Early last year, at about the time I should have been planning my 50th birthday celebration — making reservations at a fancy restaurant or booking a flight to an exotic locale — I was prepping for heart surgery.
I needed the operation to address a deadly genetic heart condition that had gone undetected until age 41, when cardiologists pronounced me “high risk for sudden death.” The diagnosis was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, which is the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes. A problematic gene had caused the wall of my left ventricle to grow to three times larger than a normal size, which prevented it from filling properly. The obstruction was blocking adequate blood flow and wreaking havoc in my chest.
When I received the initial diagnosis, it was a startling and abrupt turn in the road for someone who had previously enjoyed vibrantly good health, with frequent yoga classes and plenty of green juices. I later learned that heart disease, which kills more women than all cancers combined, is increasing in younger women.
Cardiology appointments began to pepper my weeks the way Pilates classes used to. Instead of working up a sweat, I could be found flipping through magazines in a waiting room filled with the silver-haired set.
From what I could tell, I didn’t have a family history of heart problems. But years of experimenting with different medications had failed to manage the disease. Soon, shortness of breath, crushing chest pain and palpitations increased until they became a daily reality. Even climbing into bed would knock the wind out of me. Nine years after my diagnosis, with heart failure symptoms steadily increasing, I could no longer deny the seriousness of my condition. Surgery was my only shot at a “normal” life expectancy.
Although the head cardiothoracic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota insisted it was a low-risk procedure, I remained unconvinced. He would be opening up my chest like a cabinet, stopping my heart for about an hour, slicing into the aortic valve and sending a cannula into my heart to carve pieces of it away. It sounded medieval. As a result, a large, tell-tale scar would soon mark my décolletage, loudly declaring me a member of the “zipper club,” — which is how open-heart patients often refer to themselves.
“You have two choices under these circumstances – hide the scar or own it,” said a woman from my UCLA cardiac support group in an email. “I wear my scars proudly now, like jewelry,” she said. I admired her attitude. But could I learn to make peace with such a defining and prominent disfigurement? Could I battle my own vanity?
In preparation for the surgery, I imagined myself an athlete in training. I drank bone broth and fresh coconut water, exercised almost daily, and even tried floatation therapy in a sensory deprivation tank to calm my nerves. In the mornings and evenings, I rubbed moisturizer from my clavicle down to my navel, as advised by another patient. My toenails were bereft of polish for perhaps the first time in 20 years. Without a cheery splash of crimson or merlot gleaming from my toes, I was a blank canvas of soft pink; the very essence of vulnerability.
The last thing I remember before they wheeled me into surgery was lying on a gurney and telling two female anesthesiologists I felt scared and anxious. One of them said, “Well, I’ll take care of that for you right now.” And she did.
Back home in Los Angeles six days later, my flesh revealed the evidence of a secret war. My arms and hands were bruised from multiple IV lines and blood draws. Adhesive tape and electrode monitors left behind a sticky, grey-colored camouflage print over my arms, thigh and midriff. Mysterious scrapes that resembled carpet burns appeared haphazardly over my torso, along with the starring wound: the angry-looking, deep, dark red line marking my décolletage, buckling where the cut folded into itself.
Post-surgery, pain emanated from deep inside my chest as if an ax was buried there. Even the smallest movements—pushing down on a soap dispenser or opening the fridge— made me flinch in pain, and arching forward to put on socks hurt so bad it summoned tears. When my anguish was at its worst, I unnerved my husband Rob with my wailing.
Days passed slowly. Netflix became my best friend and I ordered food and groceries to be delivered, as if I were a millennial. I inspected my sternum in a magnifying mirror daily for changes. To my surprise, I felt nothing but tenderness for the long, stark gash on my chest. Strangely, it didn’t seem ugly and I decided to be kind to myself, for a change, and cultivate admiration for the battles I’d endured.
There were milestones along the way that I rejoiced in: having my independence back and driving a car again, attempting my first aerobics class and being able to receive an enthusiastic hug without cringing in pain. Overall, I came to have the utmost gratitude for my body and its ability to bounce back.
It took about a year, but I’m finally just now feeling like myself again. Once more, I’m up for long walks around our neighborhood, which makes our big German Shepherd happy. Now that I am out of the woods, Rob and I are planning to travel again — it might even be somewhere exotic.
I may have spent my 50th birthday recovering, but for 51, I plan to throw on a slinky, low-cut dress that showcases my cleavage’s ‘new jewelry,’ — and celebrate.