Now in my third hospital in nine days, I had to adjust to another room, new nurses and a different routine at The Mount Hospital in Perth, Western Australia.
Most of my soul-searching and questioning processes were over, thanks to the week in the Cardiac Care Unit at St John of God Murdoch Hospital (SJOG). So I felt almost calm and ready for heart surgery.
I said “almost” because …
… I still had two and a half days to kill.
What was I going to do? Think about? How could I avoid the crazy terrors?
And what about other people? What about my family? How were they dealing with this?
The healthy outsider
My husband has kindly shared his memories of the days leading up to my heart surgery. This is what it’s like to be on the “other side”.
Q: What did it feel like to witness my preparation for surgery?
A: I felt all the stereotype things: scared and helpless. There was nothing I could do to affect the outcome, so all I could to was try to support you.
As time went by it became a bit surreal, our lives were completely changed but the rest of the world was the same. It was like there was you inside the hospital and the rest of the world outside.
Q: What helped you manage the situation? Did you talk to anyone?
A: I guess I got the most support from my family. My family are very stoic and generally calm and matter of fact.
My work and work colleagues provided me with a lot of support and some distraction.
I spent a lot of time letting our friends know what was happening. That helped because it was something useful I could do, I didn’t feel alone and I knew lots of people were worrying about you. But it was emotionally draining and I had to explain the same stuff over and over.
Q: What are your outstanding memories?
A: I was hurrying to the dentist when my phone rang. I didn’t answer but when I sat in the waiting room I checked my voice mail. I had the following message:
“Um, it’s me. I am going to have to go to hospital because I am getting chest pains… Um, I don’t know what else to tell you”
I think I went into some kind of stunned shock because it didn’t hit me until I was sitting in the dentist’s chair. I freaked, then ran out saying “I am sorry I have to go…”
Then later, I remember when they moved you to the recovery area in the ER, I was thinking,
“This will be fine, it’s just all the stress Fay’s been under lately causing some kind of anxiety attack”
But then the doctor called you back saying there was something wrong on the ECG. I started to think there was something badly wrong. I was trying very hard at this point to not let it show so that I did not panic you.
I remember arriving home to a very quiet, dark and lonely house, with a voice in the back of my head saying,
“This could be your life now, alone…”
I also remember being in the car somewhere, crying so much I had to stop the car and pull over.
Q: What advice would you give a person worrying about somebody they love who is about to have serious surgery?
A: Talk to friends and family, allow the people you know and love to support you. This is one way to find out who your real friends are.
Remember that as scary as it is for you, the person in hospital needs you and you have to be strong for them.
Don’t think too much about what could go wrong! Try not to imagine the worst case scenarios, just wait and see what happens.
Later, my husband told me that my courage and “no-nonsense approach” helped him to cope.
I don’t think I was particularly courageous. I had meltdowns. But when facing something as huge as heart surgery, we somehow draw strength and courage from depths we don’t know we have.
And it’s still OK to be afraid.
So don’t be afraid to be afraid.
This is not an execution
While I was waiting for my Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG) in April 2015, two convicted drug smugglers from Australia were facing their execution in Indonesia.
Of course, there is absolutely no comparison between an execution and life-saving surgery, but I was constantly wondering how these guys were accepting death. I was grappling enough with my own feelings of mortality and lack of control. What torment was going on in their minds?
I watched their grieving families on the evening news, unable to imagine the anguish in their hearts. At least for me and my family, there was HOPE and a FUTURE.
Finally, here it is. The night before the operation. From this night, two events stick out in my mind:
My anaesthetist came to see me. His surname is an adjective that makes you think: normal, predictable, regular – but his personality was anything but! He was totally wacky.
This was actually fantastic for me. Original characters are great. He distracted me with his banter, debate and eccentricity. I thought he was awesome. Thank you Dr S, you are a legend.
I’d taken my routine medication, I’d written my journal and had just settled into bed to seek sleep.
Suddenly, a nurse materialised in the dimness.
Her job, she informed me, was to tell me what to expect when I wake up in ICU.
She rattled off this list (and this is no exaggeration) –
“You will have:
(Oh really? How much space do they think my throat has?)
- A urinary catheter
- A central venous line in your neck
- An arterial line in your arm
- Temporary pacing wires attached to your heart
- A surgical drain in your lung cavity
- A surgical drain in your abdominal cavity
- A surgical drain in your heart cavity
- A couple of IV drips
- A patient controlled analgesia pump to deliver painkillers
- A taped up sternum and
- A taped up leg with a pressure stocking
- Your very own ICU nurse who will never leave your side
- And…. you won’t be able to talk until you can breathe on your own without the ventilator”.
With her job done, she then turned around and left the room.
OMG. I lay there blinking in the semi-darkness. How am I meant to sleep now? This is absolutely terrifying. I pressed the call-nurse button and asked for a sleeping tablet.
Somehow, I did sleep. On and off most of the night. I figured it didn’t matter if I was tired – I wouldn’t be getting out of bed anytime soon after the CABG, certainly not with all that stuff attached to my body.
Honestly, the idea of ICU scared the living daylights out of me. I was petrified. I’ll describe my experience of ICU in a future post.
Asking the questions:
- If you’ve been a carer for somebody, how do you look after yourself?
- As a patient, are you aware how you could be affecting your carer(s)?
- Do you think hospital staff help patients and carers enough in these situations?
And some references related to this post:
A radiologist’s dream – images of the various ICU lines and tubes in the body.
More about pacing wires
A nurse’s reference to surgical drains