A Broken Heart & Covered in Scares

I am defective.

In an earlier blog post The Woman Behind the Blog I mentioned that I had an expiry date on my time in the kitchen. I have a congenital heart defect, which means I have had it since birth – and I don’t believe I have fully explained the extent of my condition in great detail before. I am an advocate of suffering in silence; I hide both physical and emotional pain extremely well until I hit beyond my limit. I never wanted my heart condition to exclude me from any opportunity or to be so worried about my health that I didn’t take any risks. In refusing to allow it to limit me, I live in a constant state of fear that my heart will fail.

    Here are some definitions which will help you understand my condition:

    “Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF) is a cardiac anomaly that refers to a combination of four related heart defects that commonly occur together. The four defects are:

1. Ventricular septal defect (VSD) a hole between the right and left pumping chambers

2. Overriding aorta − the aortic valve is enlarged and appears to arise from both the left and right ventricles instead of the left ventricle as in normal hearts

3. Pulmonary stenosis − narrowing of the pulmonary valve and outflow tract or area below the valve that creates an obstruction (blockage) of blood flow from the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery

4. Right ventricular hypertrophy − thickening of the muscular walls of the right ventricle, which occurs because the right ventricle is pumping at high pressure

Normal Heart

Tetralogy of Fallot

  1. Right ventricular outflow obstruction. Typically multi-level: small, malformed pulmonic valve, hypoplastic proximal pulmonary artery, and muscular narrowing below the valve.

  2. Right ventricular hypertrophy (thickened muscle wall) secondary to higher pressure load on this chamber.

  3. The aorta “overrides” the VSD

  4. . Ventricular septal defect. With significant obstruction in the right ventricular outflow tract, blood will shunt from right to left, bypassing the lungs and leading to cyanosis (bluish skin tone).” –  Cincinnati Children’s Hospital

    It is a lot of information to take in, as I well know, but the long and the short of it is I am fucked. I also have a heart murmur along with an abnormal heartbeat called bigeminy, which just means that after a normal heartbeat I have an extra beat that comes too early or too late. I suffer from shortness of breath, dizzy spells, heart palpitations, constant chest pain and I have been known to turn blue.

    I have had multiple heart surgeries,including

  • Repair of transannular patch

  • Diagnostic cardiac catheter – I’ve had this done twice

  • Pulmonary valve replacement with 29mm masaic valve, MEE plasty RPA – heart valve made of both pig and mechanical

  • Revision of RVOT with pulmonary valve replacement and LPA plasty with artery reconstruction – heart valve of both pig and mechanical

  • 3 previous median sternotomies – a vertical inline incision is made along the sternum after which the sternum itself is divided or “cracked”

    When I told my doctor that I was a chef, she told me I was crazy. She said that being a chef is far too stressful a career for someone with a heart condition, to which I responded “Isn’t being a doctor a stressful job? The only difference is that you are already at the hospital when you pass out”. After my last heart surgery 2 years ago I was back at work after 2 ½ months instead of taking the recommended 4-6 months off from work – just in time for the Christmas rush. I was not allowed to lift over 10lbs (4.5kg) for 16 weeks, and working in a kitchen, that weight is nothing. Why did I return so soon? Because I felt an obligation to my team, I felt that I was not replaceable even though in reality everyone is replaceable. I wanted to show everyone how strong I was even when physically I was not 100%. I felt that because of my heart defect I had to work that much harder to prove I had the skill. I realize now how incredibly stupid that was and that I put myself into some serious danger. I could have ended up back in the hospital, and I can’t help anyone if I am dead. As my my cardiologist Dr. Roche once yelled at me, “You are going to ruin everyone’s day if you die!”

    When going through serious medical issues you value the people in your life that much greater… even the ones who’ve hurt you. I proudly wear my scars and use them as motivation to my co-workers to cherish the times it is slow at the restaurant, when we are given the time to put care into our dishes. To actually take a break and sit outside and have coffee, instead of choking down a staff meal in 3.5 seconds while still continuing to do prep.

    My heart condition is a lifelong battle, for which there is no cure or permanent solution. I will have more tests, more needles, more surgeries and procedures. I will survive through more collapsed lungs, blood transfusions, and my body’s rejection of painkillers. I keep saying I need to get out the kitchen if I want to live a long life, but being in the kitchen has given me a happy life with people and experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything. I get to travel the world cooking, baking, exploring culture and history to be part of the human experience. This job may not make me a lot of money but if you are chef for the fame or fortune then you might as well get out now.

    People tell me that I have overcome a lot, but honestly I don’t know any different. I have dealt with this my whole life and for me it is normal. I know my way around a hospital as well as I know my way around a kitchen. I have scars on my neck, chest, stomach, hands, legs and feet. I have scars almost everywhere and I can work through pain because I’ve had a lot of practice. I will continue to push myself in life and in my career and I hope that you all do the same.

“It’s not really the life of cooking that’s hard. It’s what you make of It and what level you push yourself to.” – Grant Achatz

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Cheers!

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