The anesthetist was finally finished with all of the preparations he had to make. Taking my left hand in his, he leaned over me and smiled. "I'm going to give you something now to make you sleep," he said. "So I want you to take some deep breaths of this nice fresh oxygen, and we'll see you later."
The moment was finally here. After nearly two years of entertaining the idea of repairing my mitral valve, and taking the long steady road of educating and preparing myself, and meeting a group of cardiothoracic surgeons to choose the one who would literally hold my heart in his hands...it had all come down to this. I had wondered many times what would be my thoughts as I prepared to take those deep breaths and go to sleep. Now I would know.
My journey toward open heart surgery actually took much longer than two years. From the time I was born, my mitral valve had "extra stretch" to it. As one of my doctors explained, most mitral valve tissue is like regular cotton fabric, and my valve is more like nylon spandex. Perhaps because of my extra stretch valve, I noticed palpitations from my teen years on, and my doctor told me I had a harmless murmur. In my thirties, my cardiologist said I had Mitral Valve Prolapse. Because MVP happened to be the Disease of the Decade, I didn't pay a lot of attention to it. Things went along reasonably routinely with the exception that I never had the same exercise stamina most of my friends had. I usually had to pause when climbing a hill (I was taking a beta blocker as well, which slowed the heartbeat). It was only with the diagnosis of the irregular heartbeat atrial fibrillation a few years ago that we began to pay more serious attention to my heart.
After the Afib began, echocardiograms indicated that my mitral "prolapse" was turning into a full fledged leak. A minute amount of blood was "regurgitating" into my lungs with each beat. Such a small amount could hardly make a difference - right? Wrong. 100,000 times a day adds up, and does damage.
The leak was classified as "moderate to severe," and current medical opinion favors repairing it rather than waiting. A heart subjected to a leaking mitral valve can grow stiffer, can develop heart failure, can cause a dangerous arrythmia, contribute to pulmonary hypertension, all kinds of bad things...and the odds for living a regular lifespan are lessened. A serious mitral valve leak can also cause sudden death. My cardiologist told me to interview some cardiothoracic surgeons (he gave me a few names) and over the next few months I traveled north and south within California to talk to three of them. I finally settled on Dr. Richard Shemin, director of cardiothoracic surgery at the David Geffen School of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center because his reputation was excellent...
...and I wanted him to bring along his robot!
(Next time: what is "open heart" surgery, and Leslie meets the robot.)
Published On: April 20, 2011