Heart Disease

What No One Tells You About Going Under

After anesthesia and open heart surgery, it's common to experience memory loss. But that doesn't make it any easier to deal with.

I never saw a stick of butter I didn’t love, or a steak I could pass up. My idea of exercise is getting up from my desk about 4 and taking a stroll around the block with the dogs to air out the kinks in my long over-stressed body. I work, and work hard, as a writer: I’ve written 36 books and countless magazine articles, mostly about food.

Not so surprisingly, some of those choices have caught up with me. Last March, I had open heart surgery, and was under anesthesia for more than 6 hours, while the docs scoured out the remains of almost eight decades of indulgent living.

In the weeks following the surgery,  I noticed some dramatic changes. People would come to visit in the hospital and I had only the dimmest memory of their faces. I couldn’t remember their names. And when I went to rehab, I couldn’t keep the schedule straight. I would go on the wrong day,  or the wrong hour, or the wrong week, no matter how rigorously I wrote the appointments on my calendar.

The worst moment was: once I got the green light to drive again, I jumped in the car and took off. But despite the fact I’ve made that drive thousands of times, I got lost en route to the store. I ended up pulling off to the side of the road and crying.

That, more than anything, made me realize that since my surgery, I had some pretty big holes in my memory. My friends had been telling me that I repeat myself a lot, but now it really sank in that this wasn’t just forgetfulness: it was something related to having been put under for surgery.

When I consulted my doctor about my post-surgery memory loss, he was quite calm about it. “Just give it time,” he said. “Your memory will come back. Your brain needs time to heal.” My cardiologists also say that a “flaky memory” is perfectly normal.

Just give it time,” he said. “Your memory will come back. Your brain needs time to heal.”

My heart was stopped over 14 months ago. That’s a big chunk of the time I, as a nearly 80-year-old woman, likely have left. How much more time do I have to give?

One day, after trying to find directions to the store, I broke down in my living room, alone except for my sweet dogs, who stared into my tear-streaked face with beseeching looks. When I recovered, I got angry: I decided I was going to sue the doctor who had put me under. He must have made a mistake.

But when I hit the internet, looking for personal injury lawyers, I discovered that it was completely predictable–common, even—to suffer memory loss after long periods of anesthesia. And while I may only have a dim memory of signing a consent form before surgery, this possibility is laid out there, so I likely didn’t have a case.

I discovered that it was completely predictable–common, even–to suffer memory loss after long periods of anesthesia.

Since then, I’ve been thinking of my mother a lot lately. Like all of my female forebears, she too suffered from high blood pressure, and ultimately died from a heart-related ‘incident.’ (Don’t you just love the use of that saccharine word – incident? Why don’t they call it what it is? An effin’ train wreck.)

My mom had a hard life. After my father came home from the war, racked by night terrors and permanently disabled, she cared for him for the next twenty years, despite her own health complaints. But her generation knew how to get through tough times.  As she said to me often when I was a child: just go to your room and don’t come out until you have a smile on your face.

Now, nearly 80, I’m finally trying to assume her same sense of poise and optimism, in the face of my own memory loss. I try to buck up, look at the bright side, and not kick every stone in my path. My life may be harder, and more frustrating than it once was: but I’m still alive, to take care of my dogs, enjoy my children’s success, and take pleasure from my friends.

And maybe, if I’m patient and live long enough, my doctors will eventually be proved right, and my brain will finally get the time it needs to heal.