“Mr. and Mrs. Mitra, after running a full stress echocardiogram and a CT scan of the chest, we can see clear evidence of aortic stenosis caused by a bicuspid valve in the heart. Essentially, the aortic valve in your son’s heart is deformed and impeding normal blood flow. It’s not uncommon to see this in people in their 60’s and older but, it is… well… it is unusual to see this in someone so young. The situation is not yet severe, but we should discuss options…”
I can’t believe this is happening. Something is wrong with my heart? What does this mean? Am I going to need a new one? Are they going to cut me open? Am I going to have to use some machine to live later on? This is the WORST thing ever happen to me.
“First, we should pull your son out of his school’s gym class.”
This is THE BEST THING EVER HAPPEN TO ME!
When I was 12 years old, my doctor heard a heart murmur during a routine checkup. Heart murmurs are weird sounding heartbeats. Here’s what a normal heartbeat sounds like:
Mine had a squishing noise in the middle of each beat. Here is what my heart murmur exactly sounded like:
So my parents took me to three different cardiologists in Houston to get it checked out. After a bunch of tests, they all agreed that something was wrong with my aortic valve. It’s the thing that connects the heart to the aorta, which takes newly oxygenated blood to the rest of your body. It’s like, pretty important. Specifically, the walls of the valve were much thicker than they were supposed to be and it was making blood flow dicey. They measured it by having me run on a treadmill while wearing a vest full of medical sensors and being injected with a bunch of radioactive dye. I really wanted a spider to bite me. You know, just to see what would happen.
Anyway, while they figured out what it was, it wasn’t immediately clear what caused it. It’s the kind of thing you find in older folks due to natural aging but in my case, I was probably born with a shitty valve. Most aortic valves have 3 ‘leaves’ that open and close as the heart pumps blood out to the body.
It turns out that my valve only had 2 leaves that made it look like a slit, which was a bit more dangerous.
So what did this mean? Well, when I was first diagnosed, it wasn’t very clear. Recommendations ranged from “Since he’s not showing any physical symptoms, let’s wait and see,” to “Holy crap! Lie down while I get a knife!” As one of the doctors was Indian, her opinion apparently counted a little extra as far as my Indian parents were concerned. So of the three opinions, it was basically a 10 to 1 consensus that we should wait it out. And so we did.
But it was hard to get my head around what was going on. On the one hand, I was a 12-year-old who found out something was wrong with his heart. In fact, it didn’t help when one of the doctors said, “well technically, the worst thing that could happen to anyone is that they could die.” Apparently, he was just making some weed-grade philosophical statement about the total frailty of all human biology, man. That didn’t stop my mom from tearing into him. The plus side was that I didn’t physically feel anything, but no one could say for certain how long that would last.
On the other hand, it also got me out of gym class. Look, I just sucked at sports, ok? If there was a ball and some running involved, there was a decent chance that I was face down somewhere in the middle of it all. While everyone else was scoring runs, I was somehow completely missing a kickball that was basically the size of a small car.
And it wasn’t just the actual sport. It was everything from nervously changing in the locker room, where I once had my sneakers thrown into a toilet, to leaving for the next class while Steven Bodes asked me if I remembered when he made that totally awesome catch. Yeah, because it was like 8 minutes ago. Then he kindly reminded me that I tripped on the way to the endzone when no one was near me. Thanks, Steven. Every minute of gym class was basically reliving a miserable failure from the previous minute. And worse, everyone seemed to know where everyone else stood in whatever athletic-coolness ranking was being used. I was forever stuck near the bottom. I made a couple of attempts to get out of gym by faking not feeling well but, that card got used up pretty quickly.
But then I got the greatest doctor’s note of all time. The doctors somberly broke the news to me that I wouldn’t be able to participate in gym or sports as if they were telling me I only had months to live. I think the ear to ear smile on my face confused the hell out of them.
I don’t know what they told the school, but something that included ‘heart condition,’ probably freaked everyone out enough to find me something else to do for those 45 minutes each day. And sure, sometimes that included doing laundry duty for the gym clothes, but that was a small price to pay (I’m now great at folding clothes — ask my wife). And soon enough, I just became that regular nerdy kid who knew pi further out than the rest of class (thanks, dad) and who came in 2nd place in the spelling bee and NOT that kid who did those things and came in dead last in the long distance run. Even Shawn Murphy, the only kid in school who used a bench press, started talking to me out of the blue. I’m pretty sure that he didn’t even recognize me from before in gym class and just assumed I was new to the school.
I was a whole new person now.
Thanks, Texas Children’s Hospital. I was already feeling better.
Epilogue: Oh yeah, this heart thing would get complicated later. Stay tuned.