This column appeared in The Herald-Sun in 2013:
The day after Mom became a cyborg, she apparently gained an obscure superpower.
“I smell heat,” she said groggily as she reclined on her bed. Doctor’s orders: a full week of bed rest following surgery to install a defibrillator in her chest. “Is something burning?”
I eyed the white-capped orange bottle of Percocet on the bedside shelf and immediately assumed it was the drugs talking. So I laughed, shook my head and proceeded to joke about it in a Facebook status update.
It felt good to have something to joke about.
The day of her surgery, I waited in the cafeteria of Orlando Regional Medical Center with Dad, my brother Don and his girlfriend Fiona while doctors poked around inside her chest. We kept each other’s spirits up, but confided later that we didn’t really breathe deeply again until we saw her smiling at us in her recovery room.
Earlier this year, she broke the news that she suffered from a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which involves an inexplicable thickening of the heart muscle and can kill you. According to the American Heart Association, it may affect one out of every 500 people. It’s gender neutral, too, affecting both men and women equally. It’s a leading cause of sudden cardiac death among young athletes.
It’s also possible to pass it along genetically to your children.
“Get tested,” she urged me.
So I did, arranging for a full battery of chest X-rays and an electrocardiogram. Results indicated that I was clear, which was a huge relief to both of us.
For several months, doctors tried managing her symptoms with prescription drugs. Ultimately, they may need to surgically replace a valve. But, for now, they’re trying to steady her heart with the defibrillator.
Doctors don’t want her driving much with it. If they check and find that the device was triggered, she could lose driving privileges for six months or longer.
Good reason for that, it turns out.
She related the story of ORMC’s chaplain, who also had a defibrillator. As he walked to lunch one day, he collapsed on the sidewalk and awakened moments later to find himself staring up at the faces of concerned strangers. The defibrillator had done its work, reviving him, but not without him briefly losing consciousness.
Imagine you’re behind the wheel when the blackout happens. Scary, right?
She seems to be doing well so far, though. She’s even got a bonus superpower from the deal. I say bonus because, as long as I can remember, she also has an uncanny ability to determine a Christmas or birthday present simply by shaking the box. This led to elaborate efforts to stash gifts in unexpected containers or pack them as firmly as possible.
I walked into the kitchen, told Dad that Mom claimed she could smell heat. All the stove burners were clear. We both got a great laugh out of that for a few minutes.
Then Dad double-checked and we stopped laughing. He had left a burner on since breakfast.
“We can never tell her about this,” he assured me.
I agreed. But a few days later, I was back in Durham. My iPhone chirped with a new text message from Mom:
“So, you publicly mock me for smelling heat, but fail to add that there was an errant burner on the stove giving off heat. Sorry, Tom gave it up.”
Guess who’s laughing now?