When you’re about to have heart surgery, the doctors prepare your physical body. Mental preparation is equally important, but it’s entirely up to you and it’s really hard.
I spent 8 days preparing physically and mentally for my heart operation. During this time, I wrote down my feelings, thoughts and questions.
If you’d like to read on, I’ll share some of my mental preparation with you. Get a cup of tea and I’ll tell you.
It’s easy to research a condition or dispassionately explain a medical procedure. But when it comes to thoughts, emotions and experience, I can’t add a hyperlink to my brain (just as well!)
What I describe is unique and personal. It would likely be different for you.
I’m a scientist and (sometimes) auditor, so I rarely accept anything on face value. I ask questions until I am satisfied. Or near enough.
But more than anything, I am a “cause and effect” kind of person. So, naturally, my first question was….
To appreciate this question properly, let me set the scene.
Features of patient in Room 5 (Me)
- In my 40s
- Somewhat underweight
- Very fit
- Never smoked
- Always followed doctors’ advice
- On statin medication
Features of some patients in all the other rooms:
- Over 60
- Appear unfit
- A little unhealthy-looking
- Might enjoy a big fatty steak and chips or takeaway fried chicken a few times a week
So can somebody tell me why I’m here?
This question, more than any, infuriated me. My fury was fuelled when I was handed some “reading material”.
- An amateurish book by an old man – not unlike the aforementioned – talking about his heart surgery … and how lovely his wife was
- Brochures from the Australian Heart Foundation
Now, I have been a regular donor to the Australian Heart Foundation for over 20 years. I believe their research, advocacy and information are top notch and important. However, I took issue with some of the photos they use. These are examples below, not what I actually saw, but you get the idea.
To be fair, their website shows better images than the booklets I was given.
Do you see what I don’t see? (Yep, nobody from Room 5).
This particular bee will remain in my bonnet for now; today we need to keep on track.
But hey, there’s no value in staying angry. It’s better to use the energy in other ways. Like asking questions!
So, tell me how the heart works and do you see many patients like me and how long have you worked here and do you like your job and how long will it take for me to recover and why am I taking this medicine and what does this test diagnose and tell me how to read an ECG and what is a biphasic T-wave and how long will I be in ICU and does it hurt to have a ventilator down your throat and is my heart disease genetic?
Those poor, poor nurses. My questions were incessant.
I’d wander up the corridor and study all the heart anatomy posters. Then I’d fire off my list of questions to whoever ventured into my room.
One nurse (at my request) gave me a heart anatomy tutorial one afternoon, using a 3D heart model with detachable parts. Let me tell you, she was grilled like she was in an exam.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I tentatively asked about the Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG) procedure but the answers scared me, quite a lot as it happens. I think it was the inevitability, the unknown, my lack of control, it being beyond my comprehension, my vulnerability and ultimate submission. The enormity. The reality. My mortality, even.
It was about putting my trust and heart into the hands of strangers
This led to those deeper philosophical and existential questions. The curly ones with no definitive answers. You know what I mean, don’t you?
The Meaning of Life … and all that
My heart notebook. I loved my heart notebook. I jotted down the craziest random thoughts and discoveries during that long week. Writing so fast I made spelling mistakes. Pages and pages of mental dumping …
Snippets from my heart notebook
- Kind words from people:
- “Have courage” – Samrina
- “Be accepting” – Gerry
- “Be peaceful” – Dr X
- “Be gentle, go slowly” – Yunita
- “You can’t put Drano through your arteries” – Dr X
- Will my heart feel different?
- Will I feel my leg vein in there? (Evidence of my madness? But yes, a leg vein is used in a CABG – details in a future post)
- I worry a lot about waking up after surgery in ICU, being incapacitated and bound-in, unable to communicate
- The ventilation and nasogastric tubes down my neck freak me out
- My yoga and meditation practice must have been part of my life for the cosmic purpose of this moment. If I didn’t practice them then what coping mechanisms would I have?
You have to go through what you cannot go around
- But really, in the end, I am just a body. The pain is bodily
- I have anger, terror, not-quite-hate, relief and disbelief, resentment, fury. I feel cheated and ripped off
- Gazing off, glazing over, fatigue and drugs are my protective mechanisms today but I’m waiting for the next wave of intense anxiety to hit me
- I now know what a STEMI is and how grateful I am to be a non-STEMI
It is said that if you ignore life’s messages, they only come back louder. This is the loudest message I’ve had for making changes in my life
An unanswered recurring question:
Am I lucky or not?
Heck, does that even need an answer?
Lucky – Yes
- I acted on my instinct and got myself checked – read this post about my luck
- I could have died or had angina sooner had I not followed a healthy lifestyle
- I was in my home city, not on holiday or on a plane or somewhere remote
- I was aware of my likely genetic predisposition and followed medical advice
- All my other arteries were healthy and clear
- I was healthy in every other way, which helps the surgeon and my recovery
- I have the care, love and support of my husband, siblings, family and friends
- I was in an excellent hospital with fabulous staff and facilities
Unlucky – Yes
- 98% blockage in one major artery. Say no more
- Genetics suck Big Time
- It shouldn’t have happened to me. Well, far worse things happen to other people
For example, what happened to the poor guy in the room next door to me…
To find out what happened to him, click “follow” or sign up for email updates!
I received some feedback on the last post, thank you so much!
It seems that you like to understand my experience because you travelled some of it with me. Another comment was that the information might be personally useful one day. (I hope you won’t need it).
Either way, I’d love for this blog to help you whatever your reason.
So if you fancy giving me feedback at any time, I’d love to hear it!
And, because I love asking questions:
- Have you ever gone through a period of involuntary soul searching?
- What is luck?
- Do you think I was lucky or not?
References from the Heart Foundation and other support groups
Heart Foundation information
- My Heart, My Life. Information for people living with Coronary Heart Disease
- All the Heart Foundation publications in one handy location
- Australia’s premier site for mental health support and information. If you type in “surgery” in the search field, you can find real people’ anxiety and fears related to surgery.
- St John of God, Murdoch where I stayed the longest, offers mental health support resources.