It’s a few short weeks until I celebrate the first year of the second half of my life. While it’s true enough that I’m closing in on forty next year like a police car chasing an underpowered golf cart, it’s not the number of years between today and 1973 that puts me in this frame of mind. No, it is the fact that I am closing rapidly in on the one-year anniversary since undergoing heart surgery.
If you are thinking to yourself, “Oh God, not this again,” then I can sympathize with if not accommodate you. Frankly, I’m a little sick of hearing myself talk about it too, and trust me — my internal monologue has been nothing short of prolific, having been given a year to ponder mortality.
But the truth is that physically my recovery could not have gone any better, and I feel generally far healthier over the past six months or so than I have since my late twenties or early thirties. Or most of the time I do, and then out of nowhere some lingering after-effect will manifest and remind me that part of me is still broken, that I am firmly out-of-warranty, and just like that I am thrust back now nearly twelve months into a frame of mind that feels the cold press of too many days.
So, I promise this is my last “oooh, my heart done broken,” post, at least as long as nothing else jumps, jives and wails in my wire-stitched chest. Consider it an epilogue.
I have a scar on the bridge of my nose now to join the nearly faded, and surprisingly untroubling, one on my sternum. It was perhaps the first serious illness I had after my surgery, a stubborn if traditional cold that woke me up in the middle of the night. Feeling miserable, I rose from the bed, walked around toward the bathroom door for purposes private, felt a cold chill run the length of my body like being dipped in tingly ice water, and then my wife was crouching above me in a near panic.
“No, I’m not,” I said stupidly and with a complete lack of understanding of the situation. “What’s wrong!” I demanded, still firmly out of sorts having not at all processed that the hard surface under me was not a mattress. My body was only just beginning to inform me that it had a number of pain points to go over with me in an upcoming meeting. I tried to sit up. It was, in retrospect, a rash decision, and I could only muster a brief and half-hearted attempt before my muscles and my wife simultaneously came to the same conclusion that I should stay put. It was only at that point that I began to suss out the interruption that had just taken place with this whole consciousness thing.
I was still washed in the icy bath of cold internal tingles, and they seemed to now be having a delightful Mardi Gras parade up and down my body. Sweat suddenly burst from my skin in earnest, and I finally put my hand to my nose. It came away wet with blood.
We never quite put together exactly what happened. My wife had been sound asleep and by the time she could get to her senses, I had already collapsed, crashing into a number of very sturdy pieces of furniture on my way down to a crumpled heap. We have concluded to some degree that I owe some kind of karmic debt for not shattering my nose or a couple of teeth.
But not all of my recovery surprises have been quite so dramatic. No, the one that troubles me most is in very many ways only in my head.
They call it “pumphead," and honestly I have no idea for sure whether I’m suffering from a relatively mild case or not. I don’t really think I want to know exactly, because I’m not sure an answer either way would satisfy me in any comforting way. The short version is either I am experiencing a not uncommon, lingering after effect of spending hours on a heart-lung bypass machine, or I’m experiencing a very mild cognitive issue for some other reason. Either way, if I was cognitively at 100% in June of last year, I’m maybe 95% of that this year. Maybe slightly less.
Postperfusion syndrome, to be referred to from here on out as “pumphead,” is, according at least to Wikipedia, “a constellation of neurocognitive impairments attributed to cardiopulmonary bypass ….” In simpler terms, it’s a whole range of messed up brain fog that can happen in the aftermath of being hooked up to a machine that is kicking your blood around your body and into your brain. There’s all kinds of nifty symptoms like personality changes, motor function issues, attention deficit disorders.
If I do have it, then it’s not so bad. I’m just ever-so-slightly slower, duller, foggier than I was before. Words are farther away when I need them. It’s a little bit harder to read. Names of people I’ve known for a year will suddenly fly away.
You know that feeling you have when you see someone in a movie, and you know that you know them, but for all the money in the world at that moment you can’t say their name. You just stammer, “You know — that dude who was married to the skinny girl from Friends!”
“All of them were skinny.”
“No the one from the Springsteen video and Ace Ventura. Her husband.”
“YES! Thank you!”
Regardless of the entirely legitimate question as to why anyone would be working that hard to come up with David Arquette’s name, I feel something very akin to that phenomenon a half dozen times every single day. And, it’s in odd moments and places. Mid-sentence at work describing a process I can normally do in my sleep, all of the sudden it’s like when the lights flicker during a thunderstorm. There is this odd pause while everything just kind of resets. It’s a very brief — maybe a heartbeat or two — moment that is not entirely unlike waking up on the floor with your nose nearly broken.
Then it’s gone, and I’m back. Mostly.
That’s really how I feel a lot of the time. Back. Mostly. And don’t get me wrong, I would by far take “mostly” over a “not back at all.” And I still feel like what I think is me, though I have to manage my moods a little more deliberately than I’ve had to before. I don’t actually think most of the people who know me, who work with me every day, see much of a difference. If they do, they have the kindness not to point it out.
But there are times, moments with the quiet snap-click of my heart echoing through my neck in the middle of the night while everyone else is asleep, that I feel the difference in me. I am keenly aware that, as I had suspected, my life is never going to be quite the same. It’s almost like I can feel the rough edges of where part of me used to be, and now just isn’t.
In these moments I find myself probing the odd ridges in my sternum that I assume are wires that once held my body closed, and it’s like I’m trying to find a way in — to look for what’s missing. Snap-click.
And then, it’s gone. And I’m back.