Mr. Chatterbox - September 2010

By Robert Plunket Photography by Cliff Roles September 1, 2010

I want to thank everybody who went out of their way to offer me their thoughts and prayers during my recent open-heart surgery. I’ve never seen such an outpouring. The flowers were lovely, the cards amusing, and the gifts, when I resold them last week at a garage sale, brought top prices. So I feel you are owed a detailed description of what I went through, of how I suffered so incredibly, and how I finally triumphed against all odds.

Fortunately, I’m not going to do that. But I do feel I should tell you the part of the story they don’t want you to know—the things they don’t tell you about open-heart surgery, the dirty secrets of Sarasota’s most popular operation. Such as . . .

When it happens, you’ll know. The first thing people ask me is, how did you know you were having a heart attack? Well, for the longest time I didn’t. I thought it was Mark Famiglio. He was making a speech at the kickoff party for the film festival and I found myself becoming more and more nauseous. This is unusual, as Mark’s speeches usually give me violent headaches. Fortunately, the moment passed and I went back to the buffet table, which was spectacular. I’ll never forget that buffet table—all sorts of shrimps, roast beef, cheeses, cream sauces, crabs, skewers, coconut cake, mustard sauces, little Indonesian things—because I will never be able to eat that way again.

I got home and went to bed early, stuffed with food and a tiny bit drunk. A little indigestion was predictable, and it soon appeared. I got out the Rolaids. They helped. But after a while I noticed that I just couldn’t get comfortable. I’d turn this way and that, I’d sit up and try and burp. Then I noticed something strange—my heart was beating wildly. So I did the logical thing—took more medication.

Then I noticed something odd. There was a funny feeling in my chest, sort of like a . . . pain. Right in the middle. And it was getting sharper. I decided to give it five minutes. I lasted two. Something was clearly wrong. I ran into the living room waving my hands and screaming, “Take me to the hospital!”

The hospital isn’t the scary place it used to be. I hadn’t spent the night in a hospital in decades. Well, they’ve improved tremendously. First of all, everybody now has their own TV. This cuts down the level of tension and anxiety enormously. And I think they gave the staff sensitivity training. Everybody was so sensitive. The nurses were incredibly sensitive. Even the guys who brought the food were sensitive, not to mention smartly dressed in tuxedo shirts with black bowties. The only person who wasn’t sensitive was the guy who makes you walk. It seems that the latest theory in surgery recovery is to make patients immediately start walking, no matter how much they don’t want to. So this poor guy—his name was Ivan—has to constantly go around the cardiac floor and make these hostile old people get out of bed and walk.

Fortunately, there were none of the dreaded complications that they kept sensitively warning me about. I did not get pneumonia, or an infection of my breastbone, or a blood clot, or another heart attack. I adjusted brilliantly to the catheter. Best of all, I felt young. Looking around at the other patients, I felt like the baby of the group. (It’s not unusual for a person in his or her 80s to undergo this type of operation.) True, there was a setback when I woke up from a nap to find Cliff Roles sitting next to me, reading a book about f-stops. But other than that I felt safe and woozy and very well taken care of.

Why? Could it have been that little device they gave me, a clicker like the contestants use on Jeopardy? You press with your thumb and you get a little jolt of pain medication. You are allowed as much as you want. There’s some sort of fail-safe system built in so you don’t OD. I have only the vaguest memories of this contraption. I don’t even remember using it. But I do remember that for weeks afterwards my thumb was sore.

The surgery is fine. It’s the recovery that’s murder. Before the operation, they tell you how ordinary it is, how commonplace, how they do 800 a year at Sarasota Memorial, how one guy, a dentist, was back at work exactly a week after surgery. But afterward, when you start to complain about the horrible agony you’re going through, they say, “Well, we cut your chest open and took out your heart, then put it back, and not necessarily in the same place. How do you expect to feel?”

My at-home recovery brought out the worst in me. I complained, I fretted, I snapped, I ordered people around. When I needed something I’d blow a police whistle. It wasn’t so much the pain that made me cranky as the constant discomfort. I couldn’t find a comfortable position. I hated food. And there wasn’t anything good on TV. Nights were the worst. How I came to dread them. The only way to sleep was on my back in a recliner. The light had to be on so I didn’t trip on my way to the bathroom.

And then—the last straw—the Viocodin started making me sick. I actually felt worse if I took it. So I started toughing things out, staring at the clock and thinking about how much this was costing me and how many years I had left to live.

Heart disease destroys your wonderful relationship with food. The biggest tragedy of heart disease is not the intimations of mortality but rather the way it destroys your love affair with food. Food was my friend. It comforted me, and we spent many a happy evening together, just the two of us. Well, now my friend has been banished by those awful doctors. And even worse, my friend betrayed me. After all these years, after all the salt and the cream sauces, my friend turned on me and clogged my arteries and tried to kill me. What was I going to do to replace this sudden and enormous void in my life? Help animals? Go back to school? Sneak sweet buns?

Luckily, they teach you how to have a healthy relationship with food. There are a lot of “no-no’s,” true—no sugar, no salt, no red meat, no pickles, no Häagen-Dazs, no prepared food, no baloney. But you can have all sorts of wonderful things, like lettuce and water.

You actually do get better. If there isn’t exactly a “new me,” at least there’s a very much improved “old me.” I’ve lost more than 50 pounds. I exercise three times a week. I eat great—at least one meal a day is all fruit and vegetables. I don’t even know what a salt shaker looks like. And you should see me get off the couch. I used to lumber and heave; now I leap effortlessly to my feet. Not only has open-heart surgery saved my life. It’s turning me into a veritable Audrey Hepburn.

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