While I’ve been a fan of Robin Williams since “back in the day” when he was in the vintage television series Mork and Mindy--I never thought that years later I'd be writing about him and his heart risk factors.
Back then, Williams played Mork, an alien who is befriended by Mindy, a young woman in her twenties. Mork spent his nights sleeping is his “egg,” and his days observing and trying to understand human behavior. He also got himself in a lot of funny situations because he interpreted the world, language, and colloquial expressions so literally. My favorite scene though, was always Mork’s closing monologue. Williams would interpret the human experience from the perspective of his naïve alien character. Pretty funny… pretty right-on Williams’ humor. Insightful quips about nuances of human behavior that are not usually talked about openly.
My husband loved Williams in The World According to Garp. Dr Sinatra wrestled his way though high school and college, and Garp had some pretty funny wrestling moments. We all have a favorite Williams’ character.
Last week Williams was on Jay Leno’s show, announcing that after all the films he’s made he’ll be going back to his roots as a standup comedian—performing in an upcoming 40-city tour. I was surprised to hear Leno remind Williams to take it easy after his heart surgery. I didn’t know he’d had particular heart risk factors, or heart surgery. As is typical of Williams’ comedic style, he boiled down his human experience to a couple of funny one-liners that cut to the chase, and opened up a subject we rarely address.
“It’s a weird thing after the heart surgery, you know, because you get very emotional. I thought that maybe instead of a valve, they gave me a vulva.” said Williams, talking about his heart risk factors and recent surgery.
A lot of folks may have missed how Williams went to the heart of the matter about his heart risk factors and surgery before quickly skipping off to his next funny line. Did he just say he was feeling more emotional? More like a … woman?
One of the perks of working with heart risk factors in cardiac rehabilitation (CR) was really getting to know people. Patients with heart risk factors attended class three times a week for three months. (In the CCU, I might only have one 8-hour shift with a person, or less if they were transferred.) Safely exercising the healing heart to get over their heart risk factors was not as important as all the emotional healing that happened in CR. Over time, many of the men with heart risk factors opened up, and shared what they were thinking about all that had happened.
I can still see one man in particular, walking the treadmill to help heal his heart, lowering his heart risk factors, while we spoke. He was trying to understand why he was SO emotional after his bypass operation. “I cry like a woman now…over movies… tough things I watch people going through on the news… weddings... Why is that happening? What’s WRONG with me?” He was not alone.
Well, I’d never really heard of the phenomenological experiences my male patients were telling me about, and I couldn’t find anything to explain it in a textbooks or research findings. Like Mork, I was just observing human behavior and trying to infer a cause. These post-op men were getting more in touch with their emotions than sometimes felt comfortable for them initially. Dr Sinatra was hearing similar “confessions” at his “Healing the Heart" workshops. Sometimes, it is life that’s the best teacher.
We did our best to assist these men to appreciate their newfound sensitivity, and reframe it into a positive experience. Their families certainly appreciated the “soft side” these men were showing. Then one day, the reason behind the phenomena came through the voice of a loving spouse.
I was facilitating our monthly Cardiac Couples evening; a two hour session to afford spouses to come in and talk about what they’re going through as a “heartmate” of men with heart risk factors. We’d started the sessions when a young man told me his wife had nowhere to go with her stress since his heart attack, and was afraid to share it with him lest she strain his heart.
One of the wives was speaking about how frightened she and her daughter were as they waited for the surgeon to bring news of her husband’s heart operation. His was an emergency coronary artery bypass. He’d been the “picture of health” despite all the stress he was experiencing at work, with no visible heart risk factors. Then the bottom fell out. Now it had been hours since they’d had any word from the operating room. Their stress was sky high!
Finally, the kind surgeon appeared, removed his mask, and took the wife’s hands in his own. He looked right in her eyes, and reassured her that her husband had done well, and would be fine. As the surgeon turned and walked away, her grown daughter, an artist, whispered “Mom, you just touched the hands of the man who touched dad’s heart!”
As she finished her heartfelt story, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. It was a moment of amazing realization for all of us. You could have heard a pin drop. I still tear up each time I tell or type those insightful words.
Yes, when you have heart surgery, whether it’s a new valve or a bypass, someone reaches in and touches your heart. In that rich experience of human contact—a pair of hands trying to heal a stilled heart—there can be a profound shift.
Some hearts are healed on more than just a physical level. I am sure the positive intention of the surgeon is part of the equation as well. We can be so mechanical about surgery, that we forget what is realty happening in the operating room. A beating heart has taken a pause to rest and be nurtured by another. Dr Sinatra refers to heart surgery as the ultimate laying on of hands, and a form of “energy medicine” that brings man and matter into a state of balance and connectedness.
So, if you are a man who finds himself more emotional after heart surgery, it’s normal. You’ve had your heart touched in a special way. No one slipped you a vulva! Hopefully, you will stay more in touch with your feminine side—and those you love—as part of your emotional and spiritual healing.
For more on the connection between emotions and the heart, check out Heartbreak and Heart Disease, by Dr. Sinatra; his best book in my book!