10 things you need to know before surgery and during the hospital stay

by Winston F. Mitchell

I’m a 53 year-old male with no history of hypertension, no cholesterol problems and glucose count normal.

I was overweight but still in great physical shape. But over a period of weeks, walking to work, I started experiencing a shortness of breath.  Finally I went to my doctor, he informed me he was going to admit me to the hospital immediately because a heart attack was imminent.  Let’s say, I was a little more in disbelief when he informed me I had to have open heart surgery the next day.

I had a stress test just two months before, on the treadmill, radioactive dye, an echocardiogram, and blood tests.  The tests showed no problems.  But with no choice in the matter, I went through the 10 hour quadruple bi-pass surgery and a repair of my Mitral valve. Open heart surgery is a test of one’s faith in and of itself.  Your chest is cut open, ribs are pulled apart and the heart is stopped so that surgeons can work on it.

I had just survived the most dramatic surgery one can have and after six weeks, feeling like a new man, I returned to work.  I took it easy.  As a television producer, I delegated plenty of authority to others.  Now mostly healed, I stayed on the track to recovery with diet, walking and doing for myself.

But on the seventh week, the unthinkable happened.  The Mitral valve repaired from the first surgery did not hold and it needed to be replaced.  That translated to having another open heart surgery. The analogy I was given was: Say you have an older car and in 15 years it never had a tune-up or oil change.  Then your car gets an oil change and a tune-up.  The engine now goes from running at 40% to 90%.  I can bet you within weeks your engine gaskets will blow.  The old gaskets cannot take the new engine pressure.  Well, that is the analogy of what had happened to my heart.  I now have an On-X Prosthetic Heart Valve that ticks like the second hand of watch.

So what have I learned after back to back open heart surgery?  There are some things the doctors often don’t tell you before, during or after the surgery.  Here are my 10 things you need to know before surgery, during the hospital stay and during home recovery.

Before surgery

1. I shaved the hair off my arms, stomach, back, and chest.  If you are hairy like me avoid the pain of the nurse pulling off EKG leads and surgical tape.  Pulling the hair off with the EKG leads and tape can be as painful as having a needle so shave your hair.

2. Plan on the help of others, a family member or friend will be needed that first day and a few days following.  I did need help to get readjusted to my home environment.  Many activities like cooking, cleaning, showering, laundry, even getting off the bed and grocery shopping were taxing.  Try to have your home cleaned, stocked with food, and pillows laid out ahead of time.

3. If you can reserve a private room in the recovery ward, get one.  I did!  There is more than just getting over the surgery; it’s about your mental and physical state.  You will need some private time to work on your mental well-being.  You may want some privacy so you can speak freely with your visitors about your feelings.  Most importantly, you will need your own space.

Hospital stay

4. The amount of pain you will feel because your body has been cut wide open is unimaginable.  The first few days you will have tubes coming out of you and feel like someone is sitting on your chest.  The tubes don’t hurt they are just uncomfortable.  When the time comes for the doctor to pull out the tubes, just relax and breathe, it looks more painful than it really is.

5. The hospital staff will offer pain killers; take them!  This was my first surgery ever.  Still feeling pain while on the pain killers, I did not care to experience even more pain and discomfort that would have come without the pills.  This is not the time to man-up but to allow your body to have reduced stress, for me, I took as many pain killers as the hospital staff would allow.

6. Your scar tissue and stitches will pull on your chest, but you must expand and stick out your chest to spread the stitches.  The suturing and skin must heal stretched so you can breathe with little discomfort to your chest, you don’t want a tight chest.  Also, your RN will give you a breath-intake instrument, use it! Try to exercise your lungs several times a day.

7. While in the hospital, don’t expect to get any real rest, but knowing that can help reduce the stress.  The nurses will take your blood twice a day, take your blood pressure four times a day and X-ray you at odd times.  So don’t expect to get a lot of sleep, because they will also poke and probe you day and night.  Just keep remembering they are checking to make sure you are recovering properly before they send you home.

Home recovery

8. A side effect of taking so many drugs is constipation.  I went too many days without a bowel movement. Let’s just say when the time came it took hours to pass a few midsize bowling balls that brought me to my knees.  My trick to expediting a bowel movement was first to sit in a tub of very warm water, until my anus relaxed (hot towels between the buttocks also works).  Second, spread the Vaseline onto the suppository capsules. Third, hot towels between the Perinea until you’re relaxed and ready; it will happen in about 15-20 minutes.

9. Your ribs will feel sore, especially having been bent back during the surgery and so will the stitches under the skin.  I had soreness and tightness in my chest for several weeks after the surgery.  Layers of skin and tissue were cut, that tingling sensation I felt were the chest suturing and nerves healing back together.

10. And now the big question – what do I hear during sex?  Yes it ticks a little faster, sounds a little louder, but I did not run out of air, lasted a little longer and I did not break a sweat.  Your ticking heart is also a great conversation starter, so use it.  You’re stuck with a ticking/clicking heart valve so you might as well enjoy it, be one with it and think of some good one-liners when someone says something about it.  Last and most important every tick assures me I’m alive.

Winston F. Mitchell is a television news producer.

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