Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, responsible for 1 in 4 female deaths each year. The statistics are sobering…yet too rarely talked about among women. But when the book-loving mom of Bas Bleu reviewer CH raved about Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s memoir Heart Rending Heart Mending: Saved by Medical Science, Healed by Ancient Wisdom, Bas Bleu’s all-female editorial staff sat up and took notice. This week in the Bluestocking Salon, we’re talking with the author of this “life-and-death epitome of a must-read” about her experience as a survivor of heart disease and heart surgery, the importance of giving patients a voice, and the healing power of “illness as art.”
Marylou Kelly Streznewski: I wrote the book for a number of reasons. First, I wanted to educate women about the dangers they face by not being informed about the odds of developing heart disease (one in three), and that their symptoms can be very different from men. I discovered all this for myself three months after my “cardiac train wreck,” and twenty-one months after my first symptoms. I have been thrilled on several occasions when a woman has said, “I read your book, and went right out and got a checkup.”
I wanted to try to educate medical professionals about how patients feel and the kinds of support they need long after the cardiac event has happened. In all of the books I read as I did my research, I found only two doctors who had experienced heart attacks. For all of their marvelous medical accomplishments, the others simply had little idea of what it is like to actually experience heart disease. Indeed, my primary care physician told me after reading my book that it gave him an insight into what patients go through that he had never really had before, despite twenty-five years of being, in my opinion, a truly caring practitioner.
As an artist, a poet, a journalist and a fiction writer, I wanted to share what the experience of open-heart surgery was like from the patient’s point of view. Illness as art? Why not? I took as my model the poet Donald Hall, who died this year. When his beloved wife Jane was struck by cancer, he turned her suffering and his grief at losing her into poetry and prose. I sent him some of the earliest poems and he responded with encouragement, which helped me to keep working.
In addition, I wanted to give hope to those who have been through this by showing that with the use of integrative medicine modalities, you can meet your responsibility to heal yourself. Doctors and the miracles of modern medicine can repair what has gone wrong, but the healing is up to the patient. That is the greatest insight I gained from writing this book.
Finally, in the eighteen months while I was misdiagnosed, I was in a variety of situations where I could have experienced a heart attack and was far from medical help. I was lucky that the attack occurred at home, where a hospital was ten minutes away. I have often wondered if I am still here for a reason. Maybe the reason was to write this book.
BB: The poetry included is lovely. Why did you decide to include that element?
MKS: I have always been fascinated with the strange and magical elements in the universe of human behavior, both my own and others. I think that is why depicting the strange experiences surrounding both the heart surgery and some of the integrative medicine modalities appealed to me as a poet. The surgeon’s notes allowed me to create a picture of what the doctors were doing with their medical miracles. The poetry allowed me to create a picture of what I was doing at the same time. My experience was bizarre, psychedelic even, heavily colored by various drugs, but the poetry provided the only vehicle to express what I experienced. Even that did not begin to come for six months after the fact, and slowly for the several years I took to write the book. At first, I intended to create separate books, but it was actually a group of my fellow poets who encouraged me to combine the two. As the second half of the book, about integrative medicine, was created, more poems emerged and I was able to thread them through appropriate sections. This allowed me to reflect both the intellectual and the emotional aspects of what happened to me.
BB: How did you navigate this journey so well without being a medical expert?
MKS: Most important, by inserting into the text every chance I got, some variation of: “This is not a book of medical advice; I am not a medical expert. It is the cautionary tale of a survivor who did her homework, and took responsibility for her own healing. It is designed to give you information and questions which you should take up with your own medical advisor.”
With regard to the integrative medicine sections, I jokingly stated (with a nod to academia) that my research question was “Does this stuff work?” By trying each modality on myself, I could again relate my experience to the reader. However, I was well aware of the placebo effect, so I backed up my experience with research. I read a lot of books.
Crosschecking sources against one another was important. I interviewed my surgeon regarding his opinions of integrative medicine. Lastly, I asked a psychologist who specializes in treating trauma to review the entire manuscript with the plea, “Please save me from saying anything stupid and embarrassing myself.” A bibliography of thirty-some sources and sixty-three footnotes completed the job. I was still nervous about my temerity in publishing such a book. I was much relieved when my cardiologist, my primary care physician, and my surgeon all attended the book launch and declared that they loved it.
BB: What are you hoping the book will accomplish?
MKS: I hope to be one small voice trying to tell the world that twenty-first-century medicine must combine the most sophisticated scientific knowledge about the human body with the most ancient wisdom about the mind, spirit, psyche and soul in order to truly heal the sick. For those who ask “Where is the research?” I reply that it is scattered in many journals, but it is there for anyone who truly wants to find it. In Bellaruth Naprasteck’s book on how people survive trauma, she has a paragraph listing the many uses of integrative medicine techniques. It has a footnote at the end, which leads to one and one-third pages of small print listing the research sources that are available—everything from the AMA to the most obscure specialized journals. I have become an advocate for acceptance of these methods for the long-term support that heart patients need to live their best lives after a cardiac event.
Since its publication, I have discovered that the audience for this book is much larger than women. One woman told me, “I bought your book but I can’t get to read it—my husband, who is also a heart patient, has taken it over.” In evaluating the second section especially, I find that there is helpful information for anyone who wishes to lead a full and healthy life.
BB: What advice would you give women in regards to protecting their health?
MKS: Take as good care of yourself as you do for others, and as good care as you do for your appearance—your hair, nails and makeup. Work on achieving a healthy weight so you will look good. Find some form of exercise that you like and stick to it. Explore methods of stress reduction, which may wind up being exercise. Yes, get your mammograms, but always remind yourself that heart disease kills six times as many women as all the cancers combined, and get regular checkups with your primary care physician, even if you are feeling good. Know your numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol. And always remember that you are richly deserving of all this care. It will make you better at whatever you choose to do with your life.
BB: Which books from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
MKS: As an early elementary-school child, my two favorite books were Dr. Seuss’s The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins and [Anna Sewell’s] Black Beauty. I was amused as an adult to find that Bartholemew and I were both “born” in 1934—Seuss’s first children’s book. I do think an early fascination with Seuss’s play with words, as well as a father who loved made-up words, helped to make me a poet. Daddy’s word for not feeling well was “lapsey–pals” and his favorite nickname for me was “spondoolicks”. In time, like so many girls, I discovered Nancy Drew , although I returned to Seuss with joy with my own children. Then high school happened and from there on I read everything and anything.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers? Who are your favorite authors?
MKS: I tend to recommend authors. I love so many poets, both famous and not. High on my list are Jane Hershfield, Mary Oliver, Richard Wilbur, Mark Doty, Patricia Smith, and the late Donald Hall. As I said above, he encouraged me with the early poems for this book. Novelists Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Monk Kidd, and Gabriel García Márquez have been important to me in recent years. I love the old sci-fi classics from Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ursula K. Le Guin. With a master’s degree in English, a complete list would be very long indeed, and would include playwrights, short story and non-fiction authors.
BB: Can our readers look forward to another book from you?
MKS: Well, I have already written a novel about a ninety-year-old widow fighting to live out her life on her own terms; a novella where a young couple rents a dead lady’s farmhouse for the summer and its poignant secret almost tears apart their marriage; and a collection of short stories, about half of which have been published in national magazines. Finding an agent/ publisher for any of them has kind of become my day job. Stay tuned.
BB: Thank you, Marylou Kelly Streznewski, for shedding light on this critical issue!
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