My ex-wife always said my heart kept her up at night. The pounding, she said, made the mattress reverberate. Like the partner who snores, I wasn’t aware of this late-night drum solo by Buddy Rich. Even if I had noticed, and I’m ashamed to say, even if I had believed her, I’m not sure what I could have done to prevent it. My options seemed limited. Either it hit or it didn’t.
A few months ago this theory was tested. After reporting neck pain to my doctor, I went for an outpatient diagnostic exam in Portland, Maine, expecting to be home for dinner. In the catheterization lab, I was awake, lying in a dark room, somewhat comfortably groggy from the sedative medications, while a large, humming angiography X-ray machine circled my body. The medical team was friendly and chatty, and with sophisticated music playing that was trendier than anything I could have suggested, we joked that the procedure seemed more like a spa treatment.
I can’t remember if the chatter or the music stopped first, like in one of those comedies where the needle is ripped from the record player as it scratches the record. They sat me up, pointed to a black-and-white, grainy video of my beating heart and said, “Look.”
A cloud that looked like smoke rose. I learned that the smoke was actually an injectable dye that should have penetrated my heart instead of curling backwards. A suddenly accusatory voice in the dark asked, “How long have you been saying you’ve been feeling unwell?”
As a closeted gay man growing up in the southern United States, I have maintained a heightened alertness to potential threats throughout my life. Firstly, someone would find out I was gay and after I came out at 43, someone would want to harm me. That wasn’t the discomfort they were questioning, but as the cardiologist explained to me the procedure that would stop my heart (it was literally put on ice), I couldn’t help but wonder if they were somehow related.
During my 10 days in the hospital, I shared a room with four different roommates. They were all older white men, like me, but we didn’t have one thing in common: unlike me, they were all heterosexual. Despite their poor health, three out of four of those surveyed, perhaps because of this, made sexually harassing and often misogynistic comments toward the nurses. This small selection reflects my experiences in the world – a large percentage of men display their toxic masculinity, causing me to retreat deep into the closet. The difference was that I couldn’t escape.
Even if I wanted to remain private and deny the existence of the one I love, which no one should ever do to maintain a sense of security, it would have been impossible. With every shift change and every round with several healthcare workers, one question always came up: Who do you need to look after when you return home?
I came to the hospital several times a day. Living in liberal New England, where diversity is typically celebrated, this was not a difficult task. However, even after it was made clear to Paul that he was my husband, he was referred to as my “partner” in most cases. What would my experience have been like if we were in Florida?
How would a frightened young queer person deal with the double trauma of surgery and then bigotry in conservative regions of the country where an insidious attack on the LGBTQ+ community – particularly trans people – is particularly concentrated and horrific?
When I asked the cardiologist if I faced any special risks from open-heart surgery, he replied that the biggest risk was my young age. I blushed and laughed. He did not.
“The extent of the blockage in someone your age, 59, is large and something we normally see in someone much older and is likely to recur. We only treat the symptoms, not the underlying cause, and you may have to deal with it again at some point.”
My husband Paul has never complained about my heart, but he snores. (Hello, karma). The maximum number of thrusts is three before I stand up and stumble through the darkness into the guest room. As I stare at the ceiling – I was a side sleeper before the surgery – my thoughts go back to those nights with my ex-wife and the beating drum. Was my heart warning?
The American Heart Association reported that LGBTQ+ people were 36% less likely to have ideal cardiovascular health and found Higher rates of heart disease among transgender people linked to stigma and discrimination.
The New York Times notes that LGBTQ adults “face unique stressors—stigma, discrimination, fear of violence—that can lead to disease, both indirectly and directly,” by causing chronic inflammation and increasing blood pressure and heart rate, among other things.
While I can’t make a direct connection between my heart disease and this particular environmental stressor, consider my three heterosexual siblings whose blood pressure is normal and whose cholesterol levels are ideal.
My cohort and older LGBTQ+ people have survived legalized discrimination, attacks from performative Christianity, attacks from right-wing politicians, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, gay-bashing, and worse. What didn’t kill us back then was only a matter of time.
Despite all the progress we have made, we are currently experiencing a devastating backlash. We as a society must understand that banning books with LGBTQ+ themes, legislating hate in the form of “Don’t Say Gay” laws, ending gender-affirming care, and enacting anti-trans laws like those in Florida and elsewhere must protect conservative states not our children, but rather erase them. Forcing our children to remain silent now is literally breaking their hearts. The Silence=Death project emerged from the AIDS crisis, but is still very popular.
The worst part of the quintuple bypass surgery was not waking up with a tube down my throat, having to choose between breathing or speaking, or looking in the mirror at the reflection of an autopsy corpse covered in scars and bruises. It wasn’t the bizarre nightmares about the end of the world, the uncontrollable sobbing, or even learning to sleep on your back. It was the pained look on my husband’s face as he realized that death was no longer a theory but a fact. I’m going to die. I will cease to exist and one day, perhaps sooner than he previously thought, he will sleep alone forever.
If there was something worst about open heart surgery, it would make sense that there would also be the best, or perhaps the worst, about it. It has changed my outlook on life forever, appreciating everything I am so fortunate to have and speaking up when I feel pain instead of remaining silent. I want our children to know that a joyful life is possible in an imperfect world, that they can find great beauty even in pain, and that they can love with devotion.
Did my heart trigger an SOS rhythm many years ago? I’ll never know, but this is what I do: In the face of death – no, Because I was facing death – I had never been so grateful to be alive. My heart no longer strives to free itself.
May our children be so lucky.
William Dameron is an award-winning blogger, memoirist, essayist, and author of the novel The Way Life Should Be and his memoir The Lie, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Times (UK), The Telegraph, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, Oprah Daily and in the book Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi & Trans Men Who Came Out Later In. Life.”
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