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I Just Needed A Valve Job

5 minute read
Garrison Keillor

This summer I was going to learn how to take it easy. And then it turned out that I needed heart surgery. So now I’m taking it easy as a slow-moving, achy guy who ran chest-first into a wall with a sharp stick protruding from it. I shuffle down the sidewalk, wary of bicyclists and uneven ground, aware that a guy doesn’t get the sort of pity for this that would have been his due even 20 years ago. That is the fate of heart surgery. It became one of those ordinary miracles.

Fifty years ago, in my boyhood, a guy who blew out a mitral valve was sent home to sit in a sunny corner and play cribbage until congestive heart failure swept him away. Open-heart surgery was big news. One of the pioneers was C. Walton Lillehei at the University of Minnesota, a local celebrity on the order of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. The operations were enormously expensive, the survival rate around 50%, and Minnesota has always had plenty of finger waggers to remind you that all that money spent to repair that fat man’s aorta could have bought nourishing breakfasts for X number of orphans. But Doc Lillehei was surrounded with innocent kids with congenital heart defects, and nobody said boo.

I am one of those innocent kids, except I’m 58. I’ve always had a slight heart murmur, inherited from my flinty ancestors, and when the valve came loose at the moorings, there wasn’t much doubt about it. So my wife drove me to the Mayo Clinic, and they wheeled me into a bright blue industrial room and put a mask over my face, and I took a breath, and it was eight hours later.

Heart surgery is an artistic performance to benefit an audience that is sound asleep at the time. A man you’ve met only once slices open your chest so your heart can be stopped and chilled so a loose flap in your mitral valve can be sewn up. No big deal when it goes right, which, with an ace surgeon, it should.

A couple of days later, I’m in bed trying to inhale air through a blue plastic tube so as to raise a white plastic disc up past the 3,000-ml level. It’s a version of the high-striker booth at the state fair meant to clear the lungs. The prize is a fit of coughing, which is good for your lungs and which feels like you’re taking machine-gun rounds in the chest. But I keep making progress, not wanting to let down my buddies in the ward.

The inhalator gizmo was explained to me by a lovely young nurse in a blue uniform with a pager clipped to her collar. She bent down to show me how it works, and the weight of the pager opened a fabulous landscape of tanned young breasts and gleaming white brassiere. I gazed in and realized that my libidinous urge had shrunk to something akin to my urge to play croquet.

It is rough on a man’s pride to be a patient. Even after you get into your Extremely Late 40s, a life phase that lasts until 70 or so, you maintain a certain manly sense of yourself (He jumps! He shoots! He scores!), but now, taking a slow postoperative stroll down the hall, heading for the lounge with the jigsaw puzzles, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the glass door ahead, a shambling galoot in droopy, pee-stained pajamas. (When they pull out the catheter, it takes you a day or two to get your sphincter reset.) This is not a guy whom any woman longs to have sex with; she would be afraid of killing the old bugger. It’s hard for a man with a strong sense of himself (He’s going deep–deep–deep! And he’s almost to the wall! And he’s got it!) to accept this elemental defeat.

But it doesn’t matter. I’m still here on the planet. And what I remember most clearly about my week is a murky stretch docked in Intensive Care.

There was dim light and deep mist and a hissing and grumbling of machinery and my little boat of life bobbing on the waves. And there were voices in the fog. First a young woman, then a man, then a woman. Erinn Erickson, Clint Williams, Erin Pawlaski. Angels saying my name, saying I was doing well, that the breathing tube would soon be out, putting a cool cloth on my forehead. A day’s work for them, a revelation of human kindness to me.

And now it’s almost two weeks later. Most everybody who’s going to say, “It’s good to see you up and around and looking well,” has said it. My chest aches less. Early this morning I walked out the front door and bent and picked up the morning paper. Cool air, distant traffic, a whiff of lilies from along the driveway, and in the park across the street, a woman loping along with a yellow Lab. After a heart operation, it is all indescribably beautiful.

Garrison Keillor’s new novel, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, will be published later this month by Viking

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