(Or, heart surgery, as I imagined it might have been done, New Mexico style…)
A year ago tomorrow, Aug. 8, 2019, I underwent open heart surgery to replace a bad aortic valve that manifested itself as a heart murmur and nagged at me all through life. I’m fully recovered, at least from what doctors tell me and how I feel, but I still think about it every day when I see the four scars on my chest.
And although my memory is still foggy about many of the details, I do remember the support and care I got from my wife, children, neighbors, friends, church members and of course, the very professional doctors, nurses and staff at Mountain View Medical Center in Las Cruces. I couldn’t list them all for fear of leaving someone out.
Doctors discovered the heart murmur in the early 1960s when I was 15 and took my physical to play football at Ruidoso High School. They pronounced it as “no big deal,” but suggested I check on it every few years. I did have it checked periodically but it did not seem to be getting any worse — it was just “there.” I did not feel any ill effects until about two years ago when I started experiencing shortness of breath on walks or while mowing the lawn. Up to that point, I had been very active — skiing, hiking, running regularly, playing rugby, fly fishing on remote mountain streams, working into contorted positions on my garage floor to work on cars, chasing grandkids around the back yard, etc.
Following various tests and consultations, doctors concluded I would need the valve replaced. As I learned, it’s a procedure that many people have undergone and it has worked out fine for the vast majority of them. Conversations with friends about my upcoming procedure often ended up with comments like: “Oh yeah, my brother in law had that done a few years ago and he’s fine.” The rector at our church at the time even told me she had the procedure done, with no ill effects. She refers to her heart as her “Miss Piggy heart.”
After more consultations, it was decided that the recalcitrant aortic value would be replaced with one from either a pig or a horse — most likely a pig.
On the day of my surgery, with my wife faithfully at my side, I was wheeled into the operating room after being injected with brain fogging drugs. Obviously, I don’t remember anything that happened in the operating room. When I woke up, I found myself attached to a tangled web of sensors, probes and tubes. There were various masked people hovering over me, who I was absolutely convinced were aliens conducting exotic experiments on my body. (I really did believe that for the first day of my recovery in ICU. No wonder they’re called mind-altering drugs.)
Having no memory of the procedure, and being attuned to New Mexico culture, here is how I think the procedure went.
I think the first person who worked on me was a 90-year-old gray haired curandera, who sprinkled potions of ground pinon nuts, chamisa flowers, Thunderbird wine and adobe mud on me. Then the doctors, probably rejects from an on-line medical school in the bananna republic of El Guacador, had their turn.
I’m sure they cut me open with a rusty Craftsman Sawzall, pausing occasionally to lube it up with WD-40. Once inside, they pulled out my heart and kept my blood moving by bypassing it through a used and calcified 1/4 horsepower swamp cooler water pump. I suspect a wheezing hair dryer from Rita’s Hair Salon (on the cool setting, I hope) was used to keep my lungs inflated. Then they hacked out my faulty valve with a Stanley utility knife that had been used the previous day to cut roofing paper. I’m sure rolls of duct tape, rusty bailing wire and Elmer’s glue were used to attach my new pig valve. My heart was then reinserted, probably by using a crowbar to leverage it into place. Then my chest was was sewn up, again, using leftover bailing wire (maybe barbed wire from the way it feels on certain days) and the usual strips of duct tape. Doctors even might have used a mix of adobe mud and straw to make a useful bonding agent, New Mexico style.
It seems to work. But what about the pig?
I think it was committed to participate in a pig roast that same afternoon in Dona Ana. I can see what was left of it, turning on a spit in a pecan orchard, where the smells of the first green chile of the season being roasted floated through the air while happy families gathered and large quantities of Corona beer were consumed. I hope there was mariachi music being played. I’m sure there were some chicarrones being served.
Someone, apparently looking for a deal, must have liberated the heart valve prior to the pig roast and traded it to the curandera for a potion to cure hangovers.
Which brings me to this: was it a male or female pig whose valve is now pulsing regularly in my chest? I think I’ve become more sensitive and a more focused listener lately, and I definitely feel a more urgent need to ask for directions. I think I have my answer.