28 July 2014

The Loneliness Of The Open Heart Patient: Recovery Journal, Vol. 29

By: Jon Katz
The Loneliness Of The Open Heart Patient

The Loneliness Of The Open Heart Patient

Dave, a 50-year-old man from Idaho,  sent me a message this morning, he had open heart surgery a few years ago, and he told me that he has never spoken of it since, not to his wife, his father, his children, his co-workers. I read your blog every day, he says, and I cry with each journal. I just can't talk about it.  I thought about Dave quite a bit today, I understand that he is saying, how he feels. I have only cried once or twice since my surgery, and although I rarely talk about it, I force myself to write about it, it is healing for me, it is affirming to write, it is what I do, who I am. Without it, I think I would cease to exist.

No, let me be honest, I love to write about it, I need to write about it,

Dave is talking about the loneliness of open heart surgery, perhaps the loneliness of any kind of major surgery. If I were to be asked what the greatest danger is that faces me in the recovery, it would be loneliness and isolation. Open heart surgery is major surgery, it frightens people and gets their attention. When I got home from the hospital, I was flooded with cards, offers of help, people bringing food, offering to drive me places, asking me how I was. That sense of urgency is short-lived, of course, and it should be. Things are quiet here now, we are settling in for the long haul. The truly valiant friends keep showing up.

But people  have to get on with their lives, I need to get on with mine, I struggle every day to return to as much normalcy and independence as I can manage. We are not built to dwell on misery and suffering, our lives pull us along. I will get there, too, just not for a bit.

I can feed myself, dress myself, do some work, take walks, write, listen to music, take a few photos, talk on the phone, do some chores. Still, I see there is an aching loneliness to being a surgical patient, I was trying to explain it to Maria who said I was uncharacteristically withdrawn and quiet. She looks over at me sometimes and I see the worry and concern in her face. Is he okay? He is not himself.

I know, I can feel it myself. I said the danger from surgery was narcissism, I feel quite isolated sometimes because I am dealing with my body almost every single minute, dealing with things nobody else can see or feel but that cannot be avoided. I feel like those World War II soldiers who came back from dark places and could never quite talk about what they had seen or where they had been. I understand now.

My medications all have side affects. Suddenly I might be nauseous, or have cramps, or break into a sweat, or feel exhausted, or wince from the pain of my healing wounds, or feel anxious and distracted. My blood sugar is still rocketing up and down and I can feel it when it happens.  Sometimes it feels like my insides are moving around. I can't be talking about myself all of the time, and my feelings, it is too self-referential, too uncomfortable, too personal.

But I have to pay attention to myself quite a bit of the time – have I taken the right pills in the morning, the insulin in the right dose, can I walk now or need rest? Sometimes there is a shooting pain that is quite breathtaking.  One minute the scars from the artery removal in my leg aches, then pain from my healing chest, the messages from my healing heart, the stitches itch and burn. Should I take a walk, and move, or rest and heal? These are all private things, private considerations, no one else can see them or feel them, but they isolate me still from the world. They pull me into myself, into my own healing world.

I will deal with them all in time, they will all ease, heal or I will adjust to them, fiddle with them, work through them. I feel like I am standing in one of those baseball hitting cages sometimes, fastballs are coming at me every second, I can hardly get my bat off the shoulder.  It is so easy to think about yourself all day, it is hard not to, narcissism and self-absorption is a greater danger than healing scars.

Every time I see Maria or any other person, I am sure to ask her or them how they are, what they are doing, how they are feeling? I cannot bear to be one of those many people I meet who never, ever ask about anyone else, never talk about anything but them. Open heart surgery can give you the wrong idea, that your problems are more important than anybody else's, that  you are the center of the universe.  I think it was true for a day or so in the ICU, I was the center of the universe. But now, not so, I meet people every day with worse problems than me.

It has been almost a month, I can see how time and healing and recovery work – everything is a little bit better every single day, I am a good patient, I am working hard at healing. My daughter worried that I would over do things, she said that would be my problem,  but she doesn't quite understand this part of me: I will do every single thing I can possibly do to heal in the best and quickest possible way. A doctor once told me I was the best diabetes patient he had ever had, and the nurse in the ICU said I was the best open heart surgical patient she had ever had, and my goal is for my surgeon, Dr. Akujuo to say the same thing this Thursday when I see her again. As my nurse-practitioner says, I am an over-achiever.

