Heart Wars Trilogy Part 1: The Bionic Heartbeat

Many of you have probably heard me refer to my post-surgery heartbeat as “bionic“. While I don’t, in fact, have any bionic parts, I stand by my description because the strength of the beat is just so frickin’ strong that I feel it throughout my entire body.

To be clear, there is actually nothing physically wrong with my heart. Quite the opposite. As my surgeon says: “It’s perfect. I fixed it myself.” Medically speaking, my heart is beating perfectly, it’s oxygenating my blood perfectly, and it’s circulating my blood perfectly. All the tests agree (echocardiograms, CT scans, X-Rays); perfect, perfect, perfect.

Yet amidst all this physical perfection, it feels like I swallowed a metronome. It feels like my heart is a prisoner trying to escape. It feels like someone is banging a rubber mallet on the underside of my sternum. It feels like my heart wants to come out my throat. It feels like Captain Hook and Edgar Allan Poe are the only people who get me.  It feels like this 24/7.

At first I was told that a “hyper-dynamic heartbeat” is a normal side-effect of open heart surgery and it usually calms down within six to nine months. Nine months came and went, no change. Then I was told that the scar tissue beneath my sternum must be thick enough that it’s fully filling the gap between my heart sac and my sternum, therefore transmitting the vibrations of each heartbeat directly to my rib cage which then acts like an amplifier. In theory, scar tissue thins over time and the sensation should dissipate. Having been a mechanical engineer, this makes sense to me. However, no one can say on what time scale this will happen.

It started off as a novelty, a bit of a party trick. I used to make everyone feel how strong it was. When I would hug people, they’d feel their body rock to the beat. And when I went out to eat, if I was at a small, less sturdy, table for two, I could lean my chest on the edge of the table and make the water glasses do that thing from Jurassic Park.

I’d even ask friends if they could hear it when we were in a quiet room together and the answer was often yes. That’s right, you can hear my heart beating from outside my body. That would make a lot more sense if I had had a mechanical valve inserted; those always come with a clicking sound. But no, it’s just my good old natural tissue valve thump thumping away. As proof that I wasn’t going crazy, I persuaded Dan Pashman from my NPR blogging days to see if we could actually detect my heartbeat in a recording studio. We put a mic roughly half a foot from my chest and hit record. Don some headphones and hear for yourself. (Note: the changes in sound and volume are just from Dan altering the levels while we were recording).

I can’t emphasize enough: the sound is not the actual problem, it’s the physical sensation of my heart being strong enough to produce said sound (and with it vibrations that reverberate throughout my chest) that is driving me nuts. My doctors say this effect is probably common to all heart patients, but it’s just more pronounced in me because I’m so young and healthy. Make no mistake, I am truly grateful for the latter. However, I don’t think anyone can fully appreciate what it’s like to live with this POUNDING around the clock, day after day. It’s a constant reminder that I had to have my chest cracked open, that I had a fatal flaw in my heart that almost went undetected, that I could have died. As you’ll read in Part 2 and Part 3, I’m working on reframing the bionic heartbeat from a negative to a positive, but it’s an ongoing process. And until then, I still feel like screaming into the void sometimes: “Help, I’m alive.”

Help I’m alive
My heart keeps beating like a hammer
Hard to be soft
Tough to be tender
Come take my pulse the pace is on a runaway train
Help I’m alive
My heart keeps beating like a hammer
Beating like a hammer




  1. Ruth

    I’m so sorry you’re going through this. To me, it seems perfectly sensible that this experience is messing with your head. Poe aside (after all, you’re not hearing the heartbeat of someone you’ve murdered, right? RIGHT?), none of us could possibly get through the day if we felt constantly aware of our own mortality, and that’s why it’s really good that we are able to not notice our basic functions–that we can take them for granted, that we don’t wake up and say, “Huh, time to breathe! In and out, in and out, and again!”

    And because of this, awareness of these basic functions is very closely aligned to physical illness. But since your bionic heartbeat is in fact a function of your current GOOD health and not an indication of physical illness, that sort of makes it worse. Because when we’re sick, when we’re forced to be always aware of our basic functions, the goal is to get out of that space–to be healed, to get well, to stop having to be aware of our basic functions.

    But for you, the *illness* is what went almost undetected. And your *healthy* state is what is forcing you into constant awareness. If this wasn’t messing you up there would be something wrong with you.

    To me, this is a sign that you are so NOT defective.

