Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, July 2, 2010

Memories in the blood

When my mother was the age I am now, she had open heart surgery. This means that a surgeon cut through her breast bone, opened the rib cage and had it held open for a couple hours while repairs were done to the tubing bringing blood to her heart. She had a triple by-pass. This means three tubes needed to be re-opened so that her heart could continue to function. This was one of the culminations of almost 30 years of adult onset diabetes. Having just delivered my first child and focused on this growing bundle of life, the significance of this event in my mother's life was only partially understood.

It was not until my own major surgery fifteen years later that there was deeper understanding. In our bodies, it is not just the brain that perceives, responds and holds memory. Experience is held in every organ, every cell, even every atom in the body. Some call it pain, others discomfort, still others do not understand their unaccountable fear or sensitivity to needles, smells, situations (such as hospital rooms).

Surgery for removal of reproductive organs at a time when child-bearing is past should be no big deal. It's not like an arm or a leg - which we are told feels like it's always there. But the body remembers traumas. Anaesthesia feels like falling into a black hole - have it too often and I suspect the black hole will be permanent. Even donated blood has a feeling. For me, it was something feral, yes wild. Are the memories of the donor somehow fused into me?

But pleasures are also remembered, and surely held more firmly in the body and blood than pain. Probably the reason that a woman can bear to have more than one child. The traumas of birth are over-ridden - though not forgotten.

My mother's heart was never completely whole again. The other insidious effects of diabetes which were never corrected or balanced, took their toll. How do I make up for loss in my own body? So many compensations, balancing activities, even lifestyle changes have been adopted - are they ever enough? Does mortality - in the end - have its own attractions?


  1. As a student nurse, I witnessed open heart surgery, much like the surgery your mother had. The gentleman was 78 years old, but in such good health, that the Dr. decided it was worth the risk. His heart surgery was being done to replace a heart valve that had become very inefficient, leaving him pale and without energy.

    This gentleman was to be my patient, once he was back on the surgical ward, and out of the Intensive Care unit.

    I had done all my preparatory work. I had studied his nursing file, and researched all his conditions, medications ,the surgery that was to be performed and the nursing care routine that would be needed for his after care.

    The surgery was a very shocking thing to watch. One might picture that a surgeon is gentle and that his movements would be very slow and gentle. I was very surprised by the literal sawing of the breast bone, to enable the surgeon to have access to the heart. I was more surprised when something akin to a shoe horn, but much larger, was used to keep the rib cage apart and out of the way.

    The whole operation was so 'practical' somehow. Men's strong muscles were needed for some parts of this operation. It was precise and done with care, but it was very practical and physical. And somehow that came as a surprise to me.

    The valve that was stitched into place, to replace the human valve was a small cage like shape. It was made of a non-allergic type of metal. It had a small ball inside of it. Once put into place, the ball would move in and out, within the 'cage', according to the flow of blood, and would efficiently do the job.

    When the operation was completed, the stitches were placed where they needed to be, and a tube was placed into the surgical site, to drain the excess fluid. Bandages were applied, and the operation was completed.

    And I just sat there, silently, trying to absorb all that I had just witnessed.

    Surely, this man would never be able to get up again. Surely the pain he would feel, would be unbearable. I even questioned the sense that this operation made for a man of this age.

    When I went to the hospital on the following Monday, dressed in my crisp white uniform, the patient had just been moved back to the regular surgical ward. I approached the room to 'my patient' carefully, full of anticipation as to what I would meet.

    Much to my surprise, the man was sitting up in his bed, and laughing with another patient. He said he had never felt better. There was no sign of any pain on his face, only a shining face, full of life! He was so optimistic about all of the things he would now be able to do again, with this new found energy.

    I was not there during the Intensive Care part of his treatment, and I am sure that it was not easy for him. But only a few days later, he was feeling very good, and so happy to have the extra energy that the replacement of a valve in his heart afforded him.

    The human body is very resilient. And the memory of pain seems to fade very quickly. It certainly did with this gentleman. What memory the body and the cells retained of the pain, was over-ridden by the life force inside these very cells. And as the man had such a positive attitude, the recovery seemed to happen even faster than would be expected.

    It seems that the body, and the mind, know something very deep inside, about change. They expect it. Even with this traumatic invasion of the body, the body somehow adapted very quickly to its new situation. The memory of the pain was at least delegated to a subconscious level, and life triumphed.

    Change and adaptation seem to be built into the human condition and all parts of us, except maybe the mind, seem to know that. And that is why, while the idea of impending death is a shock to the mind, a deeper self seems to be ready for transformation.

    As you said, mortality seems to have its own attractions! We are expecting it!

  2. Wouldn't it be more amazing if we could coordinate mind and body, and have all cells cooperate, to heal ourselves without external interventions?

    What is it about disease that fascinates us with such fatal attraction?