I couldn’t look at myself. Every time I did, I wanted to vomit. I was dizzy and got weak in the knees and felt like I was about to pass out. It wasn’t just that I didn’t recognize myself without make up and the world’s dirtiest hair, I was literally making myself sick. It’s a horrible feeling to not even want to look in the mirror. But I couldn’t do it. Eventually, nurses taped towels to the mirror so I wouldn’t accidentally catch a glimpse of my reflection.
Let me back up.
I was expected to be healthy but ended up being born with several congenital heart defects. I’ve had three open heart surgeries. I had my first at just a week old. I have to take medication multiple times a day. I have to take an antibiotic every time I go to the dentist, even if it’s just a cleaning as a precaution. When I was a kid, it was liquid form and it made me gag. I can still taste it. Then it went to giant, chalky horse pills. Those made me gag too. But now? Simple gel capsules. Only 4 of them. No big deal. X-rays, EKGs and Echocardiograms are part of my yearly routine. It sounds worse than it is. Those tests really are painless. Sometimes I have to have CT scans and MRIs. Those are worse. Probably because I’m claustrophobic. And the contrast dye running through your veins isn’t very enjoyable either. Not painful. Just so weird. You can feel it travelling through your veins and it leaves a warm sensation like you just wet yourself and a metallic taste in your mouth. I can’t go on roller-coasters (although, I don’t think I’m missing out). I’m not supposed to go in hot tubs (so I only stay in for a short while). I can’t play contact sports. But I also didn’t have to do the dreaded running tests in gym class. Sometimes I go into my appointments totally cool, calm and collected. Other times, I’m terrified and fear the worst.
I went to college and fell in love. As we were getting ready for the wedding I made an appointment one last time with my cardiologist. He had been my doctor for my whole life and knew my heart better than anyone. After the wedding, I would be moving out of state and would transfer my cardiac care to another doctor. As I lay on the table in the dark room (as I had done before, so many times) I listened to the whoosh of my heartbeat. Then I saw my doctor’s face and I knew something wasn’t right. My heart will never look like a typical heart but the look on his face told me this wasn’t my normal either. Things had changed dramatically in the 8 months since my previous appointment. Another open heart surgery would be happening. This was April. Our wedding was in May.
We told family and some close friends. Then we told them not to talk about it. We wanted to focus on our upcoming nuptials. I wanted to be seen as a beautiful bride; not a sick one. Our wedding went off without a hitch. Those vows about sickness and health were about to be put to the test.
Prior to the surgery, I met with the surgeon and heard in detail what they would do during the 10+ hour procedure. Details I could have done without. He also told me the mortality rate. At this point, it was starting to feel real and a little bit scary.
In June, just a month after our wedding I was being prepped for surgery. I had the chance to kiss my husband goodbye before they wheeled me in to the sterile operating room. That moment was hard. I didn’t know if that was our last kiss. I hoped and prayed it wasn’t.
Recovery was a long and difficult process. Recovery as a kid was so much easier- after all, kids are resilient. Everything hurt. I felt weak and I was so exhausted. Even sitting up took so much effort. Standing up felt like a marathon. I was lonely despite having visitors and nurses in the room almost constantly. And I couldn’t look at myself. So thankful for the nurses who decided to tape towels to the mirror. It helped so much if I didn’t have to look.
It’s not that I was disgusted with myself. I just can’t stomach fresh scars. Especially when they’re my own. As the scars healed, I got braver and could look at myself. Those scars are a reminder of what I’ve been through and I no longer hide them. My zipper is a part of me. I don’t know life without it and honestly, I’m not sure that I’d want to. It is what it is and it helped shape me into the person I am today.
I’m thriving. I’m a wife. I’m a mom. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m a neighbor. I’m a friend. I’m a heart patient. I could be easily be you. February is National Heart Month. It’s a time to bring awareness to heart health. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the number 1 killer of all women and about 1 out of every 100 babies born will have a congenital heart defect. Heart disease and stroke will kill 1 out of 3 women. With those stats, we should all be working together to bring awareness. For more information, facts, and symptoms, be sure to check out www.heart.org. #GoRedWearRed