Two years ago, I was training vigorously to prepare for my hike up to the top of Mt. Whitney – the highest point in the lower 48 states. I was hoping to do this with 7 of my closest friends on my birthday, August 16th, 2016. We dedicated a couple weekends a month leading up to this event to participate in substantial practice hikes on local Southern California Mountains. We did all the common preparatory hikes that people do to train for the “big one.” There was Mt. Wilson, Mt. Baldy, Mt. San Jacinto, and Mt. San Gorgonio. We even did Mt. Dana (13,000 ft.) two days before the big hike.
All of these hikes were at least 5+ hours roundtrip and on most of them, we were carrying packs with water and provisions often weighing over 20 lbs. Besides hikes, I would jog several times a week and try to hit the gym and do Stairmaster and weight training. I never experienced any physical issues with any of the above, except for maybe a little shortness of breath and the occasional sore muscles.
A few weeks before the Whitney trip, a thought popped into my head that I should probably get a physical. It had been a couple of years and I wanted to make sure I was in tip-top shape.
During my office visit, the doctor did what I thought was a pretty extensive checkup. He only remembered to check my heart right at the end of the exam. I lay there shirtless as he quietly moved the stethoscope around from my chest to my back; verbally prompting me to breathe in and out. When he was done, he looked at me and said, “You have a heart Murmur.” A pretty benign statement at the time. There didn’t seem to be much worry in his delivery of those words. I asked the doctor if I should go on the hike. Telling him, It would be an 18-hour, one day hike, lugging a 35 lb. pack up to an altitude of 14, 505 ft. with a 6,000+ ft. gain. He said, “Murmurs are pretty common. It is probably nothing, but we can do some tests when you get back. If you start to feel bad, come down.”
A few days later, I stood at the top of the mountain and shed tears of joy.
Within a couple of weeks after my return home I went to several appointments to take different tests (Echo, MRI and Stress Test). It was confirmed that I had an aortic aneurysm in my ascending heart valve. In lay terms this means the wall of my heart valve is thinning and bulging out, leaving my heart prone to a possible rupture if I over-exert it.
Currently, except in some trial studies, the only fix for this is a full valve replacement, by means of open-heart surgery. For more information on this condition check out the website of John Ritter the actor. He died several years ago when his aorta dissected. This site is dedicated to research and education about this issue.
I met with the cardiologist and was given the following instructions. I was told to not partake in any activities that would over exert my heart. No more half marathons or 10ks, no more lifting over 35 lbs, no more carrying my daughter in the hiking pack on my back, and no more helping friends move- at least the really heavy stuff. After hearing this, I knew the universe was guiding me to the top of that mountain.
To say my life drastically changed that day was an understatement. Think, walking around with a time bomb in your chest. I do want to say, having found out about this condition has given me more courage to do the things I want to and helped me appreciate life more. If you really think about it, we are all walking time bombs, because we never know when our last moment will be. I am just lucky enough to have a constant reminder. Even though it sometimes plagues me psychologically. Ignorance is Bliss.
The great news is that my doctor probably saved my life by finding it. I’ve called and emailed to thank him and Kaiser Permanente for the great work they do. I am an employee here too, so I am slightly biased.
I am currently being monitored and tested every six months to see if the valve has expanded. They determine the need for surgery based on the calculations of risk of surgery meets the risk of my heart valve perforating. When the risk of rupture greater that’s when they go in.
That was two years ago.
Last week, I went in to get my heart tested on the two year anniversary of finding out about my condition and now I am awaiting results. The nurse said “unofficially” my heart valve hasn’t changed much. Which is a good thing since my friends and I have a date with Mt. St. Helen’s on my birthday this August 16th. Yes, I like to climb things.
Now that you know the backstory. Let me share a conversation I had last week about veganism and pig valves used for heart transplants.
I am a vegan (I am morally obligated to tell you that) and a vocal animal rights activist. I often post animal rights related information and pictures on Facebook. The other day I posted the video below on my status. The video is about pigs overheating in a truck on the way to slaughter. I post these types of videos and pictures to advocate on behalf of these poor animals; in hopes of getting people to think about the horrible conditions, we put animals through all for a few seconds of taste.
On the post I mentioned above, one of my high school friends asked this question, I’m wondering about medicine. Specifically, heart valves. Pig valves are often used and sometimes the only option for patients. I’m not saying the human life is more valuable, I’m simply curious about your perspective on this.
Here was my response. (Please note: I have edited my response to be more thorough).
Thanks for the great question. Not sure if you know it, but I do have a congenital heart condition that could possibly lead to heart valve transplant in the future.
Before I began writing, I took about a minute to research what other vegans were saying about this topic and I came upon this article by the “Philosophical Vegan.” It was enough to trigger my response.
I know if there was only one option and that involved using pig valve and I chose to not take it, my wife and everyone else for that matter – “My Loved Ones” – would probably say I was being selfish, especially since I have young children who would lose their father.
If I was single and the pig valve was the only option, it would be a tough decision. Do I take the valve from a pig and justify it with the idea that if I live, I am able to continue to advocate furiously for animal rights and a vegan lifestyle? Or do I take the “martyr” route and through my denial of the pig valve demonstrate that my life is no more important than the pig who was killed for this valve? I am not going to go down the rabbit hole about, “well the pig was already dead…”
BUT, I don’t think I will have to do the above because I believe in most cases there are options. Which got me to thinking about the idea that we probably don’t do nearly enough to promote human organ donations. Or maybe people just don’t want to do them. Why do we rely on animals to fix our hearts and other body parts? I mean there are 7 billion humans and only a small percentage of the human population probably need some sort of valve replacement.
Is it because humans are uneducated about organ donorship, selfish, or in some instances is it because of religious beliefs? Maybe it’s just our egos believing that we are at the top of the pecking order. Why don’t we commoditize human organ donations? Is it because there would be a black market for spare body parts? I think there already is. These are uneducated ponderings not knowing too well the economics or science behind donor matching and other important things that go into this amazing science.
I think it is amazing how we test on animals because they have some “Similar” traits to humans. Apparently, they are not similar enough for us humans to respect their
Through research, I found out that there are much-improved and often used man-made valves. I would more than likely opt for the man-made option (which is built to last longer than an animal valve) even if the likelihood of a stroke using these versions is higher. I would take my chances against the stroke, especially if the animal valve would most likely wear out and have to be replaced again at some point. I also read that there are newer studies where they are actually using stints to fix this same exact problem. So it could be a matter of time where science can repair the valve without even opening my chest or killing more animals.
Nothing is for certain, right? I would take my chances on the man-made heart valve and listen to the doctor’s advice about the best ways to avoid strokes. And hope my vegan lifestyle plays into living out my years much more healthily and to a ripe old age.
Pork used to be one of my favorite things to eat. So I know how addicting animal flesh can be. Before becoming vegan, I would often eat a carnitas burrito any chance I could get.
Then I attended an LA Animal Save Pig Vigil and came face-to-face with those beautiful and alive sentient beings, only moments before they entered a slaughterhouse. I could put my arm out and touch them and see they still had no ill will towards humans as they drank from our water bottles and accepted gentle strokes on the head and snout.
Humans don’t need animal products to survive anymore; as food or in their body as parts. If we taught our children to treat the “lowest” forms of creatures with love and compassion we wouldn’t have human rights violations all over the world. Children wouldn’t be locked up in cages.
We need to start teaching our children that all life is important and that everyone – human and non-human earthlings- has the same desires; to be happy, loved, and to love deeply.
A breath is a breath is a beating heart pumping blood, is life. In all living beings, it’s the same.