Heart disease is one of the most nonjudgmental bitches you may ever encounter.
She knows no boundaries or race, age, ethnicity or social class. She doesn’t care if you exercise and don’t smoke. In fact, those are the people she likes to swoop in and blindside. It gets her dick hard. She can’t be bothered by your life struggles such as self sufficiency and working three part-time jobs while a full-time student. She especially doesn’t have any empathy for you not having the best fake ID to get into Dillon’s (not even for last call). Like seriously, throw me a freaking bone here.
Like many silent diseases, heart disease is quiet and backhanded. She’s an opportunist. She’ll tell you how pretty you look to your face, and then gut you from the inside out.
Not in the figurative sense, but in the total, absolute sense, my heart was broken. For 21 years before anyone realized it, in fact. But I’ve come to realize, I’ve pretty much been high maintenance since in utero. I was born with a rare congenital heart defect known as Total Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Return (TAPVR). While common and treated in babies (they’re often born blue), I skirted right past the 10 finger, 10 toe check because I was born with other small defects – I was jaundiced and had to be cooked for a few days, and I also had a hole in my heart. Holes are quite common in babies and actually balanced out the TAPVR. As I grew older, the hole closed (which normally would be fanfuckingtastic), but it only exacerbated the whole unknown TAPVR issue.
See, this issue with TAPVR is that the veins in my heart were all reversed. Oxygenated blood was mixing with unoxygenated blood. Eventually, I would experience massive heart failure as my right ventricle would “explode” because of the blood not being corralled properly, if left untreated. OK enough, bio. Gross.
So what is a 22 year old female to do? GOOGLE IT!!!
Rule Number One: NEVER Google health conditions. Wrong decision. Some posts said the average life expectancy was 12, and the oldest I found was 27. As much as I had a life goal to join the 27 club with Janis, Jimi and Jim, this didn’t seem nearly as glamorous. Plus, it wasn’t on my own accord. I hate when people tell me what to do, and I certainly wasn’t going to let my organ dictate my lifestyle. Google also told me I had glaucoma and Cryptorchidism (both, false).
I soon felt that each sneeze, cough or bowel evacuation was my certain end.
Then the real panic started to set in. My doctor (not Google) told me that open heart surgery would be the only cure. And a cure was needed because the condition would have been fatal if otherwise left untreated.
Now, I’m a solid B cup. Nothing to gawk at — a nice handful and the ability to bomb around braless should I feel the spirit to do so. In fact, my good friend Tonie and I affectionately called each other T&A … I was the latter, due to my personal lack of “t.” I admire celebrities today making things such as mastectomies public. But at this time, I had concerns not only for my life, but the disfigurement I may have to live with the rest of my life. That if I survived the surgery, my scar would overshadow the rest of me
So leading up to the surgery, I continued business as usual. Was in classes, working all of my part-time jobs – as well as writing out my will and last wishes. Really puts shit into perspective when you have to decide which friend is going to be responsible for scraping your apartment should anything happen and before any adults entered the premise. Or your thoughts on organ donation. Life support. It was a bit surreal and I honestly think I blacked out for most of it. The weeks leading up to my surgery are erased from my mind.
But there we are, two nights before my surgery. We rented out the patio at Tia’s and had an awesome party. No one really spoke of the “what ifs” but there was a certain discomfort in the air that was balanced by aggressive champagne intake.
After the massive hangover set in, I began last-minute preparations for my surgery. Getting my bags together (always make sure you go to the hospital with clean underwear and much more than you expect). Fuzzy socks are a must. And for me, front closure sports bras and leggings became my new best friend.
I had my last meal at Giacommo’s (lunch in Boston’s North End), and then went home and had my cocktail to flush my bowels before surgery. I had intentionally scheduled the first surgery of the day, to get the doctor while he was fresh. He had terrible bedside manners. In fact, I thought he was a bit of a pompous dick. But he’s an awesome surgeon and knows what he is doing.
Hell, he was the Chief of Cardiac Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and had only performed this surgery on one other person over the age of 20. But I realized after. I’d much rather have him suck bedside, and excel op-side.
On May 8, 2006, I wore my favorite t-shirt to the hospital, the one I wore in my last half marathon pre-surgery. I got changed into the johnny and socks, got all anti-bacterialized and started a slow drip of sedation. My family and boyfriend came into the room and we said our goodbyes. I don’t even remember them. Or putting the mask on my face and heading off into la la land. I was on a heart lung machine for 8 hours where they stopped my heart, separated the veins and reattached them.
Next thing I remember was waking up, intubated, with a catheter and a morphine drip in my jugular. Things I wish I had known going into it. The hospital system has a policy similar to “don’t ask don’t tell.” I also had three chest tubes draining pus, fluids and blood that casually sat on the ground next to my piss bag. It was glamour in its highest form. Speaking of highest form, I was on a pleasant cocktail of morphine, dilaudid and some shit that’s probably street legal south of the border. Humor was critical. Positivity was required. And the long feathered earrings a friend brought for confidence, eventually replaced the morphine.
I was moved into the recovery room. In some crazy miscommunication, no one had told my family I was out. After asking many times, my family was allowed it. Before surgery I asked that I please have a notepad and pen by my bedside. I have a ridiculously small mouth (bad for my personal life), and the intubator was put in crooked so that it was tearing the side of my lip to my cheek. Through I don’t remember, I wrote down “cut lip.” My mom fought the nursing staff to check it, with their retort being that I was so drugged up I didn’t know what I was talking about.
When I left the cardiac ICU (I was the only person under 75 in there), they removed the catheter, chest tubes and morphine drip. When they remove the chest tubes, you take a big breath and exhale when they pull out. It feels just like you think it would, a ribbed straw being pulled through your insides. Like your last breath of air is being taken from you. And then you go to take a deep breath and can’t, because your rib cage was recently butterflied and then put back together with fancy zip-ties.
Five days later, I was out. I had never been so happy to hear the word discharge in my life.
And there I was, attempting to head into normalcy. I thought all my problems had been solved. I started out too optimistic and set myself up for disappointment. For the next 6 months, I was restricted to not carry anything over 5 lbs. because my sternum was split. Which means, I couldn’t open the fridge, couldn’t carry my purse and certainly couldn’t wear even 1/3 of my traditional arm candy. I could, however, walk.
And there I was, at in my parent’s home in Western Mass., walking laps of the first level of the house and curling cans of creamed corn. I developed an extremely dedicated daytime television routing. It was the most depressing Rocky preparation montage you’d ever witness. I was sad, depressed and extremely lonely; my game was off. I needed a North Star, a beacon. And so I set my eyes on the Hartford Half Marathon. Less than 6 months after my surgery I completed it. As my former high school soccer coach would say, it was “ugly, but effective.” I had the stars in my eyes and the next year completed the Boston Marathon on behalf of Tedy’s Team for the American Heart & Stroke Association.
Since then I have ran 3 half marathons, 2 marathons and am currently prepping for the Las Vegas half marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon for Tedy’s Team (American Heart and Stroke Association). I’ve raised nearly $25k to date for the cause. The money is great, it is needed. But we always need to take care of ourselves. Not just when something is wrong. But being proactive to see the unseen.
Oh, and I’ve been told my cleavage looks awesome.
With annual checkups and a healthy lifestyle, Ashley is expected to live a full, normal life. But this is only half of her story. Stay tuned for Part II of the Broken Heart Chronicles: Premarital Divorce.