Days Beyond Surgery

Ok, so I will begin and acknowledge a heavy dose of narcotics did prevent me from writing for days. Tonight, I am sitting a week away from surgery and there has been a story I wanted to tell, just haven’t found the right words. This procedure I experienced has had a major impact on my life, more so than major heart surgery seven years ago.

When I first imagined this surgery I looked at it as rather simple, an in and out of the operating room and back to my world. I even planned to return to work two days later. Much to my chagrin my doctors and family both disagreed, and suggested I take the week off. As it turns out, they were all quite right, and tonight I’m sitting a week later preparing to return to my job after the weekend. What interests me the most though is how much I took rest seriously, rather than taking it for granted and soldiering forward, a preference of mine on previous occasions.

In my head, I figured this hospitalization would be routine. So what is it about this experience that has changed my thinking? I cannot think otherwise, beyond the notion I am aging, and now more than ever I need to actively take care of my body, and my state of mind.

This summer I experienced a great deal of lows, times where I felt exhausted, and seriously wondered how I might endure the next 30 years of my life. I certainly contemplated justifying my desire to not live out those years, imagining that people would be better off, after exhausting those I am closest to with all of my trivialities, my personal demons, my neediness. Those were dark moments in my life, I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, though I know we all have had our times. I chalked it to having too much time on my hands, and figured the school year would quickly bury all that vague ambivalence I walked around with every day. There are people I am close to that helped me work through some of those personal fears, and to them I will be forever grateful.

So, now I look at aging and my second major surgery in less than ten years. I am walking away from this one realizing there is a purpose to continuing to find care with my physical needs. This event in my life was not life-threatening, beyond perhaps complications down the road if I hadn’t gone through with it. So why am I so impacted? Only one reason.  I continue to have a purpose in my life.

I received excellent care when I was in the hospital. I’m always rather embarrassed to be in the hospital. I don’t want to be defined as somatic, or having needless medical care. When I really feel that I convince myself I’m taking someone’s bed that needs it more than I do. My diagnosing Doctor told me he disagreed on Friday morning. He said there wasn’t anything somatic about an enflamed gallbladder, and I did the right thing coming in. Suffice it to say walking around with pain for the last six weeks convinced me to be seen, and rather than finding a mass in my abdomen they found something tangible. They removed it, and now I go forward. But my perception is different.

The self-persecution seems much less relevant, and the need to live my life in as positive a manner as possible is now my goal as I move forward. Like I said earlier, my experience with the medical staff was incredible. They all were filled with compassion. In fact, I encountered three of my graduated students and I looked at them and their positive energy, and I truly believe they were brought into my life for a reason.

That reason at this writing is only to suggest we have a lot more ahead of us. All of us.

Moments Before My Surgery

The many thoughts that go through my mind before surgery. Why did I walk into the ER? I wasn’t losing a leg, losing my sight, losing my mind. I’m only going through a minor procedure, though some would say it is major. I’m not asking for something to be removed that is going to thrive in the next few weeks, months, years. I’m told it will only worsen. I know now the pain I was feeling is something real, and not my imagination, though it took a couple of days in the hospital to figure that out.

I guess that is part of my dilemma. What if I don’t go in? Then I walk around thinking of some mass in my body that is only going to worsen. Some condition that goes undiagnosed. Then I believe that because I already have an identified heart condition, that shortness of breath isn’t anything to take for granted. Then I wonder what would it be like if I lived in a society where I didn’t have nearly the medical benefits I have in my own world today? Would I just have to tough it out? Yes, unfortunately there are worlds where my conditions would not be resolved and my longevity as a human being would be shortened. 

So maybe that is the biggest question. What is our responsibility when given chances to maintain or extend our lives because of medical prowess. Shouldn’t we just let ourselves be in God’s hands? There are many factors that preclude that natural outcome with our mortality. Think of the things we lose when we are taken ‘before our time.’ We each have those bucket lists that apply to our own lives. We then are often brought to mind those that take their lives in their own regard rather than through the natural course of the human condition. So many factors are evident.

Today, minutes away from surgery, I wonder how important it really is. I am told the organ being removed is no longer functional and that it is not a dire loss to my body chemistry. Though there is a healing process, adjustments and recovery, and a somewhat lifestyle change. 

I guess my quick conclusion before I am drugged into anesthesia is that there is a purpose in maintaining our health, if the tools and devices are there and readied for our welfare. I suppose it gives us opportunity to again look at the bigger picture and understand theses choices are meant not to be in our own hands.

What I have ahead of me is a minor surgery in the greater scheme of things, but yet still a learning moment I cannot pretend is non-existent. 

Day Two – I want to take a walk

I awoke around 7 AM, after sleeping for about 45 minutes. Throughout the night I was basically in managed care, regulating my pain meds, and watching my heart rhythm on a regular basis, with monitors that beeped repeatedly all night. For me sleep was the ability to rest for 20 minutes at a time without moving around in order to keep the chest tubes in place to maintain steady drainage of fluid from the surgery. For the next two or three days, I chose not to look at my chest for fear of what I was about to see. I knew there had been some major adjustments, and I was just happy to leave things as is for a day or two.

