll be hooked to the heart-lung machine, to stop the ticker and compress the lungs to make room for the surgeon to do his macabre biz. Surgeon rips out the ratty old valve, and (I’m guessing this part) the assistant fishes the cow valve out of the styro cooler and the surgeon stitches it in place. The ticker gets a jolt to get it pumping again, and I’m taken off the heart-lung machine — which, by the way, could give me “pumphead.” (Don’t ask; you don’t want to know.) I’ll be hauled to the ICU with a breathing tube down my gullet, a urinary catheter (oh, joy!) and so many IVs, wires and drainage tubes coming out of me I’ll be bristling like a porcupine.

Out with the anesthesiologist and in with a breathing therapist, who told me that after the “sleepy meds” wear off in the ICU, his gang will ply their trade on me. I’ll be made to breathe hard into some contraption that will re-inflate the lungs.

Friends are already cracking jokes. One suggested I could also get one of the cow’s four stomachs. Another asked if I’d lactate. (How udderly silly!) A third reminded me that I can graze in the field behind our house here in the wilds of Farmington. And hey, any cowpats I happen to drop while I’m chewing my cud? Dry those suckers and chuck them into the woodstove.

My old man says none of this is funny. So maybe it’s no laughing matter, but I figure it’s no matter if you laugh.

Oh, and I’m changing my name to Jane Holstein.

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