The day I turned 60 the warranty on my body ran out. I’d planned a summer trip to visit my brothers in Washington State and then climb Mount Rainier while I was out there. I had climbed several 14ers in Colorado the year before, so I knew I was good at altitude, but I decided to have a treadmill stress test done to verify my fitness. One day later I was under the knife undergoing triple bypass.
Twenty-seven years ago my better half underwent surgery for breast cancer. Her surgeon told her that one of the benefits of being a thoracic surgeon was that chest surgery patients typicaly experienced less post-operative pain. Such was indeed the case with me, to the extent that when people ask me what it was like, I enjoy telling them that it was actually kind of fun. And I am being serious. I had surgery on a Wednesday, woke up for real on Friday ( they tell me I spoke to visitors on Thursday but I remember nothing of it), was babied by pretty nurses, including one named, I kid you not, Krystal, and went home Sunday. No codeine or narcotics needed, just an occasional acetaminophen.
The part they don’t warn you about is personality change. In about 43% of open heart surgery patients, for reasons related to the heart-lung machine but not altogether clear, some brain damage occurs, the most common symptoms of which being irritability similar to that displayed by stroke patients. Some patients exhibit less, some exhibit more. My family tells me my irritability was immediately noticeable. I was not aware of my shortness with them, but I was aware of sudden bursts of road rage when driving, screaming at other drivers and resisting the urge to swerve into them.
My cardiologist told me at this point about pump head syndrome, and prescribed a drug that was optimal for this condition, which he indicated performed much in the same way as post traumatic stress disorder. In early 2012, with much success in losing weight, lowering my cholesterol, and lowering my blood pressure on a healthy vegan diet, we cut back on most of my meds successfully. Except for the escitalopram. After tapering off over a period of four weeks, I experienced a bout of extreme depression, suicidal thoughts, and more rage. I knew in my gut that my life had been filled with blessings, and that therefore this was “just chemicals”, but it was frightening nonetheless to be the guy on the news: “...authorities said the suspect was reported to have been off of his medications for several weeks before (pause for gravitas) the tragedy at the mall.
So who am I now? When I hit bottom my wife said “you used to be kind and gentle.” I am again now, but only because of a little pill I’ll probably have to take for the rest of my life. I recently have had conversations with a gulf war vet with ptsd. She went through far more trauma than I, but her symptoms are the same. The night terrors. The looking in the mirror and sometimes seeing someone you know, and sometimes not. The rages are gone, but my grasp of reality feels more tenuous now. Or maybe I’m just getting old.
If a cardiac nurse named Krystal is reading this, I do remember you fondly.