A different nurse I am close to and fond of called today to check up on me and I asked her how long it would be before I wasn't exhausted in the afternoon. Four or five months, she said. This isn't a cold, kiddo, she said, they stopped your heart and put you on life support and broke your chest open and moved your arteries around. Ouch, okay, put that way, I get it.

I talk to my heart at least once a day, now that we are getting to know one another after many years of estrangement. How are things going? Good, she says, two-and-a-half miles today up a hill is enough today. It is rainy and humid, let's take it easy today. How are you, she says? I feel a little lonely sometimes, I said, I can't really explain this to anyone in words. Quite natural, she says, everyone with a serious illness feels it, open heart patients especially, men in particular. You'll get through it. You were never ill before, never in a hospital, never had surgery. Open heart surgery is a big one for the first time.

Dave knows how it feels, but he can't talk about it. Perhaps it will help him if I write about it. One of these nights, I will cry too. I told him that each day, I work myself a little bit more back into life.

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Portrait Of The Artist In The Field With Wildflowers

By: Jon Katz
Portrait Of The Artist

Portrait Of The Artist

Portrait of the artist in the field. In her $8 dollar dress she wears to do her chores, in her $8 green French boots (worth $200), picking her wildflowers. I rarely show Maria's face, I think it adds to the sense of her, her presence.


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Life As Art

By: Jon Katz
Life As Art

Life As Art

Maria is an artist, through and through, it is in her mind, her bearing, her body and her voice. Sometimes, when I see her out in the pasture, I think I have drifted into a Willa Cather novel, a story of a beautiful artist on a farm, sharing her life with the animals there. She is both out of place and quite natural on the farm, she wears the clothes of an artist – sometimes her wedding dress – to muck out the barns and walk with the animals. The sheep and the donkeys flock to her, they are draw to her and she talks to them in the most beautiful natural way.

Today, out near Lulu's crossing, I stopped and I thought I was in a painting, a landscape. Maria was picking wildflowers, as she often does and then brings them into the house and the sheep were hoping to eat some of them. I was grateful to be holding my camera – once a day, I take my big camera out for a walk, we are seeing the surgeon Thursday, I am hoping she will release me to carry my camera and also to drive short distances. I don't think I'm ready for long ones.

I appreciate living in a painting, it is a beautiful and surreal experience sometimes.

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The Rotting Porch

By: Jon Katz
The Rotting Porch

The Rotting Porch

Maria happened to notice the other day that our porch is rotting away, due to cracks in the wood that water is pouring through when it rains. We called Jay Bridge, our friend and master craftsperson and he said we caught it just in time, there is rot everywhere, the corner pillar has to come down, the roof shored up, various planks torn up and placed. A mess, but it could have been a bigger one. Our wonderful house was built in 1840 and has held up well. We have so far put in storm windows, installed two wood stoves, painted and wallpapered, replaced the wiring, fixed the slate roof, put in a new kitchen floor and bathroom shower tiles and floor. Better gutters up next and some paint touch-up.

First, our rotting porch.One step at a time.

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Carriage Horses: Race, Class And The Rights Of animals

By: Jon Katz
Race, Class And The Rights Of Animals

Race, Class And The Rights Of Animals

A couple of weeks ago, PETA touched off a racial firestorm when it bungled it's way into the Detroit water crisis. The city's water company is shutting off water to thousands of impoverished city residents who could not pay their bills in recent months and years, an act the United Nations has labeled a violation of basic human rights.

PETA shocked the city – and everyone else -  by offering to pay the water bills of ten city residents if they would agree to accept a vegan diet basket and eat vegan food for free for one month. A PETA spokesperson was stunned by the uproar, she said the group had no regrets or apologies to make.

Author and activist Yasmin Nair wrote one of the gentler characterizations of PETA's idea, which sparked nearly universal outrage among the mostly African-American residents of the city. She said on her blog that it was an "ugly, vile, and meaningless gesture."

Nair asked the same basic question that underscores the animal rights movement in New York City and the controversy over the New York carriage horses.

"If we are to begin thinking about ending cruelty to animals, we need to ask how our economic and cultural structures enable us to be as cruel, even if in different ways, to humans."  Or much crueler, in fact. We do need to think about that,  it is  the elephant in the room, the issue no one in progressive New York City wants to really face. It is unthinkable to me that people who are cruel and indifferent to one another can really help us find a way to be kinder to animals.

