Conversations With Older Men: An Unexpected Side Effect of Heart Surgery

“Excuse me, I couldn’t help noticing your heart pillow.” It may not sound like much of a line, but for weeks after my open heart surgery man after man walked up to me with those words or similar on their lips, hoping to start a conversation. Bad line notwithstanding, it sounds a bit like a dream come true, doesn’t it? Lots of women dream of being so beautiful and interesting that they are approached by men on a regular basis.

Of course, most of the time the men they are imagining are young, GQ-model-handsome, and looking for a date next Friday night. The men who were approaching me, on the other hand, were none of these things. Their hair (what was left of it) was greying, their backs stooped, and their faces, though pleasant, were lined with age. Many walked with the help of canes or walkers; one even had a prosthetic leg. Also, they weren’t hitting on me — at least, not as far as I could tell.

These random conversations with elderly men, I eventually realized, might just be one of those strange, unspoken (and certainly unexpected) side effects of heart surgery. It certainly wasn’t covered in any of my surgery prep pamphlets. I wasn’t quite sure how to react at first; I’m an introvert and a wee bit shy at times, not used to making spontaneous conversation with strangers. Luckily, these conversations all followed the same pattern:

  • Phase 1: Polite Inquiry. Following some sort of comment on the heart-shaped pillow I’d been issued by my hospital to use as a splint for my sternum, the gentleman would ask in a kind, curious tone of voice, “Is that your pillow?” One or both of my parents were always with me at this stage; people tended to (wrongly) assume I was just holding the pillow for one of them. I couldn’t possibly be the one who had heart surgery; I didn’t fit the standard demographic.
  • Phase 2: Comparing War Wounds. After recovering from their initial surprise on discovering that the pillow did, indeed, belong to me, the gentleman would proceed to ask about my surgery and relate to me the saga of his own heart health journey. I couldn’t help but secretly be reminded of that famous scene from Jaws where the guys are sitting around comparing scars.
  • Phase 3: A Fond Farewell. As our brief time together came to its end (usually because one or the other of us was being called to their medical appointment), the gentleman would generously offer me his best wishes and the best of luck with my recovery. I did my best to always reply with similar sentiments.

Make no mistake: these men were polite, kind, and seemed to harbor only the best of intentions. That being said, however, my feelings about these encounters were mixed, to say the least. Aside from the initial shock of being approached at all, I did appreciate that they had taken the time to try and cheer me up a bit during what was obviously a rough time for me.

Photo (c) Kim Berkley 2015

Just me and my heart pillow, out for a walk in the park.

I couldn’t help but feel a bit irritated, however, when this happened outside of the hospital setting. It was one thing to exchange a few words in a room designed for literally nothing but waiting; it was another thing entirely to approach me at times when I was just trying to forget it all for a little while. Daydreams of being fully healed, of not having a heart that ticks and battle scars I’d never dreamed of bearing, couldn’t help but be shattered whenever someone came up to me to ask about the one thing I least wanted to think about in such moments: my heart.

The worst was when one man approached me during the intermission of a musical (Phantom of the Opera). It was my first time going out after surgery, and it was an event I’d been dreaming about for ages and had fought hard to be able to attend. It was everything I’d hoped it would be, and despite how relatively weak I still was, I was having the time of my life. For the first time in months I wasn’t worried about my heart, or about collapsing, or about anything at all: I was just a girl at a show and loving every second of it. Then, while traversing the lobby on my way to the ladies’ bathroom, a man intercepted me, I knew, with a sinking feeling in my stomach, exactly what he would ask before he asked it. “Is that your heart pillow?”

It wasn’t just the interruptions that bothered me. The thing was, I seemed to be the only person in my age group in my entire city affected with my particular affliction. I never once saw a patient younger than fifty or sixty in the waiting rooms or in pre-op, and every time a new nurse or doctor reviewed my files they seemed unable to help remarking, “But you’re so young!” The fact that men old enough to be my father (or even grandfather, in some cases) felt some sort of a kinship with me due to my scars felt, at the time, like a frustrating reminder that this wasn’t supposed to happen to me. Not yet, at any rate; in a perfect world, not ever.

On the other hand, it was difficult not to look at these men and think (rather rudely), thank goodness I’m not you. Being a younger-than-average heart patient is difficult in a lot of ways — but the one thing I and others in my demographic have in our favor is our youthful vitality. Being young and healthy gives you an edge when you’re looking at something as long-term and rough as recovering from valve replacement surgery. Seeing these men and hearing their stories reminded me how lucky I am to be facing this challenge at the time of my life when my body is best equipped to cope with it.

Most of all, however, I am thankful to these men — and to many others — for the words of encouragement they offered me during this time. There is one phrase that every single one of them said to me, and now I’d like to pass it on to anyone going through an ordeal right now, whether it’s medical in nature or not:

“It gets better.”

People say this so often sometimes it’s easy to just stop hearing it, even to get a little bit sick of it. I know I did. But it’s important not to forget that it is also almost always true, even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes. Believe it or not, it really does get better.


Have a similar strange side effect story? How about some other words of encouragement which helped you or a loved one through a tough time? Be sure to share in the comments — and of course, please subscribe to this blog to keep track of future posts!

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