As many know by now, my aortic heart valve was replaced less than two weeks ago. When I think of what has been done to my body, there's plenty of freaky images to consider – for example, the surgeons sawing through my ribcage, stopping my heart and cutting it open while a machine pumped my blood for 90 minutes (sure glad my ticker started back up on command). There is another detail that is nagging me as the scars heal and the pain fades, though. My new aortic valve was harvested from a cow.
Of course it was my option from the beginning to have an organic or mechanical valve, and I went with the top doctor's recommendation. A mechanical valve would require me to be on hardcore blood thinners the rest of my life; not a good option for a guy who lives for scrapes in the mountains. So here I am with a cow valve, which was chosen, I believe, because it fit my anatomy better than a pig valve. I'm tempted to do more research about it and indulge the scientist in me, yet at the same time, I'm a little scared to learn more than I want to know. After all, I might not be thrilled to know exactly where the valve came from, or how it was obtained.
I have always been a meat lover, and I've had a few steak dinners since I got home from the hospital, mostly thanks to the generous people who have been cooking meals for Mandi and me to help us out. However, long before I received my new heart valve, I was becoming more conflicted with my diet. Mandi is a vegetarian, for one thing, and I've also noticed how much better my digestion feels now that I'm eating a third of the meat that I did when I was a bachelor. Not only that, but like the rest of you, I read plenty of articles about the evils or merits of eating meat, or what the right kind of meat might be. Like global warming and gun control, meat production and consumption is another one of those topics you can't avoid noticing if you're a person who is generally aware of what's happening around you.
Anyway, I just finished a National Geographic article, from the November 2014 issue, "The Carnivore's Dilemma," and it got me thinking once again about what is now pumping away inside my heart and what I continue to stuff down my stomach. The article weighs the pros and cons of America's beef production, and it doesn't condemn it one way or the other. If anything, it swayed me a little on my perception of grass fed beef – in terms of its carbon footprint, raising cattle on grass is too inefficient (this is on a global scale that sees demand soaring well into the future), which is to say grass-fed beef is not healthy, overall, for the planet, though it may be healthier for us as individuals since grass-fed beef foregoes the steroids and such associated with feed lots. That is still beside the point I'm making here: it's humbling to know that my improved life is thanks to a fine bovine, and I sure hope the animal met its end as well as could be expected. I think of this with almost every other bite of beef, and really it's been on my mind since two or three weeks before I had the operation.
Mandi and I were hiking up near the Flat Tops Wilderness on a bright Sunday afternoon. We'd been looking forward to the hike for days. We drove almost an hour, and a few hundred yards from the trailhead we encountered a herd of cows coming down the opposite direction. We walked off the side of the trail to let the animals pass, but they were particularly skittish and stupid. The going was slow. We were also in a box canyon, so there were only two directions to go. It took us an hour to make it one mile up the trail as we cajoled the fearful beeves to go around us. We gave up in frustration and turned around.
"Stupid cows!" I yelled. "You idiotic animals. You feed sacks!" I truly scorned these inferior animals at the time.
"Now remember, you're going to have a little bit of one in your heart," Mandi said.
She was right. I haven't felt the same about the animals since. I don't plan to stop eating beef, but the cow is now elevated in my eyes. How can I not love a creature that has done so much for me? I certainly don't mock them anymore, as I did for years.
The older I get and the more life wears me down (not to say I'm that old yet), the more it seems to me that all life deserves more respect and attention than society tends to give. More and more, in spite of all the electronic illusions that make me inclined to think otherwise, I realize I really am just part of an ecosystem, living and dying with all that is around me and in me.