In addition to my personal experience with open heart surgery I've been blessed by dozens of touching stories and emails from heart patients sharing their experience and thanking me for writing Barefoot in November. I'm reminded of the day I walked out of the doctor's office after being unexpectedly diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm ready to blow. A black cloud loomed, and so the tempestuous journey began. Whether you've had an aortic aneurysm repaired, heart valve surgery, bypass surgery, or any other heart surgery; you've had to battle an army of emotional and psychological monsters from diagnosis to recovery.
[We were fortunate if we got to see any of these stages. Many never made it (like John Ritter for example) because they had unannounced aortic dissections, heart attacks, clogged arteries, or other fatal tragedies. They never had the blessing of having their condition diagnosed. The grim reaper merely stepped out of the shadow and took them away; leaving behind shattered families.]
Shock: "Why did this happen to me?" This is where we sat in silence; in awe. Or we yelled and beat our fist, or we cried, acted out, laughed maniacally, cursed, or hid. Some of us turned zombie, some got angry, and others became depressed. All of us were shocked, even the ones who saw it coming; because there's just nothing like being in that moment. The world stopped like a movie on pause, and we were the only ones walking amongst the cardboard characters; stepping in between them in a world that had come to a halt.
Denial: "This can't be." We outright denied it; even as we stared at the black and white image of the echocardiogram or CT scan. It was too big for us to wrap our heads around. Life, death........there had to be an explanation, there must be an error. A handful of us gave in immediately and were good patients. The rest of us took some time to get 2nd opinions and do a little more research. The worst of us burned the candles at both ends becoming research-aholics, rationalizing the condition, and doing everything in our power to find someone or something that would tell us that we were okay and would not need surgery. We risked our lives, but we did this because we were slaves to the vibe. It was fight or flight. We were angry, and frightened. Emotion superseded intellect.
Acceptance: We arrived here via many different routes. Some of us surrendered because we were tired, others out of fear, and still others because all excuses were exhausted. A lucky few of us were touched by special doctors who helped us come to terms and see the light. They got through to us; made us comfortable, confident, and even optimistic about facing the beast (open heart surgery).
The Push: Open heart surgery kicked our ass. We felt like helpless idiots. We were tired, drugged, incoherent at times, and sore. Perhaps a stranger's lifesaving blood was dumped into us to help keep us alive; maybe they jolted us back to life with some electricity, and in some cases complications were more violent. Even if everything went smoothly; any which way you cut it we were broken down to a fetal state of being. Then there was "the push". It manifested itself in many different forms. For some it was a sunrise, a special doctor, the touch of a relative, or an unexplained urge from within. For me it was returning home from the hospital after complications and seeing my little boy running down the steps and onto the wet brick path in his bare feet in the middle of November and hugging my leg. I knew at that moment that I had enough and I was going to fight tooth and nail to get my self back.
Recovery: We anxiously put our bodies and minds back in touch with each other. One day at a time we built up our stamina and our confidence. Some of us became Heartosauruses and set lofty goals like running a marathon. We ran them literally, while others created their own metaphorical marathons. We stayed optimistic, with a new appreciation for life and learned never to let a day slip by without embracing it.
Reflection: We're nervous. Who knows what the future could bring. Will the stitches and handiwork done in surgery hold up? If we exercise regularly will all the modifications hold up to the constant stress? Realistically speaking our lifespan was increased by the lifesaving surgeries we had; but the dark side causes us to wonder if our long term lifespan has been reduced by the stress of open heart surgery in general. All in all we feel a sense of serenity having made it through such a test. We have changed inside. We fear little in the grand scheme of things. We know one day death will come; as it does for everyone, but we are focused on wringing out every last drop of life in this go around.