If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry

My quest to find answers continued this week. I went to a cardiac rehabilitation session called “Heart to Heart” to find out if my emotional responses to heart surgery were “normal” and if there was anything more I could do to hasten my recovery.

Here’s what happened.

Deja Vu

I was running late. The door was shut and I could hear them talking inside. Here goes. I opened the door.

All heads swivelled to look at me.

Sitting in a semicircle, was a room full of elderly people.

I should have expected this. Just like my exercise rehab, I was the only person under 50.

“Doesn’t matter”, I thought, “I’m here for me and my recovery”

What’s your story?

The session was run by a highly experienced and knowledgeable cardiovascular clinical nurse (whom I’d met through the WA Heart Foundation). She encouraged everyone to share their heart story.

Most of the participants had stents or pacemakers or atrial fibrillation. Several had had heart attacks. Most of the patients were elderly males, accompanied by their devoted wives who gently prompted or talked on their behalf. Perpetuating that stereotypical heart patient, I’m afraid.

Then there was me. The black sheep. Again. The only one with a “zipper”. The only one who’d had a bypass. The only young person.

Black sheep in cardiac rehabilitation

When you’re not like the others ….

Never mind. It’s the similarities that make these sessions interesting and valuable, I think. The reassurance of knowing you are not alone with your weird anxieties and crazy irrational thoughts after a heart event. Such things transcend age.

As a group, we had our fair share of issues.

  • The lady to my left described her fear of having something happen to her in the middle of the night. She lives alone
  • The guy to my right talked about his nightmares and how they keep him awake
  • Some people were nervous about travelling (even as little as 100km)
  • Others felt vulnerable with their dependency on technology (pacemakers)
  • None of us relished the endless pill-popping
  • We all felt hyper-aware of our hearts, especially when lying in bed

Sad As…

For me, the best thing was recognising that I have pretty much recovered. Despite the horrible rollercoaster I’ve been on, I think I’m levelling out and the Recovery Ride is becoming less bumpy. Hey, it’s only taken a year!

I’m disappointed that I didn’t know about the emotional side effects of heart surgery. I sure could have used some help about 9 months ago. These sessions would have been ideal.

The facilitator shared an acronym “SAD AS” for the emotional healing process. It applies to all emotional healing I’m told. The phases can happen in any order, at any time and will repeat.

SAD AS Phases of Recovery

Laugh or you’ll cry

The best way to deal with being a black sheep is to pan back and suspend all seriousness.

When I was describing the rehab session to my husband and friends, I couldn’t stop laughing. There was me discussing heart pills and cardiologists with people way over 65!

OMG, is this for real?

BUT, the absence of people my age at rehab is NOT laughable. It makes me want to cry.

Where ARE you, people in your 30s and 40s? Let me guess, you are:

  • Too busy with the kids
  • Too busy with work
  • Sure you’ll get nothing out of it
  • Already clued up on heart health
  • Living too far away
  • Busy at that time slot
  • Unable to commit to it (um, what, your health?)
  • Unable to face the reality of what happened to you
  • Eager to forget the experience
  • Not brave enough to sit in a room full of elderly people who are just like you

It is so frustrating. It must be worse for the cardiac rehab professionals. The benefits of rehab are too amazing to ignore. At the very least, it reduces the risk of more heart problems.

If the benefits were in a pill, then yes I’d pop another pill.

“You are Inspirational”

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been told this. I recognise it as a compliment or an expression of awe perhaps, but I really do find it hard to accept.

My heart story goes beyond “just” having had heart surgery.

Six weeks after my operation, my mother died. She didn’t know what had happened to me. It didn’t seem right to tell her. She had dementia and terminal cancer. Enough is enough.

My job contract ran out so a few months later I had no paid work.

With all modesty,  I just did what I had to do. You would be the same. You just get through it.

The emotional aftermath of heart surgery is invisible and can scare people. It is not often talked about – I certainly wasn’t prepared its intensity. I had no idea.

It would be lovely to see more resources around for mental and emotional rehabilitation for those who’ve had heart events. And if they already exist, how about they are better promoted?

Questions. Please share your thoughts!

  • Do you think humour helps as a coping strategy?
  • Personal journeys are unique, could this be why emotional recovery is such a challenging area for rehabilitation?
  • What is your definition of “inspirational”?


Information about the place where I did this rehabilitation.




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