I had open heart surgery one year ago today. It had been coming on for some time. I sensed it. I knew it. I had reached the point that I couldn’t play with Bodee, my Norwegian Elkhound for any length of time. He loves to play tug-a-war with his rope toy. It got to the point that couldn’t play with him for thirty seconds without being completely winded and gassed out.
During a visit to my cardiologist, I learned that I was born with a bicuspid aortic valve and not a tricuspid like 99% of the population. Lucky me, right? As it turns out, those of us with bicuspid valves usually have the valve wear out when you reach my age. I am no exception. My cardiologist told me I might could get another couple of years out of it. I wasn’t feeling well enough to believe that so I went to a cardiac surgeon. Without looking at the sonogram, he just listened with his stethoscope and promptly told me I didn’t have two years. He gave me a choice. I could either have the surgery before the holiday or right afterwards. It took about 10 seconds to make the decision.
With the end of the year coming, deductibles to consider, and then the little matter of all the questions surrounding the impending Obamacare, I didn’t want the government involved in making decisions of my health, I decided to get it done as soon as possible.
My surgery was scheduled for Friday, Nov. 30th. My surgeon scheduled a catherization for the Monday prior to the surgery to take some pictures. He didn’t want to find any surprises once he got inside my chest. So I gleefully went into the procedure. I was fully aware that I was going to have a valve replacement and that was it. I don’t remember too much about the catherization itself. It was over and done with quickly but I wasn’t prepared for what came next.
An hour two after the procedure, my cardiologist comes out and tells me in words close to these: “Well you know about your valve replacement but wait, there’s more to this fabulous TV offer. You have one, probably two and possibly three bypasses in addition to your valve replacement.” Bypass had never even entered my mind even as a remote possibility. Now there was more for me to think about. Suddenly there was just a sereneness that came over me. I just quietly accepted what was coming. I had neither a choice or control of what was about to happen. I just trusted my surgeon to do what he had to do.
I have been asked several times if I was afraid of dying. Let me explain my take on that. Did it cross my mind? Yes, absolutely. I reasoned that it was a possibility but I didn’t allow myself to think about that. I kept focusing on what I wanted to do afterward. Silly as it sounds, playing with Bodee became a priority with me. If I could play tug-of-war with him, then I’d know everything was alright. I trusted my medical team and their skills to make everything right.
I must admit prior to the surgery I spent time on YouTube looking at videos. I am an analytical person. I wanted to know how open heart surgery was done—what all was involved. I found it fascinating. It wasn’t bloody, gory or anything like that. Now I had an idea of what was going to happen to me. For me the most interesting part was not them sawing my chest open or reaching in and handling my heart. It was how they were going to close me up. It was amazing to me how they were going to use all that wire to pull my sternum together. I later joked that I have more piano wire in my chest than the entire Boston Pops Orchestra.
Once I knew what they were going to do to me, I just mentally accepted my new reality and was ready to get it over with. Once I make up my mind I’m ready to get after it. As I have often said, “I might be lost but there’s no point in being late.” Let’s do this!
So comes the day of the surgery, our friends, Ginger & Roy show up to offer morale support. When we arrive at the Austin Heart Hospital, the Music Director and friend Mark Hixon from our church was there to share a moment in prayer and lots of smiles before this life altering event. I’m glad they are all there. As the moment gets closer, there are thoughts of increased trepidation creeping into my mind. I begin to choke down some of my reservations.
Before long, my name is called and I am taken to the preparation area. There I shed my clothes and wrap myself in a very attractive, air conditioned in the back, gown. I am told to lay on the gurney. Before long a nurse comes and checks all my vitals. My vitals are apparently all intact. No one appears to be alarmed about anything. Apparently this surgery thing is on ‘go’. Zee is there to keep me company and to ask everyone questions. She asks much better questions than I do in those medical situations.
Not long afterward this middle aged nurse comes in and opens a cellophane package with an electric disposable razor and goes to whacking at the little bit of hair on my chest. At some point I said, “Hey, hey! Can you show a little more respect? It took me 64 years to grow that hair!” She didn’t smile. Just like Santa, she went straight to her work. My nine hairs are gone in less time than my first military haircut which was only 42 seconds as I recall.
