When Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired 30 years ago, I didn’t have much in common with Captain Jean-Luc Picard other than our mutual love of space exploration. Now, three decades later, his life speaks to me in more ways than I thought possible.
As an only child raised by a single parent who studied linguistics and worked in the humanities, my sci-fi education got off to a slow start. So while I grew up watching the original series in the form of Sunday morning reruns after church, I was in college when TNG came out and barely aware of anything on television outside my X-Files tunnel vision.
Over the next decade, I would catch an episode every now and then, but I never saw the full series until the magic of binge watching. Around the same time I was diving into the deep end of TNG, I was a guest on the Nerdist podcast. The conversation flowed between science and science fiction and then turned to my heart surgery. At some point in the conversation, co-host Matt Mira pointed out that both Picard and I had “bionic” hearts and told me that I had to watch Season 5, Episode 16, "Tapestry," ASAP.
Picard and I have both had open-heart surgery.
If you haven’t seen it, the episode starts with an unconscious and injured Picard being beamed directly to Sick Bay. It’s clear from the first look we get that his heart is the problem. With her magic handheld scanner, Dr. Crusher can immediately tell that “the bioregulator of his artificial heart has been fused” as a result of being shot by the Lanerians with a compressed teryon/tetryon beam. The enigmatic and mischievous Q then shows up claiming Picard is dead and the two of them will spend an eternity together in the afterlife. Picard shoots him down with logic: “I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed.”
Regardless of what’s “real” or not, Q prods Picard enough get him to admit that his artificial heart is his weakness, and had he not been reckless in his youth he might not have needed it and therefore would not be dying/dead as they speak. The need for his artificial heart arose when a young Picard, fresh out of Starfleet Academy, took on three Nausicaans in a fight. The contest ended with one of them stabbing him from behind, directly through his heart. And ever since that day, he’s had to maintain it (which he clearly didn’t take as seriously as he should have, given the earlier episode "Samaritan Snare," in which he needs it swapped out for a new one).
Picard and I both have artificial body parts.
Picard’s artificial heart looks like something straight out of the Steampunk School of Medicine. It looks like it could equally be at home in Firefly or The Wizard of Oz. But while Picard’s entire heart is artificial, only my aorta, the major blood vessel leaving the heart, is synthetic.
Five and a half years ago, I discovered that I was born with a congenital heart defect in the form of a bicuspid aortic valve (most people have a tricuspid). It turns out being born with this genetic mutation also means the lower part of my aorta, the blood vessel that connects to the aortic valve and helps channel the flow of oxygenated blood into the arteries, has less fibrillin-1 -- a protein that helps to maintain the structural integrity of the aortic wall. So my aorta is prone to “stretching out,” and even the normal stress of blood flow coming out of the heart and being channeled to the rest of the body is enough to cause it to start ballooning outward. Guess what else helps stretch it out? Stress. Guess who was born with a Type A personality and loves to stress about things? Me.
Shortly after discovering this defect, I had an echocardiogram and a CT scan, which both showed that my aorta was already well stretched out, to the point where surgery was recommended. It was five centimeters in diameter instead of two -- clearly an overachiever. Now, thanks to open heart surgery, I have a four-inch section of dacron (or polyester substitute) tubing bridging the gap from my aortic valve to my aortic arch. It may not be as futuristic as artificial heart technology from the 24th century, but just like Picard, I’m not 100% human (ignoring the Borg components of course -- his, not mine …).
Picard and I both have to monitor our hearts.
This might be the one, tiny part of the universe where I’m better at something than Captain Jean-Luc Picard. He not only put off a medically necessary operation to replace his artificial heart, but he valued his privacy and reputation among the crew over his health to the point where he traveled to a starbase instead of having the operation onboard his ship. Even though "Tapestry" ends with Picard alive and his heart functioning again, I’m willing to bet it required replacing again before he retired.
In contrast to the captain, I see my cardiologist annually to check in on how both my natural aortic valve and my synthetic aorta are functioning. In theory, my own cells have now started growing over the dacron and one day it will be mostly indistinguishable (at least visually) from the rest of my aorta. However, there is a non-zero chance that my defective bicuspid valve may one day start to calcify and stiffen and require replacing. My surgeon tweaked the geometry of my valve when replacing the base of my aorta, but there’s no guarantee it will be enough to keep me out of the OR down the road. At least I only have to cross Manhattan and not run away to the nearest starbase.
Picard and I have both been astrophysicists.
Only one of us looks excited about this.
Picard and I were both changed by our experiences.
The arc of "Tapestry" is that once Picard is able to rewrite the event that led to him getting stabbed in the heart, he realizes how formative that experience it was for him. The “new” present he finds himself in is one in which he “never had a brush with death, never came face to face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be.” As a result, his life never came into focus and he appears to have drifted somewhat aimlessly through it.
I can relate to this. The trauma of being told your life-giving organ is in danger of working against you and subsequently having your chest cracked open is formative. While my rational and scientific brain knew surgery was for the best and in the long run would prolong my life, my emotional brain is still coming to terms with what has happened. The pain and the struggle of recovery is still ongoing (for reasons you can read more about here), but I recognize that the past five years have given me a new perspective on life that I might never have gotten any other way.
At one point Picard reflects: “the pity is I had to be impaled through the back to learn that lesson,” and I couldn’t agree more. I would never recommend open heart surgery as way to look at the world around you differently. However, sometimes the things that you might see as a burden and a hindrance can turn out to be the very things that make you who you are. (This is a lesson I’m still learning every day thanks to some ongoing complications that I frequently vent about on Twitter.)
I’m can’t yet say I’m grateful for having undergone open heart surgery (except for that whole life-saving part), but I can say that I value the things it has taught me and the strengths I now have because of it. What I am grateful for is TNG, and especially Jean-Luc Picard, for giving me a space to process what I’ve been through. To share something like this with the captain of a Galaxy-class starship is enough to keep me boldy going.