How It Began
It all started 7 long years ago with a routine physical when I turned 65 in 2009 . An echo-cardiogram revealed an ascending aortic aneurysm and some regurgitation in my aortic valve. A CT scan report showed the aneurysm to be relatively small and the valve leakage to be minimal. I had no symptoms of any kind and was referred to Tennessee Heart in Cookeville and then to Dr. Robert L. Wilson, my cardiovascular surgeon. It was then that the apprehension and nervousness started. I actually wanted to have the surgery before I got any older. Since I had no symptoms, I was instead scheduled for a followup CT scan in a year. A year later there was still no change in size. The following year it had grown slightly and I was then scheduled for a CT scan every 6 months. After 5 more years and 10 more CT scans , Dr. Wilson informed me in late June, 2016, that the aneurysm had grown to a size where the risk of rupturing was greater than the risk of surgery, and that the leaking aortic valve had worsened. He scheduled me for a heart catherization and a trans-esophageal echo-cardiogram on July 5, 2016 with Dr. Fournet from Tennessee Heart to see if any repairs needed to be done on my arteries. Fortunately my arteries were fine and no further problems were found. Dr. Wilson then scheduled me for open heart surgery on July 25, 2016 at the Cookeville Regional Medical Center.
I don’t remember too much about the surgery itself. I was prepped and shaved and an IV was started. Needless to say I was more than a little nervous about having my rib cage cracked open. I was told that the operation took four and a half to 5 hours and that it was very successful. My aneurysm had been repaired with no problem and I now had a new tissue valve to replace my leaking aortic valve. My first few days in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit were a blur. I was told that I had a nurse in the room twenty-four hours a day for the first two days. I remember that I was in a great deal of pain in my chest and the areas where drainage tubes had been inserted. I was on a morphine drip and when I complained about the pain I was told to just press the button. So I would press the button but it usually didn’t help. I was kept in the CICU for three to four days which was a little longer than normal because of the pain I was complaining about and because my heart kept going in and out of Afib. I remember the compassionate care of the nurses and staff and not getting much rest due to being poked, prodded, x-rayed, and having to take more pills.
When I was moved to the Cardiac floor I started doing a lot of walking in the halls with a walker and a nurse. I remember having do do breathing exercises often and having a multitude of chest xrays, electrocardiograms and blood work at all hours of the day and night. Needless to say I didn’t get a lot of rest.
I was discharged after a week and came home. Dr. Wilson had arranged home health care and the nurse would come, check my vitals, ask how I was feeling and go over any questions I had. My recovery was beginning. Even though I had read a lot of information about what to expect after open heart surgery, I was not prepared for how difficult it would be.
The Ongoing Recovery
When I got home I was very sore, very emotional, very irritable, very nervous and very apprehensive, but happy to be home. I came home with a multitude of pills and more instructions than I could possibly remember. I wasn’t sleeping well and with my COPD I couldn’t breathe all that well. My moods were way out of whack and at times I would just start crying. At other times my temper would flare up. The pain gradually lessened in severity but it was always there in one form or another. I couldn’t seem to sleep laying in bed, so I got to be good friends with my recliner rocker. I was told to do a lot of walking, but it was so humid outside I had trouble breathing. I did a lot of walking around the house, making circles in the living room, bedrooms, dining room, kitchen and hallways.
After a few weeks I started my Cardiac Rehab at the Cumberland Medical Center in Crossville. For several weeks, I would go to the hospital’s Cardiac Rehab Center and be monitored while I worked out on different machines. The rehab helped my conditioning and the nurses were great at keeping us all motivated and on track. I completed my rehab and started trying to get back to my normal routine at home, taking care of our dogs, our horse Teaka, and our 6 acres. My wife returned to work and I again became the house-husband.
Open heart surgery recovery is the same, yet different for those who have gone through it. Everything is different after this surgery – you’re not the same as you were before the surgery. It changes a person. It was a very scary and emotional experience not only for me, but for my wife and family. Even though I was in the extremely skilled hands of my surgeon and the operating room doctors, techs and nurses, I knew it was possible for something to go wrong. The fact that I made it through the operation speaks highly of their skill and dedication, and I certainly thank them for keeping me alive.
So far my recovery has been everything I read about and more. I have been stressed, depressed, anxious, irritable, short-tempered and angry. I became uncooperative and nasty. I hurt for weeks. My sternum had been sawed or cut open and pulled apart to reach my heart and wired together after the heart was repaired and it took a long time to heal. I was given a “heart pillow” in the hospital to hold against my chest when I had to cough or sneeze. The pillow eased the pain when I held it tightly to my chest. Every time I coughed or sneezed I was scared that my sternum would break apart. Even after my sternum healed I would periodically get sharp little pain jolts. Finally, from out of nowhere, the pain stopped. It’s been a year now and the pain is gone.
I went through some very emotional times during my recovery. When I re-read the details of my surgery, the full realization of what was done hits me with full force. I had been cut open, my sternum had been cut or sawed open and pulled apart, my heart was stopped and I was placed on a heart-lung machine. My heart was stopped! I was kept alive by a machine! I may have been on a machine, but I know in my heart and soul that it was God that kept me alive, not the machine.
I’ve come to realize that what I went through was an enormous physical and emotional experience and that my recovery is an ongoing process. I know that this has been more difficult on my wife that it has been on me. I will never be able to make up for everything she has had to deal with and everything she has put up with.
I’m getting stronger lately and my energy is returning. Two follow-up CT scans have shown that everything is back to normal and working well. I still tire easily, but I believe that is due to the medications I am on. I have progressed a great deal since my surgery. I am alive and I can actually feel and hear my heartbeat now. It is strong and steady, always reminding me that I Am An Open Heart Surgery Survivor.
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