A Heart (Valve) of Stone
OCTOBER 26, 2023
“Are you alright?” Gail asked. Her face wore a mask of deep concern.
This was May 3, 2022. We had just left the Chattanooga Prayer Breakfast and were walking out to the parking lot to get our car. We had not yet made it to the end of the football field-sized lobby of the Convention Center. I was lightheaded and had stopped for the third time to catch my breath.
“I don’t feel bad, just a little dizzy. I think maybe you should drive home.”
The space between Gail’s eyebrows narrowed and her eyes slightly widened. When we’re in the car together I’m always behind the steering wheel. That was the first time since we’d been married that I’d asked her to drive.
When we got home Gail said, “You are going to call your doctor, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to bother them. It’s probably nothing.”
“Let me rephrase that, ‘You are going to call your doctor, aren’t you!”
Four days earlier my cardiologist had told me that my moderate aortic stenosis had advanced. I was scheduled to have a heart catheterization done two weeks later, and I’d been told that more than likely I’d need to have a procedure done before the summer was over.
I called the doctor’s office, got a nurse, and described my symptoms—shortness of breath, lightheaded, and fatigue. She said that she’d talk to the doctor and call me back. In less than an hour she called and said, “The doctor would like for you to go to the ER at the hospital.”
There is a branch of our hospital system in our community. The main hospital is downtown.
“Should I go downtown, or can I go to the branch hospital?”
“If you go to the branch hospital, they are going to put you in an ambulance and send you downtown,” she said. Gail drove me to the main hospital.
Two women in medical garb sat at the reception desk. I told them my cardiologist thought I might be having a heart issue and he wanted me to come to the ER. They directed me to take a seat in the waiting room.
“Here,” one of the nurses said, handing me a facemask. “You need to wear this.”
Then she said to Gail, “And I’m sorry, but you can’t stay. Due to our Covid protocols, only patients can stay in the waiting room.”
Gail went outside and sat on a bench to wait and see what they were going to do with me. I had barely sat down on a chair in a corner of the room, as far away from others as I could get when a woman stepped into the waiting room holding a file folder and I heard her call, “Smith!”
I stood up and followed her to a small cubicle where she took my vitals and quizzed me about the level of chest pain I was experiencing.
“It’s not bad.”
“On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most severe, how is your chest pain?”
“A 2, maybe.”
“Any pain in your left arm or jaw?”
“Any other symptoms.”
“I’ve been lightheaded, short of breath, and extremely fatigued. That’s why my doctor told me to come here.”
The nurse wrote all of this down and then told me to go back to the waiting room. Someone was now sitting in my corner seat so I found another seat and took out my phone. There were two text messages from Gail asking what was going on.
“Not much,” I replied.
Every third or fourth seat was occupied. It wasn’t really crowded, not as crowded as other ER waiting rooms I’d been in over the years. Some people did have friends or family sitting with them. I asked at the desk why my wife couldn’t come in.
“We are only allowed to have a certain number of people in the room. Once we reach that number, we can’t let anyone else in except for patients. We’ve passed the maximum number.”
After about 30 minutes a man wearing scrubs called my name. I went to where he was holding a door open. I looked at his name tag so I could greet him by name. I have found it best to make friends as quickly as possible with people who might be getting ready to poke, prod, or stick me. However, the name tag clipped to his shirt was turned backward.
He led me to a different cubicle. Wires were stuck to my chest and I had an EKG done, and then I was sent back to the waiting room. Forty-five minutes later I was called back for a blood draw, then sent back to the waiting room. Thirty minutes after that I was led through a maze of hallways for a chest X-ray, then taken back to the waiting room.
Every nurse or technician I spoke to asked about my pain level. Every time I said the same thing, “Not bad. A 2, maybe.”
Then I sat in the waiting room and waited. No one told me what would happen next. Gail and I continued to text. She had left the bench outside the ER door and had gone to the home of friends who lived not far from the hospital.
After three hours I was called back for another blood draw.
Then finally, I was taken back into the bowels of the ER to a small room with a single bed, a montior with flashing lights and numbers, and an IV stand. The nurse who brought me back told me that I was allowed to have someone with me there. I texted Gail. After several minutes she arrived, and she waited with me. We did a lot of waiting that day.
After maybe another hour a doctor came into the room. He had my chart in his hand. He asked how I was feeling and inquired about the pain level in my chest.
“Not bad. About a 2, maybe,” I said for the thirty-seventh time that day.
“Well, you’re not having a heart attack,” he said. “I’m going to let you go home.”
I sighed. “I know I’m not having a heart attack. That’s not why I’m here.” He looked puzzled.
I told him I had aortic stenosis, described my symptoms once more—lightheaded, short of breath, fatigued—and told him my cardiologist had told me to come to the ER.
“Your cardiologist would like for you to be admitted?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s what been telling people ever since I got here.”
“Okay, we can do that.” I sighed again.
By the time I got to a room it was after 11:00 pm and nothing else happened that night. The next day, they squeezed me into an already full schedule in the Cath Lab for a catheterization. I was back in my room recovering from that catheterization when I was visited by a pleasant-looking thirty-something doctor I’d not met before. He introduced himself as a staff cardiologist.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Not bad. How should I be feeling?”
Without any other small talk, he said, “I’ve reviewed the results of your catheterization. If you leave the hospital without surgery, you’re going to die.”
My aortic valve was barely opening. Only a minuscule amount of blood was passing through it. I needed a new valve, and I needed it right away. Within an hour I was visited by a cardiothoracic surgeon who told me that they had moved some things around on his schedule and I was slotted for first thing the next morning.
The next day, after a seven-hour surgery, that involved not only giving me a new bovine tissue valve, but also cleaning calcification off my heart, and repairing a tear in my aorta, I was good as new.
Calcification had made my aortic valve hard and inflexible. The calcification had spread from the valve down my aorta and onto the heart muscle itself. It was like having a valve and heart of stone. Through the wonders of modern medicine, the doctor was able to stop my heart, put me on a heart and lung machine, take my heart out of my chest, clean it off, repair the aorta, and give me a new valve of flesh. Without that, I would have died. With my new heart valve, I have new life. That’s pretty amazing.
This all reminded me of something even more amazing, of an even greater heart surgery performed by a better surgeon.
Before Jesus came to me, I was dead in my trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1). I wasn’t spiritually sick or confused. I was dead. There was no spirit within me. Whatever heart was there was like a rock, a stone. It did not beat; it could not beat. It was dead. And just like there was nothing I could do to fix my heart value that was turning to stone, there was nothing I could do to fix my dead, rock-like spiritual heart.
Don’t you love those two words? Those are my two favorite words. In the Bible, those words are always followed by Good News.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6).
In Ezekiel, God told the Israelites that he would give them a new heart and give them a new spirit. He said that he would remove their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26).
My heart surgeon replaced my stone-like valve with a new valve, and with that extended my physical life. But God, the better heart surgeon, through his mercy and great love, replaced my dead spiritual heart of stone with a living spiritual heart, and with that gave me eternal life.
With the Apostle Paul, I can say that it is by grace that I have been saved through faith, not by anything of my own doing. I have received a gift from God, not a result of my work. Therefore, I do not boast or brag. Rather, I go after the good works that God has prepared for me and seek to serve others, that they may see Christ in me who is the hope of glory (Eph. 2:8-9; Col. 1:27).