It happened without warning. She was thin and fit, ate all her vegetables, never touched a cigarette. There was no family history of heart disease. Yet somehow, at the age of forty-four and in the middle of her weekly yoga class, Deborah Heffernan felt her heart explode. After emergency surgery and a flood of complications, she was left with half a functioning heart, a defibrillator under her skin, and the looming prospect of a transplant.
An Arrow Through the Heart is the unflinching chronicle of that first -- and, potentially, last -- year after Deborah's near death. It is a story of raw emotions -- from childlike bewilderment to despair to jubilation -- that followed her return to the world, of "finding meaning everywhere, like Easter eggs." Anchored by the fierce love of her husband, and by their two families, who set aside their differences to rally around her, Deborah learned to do simple things all over again. One breath at a time, she regained the strength to climb a flight of stairs, to walk around the block, even to resume her yoga -- always knowing that a deadly arrhythmia might cause "the box" in her chest to fire. Amazingly, five years later, she has not yet needed the heart transplant doctors once predicted she would need within two.
Of course, the heart is more than a muscle, and this is a story about healing the soul as well as the body. Never trusting that she'd wake to see the next morning, Deborah found miracles in every moment -- in the tiny green leaves of a sapling, in the ice floes that signaled the change of seasons in Maine, even in the eating of a single lemon drop. She used her confinement to explore the Buddhist idea of death in life and to lay to rest old hurts from the past. And ultimately, though her life after the heart attack was severely restricted, she came to feel that it had been immeasurably enlarged.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women, claiming more than half a million lives each year. But, as Deborah writes, "statistics are aerial photographs," and this book gets below the treetops. For fellow cardiac sufferers, it will be a welcome companion on the road to recovery, one of the very few memoirs by women with heart disease. Above all, it is a book about rebounding after catastrophic change, a testament to the unexpected joy that can come from living in a state of impermanence.
Healthy 44-year-old Deborah Daw Heffernan--a nonsmoker with low cholesterol and low blood pressure, who ate her vegetables to boot--lay down one day on the floor of her yoga class and felt her heart explode. Her heart attack--followed by a failed angioplasty, a double bypass, and eight days of unconsciousness--nearly killed her. During her recovery, she found plenty of books about heart disease and women, but no first-person stories--even though cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer of both men and women. An Arrow Through the Heart is the intensely personal account of her experience of surviving a heart attack, and how it changed everything.
Graphic details bring to life for the reader what happened to Heffernan. Her sisters enter her hospital room and see "a thrashing torture victim staked to the bed." Her swollen throat makes her look like "an inflated giraffe." She describes her postoperative depression, her lessons about love, her acceptance of impermanence, all in a well-written narrative of her heart attack that is woven through with snippets about her family and past. --Joan Price