How can you mend a broken heart?

Visit the Frankel Center with a woman like this

She stops the rain from falling down.

“How are you feeling, William?” asked Dr. Shinichi Fukuhara, as he entered surgical recovery a few hours after succesfully completing a complex repair of my aortic valve and doing a bypass on one of my coronary arteries. Not a full Letterman, but open-heart surgery nonetheless.

“I feel my like my chest has been cut open with bone saws and forceps,” I muttered. He nodded, stifled a laugh, with what I assumed to be Japanese politness, or, more likely, he had heard such brashness before. But, crikey, I wasn’t deadpanning: The recovery pain was intense.

A note while in recovery — still intubated — I scratched out to Danielle, complaining about tubes and pain. Not at all like me, to be sure.

At the end of 2019, during an annual physical, my doctor detected a heart murmur. He recommended I see a cardiologist sometime in the new year.

In February 2020 I got married. First things first. That part of my heart was more of a priority. I saw a cardiologist in early March. Many tests followed. Since I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms, and Covid was raging, the valve job could wait.

Complicating things, in the summer, after a series of unfortunate events (falling off a mountain bike while resting, for instance), doctors discovered — and successfully removed last year — a large brain tumor on the left side of my brain. The heart repair was delayed, again, until October of this year.

To pass the time in the hospital — ten days on this tour — I would chat with my guardian angel wife Danielle, who was by my side twelve hours a day, check in on Michigan football blogs, and trade YouTube videos via iMessage of Ann Arbor-founded funk band Vulfpeck, with my son, Mick. One sleepless night I stumbled upon a fine PBS profile of journalist-TV presenter Alistair Cooke, whom I hadn’t thought about in years.

It’s been an eventful — shall we say — couple of years. The tumor did some damage. But, thankfully, I still have the mind of a twelve-year-old, as is regularly pointed out at home. My heart literally (as the kids say) and figuratively is mended. My friends and family — especially my beautiful and brave wife Danielle — inspire me.

Recovery is not so bad. I still can’t drive, but I am fond of buses, Uber, and walking. I’m embarrassed to admit, but I finally read “Catcher in the Rye,” which I loved, if you wanna know the truth. I have a newfound affinity for the Canadian rock band Rush. Go figure. And I still have my boyish good looks.

When I was an Opinion Page editor at the Michigan Daily, in the 1980s, I routinely criticized UM policy (slow to divest from apartheid South Africa, for example). But when it comes to saving the life of old Bill — twice — in the past several months, I hold the University’s Michigan Medicine system in the highest possible regard.

Heading home. She makes the world go round.

All allusions to “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” taken from the hit song, written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb.

Alive and kicking

Five months ago I walked into U-Hospital for what I assumed to be a straightforward craniotomy to remove the 8-centimeter tumor wedged atop the left side of my brain. I blame the massive meningioma — which, my surgeon explained matter-of-factly, had been in my head for years — for my simplemindedness about the risks. Add it to the list of things I have misjudged. Mistakes? I’ve had a few.

I still laugh at my own jokes when I can remember the punchlines.

Brain surgery ain’t rocket science, but it is brain surgery, and it can be tricky. A pre-op procedure revealed that my internal carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain, was 90% occluded — likely a congenital irregularity — making the surgery significantly more complicated. During the 12 hours I was on the table I lost 4 liters of blood (the average human has five). My surgeon told me weeks later that I was fortunate to survive. That I was able to walk out of U-Hospital 15 days later, with my wife, Danielle, by my side — as she has been throughout this ordeal — is testament to her love and encouragement, and to the quality of care I received from my Michigan Medicine team. It also speaks to my privilege of having first-class health insurance, provided by Danielle’s employer, and to living within walking distance to one of the world’s best hospitals. Hurrah for the Yellow and Blue!

I’m not out of the woods yet. Meningiomas are typically benign but do their damage by pressing against the brain over time, which can effect cognition, movement, and speech. Most meningiomas also return, the only question is when, and to what degree. My brain continues to have swelling — not unexpected after such a trauma, my doctors tell me — and they remain hopeful that it will subside with time. My right shoulder, arm, and hand bore the brunt of the damage. Full recovery of their functionality remains uncertain. I wrote this piece left-handed, which is frustrating, and something former newspaper bosses regularly accused me of when I was on deadline. My cognition is mostly fine, and I still laugh at my own jokes when I can remember the punchlines. My ability to spell complex words — carefully honed during a lengthy career as a copy editor and journalist — is a struggle. My speech on good days sounds somewhere between Hugh Grant and Alex Trebek; on bad days, like the lazy-tongued Michigander I am, after having had one too many bottles of Stroh’s.

I am a lucky man, this I know. Although my world has shrunk for the moment, as it has for so many during this awful pandemic, I am focused on what I can control and what I cannot. I have people in my life who love and need me. I am grateful for that. And I am happy.

Growing up, a favorite aunt used to playfully chide me when she questioned my decision making. “You should have your head examined!” What I wouldn’t give to tell her she was right.

Night before surgery.
A moment of weakness.
Heading home.

Continue reading “Alive and kicking”