This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Karen and her open heart surgery.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Karen and I am from and still live in Mississippi. I am 35 years old (36 at the end of July!) My surgery was three years ago in June. I have a full-time day job, part-time online vintage store, run a community market, am (slowly) renovating a 111-year-old house, do a bit of freelance writing, am about to start teaching yoga and I have two of the most precious fur babies EVER (a cat and a dog).
I enjoy vegan cooking, watching French films, reading, thrift shopping, gardening and meditation. I aspire to craft some but haven’t gotten around to it. Oh, and I like to sleep. ☺
How old were you when you started to have heart problems?
I’ve had heart problems since as long as I can remember. I was born prematurely and told that the palpitations I felt were “Mitral Valve Prolapse.” It never really amounted to much other than some discomfort and having to take medicine before going to the dentist.
When I was 32 years old, it got much worse. The flutterings were so bad that I had to sit down sometimes so as not to pass out. I dismissed it for a long time as stress but finally my intuition kicked in and I knew I had to have it seen after. I had an out-of-the-blue appointment with a cardiologist on a Tuesday and had open-heart surgery the following Monday morning. I scheduled the appointment; no doctor put enough credit into my flutterings to refer me. I would be dead had I not listened to my intuition. So then, a moral of the story right in the middle of it: Your body knows, you need only learn to listen!
What other things did the doctors try before resorting to surgery?
Nothing. There really was no other option. My life-long flutterings were finally attributed to an aneurysm the size of a navel orange in the right chamber of my heart. Doctors think that a flap of skin in my heart didn’t attach properly to the wall – due probably to my being born too soon – and filled up with blood slowly over the years. Had it burst at any time, it would have killed me instantly. So, the only option at all was to go in and drain it and repair it. I had absolutely no disease in my heart; only the repair needed to be made. Thankfully my heart is now in beautiful condition!
What, exactly, happens when a person gets open-heart surgery?
Many interesting things! A lot goes into it! IVs, lots of medicines to ward of things that might happen during or after the surgery (infection, nausea, etc.), they shave every square inch of you, you bathe twice, etc. Actually during the surgery, they saw the chest bone open which, when all was said and done, was the worst part to get over. I was on bypass for 48 minutes which meant that a machine was working my heart for that length of time. It is a bit scary to think about that after the fact. I was on a ventilator and my first knowledge upon (somewhat) waking up was that I had a huge tube all the way down my throat and my hands were tied to the bed (so I couldn’t pull the tube out before I was fully awake). THAT was the single worst moment of the whole thing, I think.
How long did it take you to recover from your surgery?
I was off work for about two months. Recovery was slow. It is amazing how many things the chest bone affects! I couldn’t lift my arms over my head, put on a shirt by myself, and the list goes on. I couldn’t lift over five pounds for what seemed like forever. There was a risk of my chest bone wiring coming loose. Eeek! Mostly though, I got very tired very easily. My body had gone through so much and desperately needed rest so that it could have critical healing time. I slept the better part of every day the first few days after my surgery, partly because I needed to sleep, partly because the anesthesia wears off slowly and partly because of the pain medication I had to have. Turns out that heart surgery is painful. ;)
Has your surgery affected your day-to-day life at all? Will you have to get any follow up surgeries?
More than anything, the surgery has affected me in that I feel things more acutely. I notice things, I’m thankful for things, I appreciate things and I’m so much more sensitive about everything around me (to this end, I also get depressed more easily). I do not and will never look back on the surgery with anything other than pure gratitude for the blessing of such a miracle being given to me. It was hard and painful but it was absolutely transformative in every way. I’m a different – better – person since it. Physically, my heart still flutters some and I will have to take medication to regulate my heart rate for the rest of my life. But, what a small price to pay! There is a very small chance that the repair could come loose. That is the only circumstance under which I would have to have another surgery.
What advice would you give to people who have a friend or family member undergoing a serious surgery?
If YOU are having surgery, know this: Miracles happen and your body has an absolutely amazing capacity to heal itself given the right tools, including patience. Eat good healthy foods, surround yourself with good healthy people, think good healthy thoughts. And, even as much as it will hurt (and it will!), know what a blessing your body is going through and be thankful for it, even if that seems impossible. Remember to breathe and whenever the doctors or nurses give you permission to walk, WALK! Movement will help you heal almost as fast as positive thinking; your body HAS to move. Above all though, don’t rush it. Give your body time to do what it needs to do. This is so incredibly important.
If you have a loved one having surgery, keep in mind all of the above. Your attitude will affect everything. Also for the loved ones - DON’T HUG, IT HURTS! ;)
Thanks so sharing, Karen! Have any of you ever had super major surgery? Any tips to share?
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