  2. Kerstin Upmeyer

    I’ve heard people with bad tinnitus can be constantly bothered by the sounds, even unable to sleep. This is even stronger, totally reasonable for it to make you feel the way it has. Since you are stuck with it for some undefined length of time, your aim to re-frame seems the best thing you can do, but damn girl, you need to yell to the void about it, you YELL. You have every reason to. What you went through was amazing, wonderful, life saving… but it was also traumatic and terrifying and not without big side effects. You are amazing to me, you know that, and I wish there was more I could do besides be your friend. I will say however, everything you have felt and been through, it’s heard and acknowledged and affirmed. ❤

  3. This is what it is like for me too. constant pounding. Its good to see you post again. Your blog inspired me to blog myself after my aortic valve replacement. I received my first mechanical valve in November 2013, then a redo due to bacterial endocarditis. http://robovalve.wordpress.com/

  4. Felicia

    I considered writing this to you in a private message, but then decided I would be as brave as you and say it here. When I was a little girl, I was afraid of my own heartbeat. I hated to hear it, though I never really understood why. I’ve gotten to know you a small bit here in the cyber-verse, and I can say without question that you are one of the coolest people I have the pleasure of knowing. The experiences you share have also given me some insight into those early fears, which I share because I think we are similar as teachers and leaders, and that the passing on of insight can be a kind of consolation for us, a kind of change. What I was hearing was my life, and such a thing is too big, too marvelous, too potent. This is not at ALL the same as experiencing the constant vibrations you describe, nor do I mean to express a kindred experience, but more simply, and perhaps selfishly, that I feel echoes of my childhood in what you describe and feel that I have learned something important in that memory: a child’s ear pressed to her arm and her life made physical for her.

    I also want to say that the fact that you handle feeling your heart beat as well as you do, and DO all that you do, is amazing. You are AMAZING. I aspire to be as wonderfully geeky and smart, and that’s no joke. I’ll also share that I have yelled into the void many times (sometimes the void is just my car windows rolled up, the music loud, and a hope that no one actually hears me). But I hear you.

    Biggest of hugs and a big wave from the west coast and a hope to see you again soon.

  5. Alejandra

    In awe of you.

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  8. i ran into your story over at Boing boing. i had open heart surgery when i was 7, and now, 40 years on, i sometimes wonder if my heart is beating more strongly than normal. part of me fears it’s a bad sign, part of me thinks i’m imagining it (i can’t say i have much experience with other people’s heartbeats as a comparison), and part of me just rolls along through life. i can’t do the jurassic park cup thing (that i know of! i’ve never tried…), but i still think that it’s stronger than it should be for some reason. anyway, thanks for your blog — i can’t wait to read it, but i just wanted to say hi.

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  10. Thanks so much for posting about your experience. I had mitral valve repair done about nine months ago and can attest that recovery comes with a whole bunch of weird experiences. I’m lucky not to have experienced the pounding that you describe, but I could certainly have done without the dizziness that came and went for the first few months. Glad your recovery has been good.

  11. Lisa Heinen

    Thank you for posting about your journey. I was wondering if it is uncommon to not have the bicuspid valve replaced when dealing with the ascending aortic aneurysm? I am told I have to have both taken care of soon and am of course terrified!

  12. I have a tissue valve and also experience really loud, body-moving, beats. I find it a strange mix of comforting and disturbing, depending on what sort of mood I’m in. Also very interested to read about PTSD. I have big issues with anger which I think stem from having a heart condition and all the stuff that goes with that. Thank you for writing so honestly.

  13. Lesley

    I found this blog because I, too, am experiencing a visibly beating heart following surgery. Having read so many reports of this phenomenon, however, I now feel reassured that it’s normal – so thanks for that!! I so see what you mean about the Edgar Allan Poe feelings – what with the body all sutured together and looking like a corpse on a slab, plus the weirdness of having what feels like an alien pulse beating inside you, plus the fact that you could so easily have died (am I a zombie?) – it all adds up to a kind of weird unreality. Hey-ho – better here feeling all this than not here at all!

  14. Colleen

    Really enjoying your blog. Just discovered it. I just had my tricuspid valve replaced in Feb of 2016 with a tissue valve. Also relatively young and have experienced this very strong heartbeat at times. Not as strong as yourself but strong. It is good to know that I am not the only one. I was naive in thinking that my heart would be the same after the surgery, and for that matter that I would be the same. I am learning to accept that I will not be an trying to change my goal from being “to get back to normal” to “being the best new me that I can be”. Thanks for your inspiration.

  15. This is a very late reply, but I stumbled over your blog by chance and I can strongly empathise with you over this…I’ve got a congenital heart condition, but have never had heart surgery yet, and I experience this VERY much. It’s frustrating and you can actually see my heart beat through several layers of clothing. It’s pretty annoying. I hope you feel well now. ❤

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