That beautiful heart

I had a new appreciation for the heavy pounding of my heart as I trudged up the mountain trail near my home late this afternoon. I will never again take for granted the miraculous choreography of muscle, tissue and resilient fibers that keep my heart functioning and strong.

This morning, I attended a two-hour symposium, “Living with Heart Valve Disease,” at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. Almost everyone in the audience was there because they have some type of heart disease — or a loved one who does.

Lishan Aklog, M.D., director of The Cardiovascular Center and chief of cardiovascular surgery at St. Joseph’s Heart & Lung Institute, gave a crash course in heart valve disease, diagnosis and repair. “Plumbing 101,” as he called it. He and Brian deGuzman, M.D., the hospital’s associate chief of cardiovascular surgery, take turns doing these Saturday morning presentations, typically once or twice a month. Some of the symposiums focus on valves; some on atrial fibrillation. All are free to the public. All are presented by two very busy doctors with families of their own who volunteer time to do this  because they believe that patients deserve to be fully educated about their options and involved in decisions about their care.

Aklog showed lots of diagrams, pictures and even audio/video clips to support his explanations. He used analogies to facilitate understanding. (“Think of valves as the doors leading to the rooms that are the chambers of the heart.”) At one point, he played two audio files — one with the steady “lub-dub, lub-dub” of a healthy heartbeat, the other with the eerie, whooshing sound of a narrowed aortic valve.

Imagine a valiant heart struggling to pump gallon of blood every hour through a tiny pinhole. That can happen with severe aortic stenosis. Imagine a determined heart working overtime to prevent the backwash of blood when the “parachute chords” that typically yank the flaps of the mitral valve closed have evaporated or frayed. That can happen with mitral regurgitation.

As Aklog explained complex terms, flipped through visuals on his PowerPoint presentation and patiently answered questions from the audience, I saw anatomy as poetry, anatomy as art.

One morning next week I will don scrubs and watch an open heart surgery. It’s background for some future writing, part of a larger story that involves deGuzman, the adoptive father of four Ethiopia-born children, and Aklog, his Ethiopia-born colleague, collaborator and friend.

That day, I will see anatomy as adventure.

For information about future Heart & Lung Institute symposiums, call 1-877-602-4111 or email


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