Christian Schaefer
Christian Schaefer testing the coagulation level on the Caribbean island Barbados in 1994. ©privat

In 1986, an aortic insufficiency caused Christian Schaefer’s heart to stop doing what it is supposed to do. He got a mechanical heart valve. Since then, it clicks in his breast. So what!

A report by Christian Schaefer
I was 46 years old, in the prime of life. But suddenly, long walks made me tired. I couldn’t sleep on my back anymore like I used to either. Everytime just before falling asleep, I had the feeling that I couldn’t breathe anymore.

During our vacation in East Friesland, my wife recommended me to visit a country doctor. He diagnosed an irregular heart rhythm and a more enhanced second heart sound as well as clear heart murmurs. In addition, my lung volume was only 2.8 litres – that’s what the diagnostic report said which was sent to me afterwards.

No time for a check-up

“It’s time that you let a cardiologist examine you”, my wife said. I didn’t have the time for that. I worked as a medical journalist and my daily work load as a duty editor of two specialist journals for gynecologists and pediatricians was completely exhausted. Added to this were congress visits and press conferences of the respective subject areas.

However, the car journey from Rhineland to Wolfsburg a few days later turned into a little nightmare. I suddenly felt like my head would explode. At first, I felt really hot and everything went black. My heart operated at full speed. With a lot of effort, I reached my destination and got through the congress. The return journey was a struggle again. I sweated heavily and had the feeling that I couldn’t breathe. Temporarily driving on the hard shoulder, I got back home.

Then, everything happened very quickly. On the next day, I was in intensive care of a hospital in Essen. Around me, doctors were trying to find out the cause of my symptoms. Several days passed. One night, I panicked. The heart was racing. Everything went black. Later, I found out that I had ventricular fibrillation.

“You have a severe aortic insufficiency.”

My wife visited me with our testament. I didn’t understand why. The strong sedative prevented me from having clear thoughts.

I was transferred to another hospital in Essen for clarifying cardiac catheter examination. I heard the treating cardiologist’s words: “You have a severe aortic insufficiency and have to be operated on immediately. I will refer you to a specialist center.”

As a medical journalist, I instantly knew what that meant: My heart valve didn’t close properly anymore. The blood from the aorta flew back into the left ventricle.

I lost all sense of day times. At some point, I woke up on the ICU of another clinics. I looked at the clock which resembled a station clock. That confused me. Where was I? Somebody touched my hand: “Congratulations, you did it”. The heart surgeon who operated on me stood beside my bed.

Medication intake until the end of my life

He explained to me that a mechanical aortic valve had been implanted. To prevent blood clots, anticoagulants were necessary all my life.

The days passed. The drainage hoses were removed and therapeutic exercise started in a sitting position. I lied in bed for 25 days. The musculature was very weakened. At one point, I was able to go to the bathroom. In the mirror, I saw the big red scar on my shaved breast for the first time.

Little by little, my strength returned. The first walk to the canteen, the first walk outdoors. Ten days after the heart valve surgery, I had my final check-up examinations. The sutures were removed. It stung. I had a bottle of beer in the evening. Cheers!

On the last days in the Heart Center, I had a lot of walks in the park. The social service took care of the rehab, even back in 1986. We chose a rehab clinic specialized in cardiology, where I did a six-week rehabilitation training.

After 86 days, I was finally back home.

However, the heart rhythm deviations persisted although the medication was constantly adjusted. The irregular heart beat made me nervous. There was still something wrong with my heart. In the following year, a pacemaker was implanted. That calmed me down.

At first, I heard the clicking of the heart valve very clearly, but the more I accepted the mechanical heart valve and the more I got used to it, the more quiet it was for me.

Today, I sometimes take my stethoscope to hear the clicking of my heart valve. In addition, I still take an anticoagulant. I learned to accept that the heart rhythm deviations occur from time to time.

The mechanical heart valve doesn’t restrict my daily life and my leisure time with sports and traveling – going walking regularly keeps my heart fit. We also pay attention to a balanced diet at home. Of course, celebrations with the family and friends as well as traveling – also to faraway countries – increases my quality of life. For more than thirty years, my motto has been: “It clicks, I’m alive!”

This text is an excerpt from the book: “Es Klickt, ich lebe!” (“It clicks, I’m alive!”). Christian Schaefer talks about his experience with the heart valve surgery and the following decades.
@tredition-Verlag, Hamburg 2020.