It wasn’t but a few minutes before they came and gave me my happy/sleepy pill. That was about the time the surgeon showed up and asked me if I had any questions. I thought of a thousand but it didn’t seem like the time or place to get him involved in a deep discussion. He smiled and told me everything would be alright. I felt very calm after our conversation. I was ready to go.
Zee took a few pictures just before I was taken to the operating theatre. Yeah, this was going to be some show. I was asleep before I left the prep area. The next thing I recall was just a flash of a memory of waking up with a tube down my throat and me trying to chew on it. I was awake less time than it took to write this sentence.
Honestly, my next real memory came when I woke up in my room surrounded by a bunch of faceless people making me sit up on the side of the bed and making me walk about three steps to a chair in my room. I remember being genuinely surprised that I could walk already. To this day, I have no idea why I thought that. I also remember being told that I would not be allowed to eat in the bed. I would have to take each meal sitting in the chair.
It took me a while before I dared to look inside my hospital gown at my chest. Much to my surprise, all I saw was a white racing stripe of narrow gauze. No blood—nothing messy at all. I did have four drainage tubes in my belly but I didn’t pay much attention to them. Nothing really hurt.
I do remember early on a nurse asking me what my pain level was. I didn’t know how to answer. She told me that a one was no pain and a 10 was so much pain I couldn’t stand it. I was so groggy that I really wasn’t really feeling too much of anything although I did know I was pretty sore. I’m groggy and trying to think…I mean really trying to think. That was taking more effort than I would have preferred. I logically decided that I just had heart surgery. That was pretty serious, right? Therefore, I must be hurting so I just said, “seven”. That is a number, right? Totally a random choice. I was told to not be afraid to ask for the pain medication if I needed it. Something I would soon forget.
I was given a blue breathing device. They told me it would be my friend if I would only use it. I used it but I never considered it my friend. After heart surgery the biggest fear is infection and pneumonia. After the surgery your lungs can fill up and you need to get that crap out of you. That’s all well and good but you just had your chest opened up, wired shut and glued. They want you to cough up all that crap out of your lungs. That is unpleasant. That is the raw truth. To make it easier, you are given your very own heart shaped plush pillow. It has a very practical use besides becoming your very own “Binky”. You use that pillow every time you cough or sneeze. You pull it over your chest and squeeze as hard as you can as you cough. It still hurts but not near as much if you don’t use it. I imagine it is a common fear that you think your chest is going to open and your insides are going to fall out into your lap. They won’t but you’re not so easily convinced at the moment. Your heart pillow is your friend and for a month or two—your best friend. It is never out of your immediate reach. Just like American Express, you don’t leave the room without it. You live with it and sleep with it. It becomes a part of you.
Honestly, I don’t remember too much of my first day. I don’t think I ate until the next morning. They got me up for breakfast. Breakfast was totally forgettable. I do remember eating sliced pears. I ate a lot of them during my stay. The best thing I had the whole time was the blueberry smoothies they made me. I remember the dietician asked me what I wanted and I did like the smoothies. Later a diabetes doctor raised hell with the dietician and the kitchen for giving those to me until they explained they knew I was diabetic and they were making the smoothies with diabetes friendly ingredients.
At some point in the early going, I was told that they would not send me home until I could walk on my own around the nurses station several times. OK, another mission to take on. There was one problem with this concept. I had a stroke two years prior to the heart surgery. I had a stroke exactly one week before Christmas 2010. I was lucky. I had a blockage on my Cerebellum and it affected my balance. It took me a few months to get to where I could maneuver pretty well on my own. I’m a Weeble. I wobble but I won’t tip over. I have good days and some not so good days. At times I can still walk like a drunk without the benefit of alcohol. Now they want me to walk on my own around the nurse’s station several times a day. If I’m going to get out of here I better get on it. Zee helped me the first several times around but then she wasn’t there all the time so I took off on my own many times. I did get stronger the more frequently I took to the halls. I was a regular AJ Foyt—nothing but left turns.
