In Which I Get My New Aortic Valve & Take it Out For Walks







On the very (very) hot afternoon of June 30, I was walking the four blocks it took to get from the 47th Street and Walnut bus stop to my West Philadelphia condo between Spruce and Pine Streets. My son was striding ahead of me as I struggled to catch my breath. When I got to the corner of Spruce, I suppose I must have been in bad enough shape for my son to ask, “You OK, Dad?”

And that’s when I blacked out and, from what I was later told, fell face first on the sidewalk.

I had come to shortly afterwards, my face covered with flecks of concrete, my left eye oozing and burning. Apparently it was my son, whose home is about 2,900 miles west of us but,, fortunately, happened to be visiting us that week, who called 911 and was instructed to turn me over on my back so I could breathe. The only pain I was feeling was from my eye; there was no chest pain whatsoever even though the immediate diagnosis was that I had suffered a heart attack.

I spent whatever was left of the afternoon and evening in Penn Presbyterian Hospital’s emergency room as all kinds of tests were administered (EKGs, EEGs, ultra-sound and bloodwork, bloodwork, bloodwork). By the following afternoon, a cardiologist came in to tell me that I didn’t have a heart attack, but that I was laid low by something called aortic valve stenosis.

It was not entirely unexpected. I was warned some years back that there was… something going on with my aortic valve. As recently as a year ago, I found myself short of breath on my morning walks but preferred to think it had something to do with having to wear a mask outside because of COVID-19. Except that when I didn’t have to wear a mask, I still needed to take breaks if I walked more than, say, four blocks back and forth from home.

Whatever the case, things had gotten serious enough to consider one of two procedures for dealing with this. The first was an all-out replacement of the valve through open-heart surgery, which the cardiologist believed would be both painful and drastic. The second was the less invasive transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), in which, as the name implies, a catheter is inserted through the leg or chest and implants a replacement valve into the damaged valve. This was considered the option with the least possible hospitalization time and, as such, sounded preferable. At first.

I was sent home for a while with orders to avoid heavy lifting and other exertions. (“Can you be sedentary?” the cardiologist asked. Like a fiend! I replied.) I had to wait for Penn’s cardio-surgery team to fully inspect my portfolio of scans and X-Rays to determine which of the two options was the best. When the team captain, as it were, told me of “severe calcification” around the exhausted valve I sensed where this was going and by the time they told me they were going to break my chest open and do a full-bore valve replacement, I was OK with it, even at (a kind of) peace.

“You’re young enough,” I was told, “to withstand whatever rigors will happen with the surgery.” Which was the first time I was ever aware that being sixty-eight was “young enough” for any “rigors,” physical or otherwise. Fine, whatever.

Surgery took place August 27 and took several hours. (Or so I was told later.) All went well, except for what I was later told was a helluva time trying to “intubate” me to help with breathing or eating or maybe both. I can’t say which, for sure. The day was kind of a blur for me. As was the day after and part of the day after, which, if memory serves, was a Sunday.

I remained more or less out-of-it for the following 24 hours or so, during which time the chief surgeon and some of his team dropped by and noted how good my incisions looked. That was cute of them, because they felt like hell, all swollen and very sore. To his credit, the chief surgeon did tell me at the outset that open-heart surgery was going to hurt. So no one can say I wasn’t warned.

Oh…I almost forgot…


One of the assurances my procedure offers is that my replacement valve will be totally organic (if that’s the right word) and that it would either be a “porcine” or “bovine” valve. Since my surgeon prefers the latter, there was no chance I was going to get pork instead of beef. So my new valve comes by way of the cow…or, maybe even a bull. I don’t know for sure and neither does anybody else. At least, nobody’s told me.

So, in the absence of such information, I have resolved to do what an old friend of mine did and give my new valve a name: Ferdinand.

Now before any accusations of gender preference are heaved in my direction (I’m still kind of an invalid, people, so cool it), let me remind you who Ferdinand is: the hero of a 1936 children’s book by Munro Leaf (1905-1976) about a nonconformist bull who prefers lying under trees and smelling flowers to charging matadors. It’s proven so popular that it’s inspired more than one animated film and lulled several generations of small children to sleep. It’s also been banned in some libraries for being subversive, accused, by turns, of being anarchist, pacifist, communist and (even) fascist. Mostly, I think of him as the ultimate passive resistor, Gandhi with hooves, horns and a tail. I don’t think I’m the only one.

So Ferdinand and I left hospital five days after surgery and we seem to be getting along just fine even with the residual soreness that logically ensues from having one’s chest bone sawed open and sewn together again. I’ve taken my new bovine pal out for short walks at least twice daily now and am already anticipating our first party, road trip, ball game and live concert.

But not all at once. If there is anything this now receding summer has given me, it is the impulse to take one’s time on everything. And by “everything,” I mean…everything: walking, talking, bathing, eating, even picking stuff off the floor. Is “re-behave” a word? If so, that’s what I’ve been doing these last three weeks and expected to be doing more of the same for the weeks and months to come. Quite likely, it was about time anyway.

Now if you’ll excuse us. The bovine and I have some flowers to smell.