Robin Williams passed away in 2014, but I wanted to once again share a slightly updated version of this article since this message is extremely important and one everyone should hear.
While I’ve been a fan of Robin Williams since “back in the day” when he was in the vintage television series Mork and Mindy, I never thought that years later I'd be writing about him and his heart issues.
Back then, Williams played Mork, an alien who is befriended by Mindy, a young woman in her twenties. Mork spent his nights sleeping is his “egg,” and his days observing and trying to understand human behavior. He also got himself in a lot of funny situations because he interpreted the world, language, and colloquial expressions so literally.
My favorite scene though, was always Mork’s closing monologue. Williams would interpret the human experience from the perspective of his naïve alien character. Pretty funny… pretty right-on Williams’ humor. Insightful quips about nuances of human behavior that are not usually talked about openly.
Robin Williams Discusses His Heart Issues
Several years back, Robin Williams was on Jay Leno’s show announcing that after all the films he’s made he’ll be going back to his roots as a standup comedian—performing in an upcoming 40-city tour. I was surprised to hear Leno remind Williams to take it easy after his heart surgery. I didn’t know he’d had particular heart issues, or heart surgery. As is typical of Williams’ comedic style, he boiled down his human experience to a couple of funny one-liners that cut to the chase, and opened up a subject we rarely address.
“It’s a weird thing after the heart surgery, you know, because you get very emotional. I thought that maybe instead of a valve, they gave me a vulva.” said Williams, talking about his heart issues and recent surgery.
A lot of folks may have missed how Williams went to the heart of the matter about his heart issues and surgery before quickly skipping off to his next funny line. Did he just say he was feeling more emotional? More like a … woman?
It was indeed a shock to hear of the Robin Williams passing a relatively short time after his heart surgery. He was probably very depressed, yet covering it up with his joking attitudes. Depression following heart related issues is a real problem and we physicians must be privy to the fact that suicides can and will occur. The bottom line in any patient having cardiac reconstruction is that depression is real and hopefully will be recognized so appropriate measures will be taken and suicide avoided.
Men Experience Emotions Differently After Heart Surgery
For my wife, a cardiac nurse, one of the perks of working with heart issues in cardiac rehabilitation (CR) was really getting to know people. Patients with heart issues attended class three times a week for three months. (In the CCU, I might only have one 8-hour shift with a person, or less if they were transferred.) Safely exercising the healing heart to get over their heart risk factors was not as important as all the emotional healing that happened in CR. Over time, many of the men with heart issues opened up, and shared what they were thinking about all that had happened.
My wife can still see one man in particular, walking the treadmill to help heal his heart, lowering his heart issues, while we spoke. He was trying to understand why he was SO emotional after his bypass operation. “I cry like a woman now … over movies … tough things I watch people going through on the news … weddings ... Why is that happening? What’s WRONG with me?” He was not alone.
My wife had never really heard of the phenomenological experiences her male patients were telling her about, and couldn’t find anything to explain it in a textbooks or research findings. Like Mork, she was just observing human behavior and trying to infer a cause. These post-op men were getting more in touch with their emotions than sometimes felt comfortable for them initially. I've heard similar “confessions” at my Healing the Heart workshops. Sometimes, it is life that’s the best teacher.
My wife and the other nurses did their best to assist these men to appreciate their newfound sensitivity, and reframe it into a positive experience. Their families certainly appreciated the “soft side” these men were showing. Then one day, the reason behind the phenomena came through the voice of a loving spouse.
Counseling May Help in Dealing With Heart Issues
My wife was facilitating their monthly Cardiac Couples evening; a two-hour session to afford spouses to come in and talk about what they’re going through as a “heartmate” of men with heart issues. They had started the sessions when a young man told her his wife had nowhere to go with her stress since his heart attack, and was afraid to share it with him lest she strain his heart.
One of the wives was speaking about how frightened she and her daughter were as they waited for the surgeon to bring news of her husband’s heart operation. His was an emergency coronary artery bypass. He’d been the “picture of health” despite all the stress he was experiencing at work, with no visible heart issues. Then the bottom fell out. Now it had been hours since they’d had any word from the operating room. Their stress was sky high!
Finally, the kind surgeon appeared, removed his mask, and took the wife’s hands in his own. He looked right in her eyes, and reassured her that her husband had done well, and would be fine. As the surgeon turned and walked away, her grown daughter, an artist, whispered “Mom, you just touched the hands of the man who touched dad’s heart!”
As she finished her heartfelt story, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. It was a moment of amazing realization for all of us. You could have heard a pin drop. My wife still tears up each time she tells or types those insightful words.
Yes, when you have heart surgery, whether it’s a new valve or a bypass, someone reaches in and touches your heart. In that rich experience of human contact—a pair of hands trying to heal a stilled heart—there can be a profound shift.
Some hearts are healed on more than just a physical level. I am sure the positive intention of the surgeon is part of the equation as well. We can be so mechanical about surgery, that we forget what is reality happening in the operating room. A beating heart has taken a pause to rest and be nurtured by another. That's why I refer to heart surgery as the ultimate laying on of hands, and a form of “energy medicine” that brings man and matter into a state of balance and connectedness.
So, if you are a man who finds yourself more emotional after heart surgery, it’s normal. You’ve had your heart touched in a special way. For more on the connection between emotions and the heart, check out my book, Heartbreak and Heart Disease.