I have one of these inside me. I can assure you that I didn’t do it for fun. I did it because the alternative would have been a long, slow death. This was referred to as ‘elective’ surgery: I could elect to live or I could elect to die. I elected to live.
So why exactly did I need it? Well, my aortic valve wasn’t working very well. You know what the aortic valve is, right? No, okay, but you’ve heard of the aorta?
If you’re a human being, then you almost certainly have one, because you have a heart which pumps blood round your body. That journey starts with a single tube leading up from the heart: the aorta. It heads up because the hardest place to get blood to is the head, but that (and blood pressure) creates a problem: as soon as it’s been pumped up, it wants to come back down again. That’s why you also need a valve. Otherwise, blood rushes back, which makes pumping it out in the first place rather pointless.
So the aortic valve closes after every heartbeat to make sure that when the heart gets the blood on its way, it stays on its way. Some people develop problems with the valve. Sometimes it stops being able to close completely, so that blood squirts back into the heart. As time goes by, this gets worse. You get out of breath. You don’t have the energy you used to. You have dull aches in your chest and then sharp stabbing pains. You become more and more limited in everything you do. Eventually the heart fails.
So you need a new valve. And that’s exactly what I have! But enough of all this medical science: what does it feel like?
Painful: because I only had the surgery a week and a half ago. This is open heart surgery, so the sternum has to be cracked open. Right now that’s healing up and it both hurts and itches. There’s a pill for the former. Not so much for the latter. (argh, mustn’t scratch, mustn’t scratch…) The wound will heal in time, and the chest pains are already receding. It’s not an instant fix; the heart takes time to get back to normal. But I should be completely free of symptoms in a few months.
Big: because the tissue around it is still swollen. There’s a lump at the base of my throat that’s rather tender, and the implant is in there somewhere. It’s pressing on my oesophagus and making it a little difficult to swallow some foods. Either that or my throat is still sore from the tube they put down it during surgery. Anyway, I’ve been eating a lot of soft, gloopy things recently. But the swelling will go down in time.
Noisy: because it ticks.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
The valve is made of a special smooth carbon rather than cartilage or flesh. So it clicks when it shuts. It does this with every heartbeat. It doesn’t sound like something high tech: it sounds like an old wristwatch, ticking away inside me with every heartbeat.
It’s not just me that hears it. Anyone with good enough hearing can detect it if the room is quiet enough. This is what it sounds like from the outside:
For me, it’s a much brighter sound, like a tiny clockwork escapement ticking away at the base of my throat. It makes it hard to sleep. You can ignore it during the day, but there’s no escaping it in the dead of night. I’ve been playing woodland relaxation sounds in my earbuds to give me some white noise as a distraction; that seems to work. As time goes by, my brain will probably get better and better at ignoring the noise; I’m told that some people find it to be very reassuring.
Because after all, it means your heart is still beating. And I’d like to keep that happening for a good long while yet.
Many thanks to the NHS and University Hospital Coventry for the diagnosis, surgery and care. Valve by On-X Life Technologies of Austin, TX.