Remember learning about the birds and the bees, and how boys and girls are different?
Of course, those talks usually centered around the more obvious anatomical differences between the sexes, which of course then led to several giggle-filled discussions on the playground with my friends.
But really, the difference between boys and girls and men and women goes way beyond basic genitalia. In general, women tend to be smaller—not only in stature, but on the inside as well.
For example, we have smaller veins and arteries, and we typically have smaller hearts with smaller valves.
But what about the various medical devices that are used everyday to help people suffering from heart disease? If a woman needs a valve replacement operation, can the physician select a smaller valve that will fit her heart easily?
Astonishingly, the answer is “probably not.”
I learned about this situation about a year ago, when my father underwent a triple bypass operation. My Dad, who has lived with diabetes for years, was at the airport when he felt some twinges in his heart.
Concerned by the pain and shortness of breath, my father went by ambulance to the VA hospital, where the attending physician wanted to put him on a treadmill for some testing.
By this time, my stepmom and I had rushed to my father’s side at the hospital. When my Dad told me what the doctor wanted him to do, I said there was no way I was going to allow him to get on that treadmill. Something in my gut was telling me that the test would prove fatal, and that he needed a second opinion.
The following day, I took my father out of the VA hospital (before he could put one foot on that stinkin’ treadmill), and over to St. Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix for a complete exam with a cardiologist. The tests revealed that he needed a triple bypass with a valve replacement, and he was prepped for open heart surgery.
His physicians, Dr. Lishan Aklog and Dr. Brian deGuzzman, performed the operation and overall, things went very well. Unbeknownst to me or my stepmom, these men are two of the best heart surgeons in the country, and we were all very impressed with their knowledge and also their communication skills.
I ended up spending a lot of time talking to Dr. Aklog, and he did a fantastic job of keeping me informed on my Dad’s progress and how he was doing. Once my Dad was out of the woods and stable, we even got to talking about my work as an advocate.
I asked him about the differences between men and women when it comes to open heart surgery, and was found his answers to be very intriguing. For example, most of the valves that are manufactured are sized to fit the average man’s heart. So when a woman needs open heart surgery, chances are good that she will spend more time on the operating table while the surgeon cuts the valve down to fit.
What we need to do then, is to make sure that we know what types of devices are going to be put inside our bodies. It’s okay to ask your doctor “is this going to be a smaller valve (or stent or what-have-you), or is this a standard-sized one made for a man?”
And to any companies that are out there already creating these smaller valves, I applaud you! I am researching this issue further and will report back to you on what I find. I really hope it’s not the case that all heart valves are created equally.
Another tip that Dr. Aklog passed along is that when a woman goes in for heart surgery, get a surgeon who performs tons and tons of surgeries on women. Because women’s heart surgeries tend to take longer, you want to be darn sure that you are getting a person who does it all day long, everyday.
In fact, I would also want this same doctor to perform surgery on my father, or my husband, or any other important man in my life. After all, if this doctor is so skilled that he or she knows how to successfully operate on a woman’s heart, then I want the same physician for anyone I know.
Incidentally, in case you are wondering, Dr. Aklog confirmed that getting my Dad on a treadmill would have undoubtedly resulted in catastrophe. To this day I’m so thankful that I followed my gut instinct on this issue.
Another issue that I learned about, this time from a woman I know who is an advocate for heart patients and also had open heart surgery herself, is that it’s important to find out where the surgeon plans on making the incision during the operation. Traditionally, surgeons make a vertical cut on the middle of the chest, but my friend explained that it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Incisions may also be done along the bra line, so that they won’t be as noticeable.
So once again, it’s okay to ask your surgeon “where are you planning on doing the incision?”
As another tip, my friend also stressed the importance of buying super-comfy bras for when you are recovering from any type of heart surgery. I would have never thought of this, but I can imagine that most bras would be really hard to wear over an incision on your chest!
Thanks to people like Dr. Aklog and my friend the heart patient advocate, I feel as if I’m slowly gaining in the knowledge I need to try to be helpful to others. Whether you end up advocating one day for yourself or for a loved one, you really can end up becoming a sort of expert by default.
One thing that’s important is to try to record what you are learning as you go along—even if you just write a few sentences every day in a journal, it will help you keep your information straight. And remember, never be afraid to ask questions!
I would love to hear from anyone who can give me some insight on the issue of gender-specific devices, and whether such a thing even exists at this point. I’d also love to hear your opinion on this subject—do you think it’s okay to spend more time on the operating table while a surgeon cuts down a valve because it’s so hard to find one that actually will fit you?
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