True Story: I Had Open Heart Surgery At 32

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?

print by paula mcgurdy, for sale here

11 Comments

Rachael

I've had four open heart surgeries…and some of what you described when you went through your OHS is unique to you. I've not been shaved nor bathed twice. o.0" I have a pacemaker and I am part of the (mostly online) adults with congenital heart defect community.
Karen, it sounds like your MVP was congenital and I am appalled no one ever suggested such or even bothered to refer you to more adequate care. I hope you will continue to see a cardiologist for the rest of your life. You are also very welcome to reach out to the The Adults with Congenital Heart Defects Association! They're an excellent resource should you need them.

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Confused Twenty-Something

Open heart surgery sounds scary! But it is necessary, I know. It's funny that I say that's scary, because I had a cochlear implant surgery when I was 14, which involves four hours of operation and drilling into the head! It was my first major operation and I remember being really nervous and scared that I was going to die during the operation, even though my doctor is one of THE BEST in the country. I think the worst part after the surgery was how tired I was, and having a giant white bandage wrapped around my head, which attracted a lot of attention. That, and they had to shave part of my head, which made me sad because I liked my hair and it wasn't quite the same when it grew back. The worst part about the whole experience was after the surgery, when they actually turned on the implant. It was awful, and it happened RIGHT before I started freshman year of high school. Now, of course, I'm glad I did it. I may have to do it again with my other ear, which makes me nervous.

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Mel

I had to have a portion of my colon removed about a year ago. The surgery itself went good but I had some major complications going on afterwards. I was suffering for about 2 months. Today I am a happy healthy camper.

My tips for when having a major surgery are almost the same as the above.

WALK…As soon as you can and even if it is only two steps at a time. WALK. It is so SO important! Not only will it get your body fluids goind and helo your body to produce precious blood that it has lost. It will also help prevent complications like embolisms.

DRINK and restore your body with the fluids that it lost during the surgery. I know they give you all kinds of stuff through IV…but honestly…drink a lot of good water!! Try not to focus on the hurt but remind yourself what your body actually went through. After a while you will totally marvel at how fast you've actually recovered from such a crazy damage to your body!

BREATH! It will hurt (well, depends on the surgery) But as soon as they give you breathing exercises DO THEM. ALL THE TIME! Breathing, walking and drinking are the most important parts to heal fast and good!

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Antonia

Huh. One thing I've learned through having a child with a rare medical condition is: Doctors aren't Gods. They're just doing the best they can with the knowledge they have. So everyone needs to listen to their gut, then ACT on what it says. Thanks for the post, you brave vegan warrior woman!

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Kelsea Echo

This was so incredible to read. Thank you for sharing your story, Karen. My little brother had open heart surgery at 13 months old and he's since had tons of heart problems. This is so fitting for me to read today, since I actually posted my Help a Heart event today, where I'm trying to raise money for the American Heart Assocation. I generally don't include links to my blog on comments because it feels spammy, but this just seemed so relevant! http://www.pinkwonderland.com/p/help-heart.html

Anyway, I'll add a link to your story on that blog page. Trying to gather some stories from people who have heart problems so others can understand a little bit more about it. Again, THANKS for sharing and glad your surgery went well!

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Tsipa

Wow, this came at a beautiful time for me…I literally just emailed my ENT (ear, nose, & throat doctor) to tell him that I need to have another of the surgeries I will likely require every 1 1/2 to 2 years for the rest of my life. (I have a growth in my trachea that closes off most of my windpipe as it grows, and to remove it permanently would mean I couldn't sing again – and I have been singing opera for almost twenty years.)

I was having a little pity party for myself, but reading this really helped me remember how grateful I am that the technology exists that this procedure can be done…and that my doctor is extremely good at it…and that I have insurance. Thank you for that! I'm so glad that you listened to your intuition and that your surgery went well. 🙂

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Anonymous

Loved your story… am recovering from valve replacement on 7/17 and pericardial window two weks ago…I am doing better and home taking care of myself…It was scary but I am in hopes the worst is over………I am so greatful for each day now

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Anonymous

I may need to have open heart surgery shortly. I've heard there is a clinic in Mexico that does open heart surgery on an outpatient basis. The cost is a lot less than here in the States. Have any of you heard about that?

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Tim Wetzel

stay away. heart surgery is a very specialized skill and requires the best skill sets from only the most experienced and trained heart surgeons. They are here in the usa. Go to Cleavland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Swedish Hospital and many others. They have the Affordable Care Act and will pay for your surgery. Go with the best, forget mexico.

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Cody

Exactly what body parts are shaved for open heart surgery? Please give as much details as possible like are you totally naked during the shave prep? How much of your body is exposed during the shave? When you are required to bathe with the anticeptic soap, do the the nurse scrub your body or do you do it by yourself?

Reply

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