On My Heart (A Series)… Post Surgery


Spoiler Alert! I survived my surgery.

Eight days ago, I had what was supposed to be a double heart valve replacement surgery. The good news is that once the aortic valve was repaired, the mitral started behaving as it should in a last ditch effort to be compliant and save itself. It worked; my original mitral valve beats obediently inside my chest beside the new aortic valve from a cow donor. Turns out, the prescription is actually LESS cow valve. Ba dum bump.

If someone offered me a million, no FIVE million dollars to do it again, I’d tell them to keep their money.

I awoke in ICU with a ventilator and people telling me loudly to wake up. My surgeon was there. They had told me I would remember absolutely nothing of day one, and not much of day two. I remember more than what I care to from both days. The most powerful memory was terror (pain would make its appearance another day). I could not move my arms, I could not speak. While the ventilator breathed for me, I felt I was suffocating.

My thirst was unbearable. I wanted only two things water and the use of my arms. OK, three things. I also wanted them to stop telling me to stay awake. In sleep was where the peace was. Awake hosted chaos and panic. Piglet (my little sister) and Charles tried to combat my dry mouth with liberal applications of lip balm and sponge water swabs. I drifted in and out of sleep with nightmares of monsters and people with weird limbs (mops for feet for example). In one dream, my own mother stood naked before me and started pulling parts from her own body to give me like she was giving away plants. Do you want a cutting from this arm? Sure, Mom, I’ll put it next to the forsythia.

There were many announcements that they were going to wean me off the ventilator, and the same number of announcements that they had failed. Though the head ICU nurse looked like a real life Barbie, she was fierce and knew her job. She told me to breathe like the ventilator was not there. I had no idea how to do that. The word “failure” hung around the room like cobwebs. This was terrifying, because of all the people I have known on ventilators, I cannot remember a single one who ever lived to tell the tale. Their lives all ended when the ventilator was finally turned off. I worried my fate would be the same.

Charles had come up with a way for us to communicate; he wrote out the alphabet on a piece of paper. I would point out each letter until he could guess the word. He got very good at guessing which words came next and could usually complete my sentences – kind of the way we do it outside of this nightmare. I pointed to the letters AM I GOING TO LIVE. He paused for just a second before giving me the perfect response, “If we were concerned about that, your kids would standing beside me right now.” He was right about that and it calmed my spirit. A few days later we laughed that this would have been the perfect moment for the kids to make one of their famous surprise visits. Yikes!

After what seemed like the 10th attempt to remove me from the ventilator, or it could have been only the second – morphine has a way of distorting all kinds of things – Charles was giving me a pep talk. He said they were going to try again soon and he needed me to stay awake and breathe on my own. His voice sounded desperate. From the direction of the door I hear, “Hello, I’m the hospital chaplain, can we talk?” Well, hello panic, come on in.

But they were finally successful in getting me to breathe on my own, and the ventilator was fully removed. I was restricted from speaking for two more hours, and I could still only have the mouth swabs for my thirst, but it was an improvement. A few more hours later, and I was crunching on ice chips like they were the most magical thing ever invented. I prayed the world never ran out of ice chips. Within the next couple of days, fluid was drained from my chest through a tap, tubes were removed, oh, and pain showed up in the form of an elephant sitting on my chest. Survival was becoming more and more a reality, but it had to compete with fluid retention first.

I moved from ICU to a regular room five days later, where I bang out this blog and wait for the pulmonary doctor to show up.

More later. Thank you for reading, praying, and playing along.

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