Robin Williams' Death, Open Heart Surgery, and Depression

Robin Williams' Death, Open Heart Surgery, and Depression

The Marin County Sheriff’s Department today called Robin Williams' death a suspected suicide. A PR rep added that Williams “has been battling severe depression…” Though there’s a lot of talk about the “demons” Williams fought for years and the addictions he had to drugs and alcohol, TV’s Dr. Drew Pinsky thinks post-op depression may have played a role.

“Just having cardiac disease and cardiac surgery,” Pinsky says. “Can put people at risk for depression that is very difficult to treat.” Google Robin Williams' death and the top search results will come back with headlines like:

“Robin Williams’ Death: Heart Surgery Can Lead to Depression

“Open Heart Surgery and Depression

“It’s a Brain Disease

“Did Actor’s 2009 Heart Surgery Contribute to His Depression?”

I know, firsthand about post-op depression. Williams underwent his open-heart surgery in March of 2009. He had two aortic valves replaced. My quadruple bypass surgery was just about six weeks earlier.

I remember Williams appearing on Letterman, comparing notes with Dave about their operations. They were members of “The Brotherhood of the Zipper Chests,” he joked, because of the ten-inch scar that now ran down the middle of both their chests. Everything was light, fun. Although when Dave asks Robin how he’s feeling physically and mentally, Williams replies: “Mentally, that’s the big question.”

Williams devotes a ten-minute segment in an HBO special to his procedure. He cracks jokes about pig valves versus horse valves and admits to his audience, in passing, how he breaks into uncontrollable crying fits. “I thought instead of a valve,” his act goes, “they gave me a tiny vagina.”

The crying started, for me, my third or fourth day back from the hospital. I was in the shower and finally rubbed a bar of soap across my “Zipper Chest” scar and across the titanium wires I could feel under my skin that held my breastbone together.

A wave of uncontrollable sadness and despair bubbled up inside me, bursting out. It was a feeling of helplessness, collapsing in on me. I felt so tiny and alone. I imagined the surgeons slicing my skin again, sawing my bones, prying me apart. Deep and primal, the weeping lasted a minute or so, then let up and I could breathe.

Between 40% and 75% of heart surgery patients experience depression: short- or long-term. It’s a form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Researchers don’t exactly know its cause: the cooling process used to stop your heart for the operation, the prolonged anesthesia, or the heart/lung machine that cycles your blood during the procedure. Some think the operation itself dislodges chunks of plaque that find their way to your brain.

A nurse at physical therapy spotted my emotional problems and referred me to a psychologist. There’s a stigma attached to therapists, just a little one. I went Wednesdays at six. I cried; my therapist listened.

“That’s understandable,” she said. “You’re in mourning. You’re grieving the loss of your former self, the person you used to be.” She recommended an antidepressant.

Many experts in the media believe post-op depression could’ve had at least some effect on Robin Williams’ mental state. Feelings of depression can be very real for heart surgery patients. They’re nothing to be ashamed of and we might not be able to "just get over it" without help.


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