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Lessons Learned from Heart Surgery

On Tuesday, January 23, 2024, I had minimally invasive heart surgery to repair mitral valve prolapse at University of MD, St. Joe's Medical Center (SJMC). I had known for over six years that this would eventually need to be done, but my annual echocardiogram did not indicate any worsening …..until last September. While I still really did not have any symptoms, an echocardiogram and other tests showed the condition had worsened, and it was time to talk to surgeons about options. 

While my initial consultation was with a Hopkins surgeon who is one of the leaders in the world doing this kind of procedure, after one of my additional tests, the UM SJMC surgeon stopped by to talk about the fact that I was a prime candidate for a repair (always better than a replacement) and for it to be done with a minimally invasive approach. I continued conversations with both doctors and read several articles and research studies comparing the approaches. 

I ultimately decided that a 2-inch incision near my armpit was better than a full open heart/rib splitting approach, as long as the valve repair could be done successfully either way. As I continue to recover now, just over a week after surgery, with very little incision pain, that seems like the right decision. In a discussion with the surgeon afterward, he said it was an “interesting case” as the mitral valve needed more repair than anticipated. After 5 hours in the OR (including 2 hours in “cross-clamp” with my heart turned off) and 4 hours in recovery, the healing process has begun. 

As I reflect on this journey, the first time I have spent a night in a hospital since getting my tonsils out at age five, a couple of life lessons came into clearer focus:

  • Be Proactive - this applies to so many parts of your life, but especially as it relates to your health. We deal with a lot in life that either does not matter, or we can’t control. I try to focus on the intersection of what I can control and what matters. You should take the same approach with your finances and health. 
  • Show Gratitude - I have been overwhelmed with the prayers, thoughts, and well wishes from so many family members, friends, and clients. I am often not as good as I should be at showing gratitude for all that we have in life. While appreciation is what we feel in the moment, Gratitude is what we remember that opens our hearts. (There is an excellent documentary by Louie Schwartzburg on Gratitude)
  • Prepare for the Unexpected - While I felt good about the decision to move forward with the surgery, things can happen when they are performing such complex surgery on such an important part of your anatomy. Being the planner that I am, I made sure my estate planning documents were all updated and investment asset details current, and I also wrote “just in case” notes to each of Ellen, our three children, and five grandchildren. I am reminded of the Stoic Philosophy of Memento Mori - we don’t know when our last day will be, live every day like it is your last. 
  • How great it is to be alive today. Humans have been on this planet for roughly 70,000 years. Until 100 years ago, if you had this condition, you would just have died early. The medical profession did not start operating on the mitral valve until the 1920s (most patients died then). It was the early 1980s before they knew they could repair, not replace, this integral part of the heart. Only in very recent years has a minimally invasive approach been taken. How great is it to live in this time and in a city with more than one of the leading experts in this surgery? 
  • Value the caring professions - I had amazing care at UMSJMC, not just from the doctors, anesthesiologists, nurse practitioners, etc., but also from the nursing staff, techs, maintenance staff, etc. I don’t think we often give them the credit they deserve for making our lives better. While not always lifesaving, the work we do falls in this category, too. To be able to apply broad technical expertise in a caring way as part of a strong relationship is EXACTLY why we do what we do for our clients. 
  • Slow Down! OK, this will be a work in progress for me. Ellen got a recliner and set up our living room for my return home (we don’t generally sit a lot at home and did not have one in the house). While the external scars seem to be healing well, the heart is an important muscle in your body and takes a lot of time to heal. I hope to take advantage of this opportunity to take more time to reflect on my first 65 years on this planet and think more deeply about however many years I have remaining. 

I am appreciative to have gotten through this surgery and to be on the road to recovery. I am learning to slow down and give my body time to heal. I am grateful for the family, friends, and clients who have supported me through the process.

As Jimmy Buffett said not long before he passed away last September, “Growing old ain't for sissies.” 

- Lyle K Benson Jr., CPA, PFS, CFP

The views expressed represent the opinions of L.K. Benson & Company and are subject to change.  These views are not intended as a forecast, a guarantee of future results, investment recommendation, or an offer to buy or sell any securities. The information provided is of a general nature and should not be construed as investment advice or to provide any investment, tax, financial or legal advice or service to any person.

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