February is an important month for many people. For football fans, there’s the Super Bowl. For friends and lovers, there’s Valentine’s Day. It is also Black History Month, recognizing the achievements and struggles of Black people throughout the history of the United States. But did you know that February is also National Heart Month?
With this in mind, we would like to revisit a story about the heart, originally published by the Radiolab Podcast in 2015.
The story is about Summer Ash, a middle-aged engineer and astrophysicist based in New York City. Ash had been following up on a diagnosis 15 years earlier of a minor heart issue called a murmur, what she described as a “whoosh in between the thump-thumps” of her heartbeats. Only this time, the results from her scans were not so minor: her aorta measured five centimeters, twice as large as normal size.
The aorta is the main artery supplying oxygenated blood throughout the body. If the artery bursts, “there is not much an ER can do” before the patient bleeds out internally. Ash’s doctor first told her to “not panic —but it would be a good idea to see a heart surgeon.”
Before she knew it, surgeons were cutting open her sternum and pulling back her ribcage to get to the heart. Once there, they injected fluid to make the heart stop beating. Hooked up to a heart-lung bypass machine, completely drained of blood, her heart turned quiet and limp for three hours. “I was heart-dead, I guess.”
We know this because Ash specifically requested someone in the operating room documenting the proceedings. The scientist in her wanted to see the aortic valve —“when things were cut, when things were sewn in… everything that was happening around me.” The result is a blog that talks about the entire experience, affectionately called Defective Heart Girl Problems.
When she woke up from the surgery, Ash’s immediate impressions were those of immense pain. Her heart tugged on her torso, rendering even talking and breathing difficult. Nonetheless, the doctors put her on her feet on the first day, thus beginning her Cardiac Rehab program.
One day, while on a treadmill in the rehabilitation facility, she looked down at her chest. It was as if her heart wanted to burst out of the chest cavity, out of her exercise shirt. Her trainer, three feet away, witnessed it too, confirming that no, Ash was not crazy.
Sitting on a couch at home, the thumping continued. It followed her wherever she went. Recalling the experience, Ash said that her “whole chest cavity acted like an amp” and that it was as if “someone had a rubber mallet and was banging on the underside of the sternum.”
Her doctor chalked the problem up to scar tissue from the surgery, which would go away in six to nine months. Fifteen months later, it persisted. Her brain started searching for answers, making her increasingly anxious. The noise would not let Ash work in the day, and would not let her sleep at night.
The heart is an incredibly hard worker, clocking in at around 100,000 beats a day. Nestled in a cavity and protected by tissue and bone, most of the beats go unheard, save for the times when we are scared or excited. Not for Summer Ash.
It was at her two-year post-surgery checkup when Ash, in her words, “had a moment” that almost immediately shifted her mindset on her unique predicament. Ash lay on her side as a technician administered an echocardiogram of her heart. Through a reflection on her glasses, her eyes saw on a monitor what her body had felt for so long: a heart at work. Making the connection between seeing and feeling what was happening inside her, she realized “[my heart] is beating, and this beating is me.”
Her beating heart no longer was this outside “thing.” Her heart was working for her, and because of that, she is alive.
Take a listen to Ash’s heart, in a clip recorded by a microphone held at six inches from her chest. Then, give your chest a pat and thank your heart for all its hard work!