I do remember the medical staff coming into my room and removing my chest bandage. I was amazed to see a thin little line down the middle of my chest. It looked like a cat scratch. Although I have never measured it, I’d say it was only 7 or 8 inches.
Next they removed my belly drainage tubes. That is a strange feeling. Doesn’t really hurt but it felt like something was crawling around in my gut but only for a moment. They were all out in less than a minute.
My friend Craig came by to see me and it was great to talk with someone not on the medical staff. It doesn’t take long to get bored in the hospital. I admit I got tired in the hospital too. Sleeping is not really sleeping there. You sleep but you get no rest. If you’ve had a stay in the hospital you know exactly what I’m talking about.
They cut on me Friday morning at 11:30. I didn’t see my surgeon until Monday afternoon. He asked me how I was feeling, checked my heart with his stethoscope and said, “I’m sending you home tomorrow. I need this hospital for sick people.” I remember smiling. That was genuinely funny to me. I feel like I just got run over by a Caterpillar tractor and he needs my room for a sick person.
I went home before noon on Tuesday. It was amazing. I was in and out of the Austin heart Hospital in three and a half days. Heart surgery is an amazing thing. The doctors, medical staff and technology is amazing. I would say to anyone facing it, don’t be afraid of it. Heart surgery in and of itself is not that bad. The recovery is the tough part. I’ll get into that in a moment but I do want to share with you the dirty little secret about heart surgery they never really tell you about beforehand. The secret? They don’t tell you about the leg. Yeah, your leg.
To do the bypasses they have to harvest a workable vein out of your leg. In my case, they cut me just inside of my left leg near the ankle and again near the inside of the knee and they pull it out. What they don’t tell you is that when they pull that vein out they are tearing way the connecting nerves. As a result that part of your leg from the ankle to the knee is numb. Numb all the time 24/7. The surgeon told me it would be 3 or 4 months and the feeling should be back. Not so. I have talked with many of my zipper club friends. Almost to a person the feeling is not entirely back. It is just something you live with. I look at the upside. If I didn’t get the surgery I wouldn’t be around to bitch about it. So I just deal with. I’m a happy camper but I still thought you should know about it. It is just a byproduct of the surgery you have to know about.
As for recovery, that is another whole thing I can tell you about—especially if you are a diabetic. You need to be particularly aware of how to take care of yourself. If you’d like, I can tell you about that another time. But today is an anniversary.
My life changed a year ago today. I went from a short, limited unhealthy future to a long, unlimited opportunity to live my life as I choose. I am grateful for everyone in my life who made this possible. Zee was there to get me through the surgery and the rough spots after I got home. She was the eyes and ears for all my friends. She even documented part of the journey on the Caring Bridge website. Ginger & Roy for being a big support for her. Roy was there with her when I came out of the operating room and I hear I looked horribly swollen. He assured her it was normal. Thanks Craig for stopping by and keeping me company at the hospital. Of course I want to thank my outstanding doctors and medical team. I also want to thank all my friends and family for their unswerving support.
It has been a journey. New life, new discoveries and learning more about myself. I’ve had my share of some depression but I have never perceived it as being a problem. I realize different people deal with their own surgeries differently. I want to say a special thanks to Lee Roy Garrett and Jim Beazer, also fellow Cabbage patch/Zipper Club brothers, for all their uplifting support though their Heart surgery Facebook pages. FB pages dedicated and populated with other heart surgery survivors helping each other. In closing, if you are facing heart surgery, I suggest you not fear it. Respect it. But don’t fear it. They perform hundreds of these operations everyday nationwide. Entire hospitals are dedicated to doing these procedures. They know what they are doing. The technology is getting better every day.
In reflection, I have been blessed. Since the surgery I have turned 65. My goal now is to see how much I can accomplish after 65. Why not? There is still so much on my bucket lists. Yes, I have more than one. I have more books to write, Texas to explore, reunions to attend and general mischief to get into. If there is one thing I want, it is to make sure my bucket is full before I kick the bucket. I now have the heart for it.