Tag Archives: Aneurysm

To Bare Old Scars

It’s summer again and time to unwrap the long sleeves and high necks and reveal skin. I am not averse to baring skin  – but with it come a bevy of stares and questions. Already, children in my daughter’s pre-k class are pointing at the long red scar that dissects my chest and asking what it is.

A scar, I say, or a boo boo that is healing. They look uneasy at the response, I guess because that boo boo is pretty red and jagged. It begins just below my collarbones with a nubbly mass that has formed a keloid and continues down my chest, resembling exactly what it is: a knife cut. To top it off and make it even more sensitive, the keloid has formed on top of a bump, which is a cluster of wires used to fuse my bones post surgery.

The scar is almost four years old now, and the result of emergency open-heart surgery to remove an aortic aneurysm and replace a faulty heart valve with a mechanical one. Sadly, I found out the hard way, that I am prone to keloid scars, which are not only unattractive to look at but incredibly sensitive to touch.

There are days when my 5 year-old jumps on me, thrusting her head at my chest in loving play, and I shriek in agony as she swipes my scar. Or I bump it as I open a drawer or remove jewelry, and it brings tears to my eyes from the throbbing pain. Even just being exposed to sun can be agonizing as the skin sort of dries and contracts, no matter how much sunblock I smother on it, resulting in a uncomfortable, sunburn-like itch.

Magic Solutions?

Of course, there are things you can do to minimize such scars, I’ve been told repeatedly by well-meaning friends and doctors. So, a few weeks back, I went in search of one of these magic solutions. I made an appointment with a cosmetic dermatologist on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The doctor came with a great reputation, swanky rooms and a staff of sweet, leggy blondes of indeterminate age. Sitting in the waiting room, you could feel women looking at each other wondering what each was “having done.”

I was assured the good doctor could help me out with all sorts of non-invasive treatments, including lasers and other scar-zapping devices. But nothing is ever so easy. During a consultation (ka-ching), the doctor informed me that there were indeed great solutions for my scar but first we had to deal with the keloid and the only way to do that was to inject cortisone into the swollen, angry-looking mass.

I had this exact procedure once before in 2008 when I was visiting Australia, and it was the most mind-numbingly painful thing I had ever experienced.  After some back and forth though, I agreed to give it another shot (literally!).

The doctor tossed her blonde locks reassuringly and swabbed my scar with liquid nitrogen to help freeze the location and hopefully ease the pain. It didn’t.

Scared + Scarred

I am pretty pain tolerant but the pinch of the needle sliding in and out of the scar had me clawing  the bed, knuckles white and eyes watering until I broke down into full-blown sobbing and begged her to stop. I bore two children with no medication, and this, I told the doctor, was more grueling.

The poor doctor wanted so desperately to help me; and my sobbing unnerved her. I paid my hefty bill and left the offices in a pained daze. As I walked across town toward Central Park to gather my thoughts, I kept wondering why I had put myself through the procedure again knowing how much I loathed it. I tried in vain to ring my husband, fearing that I may just pass out in front of Bergdorf Goodman and be trampled by hoardes of fanny-pack-wearing tourists.

Would I come back in three weeks or so for another treatment, the doctor had asked before I left. She wanted to see how the scar responded and hopefully take another well-intentioned jab at it. Well, three weeks is up and I am in limbo. Admittedly the scar looks a tad better and is not as sore, but can I take another round with a steroid-filled needle?

Bleeding Heart

With Valentine’s Day putting red hearts front and center, I figure it’s as good a time as any to share my own story of an ailing heart. Back in 2006, I made a routine doctor’s appointment to check out a lingering cold. I just couldn’t shake a cough and sore throat and expected the doctor to send me packing with antibiotics, as he typically did. Instead, he listened to my heart and determined that I had a slight murmur. It was probably nothing, he said, and went on to do an Echocardiogram, finding that I had a leaky valve somewhere in there. This was Sept. 11, 2006, a date I considered ominous enough without the added burden of some brewing heart issue.

