Life

Surviving And Thriving After Open Heart Surgery

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Life is what happens when you’re making other plans-John Lennon

I’ve debated whether I would share this post with the world. But ultimately, I decided if even one person could find comfort and support, In the process of Open Heart Surgery, it would be worth it.  

For the first 50 years of my life I had no clue. I was active in sports. However after years as a runner and a torn ACL 25 years earlier, my right knee was shot.

When I  met with an orthopedic surgeon we agreed that surgery was needed to make life more comfortable. I was sent for a pre op appointment prior to the knee surgery, that would include an echocardiogram. I had recently developed a heart murmur out of the blue and further evaluation was needed prior to knee replacement.

What is an echocardiogram?

An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart. Painless, non invasive, crucial for diagnosis. You lay on a table in different positions, while they run an hand held ultrasound tool over your chest.

An echocardiogram is used to see the heart structure, blood flow, and heart function.

During that echocardiogram, a congenital heart defect was discovered. To say I was stunned was an understatement. They found I had a defect called Bicuspid aortic valve.

What is a Bicuspid Aortic Valve?

So to explain a bicuspid aortic valve, most people are born with 3 flaps on their Aortic valve to move and control blood flow. I was only born with two flaps and my aortic valve was over worked and failing. The blood flow had become very restricted.  I had been occasionally a little out of breath, but nothing alarming. The next symptom I would start experiencing the cardiologist explained, would be that I would be “passing out” unexpectedly. Since radomly face planting on a sidewalk didn’t  sound like fun, I agreed to start the process of preparing for Open Heart Surgery.

I was referred to a Cardiac Surgeon who lined me up for a myriad of tests, including a cardiac catherization to look for any blockages. They put me in a twilight sleep for the cardiac catherization. I have to admit I was scared. I was worried about what they might find, but more worried about them putting dye in my arteries. When I woke up they let me know that I had no blockages. I immediately started laughing. The nurse caught off guard asked what was so funny? Me: No blockages? I know what I’ve eaten for the last 50 years. 

The cardiac catheterization was only the beginning of the testing for open heart surgery. Followed by Lab work, chest X-rays, CT scans, EKG, and more.

A chest CT scan was ordered as the surgeon thought this could possibly be done on a smaller scale through my rib wall, but needed to confirm. Unfortunately the CT scan revealed further congenital defects. I had never developed a full rib cage. With the uncertainty of my rib cage integrity if the surgeon tried to do the revised version, sadly I was told the valve replacement would have to be done by open heart surgery.

open heart surgery or

What is Open Heart Surgery?

Open heart surgery is done by opening the rib cage to access the heart. You are put on a heart-lung machine to continue your blood flow and breathing to your body, while the surgeon repairs the broken pieces of your heart.

My open heart surgery took almost 5 hours. I was in ICU for two days after, on a ventilator for a day because I was slow come out of the anesthesia.  Normally you are off the ventilator within a couple of hours after surgery. 

The whole concept of open heart surgery seems very scary. But as my surgeon told me… I had the choice to not have the valve replacement, but my life span would probably be less than 2 years. No one was forcing me to have the surgery. I researched more, and decided I wanted more years with my family. I made the choice to proceed with open heart surgery.

Surprisingly within a couple of days the pain was for the most part, no big deal. And this is true for most people.

When I went home, life became a myriad of self checks. Temp, blood pressure, weight, any changes could signal a complication. I kept a journal where I noted everything, and where I wrote about my feelings. Happy, sad (yes depression after OHS is real), exhausted, and frustration at lack of progress. I kept in touch with a couple of Facebook support groups prior, and after surgery. They were and still are a wealth of information. 

Sleep is a tough one. You can only sleep on your back for the early post op. And the first time you sneeze after surgery will drop you to your knees from the pain. Even if you hadn’t been having post op pain previously. It’s very strange, but I was warned about it, and it is true.

I won’t sugar coat it. I did have complications during my recovery. But if I had to do it again? Absolutely! I wouldn’t have missed my new life for the world.

That was two years ago.

Thriving After Open Heart Surgery

So what’s life like now? My heart is working correctly, though I will admit I am on constant guard strange heart beats. I strive to control my stress levels much more now. I use meditation, and walking to calm myself, and keep my lab work and Dr appointments as scheduled. 

open heart surgery walk

I do think I am calmer now when I deal with others. I learned a lot along the way. I kept my heart surgery a secret from everyone I worked with, until after I came back to work. When I was preparing for surgery I was stressed and I didn’t want to answer questions about it. I just kept everything bottled up

You know the phrase -Be kind. You never know the burden someone else is carrying. I know this burden.  Now when I encounter anger or attitude from someone, I step back and know anger and attitude generally come from a place of fear, and I respond with kindness. I’ve learned when someone snaps at me, not to take it personal. It’s a sign they are overwhelmed and trying their best to cope.

New Experiences

I did make a plan to make my new life better and more exciting than before. I have concentrated on creating experiences. I made my bucket list and began to fulfill it. I have since gone night kayaking, taken cooking classes, art classes, glass blowing, mystery dinners, trips, and much more. 

open heart surgery walk on beach

I have so many things planned for the future. When I look back at life before Open Heart surgery and life now, the difference is incredible. I feel better both physically and mentally. It’s kind of like the surgery was a reset for my life. 

I don’t want to be cliché, but I feel truly at peace. Drama just doesn’t get to me the way it used to. Honestly if the drama is not life and death it does not require my immediate attention.

I am so grateful for the extra years I get to spend watching grandkids grow up. Grateful for new challenges, and accomplishments. Grateful to be alive!

If you or someone you know is facing Open Heart Surgery additional resources can be found at the American Heart Association

Feel free to leave questions or comments. Heart warriors are kindred spirits!

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