How 30 Years of Heart Surgeries Taught My Dad How to Live
[Editor's Note: This piece is the winner of our 2019 essay contest, which prompted readers to reflect on the question: "How has an advance in science or medicine changed your life?"]
My father did not expect to live past the age of 50. Neither of his parents had done so. And he also knew how he would die: by heart attack, just as his father did.
In July of 1976, he had his first heart attack, days before his 40th birthday.
My dad lived the first 40 years of his life with this knowledge buried in his bones. He started smoking at the age of 12, and was drinking before he was old enough to enlist in the Navy. He had a sarcastic, often cruel, sense of humor that could drive my mother, my sister and me into tears. He was not an easy man to live with, but that was okay by him - he didn't expect to live long.
In July of 1976, he had his first heart attack, days before his 40th birthday. I was 13, and my sister was 11. He needed quadruple bypass surgery. Our small town hospital was not equipped to do this type of surgery; he would have to be transported 40 miles away to a heart center. I understood this journey to mean that my father was seriously ill, and might die in the hospital, away from anyone he knew. And my father knew a lot of people - he was a popular high school English teacher, in a town with only three high schools. He knew generations of students and their parents. Our high school football team did a blood drive in his honor.
During a trip to Disney World in 1974, Dad was suffering from angina the entire time but refused to tell me (left) and my sister, Kris.
Quadruple bypass surgery in 1976 meant that my father's breastbone was cut open by a sternal saw. His ribcage was spread wide. After the bypass surgery, his bones would be pulled back together, and tied in place with wire. The wire would later be pulled out of his body when the bones knitted back together. It would take months before he was fully healed.
Dad was in the hospital for the rest of the summer and into the start of the new school year. Going to visit him was farther than I could ride my bicycle; it meant planning a trip in the car and going onto the interstate. The first time I was allowed to visit him in the ICU, he was lying in bed, and then pushed himself to sit up. The heart monitor he was attached to spiked up and down, and I fainted. I didn't know that heartbeats change when you move; television medical dramas never showed that - I honestly thought that I had driven my father into another heart attack.
Only a few short years after that, my father returned to the big hospital to have his heart checked with a new advance in heart treatment: a CT scan. This would allow doctors to check for clogged arteries and treat them before a fatal heart attack. The procedure identified a dangerous blockage, and my father was admitted immediately. This time, however, there was no need to break bones to get to the problem; my father was home within a month.
During the late 1970's, my father changed none of his habits. He was still smoking, and he continued to drink. But now, he was also taking pills - pills to manage the pain. He would pop a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue whenever he was experiencing angina (I have a vivid memory of him doing this during my driving lessons), but he never mentioned that he was in pain. Instead, he would snap at one of us, or joke that we were killing him.
I think he finally determined that, if he was going to have these extra decades of life, he wanted to make them count.
Being the kind of guy he was, my father never wanted to talk about his health. Any admission of pain implied that he couldn't handle pain. He would try to "muscle through" his angina, as if his willpower would be stronger than his heart muscle. His efforts would inevitably fail, leaving him angry and ready to lash out at anyone or anything. He would blame one of us as a reason he "had" to take valium or pop a nitro tablet. Dinners often ended in shouts and tears, and my father stalking to the television room with a bottle of red wine.
In the 1980's while I was in college, my father had another heart attack. But now, less than 10 years after his first, medicine had changed: our hometown hospital had the technology to run dye through my father's blood stream, identify the blockages, and do preventative care that involved statins and blood thinners. In one case, the doctors would take blood vessels from my father's legs, and suture them to replace damaged arteries around his heart. New advances in cholesterol medication and treatments for angina could extend my father's life by many years.
My father decided it was time to quit smoking. It was the first significant health step I had ever seen him take. Until then, he treated his heart issues as if they were inevitable, and there was nothing that he could do to change what was happening to him. Quitting smoking was the first sign that my father was beginning to move out of his fatalistic mindset - and the accompanying fatal behaviors that all pointed to an early death.
In 1986, my father turned 50. He had now lived longer than either of his parents. The habits he had learned from them could be changed. He had stopped smoking - what else could he do?
It was a painful decade for all of us. My parents divorced. My sister quit college. I moved to the other side of the country and stopped speaking to my father for almost 10 years. My father remarried, and divorced a second time. I stopped counting the number of times he was in and out of the hospital with heart-related issues.
In the early 1990's, my father reached out to me. I think he finally determined that, if he was going to have these extra decades of life, he wanted to make them count. He traveled across the country to spend a week with me, to meet my friends, and to rebuild his relationship with me. He did the same with my sister. He stopped drinking. He was more forthcoming about his health, and admitted that he was taking an antidepressant. His humor became less cruel and sadistic. He took an active interest in the world. He became part of my life again.
The 1990's was also the decade of angioplasty. My father explained it to me like this: during his next surgery, the doctors would place balloons in his arteries, and inflate them. The balloons would then be removed (or dissolve), leaving the artery open again for blood. He had several of these surgeries over the next decade.
When my father was in his 60's, he danced at with me at my wedding. It was now 10 years past the time he had expected to live, and his life was transformed. He was living with a woman I had known since I was a child, and my wife and I would make regular visits to their home. My father retired from teaching, became an avid gardener, and always had a home project underway. He was a happy man.
Dancing with my father at my wedding in 1998.
Then, in the mid 2000's, my father faced another serious surgery. Years of arterial surgery, angioplasty, and damaged heart muscle were taking their toll. He opted to undergo a life-saving surgery at Cleveland Clinic. By this time, I was living in New York and my sister was living in Arizona. We both traveled to the Midwest to be with him. Dad was unconscious most of the time. We took turns holding his hand in the ICU, encouraging him to regain his will to live, and making outrageous threats if he didn't listen to us.
The nursing staff were wonderful. I remember telling them that my father had never expected to live this long. One of the nurses pointed out that most of the patients in their ward were in their 70's and 80's, and a few were in their 90's. She reminded me that just a decade earlier, most hospitals were unwilling to do the kind of surgery my father had received on patients his age. In the first decade of the 21st century, however, things were different: 90-year-olds could now undergo heart surgery and live another decade. My father was on the "young" side of their patients.
The Cleveland Clinic visit would be the last major heart surgery my father would have. Not that he didn't return to his local hospital a few times after that: he broke his neck -- not once, but twice! -- slipping on ice. And in the 2010's, he began to show signs of dementia, and needed more home care. His partner, who had her own health issues, was not able to provide the level of care my father needed. My sister invited him to move in with her, and in 2015, I traveled with him to Arizona to get him settled in.
After a few months, he accepted home hospice. We turned off his pacemaker when the hospice nurse explained to us that the job of a pacemaker is to literally jolt a patient's heart back into beating. The jolts were happening more and more frequently, causing my Dad additional, unwanted pain.
My father in 2015, a few months before his death.
My father died in February 2016. His body carried the scars and implants of 30 years of cardiac surgeries, from the ugly breastbone scar from the 1970's to scars on his arms and legs from borrowed blood vessels, to the tiny red circles of robotic incisions from the 21st century. The arteries and veins feeding his heart were a patchwork of transplanted leg veins and fragile arterial walls pressed thinner by balloons.
And my father died with no regrets or unfinished business. He died in my sister's home, with his long-time partner by his side. Medical advancements had given him the opportunity to live 30 years longer than he expected. But he was the one who decided how to live those extra years. He was the one who made the years matter.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.