Heartfelt: The emotional and psychological stages of being diagnosed with a heart problem, open heart surgery, and recovery.

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 Emotion superseded intellect.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.


Vanessa said...

Hey, my name is Vanessa. I came across this website while doing research for PTSD & coping with heart surgeries. See, my dad (51) had a mild heart attack in September & the doctors discovered just how bad his blockages were (widow-maker was 98% blocked and another that was 70-something % blocked). He healed great, but he's going through some issue and has decided to leave his wife of 13 years because he decided he's unhappy. She was explaining that since the surgery, my dad hasn't been himself. She says he's angry and getting mad at her over really small things. The worst part is, he doesn't think there's anything wrong with him; "it's all her fault". She's devastated and he's unwilling to try & fix it. Is there any way to show him he's the one that's changed without him going to see a counselor? Also note my dad has diabetes along with other weight issues and no will power. Please email me at vanessa [dot] sutcliffe [dot] 21 @ gmail [dot] com

Benjamin J. Carey said...

Hello Vanessa,
Erratic impulses before OR after something like this are not uncommon. Without getting too much into the "relationship" aspect of your comment, I do want to say that I'm a strong advocate of keeping marriages going at any cost whatsoever unless there is abuse involved. It's disgusting today how our society goes into marriages knowing in the back of their head that they can throw in the towel whenever they want. It shouldn't be an option. Marriage is a BIG deal and when you move forward you do so knowing that you'll stick by your partner through hell or high water no matter what the case! That being said; if your dad feels that way he needs to not be a coward and use the "heart attack" as an excuse or as a catalyst to toss out his marriage. He should stick around and try and understand why it is that he feels the way he does and work things out. He's not tossing out a 13 year old car. This is a 13 year old relationship full of history, memories good and bad, feelings, and a whole lot more. Perhaps it's great that the heart attack brought out these feelings? Now he needs to deal with them like a man even if it's uncomfortable or the last thing on earth he wants to face. He's not being fair to himself or his wife if he uses the heart attack to toss out his marriage. Listen, I know first-hand that a brush with death can easily make you view life differently. You take on a whole new perspective about what's important and what's not, and many of your relationships change as a result of that. I believe in this case your dad owes it to himself and his wife to get to the root of the problem. Otherwise he'll carry this baggage with him forever. He may think that the heart attack was a blessing that prompted him to get out of an unhappy marriage, but let's face it; it #1) it takes two #2) 13 years is a long time, and #3) if he leaves he'll carry the baggage, anger, resentment, and everything else with him for the rest of his life. I'm not a big fan of shrinks or counselors, although they can be helpful. It's a personal choice. My feeling is that all the time spent in front of a shrink or anyone else is pointless unless the person is willing to do a self-inventory and take action. Most people are lazy when it comes to change, and have a hard time being objective about their own shortcomings. He can do this, but right now the main thing is that he shouldn't use the heart attack as a reason to swiftly end a 13 year marriage. He's better than that. Keep us posted!

Vanessa said...

Thank you for your kind words. If only I could explain all of this to him to get it through his thick skull. It's interesting that you point out him using the heart attack to toss out his 13 year marriage. When I was finally able to talk to him he said that their ending "has been a long time coming" as in he had this thought in his mind before the surgery. However, I still noticed that he mentioned the heart attack changed him. Ironically, instead of feeling that life was too short and that he wanted to enjoy everyone and the time he had with them, he said that he felt like he had been taken advantage of. Totally opposite of what was expected. So he removed himself from the one person who took care of him to be on his own and neglect his medicine under his own watch. I can't begin to explain how much his actions have bothered me and he thinks all of his isn't my business, though most of his choices affect me one way or another.

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