Thursday, October 30, 2014

Open Heart Surgery…What You Should Know




There were no plans in my mind to write this blog this week until I saw a post on Facebook from a college friend announcing to his hockey buddies and friends in general that it was time for him to have a heart valve replacement in 2 weeks.  My friend is in his late 40s and is an otherwise healthy athlete.

The reason for my open heart surgery 6 months ago was different than my friend’s reason but the end result of the open heart surgery will be the same for him as it is for me. Since having my surgery, this is the third person in my circle of friends, acquaintances or even a friend of a friend who has come to me asking about open heart surgery. I'm happy to share whatever I can to make someone else's experience more informed and hopefully less stressful.

What I’ll share today, a week after I have been in recovery from open heart surgery for 6 months is that I’m still not fully recovered.  Most people think I am fully recovered because I don't walk around showing my pain but its still there 24x7. Pain has been with me 24x7 for 6 straight months.

I share this because you should know that if someone in your life has open heart surgery, it is very similar to being run over by a train for that person.  The first few months of recovery are so difficult from a physical, mental and emotional standpoint that I only remember details because I wrote them down.  The challenges for the past few months continue to be physical, emotional and mental.  Please allow me to explain.

Like anything in life that is complex, the person who needs open heart surgery needs a plan in order to recover from this grueling experience.  I had a plan.  I executed my plan. A few of my hockey and skiing buddies helped me to address various aspects of my recovery plan. I crushed many of my physical goals while executing my pre-surgery plan.

I also ran into unforeseen setbacks.  Know that the person who is going through this experience will not be able to tell you when they’ll be feeling better.  The just won’t know.  Everybody heals differently I’m told.

Soon after returning home from the hospital and while on narcotic pain relievers, I got up from a chair and fell on my face and shoulder after blacking out from the medication.  It was the narcotic pain reliever that caused me to fall.  I ditched the narcotic the next day and have been living on Tylenol ever since. I was already in so much pain that the new pain from the fall blended in.  What I didn't recognize so much at the time of the fall was how much the event messed with my head. 

If you know someone who has to go through open heart surgery, give them unconditional love, space and attention.  They won’t be the person you've always know for a while.  They’ll be taking mediation that is required for their recovery but the same medication has side effects and they are miserable.  

They will need significant time to recover.  They’ll need people who are willing to walk with them but they’ll also need quiet recovery time.  Recovery time is physically, mentally and emotionally draining.  Don’t think that someone recovering from heart surgery needs isolation. Of course, find out if it is okay to visit before you show up but do show up. They need encouragement even if your visit is for 5 minutes or its a short phone call.  This is not the time for out of sight, out of mind behavior.

As I’ve recently learned by way of listening to Podcasts from the Northwestern University Medical Center, research has brought doctors and psychologists to the conclusion as recently as 2009 that heart attack and open heart surgery patients frequently fall into clinical depression at some point following their surgery.  

This isn’t just research.  This is a reality that I’ve had to address.  Research is by no means conclusive but it does show that heart surgery releases particles of plaque into the blood stream that can travel to the brain.  This is partially where my comment about your friend not being the same person for a while came from. On top of that, who knows what the required medications a heart patient has to take do to the brain and one's personality.

All of the reasons I’ve shared explain why your acquaintance that will go through this life-changing surgery will need unconditional love, space and support.  

Not tough love but unconditional love. 

I’m working on a book to address what I’ve experienced because my heart experience goes back for a few years before my actual open heart surgery this past April.  I didn’t go through open heart surgery because of my weight or lifestyle.  For me, it was a deck of lousy genetic cards and some genetic heart problems that had to be mechanically fixed.

It was however my passion for hockey, hiking, biking and skiing that put me in the best possible shape for open heart surgery.  You’ll have to read the book to learn more!

I hope this short account of my personal experience helps you to help someone who will undoubtedly cross your path with this open heart surgery issue at some point in your future.


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