Tag Archives: Health

Millions of heartbeats per year

Put your hand over your heart.

Each beat that you feel requires tissue-paper-thin membranes to open and close. The heart valves regulate the flow of blood, millions of times per year. The movement of the valves creates the sound of the heartbeat.

But when a medical professional with a stethoscope to your chest hears an extra sound – a lingering noise like the sound of scraping your fingernails along a tablecloth, rather than the distinct lub-dub sound – you have a heart murmur.

My mom’s murmur was caused by a leaky mitral valve, which separates the upper and lower left chambers of the heart. This inflow valve has two flaps that open to let blood flow into the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle. Then the valve is supposed to close to keep blood from leaking backward when that lower ventricle squeezes the oxygenated blood out to the whole body.

(You can hear the sound of so-called Acute Mitral Regurgitation here, courtesy of the University of Michigan Medical School. Listen to the fourth one on the page: http://www.med.umich.edu/lrc/psb/heartsounds/index.htm)

Some people with a defective valve feel fatigue, exhaustion, lightheadedness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath or have a cough (especially when lying  down). My mom didn’t have any clear symptoms. But leaky mitral valves tend to get worse. Over time, echocardiograms showed that her leak had become significant. Untreated, the valve problem could cause heart failure or serious heart rhythm problems.

It’s scary to face open-heart surgery, to know you’ll be put to sleep, your chest sliced open, your ribs broken, your heart intentionally stopped and sliced into. It’s hard to believe that a heart-lung machine can keep your blood flowing while the surgeon and team do exacting work with Gore-Tex suture – the same kind of material as in specialized outdoor clothing. This form of “expanded” Teflon has tiny pores that allow human tissue to grow into it without forming scar tissue.

People asked who was doing my mom’s surgery. “Oh, he’s good,” they said. One physician from a different specialty at the same hospital added, “They’re all good. They’re like God on earth.”

I’ve interviewed surgeons and other medical professionals over years of writing about health as a journalist. This week I’m newly appreciative of their skill and care.

I’m grateful for successful surgery yesterday and good hospital care. I was so glad to be able to see my Mom walk a lap – slowly, gripping a walker — around the nurses’ station today.

I’m grateful for her much better chance at many more healthy years.

I hope you’re sleeping well tonight, Mom.

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After the second cancer diagnosis, something wonderful

When Clay Felker — founding editor of New York magazine, who also had stints at Esquire and The Village Voice — was diagnosed with his second cancer, doctors said there wasn’t any treatment that would extend his life.

So they suggested that Felker and wife Gail Sheehy seize life: Do something wonderful that you wouldn’t have dared do before.

Now that’s a charge worth pursuing.

Sheehy told me it took them about a year to figure out what to do. They enjoyed a great trip to France — even though he was on a feeding tube. And they found a way for Felker to pursue his passion of developing young talent in magazines, which meant moving from Manhattan to California to work at Berkeley. With lymphoma. (That’s a cancer that  begins in immune system cells called lymphocytes.)

“He actually developed a great deal of courage,” Sheehy said.

She traveled back and forth between her job in Manhattan and their new home. The couple experienced a new time of feeling young and in love all over again. And Felker’s lymphoma went away.

“That’s the kind of miracle of it,” said Sheehy.

Felker was able to work for 10 more years.

If you give someone the chance to feel alive and able to do things, they just may be able to do them.

I’m grateful that can happen.

Felker photo: USA Today. Sheehy photo: LA Times

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Filed under Being grateful, My freelance writing