True Cleavage: Surviving Congenital Heart Disease

Bosoms never were my strong suit. I grew up with a bony, boyish physique, one of those girls described as “slight” or “willowy.” Too kind to say “skinny and flat-chested,” Aunt Irene said I had a model’s figure. Aunt Ruth would shush the cousins who teased me, and offered her own frank assessment: “Barbara will be fine, once she does a little girl growin’.” The family had produced a wagonload of sturdy, buxom young Pennsylvania Dutch women, and Aunt Ruth assured us that breasts were in my near future.

But she was wrong. I stayed flat as a board well into my teens. While my friends developed breasts and cleavage, I felt slighted, unfeminine, and inferior.

When our family doctor discovered my heart murmur, he explained to Mom, “This is quite common in girls of her build-tall, thin, small-breasted. It’s just a harmless murmur.” It turned out Dr. Miller was wrong, too.

Eventually I developed breasts, adequate to my female identity, but not large enough to present cleavage.
Then, on the eve of my 41st birthday, I was endowed with cleavage-real cleavage-the kind that’s created with scalpels and carpentry tools: an actual split down the middle of my chest.

It’s true my cleavage doesn’t come across like a Victoria’s Secret ad. This is not your bodice-ripper fantasy cleavage, billowing hillocks of flesh pressed together and jostling, struggling against containment behind a low-cut ruffled blouse. But it is cleavage with character, and it carries some bragging rights.

That “harmless” heart murmur Dr. Miller discovered turned out to be much worse, and eventually I had to choose between a mitral valve replacement and a future of staying in bed with an oxygen tank. I would have preferred the latter; it would have been a brief but fairly painless future and an end to my years of discomfort from a failing heart. But my grown children convinced me to accept the risks of open-heart surgery and try to keep going. I had my chest cleaved and overhauled just a couple of days later.

My cleavage begins about 3 inches below the hollow of my throat, the first mark being a splash of pale skin, about the size of a quarter, with amoeba-like legs that spread out around it. From the bottom of the splotch, a thick, sinuous tail (raised like a worm or a pulsing vein, but with no color or life to it) cuts a slightly wobbly path down toward my stomach. The scar is not straight-why couldn’t the surgeon at least make it straight?-and there’s kind of a split-level effect, one scar stacked on another, because I’ve had the same operation twice.

The vertical scar ends at three side-by-side horizontal bars, sort of a post-op Morse code for “drainage tubes here,” that interrupt my midriff about 6 inches above my navel. Or maybe those bars were left as a guide for the next surgical team: “Cut along dotted line.”

It’s odd that the scars are so pale and lifeless-looking, because they are not dead zones. At the upper end of my cleavage, a light pressure will tweak the nerve endings between my skin and the pea-sized knobs that feel so foreign but are truly me. Those hard little bumps are sawn bone, wire holding the cut pieces together, and joinings that healed poorly because of a fall I took when the wound was fresh.

A good many adults with congenital heart disease have the traditional heart surgery “zipper,” and some of us talk together about our feelings toward those scars. Do we hate them? Are we proud of them? Do we feel a need to hide them? (Funny, many women have the same ambivalent feelings about their breasts.) If they show, how do we explain the scars to people? Are the marks numb or painful?

My scar does not hurt if I don’t touch it. But I touch it often to remind myself of all that it means.

When I press just right there on the starfish part of the scar and lightly circle it with my middle finger, much as I used to-before the surgery–toy with a pendant or string of beads, I feel a brief, sharp discomfort just under the surface, like a speck beneath an eyelid.

And the touch stirs memories that go much deeper: panic spawned by breathlessness and racing heartbeats, stumbling over each other so clumsily they fail to make the blood flow; the ardent wish for all the years of illness to be over; a decision, though reluctant, to fight for life; the anguished uncertainty of the last goodbyes to family before that mysterious surgical sleep. Most important, though, I remember the elation, the joyous triumph, of having lived through the surgery. And the feeling that remains with me, even now, that after surviving this ultimate cleaving, I can handle most anything life throws at me.

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