My Heart Story

By Dennis Archambault

I have had the opportunity to observe several surgical procedures, from the first transplantation of five digits in a human hand and the meticulous reconstruction of a face shattered by an automobile accident to various other more “routine” operations. All made a critical difference in the lives and functions of people. None, however, held the drama and multiple levels of impact as open heart surgery.

On one level, the heart is an essential machine that pumps blood throughout the body. Unlike other organs that provide a critical function that sustains life, the beating heart is also a symbol of emotion — love, in a romantic sense, passion in general. The image of a Valentine’s Day heart has little resemblance to the anatomically correct image of the heart in Grey’s Anatomy, yet for our culture the symbolism of life’s vitality is interchangeable.

While writing a profile of a cardiac surgeon, I was invited to observe him at work. Positioned to the upper right of the patient, standing on a lift overlooking the chest, I observed the procedural movement of the heart team, leading to the opening of the chest. At the appropriate moment, the surgeon reached into the chest cavity and lifted the heart for me to see. It was the most profound moment I have ever witnessed as a health journalist. The care of human beings in all ways is a noble calling. With the slowly pulsating organ in the hand of the surgeon, life and the passion of life came together and nearly caused me to collapse. Awesome is a tired word in our culture today, but that was truly an awesome moment.

Cardiovascular disease would take my father’s life and nearly cause the death of my mother. Because of my work, I knew enough to respect the genetic risk and the danger of a “borderline” cholesterol level.

The decision to designate Heart Month during the month in which many are focused on Valentine’s Day and expressions of love was a clever move, but also meaningful, as it causes us to reflect on the profound role this organ plays in our lives.