Before Heart Surgery

Next week a surgeon will remove my aortic heart valve and sew in a new one. It’s a brutal thing, this fact that someone will carve into my chest and carve out a piece of my heart. But it’s necessary to fix the plumbing. My heart pumps blood into my arteries through a valve that is then supposed to close to keep the blood from flowing back into the pump. But the valve leaks, half of what’s pumped out spills back in, the heart works harder to make up the deficit, and I take another nap.



The body is all about circulation—of blood, air, chemicals, even electricity. (Because of the leaky valve, the electric pulses through my heart can act up.) We don’t picture circulation very readily—the diagrams are tedious. But circulation, cycles, circles are the shape of continuity at all levels of nature. And sometimes it takes only a small glitch–a leak, an obstruction, an intrusion—to bring circulation almost to a halt.

Some days during the last few weeks I’ve felt very nervous about the surgery, other days not much. I’m not sure why. I expected that as it came closer, I would become more anxious, but that’s not happening. There are so many strands that wax and wane in anyone’s state of mind—including, in my case now, confidence about the procedure; anxiety about the assault; feeling physically run-down some days from the meds as well as the leaky valve; the steady pleasure of spouse, family, friends; this blog. Many strands.

So it’s not just the blood that is circulating and the electrical impulses that are flowing. My moods and their strands flow as well, even when they leak backward and things seem better and then worse.

The Meteor and The Asteroid: A Reminder

What surprised me about the Russian meteor news last week is that scientists and the public knew plenty about the large asteroid that missed Earth by 17,000 miles but nothing about the 7,000-ton meteor coming right at us the same day at the unimaginable speed of 40,000 miles per hour (really, try to imagine 40,000 mph).

The rock that missed us--

The rock that missed us–

and the one that didn't.

and the one that didn’t.

The New York Times reported one scientist saying that the meteor was impossible to see with a telescope because it had approached from the daylight side. But this meteor had previously been circling the sun in its own orbit and its path could, it seems to me, have been anticipated. Later news, of course, was filled with plans for renewed efforts to spot such intruders in the future.

The larger message, though, is that when it comes to dangerous disruptions in our environment, scientists and others are often looking in the wrong direction. We head off one obvious consequence but miss the long-term effects of a slower moving one. One problem makes headlines, solutions gain momentum, but a related problem grows in the shadows.

For example, we value agriculture and industrialization so much that we pay little or no attention to the species that have become reduced or extinct from the loss of their habitats. We’ve expected global warming to raise temperatures slightly; we did not expect it to contribute to more violent storms. The 2004 tsunami in Indonesia killed 230,000 people; there were plenty of tsunami detectors in the Pacific Ocean where tsunamis are frequent but none in the Indian Ocean where this rare one struck. Disease control teams respond quickly to dangerous viruses, but a few people get on airplanes and the damage is difficult to control.

Alert for SARS--

Alert for SARS–

but not for the tsunami.

but not for the tsunami.

Our lapses in anticipating disasters aren’t surprising. We are fallible. And when our fallibility joins together with the sheer power of nature to clobber us, the result is humbling. It’s unlikely that an apocalypse will wipe us all out any time soon; we are, after all, a global species.  But we may well be driven into decline by combinations of our mistakes and nature’s realities: earthquakes, limited fresh water, the loss of habitable places, the dysfunctions of our cultures, surges in population.