One year ago, I was unconscious, under anesthesia, in an operating room, having open heart surgery. I had been diagnosed with pulmonary valve insufficiency earlier in the year. My family spent hours sitting in a waiting room while Dr. Anthony Azakie and his team gave me a new pulmonary heart valve. Our kids were at school. We tried to keep things as non-scary as we could for them. And really, in the medical world, this surgery is not scary. It’s a routine procedure. But for me, it was a just a wee bit scary, as I think most surgeries are for the person having them. There is an element of the unknown, of what “could” happen that causes some concern.
Thursday September 7th
5:30 a.m. we arrived at the hospital to check in
6:30 a.m. a nurse came to get me while Josh waited in the lobby/waiting room
7:00 a.m. they were prepping me for surgery (I traded in my t-shirt and yoga pants for a hospital gown and ugly footy socks and they poked me with a bunch of needles to get IV’s in place for surgery). A pastor came to pray with me, as I had requested. My husband and family came in for hugs and well wishes. Then, they put the elastic, surgical cap on my head (Thank goodness they waited for my people to leave the room! Those things are really not attractive! 😜) and they wheeled me into the OR. Before they did, I asked the two gentlemen doing the wheeling, “How often do you do this?”, thinking maybe these heart surgeries are performed once a week or something. “Every day.”, they replied in the most reassuring, confident, comforting manner. I remember being brought into the room and seeing a bunch of people and a lot of machines and medical equipment, and then they had me count backwards from ten and the last thing I remember is saying seven.
I woke up in a private intensive care room, immobile and unable to talk. I had a tube down my throat and my arms were strapped down, to prevent me from pulling the tube out of my throat. I had anticipated this moment as it was one of the surviving (and nightmarish) memories I held from my open-heart surgery at age five. Waking up and not being able to move or talk… is its own special kind of torture. My husband Josh knew all this – that this was the part I dreaded most. He stayed by my side while they waited for all my vitals and things to be as they should, so they could remove the tube. It sounded like maybe it would be 20 minutes. It was 60. He stood by my side the entire time and gently rubbed my head, as I lay unable to talk or move. I was angry, and he knew it by the way I did move what body parts I could (legs). This part still amazes me and makes me love him even more than I already do. (During this time, my parents and siblings were awaiting news from Josh after he had been allowed to come see me and it was taking an awful long time. He didn’t want to leave me, but he also felt terrible that he couldn’t go and update them.) Then, they had him leave the room, so they could remove the tube.
After that it was a drug filled night – lots of intravenous pain meds. I ended up vomiting from the anesthesia, which is never a good feeling – let alone with a recently cut sternum. The nurses were amazing, especially in those first 36 hours after surgery. This time is a bit of a blur but I’m so thankful to my husband, my mom and dad, and my sister and brother for being there.
Friday September 8th
Late in the afternoon, they moved me up to the sixth floor where I had the most insane roommate. Insane, as in needed a straight-jacket and to be in her very own padded room. Eventually, the nurses did administer medication to calm her down. It was excruciating to be in the same room with her, if you were just a normal, sane person. For someone that had just come out of ICU, it was magnified. After a few hours, Josh tracked down a private room for me and we moved there. (To my delight, I never did see the crazy lady again.) Our Pastor came to visit. I received flowers from work. I was on lots of drugs and pretty dozy.
The next days were filled with small victories (nurses actually clap and high five when you poop after surgery). I had some fluid in my lungs after the surgery so there were some nebulizer treatments and chest x-rays to make sure that was getting out. We did lots of walking around in the hallways, toting an IV machine on wheels. (Always exciting!) I didn’t have too much trouble getting up out of bed. Sleeping was probably the hardest because I am a side sleeper and that was out. I had to sleep on my back (for six weeks!). Getting comfortable was tough but once I did, I was good and the pain meds helped too. They gave me a heart shaped pillow to hold against my chest when I coughed, sneezed or just generally needed it for my sternum.
Saturday September 9th
The kids came to visit with Grandma Teri. We had planned their visit to occur when I had minimal tubes coming out of my body. I still had the oxygen tubes in my nose as needed but the chest tubes had been removed that morning. Teri’s sister owns a floral shop and Eva put together the sweetest arrangement for me.
Sunday September 10th
It was a day of resting, but also of walking and gaining strength. Of course, there was room service with hospital food – which is always nice to be able to make a phone call and have food delivered to you. The food was pretty good too and I was starting to get a little bit of an appetite back. My friend Carrie and her beau Carl came to visit and brought some lovely flowers.
I was discharged late in the afternoon. My dear friend Mo had stopped in to visit and helped with gathering all the things to take back home. I had to sit in the back seat and Josh was my chauffer back home. This felt weird and the drive was wrapped in this unspoken tentativeness because an accident would have been pretty detrimental to the ol’ sternum. But we made it! And being home was WONDERFUL.
That is the gist of the surgery days and initial recovery.
MRI day in July
Unless you have experienced medical maladies, you may not fully understand all that a patient may encounter. Laying in the machine to get the MRI earlier that summer, I remember feeling so small. And a bit unhuman. It can feel like you are stripped of your dignity as you get naked, put on a gown and do exactly what the medical staff tells you to do. The MRI machine is loud as hell and the technician failed to tell me that. The first time it went off, it scared the bejeepers out of me. I had to pull out my deep breathing techniques and repeated the Lord’s prayer over and over to get through my time in that tube. This I did with my eyes closed because if I opened them, there was about six inches of space between my face and the machine. The liquid injected into my veins with for the MRI made me so ill, I felt like I was dying. Nauseous and dizzy. This didn’t kick in until we had started to leave the building. Josh was torn between trying to get us food, get me to the hotel or just sit in the parking lot. (This was the day that I could not eat after midnight the previous night and Josh had rallied in solidarity with me and didn’t eat until I could, which turned out to be around 5pm.) I had reserved us a room at a fancy hotel in downtown Minneapolis, thinking we would make a night of it. We ended up ordering Pizza Lucé and renting Wonder Woman at the hotel (which is always good in my book – but it was just not what I had pictured in my head).
Oftentimes we get pictures in our head of how things are SUPPOSED to be, and they rarely end up that way. We did make the best of it. As humans, we usually do. But it also proved to me how important our humanity is. How important kindness and empathy and communication are.
It feels a little crazy to think that one year ago I was just coming out of surgery. For months and months after, I would hold my chest as I got out of bed. There is still a tiny bit of tenderness in my rib cage but for the most part, I am back to my old self. And I’m so happy to be – and to be here, with my family and friends. Being a wife and mom and doing all of the things I was destined to do. I’m thankful to the medical staff and the people in my life who made the whole experience more bearable. My friends at work were amazing. The meals provided by my dear friends in the weeks that followed were such a blessing to our family. Hugs and kisses to all of you for your kind and giving hearts!
It was all an adventure – well worth it.
They say we are warriors. Open heart warriors. Survivors. But really, we are all warriors, all survivors. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. There are things that happen in each of our lives that are a trial, a difficulty, a struggle. An unforeseen obstacle that we didn’t ask for. That we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. But they happen. And we persevere.
For me, I could not have done it without my trusted Heavenly Father by my side.
Or my husband – who doesn’t like hospitals but was by my side for the length of my stay and beyond.
Or my Wonder Woman slippers. 😉 Thank you Hillary!
P.S. I did get my fun dinner in downtown Minneapolis. It happened the night before my surgery with my sweet family – my hubby, my parents and my siblings. We enjoyed delicious food and drank delightful cocktails out on the patio and called it pre-surgery festivities. 😊 Find the things that are cause for celebration, and pour the champagne!