It was Halloween Day 1984, and the first words Robby Benson, 29, uttered when he regained consciousness were “Trick or treat.” Benson had just come through open-heart surgery to repair an aortic valve that had been defective since birth. Though the condition, if left untreated, could have caused premature death, the actor/writer/composer insisted on playing down its seriousness, tossing it off as “just a problem with a valve.” In fact, Benson was really fearful for his professional life. A 20-year veteran of show business, he had seen colleagues rendered “untouchable” when their health started failing. He was afraid he might now be considered an invalid too.
Currently filming California Girls, an ABC-TV movie that probably will be shown sometime in March, Benson met with reporter Frank Sanello at the hilltop home he shares with his wife, singer Karla DeVito, and their daughter, Lyric, to talk about how he beat the invalid rap.
We weren’t going to tell anybody about my surgery. For an actor, there’s a stigma that comes with having something serious done to you. The reason is you have to be insured before you start a film, and the insurance company doesn’t want you to be in the middle of a $20 million movie and find out you can’t finish. I’ve seen some of my older friends in the business who’ve gone through surgery be really scared. I loved John Marley—he played Ali MacGraw’s father in Love Story—who died last year. He had heart problems and was terrified people would find out. All of a sudden a similar thing was happening to me.
We had managed to keep the operation out of the press until the night before surgery. At about 10 p.m. I was in the bathroom at the hospital shaving my whole body—I had to be shaved from the neck down—and I heard this loud thumping on the door. It was a nurse saying NBC wanted a statement. I immediately got a migraine so severe I could barely see. As Karla gave the nurse a statement, I was thinking, “I’ve worked so hard and so long. This is it. My career is over. Everything I love to do—gone.” You’re so vulnerable. The media can make you look like a sick fool or they can do a very dignified report. This time I was lucky. I got the dignified treatment.
The need for an operation caught me by surprise. Though I had a congenital problem with a valve that was spotted as a murmur back when I was 15, I had always been told that I wouldn’t have to have surgery. Then about 18 months before the operation, I began feeling short of breath, lethargic and light-headed. I was in decent shape, having run the New York City Marathon just a year before, but I knew my body wasn’t working correctly. I went to a couple of doctors and each came up with a different diagnosis. One blamed the problem on work-related stress. Finally I went to a cardiologist. I never thought the problem had anything to do with my heart. When I found out it did, I was in shock.
As the doctor explained it, normally the aortic valve has three leaflets that open and close with the flow of blood. I was born with only two leaflets. Since the valve was deformed, it was prone to leaking, and blood would seep back into the heart chamber. The result was that my heart had to work harder to pump out the leaking blood.
Because of all the extra work over the years, the left ventricle of my heart had grown from its normal size of 40 millimeters to 53. The doctor said a measurement of 55 would have meant my heart was beyond repair.
The operation lasted three and a half hours, during which they put me on the infamous heart-lung bypass machine. The aftereffects of being on that machine are like having been in the twilight zone. I’m told it can screw up your hormones as if you were pregnant and cause postoperative depression. For about 10 days after the operation, whenever I went to sleep, I’d wake up soaking wet and suffering severe chills. My body was completely out of control. The doctors said it was because of the heart-lung machine.
What they do is make an incision from the sternum to an inch below the rib cage. Then they saw open the sternum and use a vise to pull back the ribs so they can reach your heart. While the surgeons are holding your heart literally in their hands, the heart-lung machine does its work. It’s frightening and, at the same time, magnificent to think about.
I was in the intensive-care unit for a day and a half and then in something called the step-down room for another day and a half. Edgar Rosenberg, Joan Rivers’ husband, was two beds down from me in the ICU. Three days after surgery I was up and about for the first time. I bumped into Joan and she said, “Well, it’s about time you got out of bed.” Two weeks later I was back working out at the gym.
One strong image is still with me from my hospital stay. Every time I opened my eyes, there were my parents, my sister and my wife. They never left me. Karla slept in a chair by my bed. After surgery the doctors didn’t tell me to abstain from sex. They just said, “No marathons,” so I started doing a lot of wind sprints. But it didn’t matter what they said. It’s hard to give up sex when you’re crazy about your wife.
I’m in great shape now. I just ran three and a half miles, and for the last stretch I sprinted up this incredibly steep hill. My heart is back to its normal size, though my rib cage is still sore. They replaced my defective valve with a bovine valve, so now when I get up in the morning I moo. The sternum hasn’t mended yet. It’s wired with stainless steel. I haven’t gone through one of those airport metal detectors yet. I’m waiting to see what happens. I have a thin scar but, you movie producers out there, it’s nothing makeup can’t hide.