I did wake up thinking about my family though. The nurse had told me our morning goal would be to get out of bed and sit in a chair. There would be no walking today – I would remain hooked up to a catheter for the next 72 hours. I was pretty impressed with that aspect of my care though. I thought not having to walk to the bathroom to pass urine was sort of a cool thing, I could get used to that. The things we find acceptable when recovering from a major surgery. So my next adventure began when the nurse came in and asked if I wanted to sit up for awhile.

Remarkably I got out of bed with assistance and while the tubes and wires were guided around me, sat down in a chair and immediately picked up the telephone. I called home and Sue answered, and I just wanted to assure her and the kids I was in a lot better shape than the night before, and actually felt pretty comfortable for the time being. Sue was relieved, and I was happy the kids would be relieved as well. The medical staff told me I looked pretty remarkable for the morning after surgery. I smiled inside and felt satisfied knowing I was still hooked up to a morphine drip. I think I was probably out of bed for about fifteen minutes when I realized it was time to take a nap. I grabbed my spirometer and drew a few breaths. The object was to get the meter to rise to the top in order to exercise my lungs. They had been collapsed during the surgery and needed to virtually be brought back to life. I drew back and blew out and reached about 65 to 70 percent before the chest pain took me aside. That was pretty good effort for the first day. I would top off at 100 percent by the end of that second day of recovery, but there would be additional moments where I couldn’t get the meter past 60 percent. Recovery would take time, and I couldn’t rush things. When I asked if I could take a walk, my assigned physical therapist said sure, I could walk from the chair to my bed, that was it for today. I set my sights on the morning, and was sleeping like a baby by around 8 AM.

One thing to remember is that while in a hospital the idea of sleeping for long periods of time was impossible. However, if I could sleep for 20 minutes without shifting the tubes in my chest, the act of which caused excruciating pain, I was pretty happy. If I moved wrong, one has to just imagine having a garden hose sticking into a fresh wound and every time you move, the sheath of the hose might readjust itself with your bare and raw skin. Good times.

Day One – an unexpected chapter

I was prepped for surgery around 8:30AM, having arrived at the hospital at 8 AM. Gradually throughout the morning, I was given different lines – IV’s for fluid, pain medications, and finally around 10:30 AM I was fitted with a central line in my jugular. By mid-morning, I was pretty well a showcase for a patient fully encompassed in surgical preparation. I remember the nurse checking in with us at around noon, and she said to us – Libby, Alex & Sue – that they were cleaning up the OR and I would be moving in soon. I remember looking at the clock in the room and it was around 12:20 PM.

I awoke to a voice that kept saying repeatedly, “Just try to breathe, try to breathe,” repeatedly as I suddenly felt an immeasurable pain in my chest that I could only imagine someone had ripped apart my sternum.  Though it had been done methodically at the hands of one of the finest cardio surgeons in the game, Dr. Timothy Kroshus. Apparently he had been successful because I was waking up. Around six hours had flown by since that last moment of glancing at the clock in the prep room. I could see Sue standing nearby, the kids in the background, as I was surrounded by medical staff, reading monitors while talking with one another, while holding me down so I wouldn’t seizure right out of the hospital bed with the excruciating pain. I kept hearing “breathe” as I tried to suck air, and heard myself finally utter the words, “I just want to breathe!”

The next two or three hours were dedicated to stabilizing this 53 year old heart patient. The process meant hands on my shoulders holding me down, with repeated assurances that everything was ok and that I was in the post-operative phase after having open heart surgery, and did I know my name. I’m pretty sure I got it right because they continued to work on me rather than run away in fear of misidentifying their patient. Sometime in those early moments Sue came up to the bed and held my hand, and I whispered to her that I didn’t feel like I was up to having any additional visitors tonight. I was feeling absurdly wracked with horrendous pain, and mildly embarrassed that I was letting any visitors down by sending them home. I soon got over it as the next wave of pain shut me down, and the nurse gave me morphine to settle my nerves, head, limbs for the next fifteen or twenty minutes. The course of the night followed that pattern throughout the next six hours. At one time two nurses came into my room and told me they were going to shift my position in the bed. Please understand, that the pain was so severe, I thought if I moved I would literally split apart. However, the moment occurred and when they lifted me off the bed, I suddenly felt instant bliss, suspended in air. I realized later that the actual action of lifting me was naturally pulling my chest together, recalling that my chest had been surgically split apart 10 hours earlier.

I was now in the hands of a night nurse, who monitored my initial recovery with precision and care, giving me pain meds on a regular basis. Finally, around 3 AM I seemed to take a turn for the better, and the medication began to feel regulated. I could actually request a medication after being asked what the severity of pain was. “What is your pain, between 1 and 10?” I said “10” without consequence. By around 5 or 6 AM I was able to say, ” Well maybe, 8 or 9.” That level remained consistent over the next 24 hours.