I tell this story in recognition of World Mental Health Day, October 10th, 2019. Every year, over 600,000 Americans undergo some form of open heart surgery; nearly 1,000,000 worldwide.
The advancement of medical technology and know-how permits doctors to successfully work on a still organ that is not intended to stop its process — that is truly a miracle.
But when the incisions heal, and, in my dad’s case, the valve returns to its normal function, a new impairment may arise affecting the brain and everyday life.
It’s called Pump Head. The conversation taking place at the onset of this article is nearly six years after his operation, and symptoms of the lingering aftermath still exist.
Duke University completed a study in 2001 investigating the phenomenon. They concluded, although contested by small factions of the science community, that subsequent cognitive decline as a result of heart surgery was real.
In the first few weeks, dad slept and awoke in a thick fog. Normally an avid reader, he suddenly lost interest in the activity, and over 18-long-months fought to re-discover his love for books and magazines.
He forgot names, phone numbers, and addresses; had trouble recalling vivid memories from occasions pre-surgery even with the help of family and friends.
His temper flared, patience shortened, and isolation increased; displaying personality traits rare if not nonexistent before going under the knife.
As a family unit, we were elated and eternally grateful that his physical malformation was a thing of the past, but his mental health was suddenly deteriorating at a slow but significant rate.
The words traveling through my car speakers signified a breakthrough several years in the making. Armed now with the combined knowledge of the science community and our own life experiences, we no longer focus solely on the symptoms as described above; rather, we work to treat and reverse the disease.
Mental health deficiency, whether talking to a homeless person on the street, or your own father at the kitchen table, is an elusive and controlling beast. But when recognized and remedied with intent and persistence, it can lose its grip and ultimately concede.
My family has a long road ahead, but on days like today, World Mental Health Day, I cannot help but look optimistically upon the future.
To all those suffering from a mental health related issue, or those who know someone who is, do not think it is bigger than what you can handle.
Face it head on, be brave, and know that anything can be overcome.