The thoracic surgeon walked into the surgical waiting room carrying a large magic marker in hand. He drew an 8″ line from the top to the bottom of my sternum and said, “That’s the line we’ll follow when we make the incision”. At that moment the reality of the size of the cut, the resultant scar, and the seriousness of the upcoming open heart operation struck me full force.
I was born with a congenital heart valve problem which led to the development of an aortic aneurysm. Once discovered, the cardiologist, internist and thoracic surgeon agreed this wasn’t a situation of “wait and see if it keeps getting worse”. No, this was a situation of “some urgency” and a time for action. Well, the date for action had arrived.
For six months after the surgery, the scar was ugly, red, swollen and incredibly obvious; not to mention painful and sensitive. I kept it covered and tried hard to keep my back turned so as not to shock anyone in the ladies’ locker room at the health club. To say I was self-conscious and self-aware was an understatement. I bought make-up designed to hide scars, and wore scarves and jewelry to cover the top of the scar which I thought everyone who looked at me must see. How could they not?
Twelve months later the scar had lost the redness and swelling, yet I remained self-conscious . A helpful sales clerk in Nordstrom’s fitting room told me she hadn’t even noticed the scar until I mentioned it, but I was suspicious. How could she not see it? I gradually stopped using the scar make-up and realized I enjoyed wearing the scarves and necklaces as more than camouflage.
Over time days would pass between thoughts of the scar and the surgery. Yet I still defined myself by the surgical procedure and wanted others to define me in the same way. I was an open heart surgery survivor and quick to weave the operation into the life story I shared with new acquaintances.
Four years post-surgery I found I wasn’t sharing the story very frequently and certainly not in initial conversations with people. In fact there were many people who didn’t even know about the surgery. I shared my experience with those facing the same or a similarly dramatic procedure to offer encouragement and express compassion without trying to garner sympathy. I had reached the point where I was no longer defining myself in terms of the operation or the chest-opening scar. Instead, other personality and character traits, and interests took center stage.
By God’s grace a major wound was healed both inwardly and outwardly; the miraculous and mysterious process of healing worked its magic. My sternum bones grew back together, my skin reunited though a few nerves quit their job, and I believed people when they said they hadn’t noticed the scar.
I offer my story to encourage those whose scars of whatever ilk still define them. Please hang in there and stay in the healing process. I don’t believe the passivity of the line,”time heals all wounds”, is true. While the process can’t be hurried or rushed; it does require a desire to move beyond the point where the scar or trauma is how you self-identify. You can choose to remain stuck in the past and seek the sympathy that comes with the revelation of a traumatic event, but I encourage you to move on.
The time when you self-identify as the real “you” will come again. The major life event or trauma will likely remain a force in shaping who you are, but there can come a time when it doesn’t define you.