Being one to brush off ailments and generally be mistrustful of doctors, I thought nothing of all the fuss over a heart murmur. I mentioned, in passing, to my husband that the doc wanted me to go in for a CT scan, basically a fancy, detailed x-ray where they feed dye into the body to get a cross sectional image. The doctor just wanted to be sure the leaking valve was something minor and manageable. A lot of young, slim women apparently suffer from something called mitral valve prolapse, where one of the heart’s valves doesn’t close properly, without it ever causing any problem. That was the diagnosis he foresaw for me.

Worst Case Scenario

Instead, there were hushed conversations and panicked phone calls hours after I had the CT scan. The doctor had me booked for stress tests and a cardiac catheterization in the weeks ahead; there was a risk that not only did I have a leaking valve but it appeared I may have an aortic dissection that if aggravated could rupture to cause internal bleeding and at worst, death. The way he put it: “If it’s what it looks like, you should be dead. Lifting your children or carrying the stroller upstairs, you could just bleed out.”

My husband was livid. Frustrated and dissatisfied that I was booked to see specialists in a matter of weeks, he made a bunch of calls and came up with the name of a cardiologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital who dealt with cases such as mine. I rang her immediately and was told she was traveling; minutes later, apparently unnerved by the details I had left with her assistant, the cardiologist rang me from the airport. She pulled no punches. If what I told her was accurate, I needed to go straight to the emergency room where she would have a cardio team waiting.

Running Scared

You have to understand, I was at my son’s preschool to pick him up at the time. My son was three and my daughter just 16 months old and still breastfeeding. I had none of my family close-by or even aware of what was going on, and my in-laws, who came from Long Island to help, had never even spent the night with our children, let alone looked after them daily and in a time of crisis. I don’t remember much of what happened next, except that a neighborhood mommy and now very good friend stepped in and took the children home, while I collected myself, rang my husband in tears and literally ran from Cobble Hill to downtown Brooklyn to collect x-rays to take with me to the hospital.

That evening, my husband drove me to the ER, where I presumed I would wait for hours amid true emergencies for someone to see me. Instead, a posse of men and women in white coats sprang into action, studying me and my story over and over and over again. Indeed, I had a thoracic aortic aneurysm; and yes, I should have been dead like so many other young people I have since heard of who just keeled over with the same condition. There were no symptoms, no family history, and no explanations for why I had this or for how long I had it. It was decided that — at just 37 years of age and with no noteworthy medical history — I would have open heart surgery the next day to patch the aneurysm and replace my leaking valve with an artificial one. At this stage, I still hadn’t told my family anything was wrong, leaving that horrible task to my already stricken husband.

My only real recollection through any of it was being wheeled into the operating theater in tears after having to remove my wedding and engagement rings, which I never take off. That’s when I asked the surgeon if I would see my kids again, a notion that until then I hadn’t contemplated. It had all happened so quickly and so extremely,  it was almost an out-of-body experience.

Freak Case

I woke in the intensive care unit with my husband nearby and tubes coming out of my arms and mouth and nose. I was medicated to the eyeballs, so it wasn’t until a day or two later that I even realized how sore I was. The surgery had been a success and besides a whopping great scar down my front and taking blood thinners for the rest of my life, all seems to be well now. There’s still no explanation for how this happened; no family history; no warning signs — I am something of a freak case and as such, am now part of a research study into unexplained thoracic aortic aneurysms.

When I bare my scar, as is inevitable in just about anything I wear, I get plenty of double-takes from people wondering what happened, especially my children’s friends, who ask why that mommy has a big boo-boo. One very hot day last summer, I had beige-colored surgical tape over the scar to avoid it burning; an old woman on a lawn chair outside her Brooklyn home stopped me to ask if it was “the patch.” I never figured out if she meant a birth-control patch or one to quit smoking, either way it amused me. I could cover-up the scar I guess, but why?

Interestingly, as the American Heart Association promotes the Go Red for Women campaign and even Project Runway gets in on it, charging designers with the task of making runway worthy red dresses for women who have been affected by heart disease, I forget that I am one of those women. It was just 15 days between that first doctor visit and the surgery September 26, 2006. The entire process seems surreal, a bit like childbirth I guess, where you forget the agony just enough to contemplate doing it over again.

I rarely wear color but maybe this Valentine’s Day I’ll slip something red over the black New Yorker uniform, and celebrate that my ticker is fit and well.