One For the Heart

A UN of doctors saves a little American from ventricular septal defect

"It hurts," he whined.

"Sure it does, amorcito. You haven't done caca in three days and some of the medicines they gave you make it hard. Probably gonna hurt coming out."

"No, Dad," he insisted, half crying. "When I push, it hurts my scratch."

That's what he called the five-inch-long breastbone-splitting slash down his chest: his "scratch."

Later that afternoon he was transferred across the hall, out of ICU. He walked with me, holding my hand and complaining of dizziness. But the doctors and nurses had told us he should try to walk around some now, and we encouraged him. By that evening, he was walking up and down the hall, glad to be out of bed. The next morning the doctors checked him out. His chest had drained well and he was doing great. They did another echo, and a chest X-ray, and sent us home.


It's been months now. Joe is fine, back into the swing of his normal activities. The steri-strips have all fallen off and the incision is healing up nicely, a line down his chest that's still violet, but not too broad. He's been swimming in the ocean and has spent a day at the Venetian Pool, swimming and going to the bottom to retrieve tossed coins. The only things still prohibited, for another two weeks, since it takes six weeks for the sternum to knit, are tree-climbing and bike-riding, to avoid the possibility of a hard blow to the chest.

Nicoletta and I continue to float on a subtle high. I guess it's the lingering enormous relief. After coming through something like this, little things bother you less. I'm going to try to make that last.

For now, Joe is unselfconscious about his scar, which the literature from Miami Children's suggests parents tell their child is his or her "badge of courage." But who knows, when he's thirteen or so? Maybe he won't like it. And maybe there's something particular about the subconscious of a kid whose heart was stopped for nearly two hours, who didn't breathe for that long a time. Does your brain even know?

There's a saying in Spanish: "Lo que no te mata, te hace mas fuerte." "That which doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." I have an intuition that that will apply here.

For myself, and Nicoletta, what we take away from this whole deal has something to do with another saying in Spanish: "Miseria de otros, consuelo de tontos." "The misfortune of others is the consolation of fools."

I guess even the most wretched can find someone more miserable than themselves. In some sense, taking any sort of relief or consolation from that fact might be foolish. But when you bring it down to everyday life in the real world, it can be enlightening to raise your level of awareness of the many people dealing with problems and miseries so much more difficult than your own. The people I think about most when I ponder this experience are the mothers and their disfigured girls in the surgery waiting room, and Carrie from Nebraska and her parents, and Kinley from Missouri and her big family -- how they all were struggling so admirably and keeping their hopes up and maintaining their kindness and compassion, too.

I think of them when I think of how lucky we were with Joe, which is pretty often. I got in touch with Redmond Burke, Joe's surgeon, recently, to ask about Carrie and Kinley. He told me that in the weeks after we left the cardiac ward, "the girls did well," too.

This Christmas week, they're happily at home with their families.

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