Reflecting on my Open Heart Surgery in Poetry

15 years ago, two days before Thanksgiving, at 17 years old, I had open heart surgery. 

Emergency open heart surgery. 

Because the first less invasive heart surgery had cause a new hole, this time in my aorta. The device that was supposed to close the hole in my heart almost killed me.

After they fixed it, they collapsed my lung.

I was 17.

Facing my own mortality.

In the week or two after I came I home (time is a blur), I wrote this:

My Personal Exclamation Point

By Stephanie Schum in 2002


A scar that lasts forever

It runs between my breasts

It's dotted at the bottom

From the tube put in my chest


It's my personal exclamation point

To mark the pain I've faced

A reminder of the images

That cannot be erased.


Wires, tubes, and IVs

Forever haunt my brain

And the sound of that annoying beep

Is permanently ingrained.


I wonder if I'll ever sleep

Without these horrible dreams

Or if I'll ever sneeze again

Without the need to scream.


But deep down I know

These things will go away

But this exclamation point

Is forever here to stay


So when I'm at the beach next year

And you can see my scar

Don't think it's gross, but remember

It's a sign I've come so far.


15 years later, reflecting on the physical and emotional trauma of that time, and how it's shaped me, I wrote:

To 17 Year Old Me—On Living and Dying

By Stephanie Long on 11/30/2017


Dear, sweet, 17 year old Stephanie

I see you brave girl.

Time is a mere illusion.

You—me at 17

and me—you at 32

exist at the same time

in different space

physical space

emotional space

spiritual space

but we are one.


We lived,

and in living, we died.

I wonder who we would have been

without the first heart surgery

—almost dying

without the open heart surgery

—almost dying

without the collapsed lung

—almost dying.

We didn't die,

and yet, we did.


We'll probably never completely trust

a doctor again.

Though this week, we learned

they are human.

And so today,

we forgive them.


Or do we?

I don't know.

But we try.


Our unequivocal trust for professionals

is dead.

But that has served us well.


We question authority.

We speak up for the oppressed. 

You'd quite like who we've become.


That anger burning

deep in your belly—

we're learning to channel it,

to use it for good.

Righteous anger they say.

Jesus said something about that

—I think.


Jesus is impossibly different

from who you think He is.

But He's so much better.


Life is good.

We have love and friends,

a husband and kids,

life and purpose,

structure and freedom,

joy and sorrow,

pain and beauty.


It is worth it.

I know you don't think it is.

Death seems easier

less painful

less scary.


Thank you for living

Thank you for courage.


To answer your question

it doesn't hurt to sneeze.

But sometimes we pee

because we've had 2 babies.


They're 8 and 9 now.

We're still alive.

More than that

we're living.


It's sadly poetic

the life you're experiencing

the physical broken heart

and the emotional one.


The physical one will heal soon

—though you won't believe it.

The emotional one is still healing.


That boy—you know the one,

you're wearing his hat—

you think he's saving your life.

He is—and he's killing you.


We want to separate

the relationship and the surgery

in our memory.

But we can't. They are the same.

He helped us live

for those 2 months.

But he killed pieces

that today are still trying to resurrect.

Some of them will remain zombies.


One day we'll run into him

and he'll apologize.

We forgive him.

We forgive me.

We're still grateful for what he gave

—despite what he took.

We no longer feel guilty

for our gratitude.


We will carry the scars

and awareness of our mortality

into eternity.


We are crystal fraglie

and diamond strong.

We are still alive.


Thank you for fighting.

Thank you for suffering.

Thank you for healing.

Thank you for being.

Thank you for doing what you needed to do.

You are strong, brave, and powerful.

You are a warrior.

I owe you all.

Without you, I wouldn't be.


As we move into the next 15 years,

future Stephanie,

I know you're with us.

For time is an illusion.

Send us your wisdom.

We're listening.