This Friday, February 5th, is National Wear Red Day. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Wear Red Day is part of the Go Red for Women initiative promoted by the American Heart Association. It always falls on the first Friday of February – which is, fittingly enough, Heart Health Awareness Month. The goal of Wear Red Day is to increase awareness of the fact that heart disease is the #1 killer of women – each year, it kills more women than all cancers combined.
Most of you know by now I usually write about books, reading, or my trips to used bookshops. But from time to time, I will digress to share my thoughts about unrelated things. I’ve been back and forth on whether I should post about why I choose to Go Red. Finally, I settled on the choice to post this because it is a chance to engage a wider audience at the same time as promoting an initiative in which I personally believe. It also gives me the opportunity to allow you readers deeper insight into who I am as a person – which is only a *little* intimidating (translation: a lot). I know it’s always easier for me to connect more to someone’s writing when I have more insight and understanding of that writer’s life. And hopefully that is the case in this post for my own readers.
The bottom line is that there are all sorts of reasons why you should show your support of Go Red for Women. Perhaps your grandmother has had a stroke, or your sister has cardiomyopathy, or your daughter was recently diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. The stories belonging to the victims and survivors of heart disease are varied and unique, and yet they are all chapters of the same book. I cannot persuade or force anyone into wearing red this Friday. Do I strongly encourage it? Yes. But I realize it is not within my control. All I can do is tell my own story of why I choose to wear red the first Friday of each February:
The vermiform scar cuts a trench in the topography of my chest, from just below my collarbone to just above my bellybutton. A buildup of scar tissue prevented the incision from healing properly. This is my constant, visible reminder of my own open heart surgery.
It is difficult to relate twenty-six years’ worth of medical history into a few concise paragraphs, but I will attempt it here. I was born with two conditions: ventricular septal defect (VSD), more commonly known as a hole in the heart, and transposition of the greater arteries (TGA). While VSD is a fairly common occurrence, TGA is less known, only affecting about five out of every 10,000 babies born in the US each year. TGA is a heart defect where the two major vessels, the pulmonary artery and the aorta, are switched in position, which restricts blood flow to the body and lungs. As a result, there is not enough oxygen supplied to the heart and the rest of the body. Surgeons fix the defect by inserting a Gor-Tex device, called a conduit or a baffle, into the heart, which redirects the blood flow to its natural, correct routes.
A series of catheter procedures, the insertion of what is called a Blalock shunt, and two open-heart surgeries, one when I was two years old and the other when I was five, corrected both the VSD and the TGA. Additional surgery was needed four years ago, to remove the conduit that had been placed during the last open-heart. That procedure was done through catheter, and thanks to the cow valve the surgeons placed in my heart, I can now joke that I am part bovine. (Cows have always been my favorite animal, and so it seems ordained from some higher source that it was that very mammal that helped save my life.) According to my cardiologists, my heart is in great shape. I may need further surgery down the road, but I am not going to spend my time now worrying about that.
Relaying my story in scientific, straightforward terms does nothing to capture the complexities of the fears, triumphs, and other conflicting emotions brought on by such a heart condition. The longer story is a bit more complicated. A cardiac patient’s life is a series of cold rooms and impossible to decipher images on monitors, petroleum jelly on plastic wands and cold stethoscopes against exposed skin. We try not to think too much about the murmured, irregular beating of our broken hearts, because if we spend too much energy focusing on the negative, we might forget all the positives. And in my experience, there are, and always have been, countless positives.
I am one of the lucky ones. I have been from the beginning. Fate saw to it that a doctor just happened to see my chest x-rays in the hospital in Presque Isle and recognized the signs of TGA. Because of her, I was Life Flighted down to Portland and some police drove my medicine – through a storm, nonetheless – four hours down to Maine Med. My first cardiologist, Dr. McFaul, stuck with me until he retired when I was twenty years old. My parents, sister, and extended family sacrificed everything to ensure I had the best care possible. And then, against all odds, I recovered and went on to enjoy a childhood rich with books, friends, unfortunate pop music, and 90s fashion trends.
That is the condensed explanation of why I choose to Go Red for Women. I cannot imagine living without my heart condition or the scars brought on by it any more than another person can imagine being born a different ethnicity. My condition is an intrinsic part of who I am, and I wouldn’t want to trade that. Sure, it would be easier to live a life without the possibility of future open-heart surgeries looming over me. And I’d be able to better rock a V-neck sweater without this keloid scar. But, to use a phrase I’ve never much liked but that applies here: it is what it is. I’ve never sought pity or considered myself a victim. I am a survivor. This is the hand I was dealt, and I choose to make the most of it. I choose to laugh brightly, to follow my dreams, to always dance when I hear Rick James’ “Superfreak,” and to, in some small way, show my support for others like me who are battling their own heart conditions.
I cannot speak for the other millions of women and girls battling heart disease right now. Nor can I be the voice of those who were not as lucky as I was. All I can do is acknowledge how my own heart disease has affected my life and recognize the impact it has on other women, men, babies, and families. And ask that those reading this will consider wearing red this Friday, February 5th, to show their support for all the heart warriors out there. I will rock the red. Will you? Dear Readers – join the subscribers list below to receive emails any time Twice Sold Tales publishes a new post! And head over to the blog’s Facebook page – help me get more likes and shares! The 200th person to like the Twice Sold Tales Facebook page will get to help me choose my next Maine bookshop to visit and write about. Also, please feel free to share links to the Facebook page or to individual blog posts as you wish. Let’s spread the word to other happy readers throughout Maine and beyond. And as always, happy reading! https://www.facebook.com/TwiceSoldTalesBlog/