Heart Surgery: Necessity and Bragging Rights

My father had to be the world’s worst medical patient. He avoided doctors whenever possible, took his medications when he felt like it (usually the night before his doctor’s appointment), and often quoted me his anthem: “Don’t let anybody near you with a knife, especially a doctor, as long as you’re strong enough to fight them off.”

Fortunately, he mellowed in his later years, and we got to enjoy his company well into his eighties. However, old habits die hard. Once I sat in the doctor’s office with him and answered the doctor’s questions, basically reciting all Dad’s symptoms. On the drive home he said to me, “Next time, be quiet.He didn’t need to know all that stuff. It just causes trouble.”

We have a family history of medical humor. I heard my first bit of “heart humor” forty years ago when they carted my friend, Bill Nicholas, into the Emergency Room in Cardiac Arrest. They notified his wife, who immediately came to the hospital, walked into Intensive Care, and found Bill hooked up to what looked like every machine in the hospital. She looked around the room, startled. Bill, who was awake, managed to whisper: “Don’t turn anything off!”

In 2003, at the age of 66, I had a triple bypass: that’s real open heart surgery (although, as some friends have since told me: “A Triple is nothing. I had a Quadruple.”).

Another friend said that, “Middle age is when you get billed for all the decisions you thought you had made for free.” That’s a good point, and worthy of consideration by the younger generation.

I earned my spurs in the business world. Now I can prove it in the geriatric world too: I had what the doctors call a triple CABG (Coronary Artery Bypass & Graft), also known to the medics as a “Cabbage.”  I don’t recommend it for the casual hypochondriac; and don’t have one just for the status of it. However, it is a talking point, and the guys who went through it with me were a great and funny bunch. Referring to the long, vertical chest incision we each had, one will often ask: “How’s the old zipper doing?”

When I went in, I first remember the surgeon who came to see me carrying a huge folder with my name on it. “I know everything about you now,” he said.

I replied, “And I don’t even know if you’re a real doctor.”

“Actually,” he said, “I’m with the Placebo Surgical Team. We open you up, sew you back together, and see if that makes you feel any better.”

My friend Steve asked his surgeon if his upcoming heart operation was risky. The doctor replied: “No. All you’re putting up is a $20.00 co-pay.”

Fortunately, all went well for me. While I was in post-op, conscious and bored (as usual), they wheeled in a man, about my age, with tubes and connections everywhere. He looked like a cross between a marionette and a mummy. He was very still, but his eyes were open, so I asked him: “How are you doing?”

It immediately occurred to me what a stupid question that was. I just had to look at him to know how he was doing. However, at length, he slowly turned his head toward me and replied, “Never had a better day in my life.”

Charlie says he was having a new valve installed in his heart. The doctor was showing it to him in the Operating Room. Charlie half-jokingly asked: “Does that thing come with a guarantee?”

The doctor replied: “Oh yes, a lifetime guarantee.” Charlie says he remembers going under the anesthesia thinking: “What does that mean?”

And there were out-and-out jokes too: Did you hear that they transplanted the heart of a Rhesus monkey into the body of a fifty year old man? They believe the operation was successful, but they won’t know for sure until they get him down off the lights.

Sondra made a political commentary: She said the surgeon briefed her after her Democrat husband’s bypass: “It’s touch and go,” he said. “We’re getting brain waves okay, but the heart is weak.” The woman replied, “Oh no, is he turning into a Republican?” He recovered with no noticeable effect on his politics.

Jack saw this on a bumper sticker: “Heart attacks are God’s punishment for eating His little animal friends.”

Paul, who checks everything, says he asked his doctor how many heart operations he had performed. The doctor replied, “Over 500.”

“How many were successful?” asked Paul.

The doctor answered, “I’m hoping that you’ll be the first.”

Phil had his bypass at 85. The doctor was lecturing him afterwards about taking better care of himself. Phil said, “I promise not to die young.”

Judy’s Uncle Bun had a bypass at the age of 92. He was an active man, part-time salesman, who still drove his own car. He thinks an important determining factor in his approval for the operation was his revelation to the doctor that for his 92d birthday, he had bought himself three new suits. They did the bypass, and Uncle Bun had six more good years in those new suits.

Another friend sent me this alleged national News Release: “The AMA announced today that surgeons who play video games are more proficient at their craft because modern medical equipment is often controlled with a joy stick. However, heart surgeons who routinely lose at Wii’s new ‘Bypass Surgery Game’ should be avoided.”

Tom’s story is best: His doctor recommended heart surgery and Tom asked for a second opinion. He wanted the best and he could afford it. They sent him to a prestigious hospital in Boston and scheduled meetings with several surgeons. Tom noticed a plaque on one doctor’s office wall. It had some sort of medical symbol, the doctor’s name, and it read: “America’s Number One Heart Surgeon: 2002 – 2012.” That gave him great confidence. “This is the surgeon for me,” thought Tom.

The operation was successful. Tom was recovering in his room when the surgeon came by to check in and report that everything was fine. He said that Tom’s progress was amazing. “I knew it would be,” Tom said, “as soon as I saw that plaque on your office wall.”

“What plaque?” asked the surgeon.

“The one about your being the ‘Number One Heart Surgeon in America’,” said Tom.

“Yes,” replied the doctor, “Isn’t it great? My kids gave that to me on Father’s Day.”

And, I couldn’t close without this Jackie Gleason/Art Carney classic bit.  Jackie’s character, Ralph Kramden, had surgery and through a lab mix-up got the wrong test results back. They indicated he had but four months to live. Horribly depressed, he shared his concern with Art’s character, Ed Norton, the sewer worker. Ed dismissed the whole thing as trivial: “I have a friend who worked in the sewer with me, and once they told him he had just four months to live.”

Brightening a bit, Ralph asked: “Oh yeah? And what happened to him?”

With a bright and reassuring grin, friend Norton replied: “He lived for six months!”

Oh well. I guess that, like anything else, if you can laugh about it, you can come through it just fine.

But, like the feller says: “Take care of yourself.”

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