Nair's essay speaks directly to the race and class issues that  PETA's  tone deaf  initiative raises. The story also relates very clearly to PETA's strong support of  the move to ban the New York City carriage horses and put hundreds of people out of work. Can we really improve the lives of animals while ignoring, abusing and destroying the lives of the people who own and care for them? Does a movement so uncaring of people and so viscerally elitist really get to speak for the rights of animals?

The animals rights movement – always an upper class fringe culture viewed by most people – not always fairly – as the social hobby of loopy, over-educated but curiously unknowing white kids  – is  viscerally and endemically cruel and insensitive to humans. It has, in direct and indirect ways, increasingly isolated and ignored minorities and the poor when it comes to animals, both in terms of civic priorities and resources.

"PETA's proposal," writes Nair, "is callous, short-sighted and ultimately meaningless. It does nothing to advance veganism or to get people to think about the systemic links between, say, poverty, race and the degradation of animals, for meat or pleasure." In the same way, the effort to ban the carriage horses in New York City does nothing to advance the life of one single animal, including the horses, or challenges the city – and it's millions of ethnic and racial minorities – to consider the role of animals in urban life, or the ways in which working animals like horses could help some of the city's neediest people, economically or in other ways.

If the horses are banned, one NAACP board member e-mailed me, "black children will never see a horse again for the rest of their lives. Can that be good for them or for animals? Do you have to be a rich white person with a farm to ever see a working horse? Why should black and hispanic children be the only children denied the opportunity to live with animals?"

Across the country, animals like horses and dogs are being used to help autistic and disabled children, sell vegetables and other foods in inner cities, to educate impoverished children in the ways of the animals world. Instead of banishing them from the city, why couldn't the mayor or PETA consider bringing them into the outer boroughs, where few children ever get to see animals, and where many could benefit from the amazing new therapy work being done with equines.

There are, of course, connections between race, poverty and the abuse and mistreatment of animals. Why not address them, rather than remove the animals from our lives and our worlds without due process or cause?

In the same way that PETA's profoundly insensitive vegan water campaign exploits and misunderstands the most vulnerable people in Detroit – fresh fruit and vegetables are rare in the city's devastated neighborhoods, where there are few markets left of any kind -  the campaign against the carriage horses in New York is more of a class conflict than a genuine effort to help horses.  Vegan dieting is the last thing on the minds of people surrounded by poverty and violence and who have  no money or running water.

In New York, the issues echo Detroit in more ways than we might have imagined. The new animal rights movement  pits the politicized and apartment-dwelling elites of Manhattan and Brooklyn against the blue-collar, mostly immigrant workers who make up the carriage trade and who drive the horse carriages. Imagine if the mayor tried to ban industries that employed people who went to Harvard and Yale – journalists or museum workers or actors -  because some millionaire didn't like them for one reason or another and gave a lot of money to his campaign?

The new animal rights philosophy is centered on the newly fantasized and idealized notion of animals, work is now considered cruel. In the Irish and other cultures from which many of the carriage owners and drivers are  descended, work with animals goes back a thousand years or more. Animals are not pets to be pitied but partners in the joys and travails of life, they have given sustenance, survival and purpose to countless working people over time.

This ancient tradition is now – and quite suddenly-  seen as criminal in New York City. The animal rights movement has no history or understanding of domesticated or working animals, since few of the people in it have never worked with any – they do not believe in it -  or been willing to grasp or explore the social or economic importance of working animals to so many people in the world. In the carriage trade culture, as in much of rural America and most of the world, working animals are valued, even sacred. I got an e-mail from a carter in New Delhi who is following the effort to ban the horses, and he was stunned, incredulous. "What kind of country are you?," he wondered, "where you could banish hundreds of healthy working horses to farms where they could never work again? Send them to us, there will be no controversy." I wasn't sure what to tell him.

All all the animals in the world to rescue, the carriage horses are an unlikely choice. Most have already been rescued from auction houses, and all are safe, healthy and well cared for.

PETA's quite shockingly insensitive proposal  has underscored the elitism and privilege embedded in the animal rights culture, and the bizarre reasoning behind the carriage horse struggles. Without the carriage trade owners and drivers, most, if not all, of the New York carriage horses would already be dead, long sent to slaughter.

