From the Desk of Garrison Keillor
A prolific writer, Garrison Keillor is a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and abroad. To the right, you find a selection of articles published since 1989, and a few unpublished pieces.

I Just Needed A Valve Job
From Time Magazine

August 13, 2001

This summer I was going to learn how to take it easy and then it turned out that I needed heart surgery so now I'm taking it easy as a slow-moving achy guy who ran chest-first into a wall with a sharp stick protruding from it. I shuffle down the sidewalk, wary of bicyclists, uneven ground, aware that a guy doesn't get the sort of pity for this that would have been his due even twenty years ago. That is the fate of heart surgery. It became one of those ordinary miracles.

Fifty years ago, in my boyhood, a guy who blew out a mitral valve was sent home to sit in a sunny corner and play cribbage until congestive heart failure swept him away. Open-heart surgery was big news. One of the pioneers was C. Walton Lillehei at the University of Minnesota, a local celebrity on the order of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. The operations were enormously expensive, the survival rate around 50%, and Minnesota has always had plenty of finger-waggers to remind you that the $15,000 spent to repair that fat man's aorta could have bought nourishing breakfasts for X number of orphans. So Doc Lillehei surrounded himself with innocent kids with congenital heart defects, and nobody said boo.

I am one of those innocent kids, except I'm 58. I've always had a slight heart murmur, inherited from my flinty ancestors, and when the valve came loose at the moorings, there wasn't much doubt about it. So my wife drove me to Mayo and they wheeled me into a bright blue industrial room and put a mask over my face and I took a breath and it was eight hours later.

Heart surgery is an artistic performance to benefit an audience that is sound asleep at the time. A man you've only met once slices open your chest so your heart can be stopped and chilled so a loose flap in your mitral valve can be sewn up. No big deal when it goes right which, with an ace surgeon, it should.

A couple days later, I'm in bed trying to inhale air through a blue plastic tube so as to raise a white plastic disc up past the 3000 ml. level. It's a version of the high-striker booth at the state fair, meant to clear the lungs. The prize is a fit of coughing, which is good for your lungs and which feels like you're taking machine-gun rounds in the chest. But I keep moving forward, not wanting to let down my buddies in the ward.

The inhalator gizmo was explained to me by a lovely young nurse in a blue uniform with a pager clipped to her collar. She bent down to show me how it works and the weight of the pager opened a fabulous landscape of tanned young breasts and gleaming white brassiere. I gazed in and realized that my libidinous urge had shrunk to something akin to my urge to play croquet.

It is rough on a man's pride, to be a patient. Even after you get into your Extremely Late Forties, a life-phase that lasts until seventy or so, you maintain a certain manly sense of yourself (He jumps! He shoots! He scores!), but now, taking a slow post-operative stroll down the hall, heading for the lounge with the jigsaw puzzles, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the glass door ahead, a shambling galoot in droopy, pee-stained pajamas. (When they pull out the catheter, it takes you a day or two to get your sphincter reset.) This is not a guy whom any woman longs to have sex with; she would be afraid of killing the old bugger. It's hard for a man with a strong sense of himself (He's going deep--- deep--- deep! And he's almost to the wall! And he's got it!) to accept this elemental defeat.

But it doesn't matter. I'm still here on the planet. And what I remember most clearly about my week is a murky stretch, docked in Intensive Care.

There was dim light and deep mist and a hissing and grumbling of machinery and my little boat of life bobbing on the waves. And there was a voice in the fog. First, a young woman, then a man, then a woman. Erinn Erikson, Clint Williams, Erin Pawlaski. Angels saying my name, saying that I was doing well, that the breathing tube would soon be out, putting a cool cloth on my forehead. A day's work for them, a revelation of human kindness to me.

And now it's almost two weeks later. Most everybody who's going to say, "It's good to see you up and around and looking well," has said it. My chest aches less. Early this morning I walked out the front door and bent and picked up the morning paper. Cool air, distant traffic, a whiff of lilies from along the driveway, and in the park across the street, a woman loping along with a yellow Lab. After a heart operation, it is all indescribably beautiful.

Past Articles
  • Phil Keillor Benefit for the Tenney Park Shelter (04/17/09)
  • Bill Holm, 1943–2009 (02/26/09)
  • Happy New Year, Friends (12/29/08)
  • Talk of the Stacks (11/17/08)
  • What Makes St. Paul So Great? (09/03/08)
  • GK On Historic Preservation (10/05/07)
  • Welcome to St. Paul (09/23/06)
  • "Homegrown Democrat," Chapters 1-4 (08/10/04)
  • Sing the National Anthem—and Try it in the Key of G (07/02/04)
  • Holiday Greetings from Garrison Keillor (12/23/03)
  • Remembering Plimpton (10/01/03)
  • Crankiness in Decline, Says the Old Guy (04/19/02)
  • A Governor Works in Mysterious Ways (10/19/01)
  • In Praise of Laziness (09/10/01)
  • I Just Needed a Valve Job (09/13/01)
  • A Eulogy for Chet Atkins (07/03/01)
  • A Foot Soldier in God's Floating Orchestra (04/01)
  • Exile on Main Street (10/02/00)
  • Walking Down the Canyon (07/31/00)
  • The Mysteries of Prom Night (05/15/00)
  • How I Write (12/04/99)
  • The Christmas of the Great Flu (12/99)
  • Let Jesse Be Jesse (10/10/99)
  • The Rice, the Bat, the Baby (09/06/99)
  • Faith at the Speed of Life (06/14/99)
  • The Republicans Were Right, But (02/15/99)
  • Minnesota's Excellent Ventura (11/16/98)
  • The Dangers of Christmas (04/06/98)
  • Gasgate (11/10/97)
  • Talk Radio (10/97)
  • The Seven Principles of a Successful Christmas (09/08/97)
  • The Seven Deadly Sins—Envy (04/97)
  • You Say Potato (04/04/96)
  • The Poetry Judge (02/96)
  • With All the Trimmings (11/27/95)
  • In Autumn We Get Older (11/06/95)
  • Minnesota's Sensible Plan (09/11/95)
  • The Art of the Embrace (02/95)
  • The Voters are Angry (08/94)
  • Word Play (05/18/90)
  • We Are Still Married (12/18/89)
  • Elevator Tales
  • A Graduation Speech

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