“Trouble is, there’s not enough of us to go around – we’re spread thin, so sometimes, important things get ignored or don’t get said.” – Judge Tolliver (John Goodman), The Jack Bull (1999)
Yesterday I had the chance to go back to school – I went back to my Alma Mater to our School of Nursing!
I asked for directions just to be sure – when I graduated the School of Nursing didn’t exist. And I didn’t want to assume I could find it only to discover that it was in a back corner of the campus. But it wasn’t a problem; as soon as I turned off of the main highway and scanned the campus, there it was. Everything was exactly as described, which usually doesn’t happen – more often than not, I get twisted up and turned around but everything went perfectly.
After meeting the instructor for the first time, we went upstairs and into a classroom where I met the students (about 30 of them) and talked about myself and my heart defect. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know I usually post the printed text of my presentation. Not the case this time – as I told the students, when I make a presentation to Heart Families, I’ve got a plan and am pretty sure what I will say. With them, I wasn’t sure what they wanted or needed to know, so I’d just talk about myself. If they had a question, feel free to break in.
Someone had a really good question about did I need oxygen. Technically no, I don’t need oxygen, but I sleep with a flow of four liters per hour. It was originally prescribed to keep my Hemoglobin down, and I can skip it for several days without problem. When I take a weekend trip, I don’t take it with me. But I’m like a rechargeable battery and the O2 is like my charger – after about 4 days of sleeping without oxygen, I feel run down.
After I talked about myself and the Question and Answer session, we moved over a larger room set up as a hospital ward. When I walked in there was a bed to my right with a medical mannequin in the bed, tucked under the covers neatly. I saw him/it out of the corner of my eye and for a moment there I thought it was a real person!
We didn’t bother Earl (or whatever the mannequin’s name was), he looked comfortable. I took another bed, and in pairs and threes the students came in and examined me. My heart was listened to more times than I can could count, and everyone took a close look at my blue fingernails. My right hand is a little more blue than usual because of the swelling associated with my wrist, but my left hand is better suited to observe Capillary Refill (press down on the fingernail until it turns white, then release. Observe how long it takes for the blood to flow back.)
More than one student seemed to be very interested in the fact that you can’t read my pulse in my left arm – a side effect of the Blalock-Taussig Shunt, the surgery I had in 1977. In the Blalock-Taussig, the Left Subclavian Artery is cut and sewn into the Pulmonary Artery. The Left Subclavian normally passes near the shoulderblade (the Clavicle), and down the left arm. Because it has been disconnected, you can’t get a pulse in my left arm, can’t take an accurate blood pressure reading, and blood draws and vaccine injections should be done in the right arm.
(NOTE: If you have the Modified Blalock-Taussig Shunt, a small artificial connection is used to connect the Subclavian Artery to the Pulmonary Artery and the Subclavian is left intact. You usually can feel the pulse bilaterally on a patient with the Modified Blalock-Taussig!)
When the students weren’t listening to my heart, the instructor was – with an electronic recording stethoscope. I’ve had this done before, back in 1977 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (recounted in this post.) But back then it was a Stethoscope head connected to wires that ran to a machine the size of a toolbox, that recorded my heart on a cassette tape. This one looked like a regular Stethoscope, perhaps a little thicker around the head. It would record (sensitive enough that it recorded a cough!) and then transmit the recording to a laptop computer via Bluetooth! My Geek side started getting the best of me, and I was developing a very, very bad case of STEVE WANT! But I knew that if I asked how much it cost, the instructor would inject me with 1000 cc’s of reality. Reality is a difficult drug to take – it’s good for you, but can make you feel pretty lousy.
I enjoyed my visit to the Nursing School and I’d like to thank everyone for making me feel so welcome. Even if none of the students chose to work in Congenital Cardiology, they’ll bump into other patients like me – it’s estimated that in the United States, there are slightly more adults living with a Congenital Heart Defect than there are children. Adults with Heart Defects are living longer and better, and we’ll have “normal” medical problems in addition to our bad hearts. And today’s Cardiac Kids are growing into tomorrow’s Heart Warriors.
So its important for those of us with a heart defect to “meet the public” – and not just to raise awareness, but to educate. To guide new Heart Families through this scary world we never expected to enter, but also to give the professionals who will be taking care of us a chance to learn from us. it doesn’t matter if someone is the best Heart Surgeon, the best Cardiologist, or the very best Cardiac Care Nurse… sometime in the past, these people had no idea that Heart Defects even existed.
Someone had to teach them.