This enraged and self-righteous elitism has characterized the movement against the horses in New York – largely funded and supported by PETA and the animal rights group NYClass – since it's inception. But for the first time in the history of major American cities, the movement has a mayor who is so fervent supporter that he will not even meet with the carriage horse ownes or drivers. The horses may pay with their lives, the owners and drivers with their way of life.

If you go to New York City and observe the demonstrators who gather weekly in Central Park, you will rarely, if ever, see a face that is not white. Beyond that, the restrictions and campaigns launched by animal rights organizations seem targeted – consciously or not – at blacks and other minorities,  the working-class and the poor. People with jobs are denied the right to rescue animals, as are those who cannot afford expensive fencing and expensive veterinary care. Do the poor have the same right to have dogs as everyone else?

The campaign against the carriage horses has had especially ugly class connotations, and has from the first. There is a millionaire real estate developer obsessed with banning the horses, working in close alliance with the city's new upper middle-class white mayor and legions of almost all upper middle-class white workers and volunteers targeting the blue-collar men and women who work in the carriage trade.

If the horses are banned, more than 300 people will lose their jobs, they are almost all blue-collar, immigrant or working class people. . From the first, the mayor and the animal rights organizations have treated these workers as sub-human, refusing to speak with them, meet with them, negotiate with them or even talk with them. When I think of the Detroit vegan initiative, I immediately think of the assumption of New York's mayor and the leaders of NYClass, the spearheading group of the ban, that the carriage drivers will be happy to drive vintage electric cars once the horses are gone. It is not clear why the city would permit greedy animal abusers to drive children and other tourists around in cars, but the arrogance and elitism of the idea are powerful: since the drivers are only interested in money, and less than moral human beings, why would they care what they drive through the park, or even know the difference?

The frequent demonstrations against the people in the carriage trade are often vile, the drivers are regularly accused of being murderers, abusers, greedy thieves and uncaring thugs.  Children and tourists riding in the carriages are insulted and shouted at, the horses are regularly taunted with placards shoved in their faces in the hopes of provoking them to spook or bolt.

In New York City, the mayor and the animal rights movement have demonstrated time and again that they operate in a political environment which, as Nair suggests, "often seems to care more about the animals left behind in hurricanes than the people whose lives are devastated…" In fact, the animal rights movement moved tens of thousands of animals out of New Orleans after Katrina, and in many cases refused to return the pets to their true owners, claiming they were abused and mistreated in their original homes. Animal owners in New Orleans were victimized, again and again, many spent years in court fighting to get their animals back.

Would the millions of dollars being spent by New York City and a number of animal rights organizations to banish the carriage horses  who are by all accounts, healthy, well cared for and well fed, and replace them with $160,000 vintage carriage horses be better spent on helping the many thousands of New York City children – most of them black and Hispanic – who live in homeless shelters, and are neither well cared for or well fed, according to the city's own accounts?

Why is the city an unsafe environment only for horses, but not for poor children? Why would the mayor make removal of the horses his most urgent priority, but not the children?

What ties the Detroit water controversy to the New York Carriage Horse crisis are the same humanitarian and social concerns. People with no money or access to real political power are being victimized by exploitive, wealthy and callous political elites masquerading as defenders of animals.

If PETA really wanted to help the people of Detroit, they would of course offer to feed families (or their animals) there without condition – they have many millions of dollars to spend. Instead, they are spending millions in New York City to banish animals that are not in need or danger. If they really wanted to help horses in America, they would take their cash to the auction houses in Pennsylvania and elsewhere where more than 150,000 horses each year are taken over long distances to slaughter in cramped trailers to Mexico and Canada and transported and killed in the most brutal of ways, because PETA and other groups lobbied to close down the much more humane and close slaughterhouses in the United States.

In Detroit, PETA has revealed itself in stark and disturbing but familiar ways.  It's vegan gesture was the ultimate expression of elitism and insensitivity. There is a backlash to PETA and the mayor's campaign against the horses in New York as well. The public is not buying the idea that the horses are being abused by working, 66 per cent of city residents want them to stay.

There is a growing revulsion  at the tactics and inhumanity of the people who call themselves supporters of animal rights. A movement that has so little regard for human beings cannot ever be entrusted with the welfare of animals.

My new e-book, "Who Speaks For the Carriage Horses: The Future Of Animals In Our World," is available for $3.99  wherever digital books are sold.


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