I became a member of The Zipper Club nearly 14 years ago. That’s when a cardiac surgeon split open my chest, repaired my heart and put me back together, leaving me with a seven-inch zipper-like scar up the middle of my sternum. Anybody who’s been through open-heart surgery and has a scar like mine is a member of the club.
Joining this exclusive club started with these 10 words: “Have I told you that you have a heart murmur?” That’s what my doctor asked while listening to my heart through a stethoscope during a routine physical exam back in 2004.
Those 10 words set in motion what would become a whirlwind blur: An echocardiogram, detection of a torn mitral valve in my heart, plans for surgery and loads of anxiety. Before I knew it, I was in the hospital, where a cardiac surgeon and his team spent hours upon hours making me as good as new.
Open-heart surgery is not for the faint of heart. It batters your body and takes weeks to recover; I was out of work for two months. I could barely walk after surgery, and I experienced a depth of pain I didn’t know existed. A doctor once told me the impact of open heart surgery on your body is like being thrown through a car windshield.
Heart surgery also batters your mind. I couldn’t concentrate; forget about reading a book—impossible. I was confused, my memory faltered and I had mood swings.
For me, going through open heart surgery was life-changing. Still, I am thankful that my doctor heard the heart murmur that led to my surgery. Otherwise, I might not be here today.
Nobody wants to join The Zipper Club. But being a member also means you’re a survivor.
When I was diagnosed at age 46, I didn’t have any apparent symptoms. Sure, tough tennis matches, long bike rides and mountain hikes wore me down more than when I was younger, but I wrote those things off to getting older, when in fact the torn valve had a lot to do with it.
The faulty valve meant my heart was working harder to pump blood. Through the echocardiogram (a test that makes pictures of your heart), I was able to see how the torn valve caused my blood to regurgitate and flow backwards as it pumped through my heart.
My doctor explained that over time, all that extra work would slowly weaken my heart until it lost its ability to pump enough blood for my body’s needs. And eventually, I might die of congestive heart failure. That wouldn’t be fun.
Instead, I’m alive and kicking and probably more active now than I was before the surgery. I ride farther on my bike than I did back then. I work out more at the fitness center. I’m less winded when hiking or playing tennis. I feel the need to always get going.
Do you remember the ’70s TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” about a secret agent with superhuman strength due to bionic implants? I thought of myself as the $180,000 man—roughly the total price tag of my surgery; thank God for insurance.
It took seven or eight years for me to fully recover from the surgery. That’s how long I could feel dead scar tissue ripping in my chest muscles whenever I stretched in certain ways (even when putting on a sweater).
And I carry a card in my wallet that says I have an “annuloplasty ring” implanted around my mitral valve. The card gives the model, serial number and size of the ring and the date it was implanted (May 12, 2004). I’m not sure if he was kidding, but my doctor told me I would need to show the card to the TSA officials if the ring ever set off a metal detector at an airport.
Nobody wants to join The Zipper Club. But being a member also means you’re a survivor. And what could be better than that?
Clarke Canfield is a longtime journalist, writer and editor who likes to be active. He is the communications director at Southern Maine Community College.