Looking back a year later from Open Heart Surgery, life teaches you a few things. Trent shares 10 things he’s learned after having open heart surgery.
I lie on the table, watching the ceiling above pulse and oscillate, yet feeling calm thanks to a specific dose of anesthesia.
I’m not at all worried.
I have a great doctor and this is an exploratory cardiac catheterization.
I’ve lived 46 years with zero medical issues and had only one simple surgery on my knee back in high school. Though a bit overweight, I was in pretty decent shape for a tall and large-framed middle-ager. Or so I thought.
A month prior, I was walking the neighborhood with my wife.
She’s a fast walker and it’s great exercise just keeping up with her.
I own an exterior painting business working through the hot summers and I ride a mountain bike. I play the drums. While I always felt great, this hill in the neighborhood made me question my near-perfect health record.
As my wife and I crested this hill, I felt a slight burn behind my sternum I’d never felt before. This mild “symptom” was easy to brush off because it went away quickly once we were walking the flat ground.
Was it even real? Had I eaten something spicy?
We had just gotten over a second bout with mild Covid, surely this was some leftover burning in the lungs, or perhaps just a cramp similar to a side stitch. To test that theory, we made another loop up the hill.
As Elton John might put it, the stitch is back.
It was a year and a half into the Covid-19 pandemic when my household first faced the Delta strain in the summer of 2021.
As someone who never worried about getting seriously ill or suffering, hearing the horrible stories of people struggling to breathe and needing machine assistance was frightening. However, it still seemed like something that happened to other people.
There were some rough moments over those two very long weeks of illness and recovery, but we all came through, thankfully. This only reinforced my false bravado, but something had changed.
I was not the same as before Covid.
There were some lingering symptoms that caused my mind to consider that perhaps something was wrong. While the physical pangs were real, the mental toll was proving slightly worse. We were not only attacked by a microscopic pathogen, but a society that splattered fear and confusing data all over us. I told myself that was feeding my concerns and I’m just overreacting.
Yet, there was a new rhythm to my heart that was unnerving.
Premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) was the diagnosis after meeting with a doctor and wearing a couple of Holter heart monitors. The clinical definition of a PVC is “extra heartbeats that begin in one of the heart’s two lower ventricles, sometimes causing a sensation of a fluttering or skipped beat in the chest.”
My definition is slightly different: the sensation that your heart is in trouble, that you’re probably going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Mind you, it’s not necessarily painful to have a PVC, but there is a rush of energy in the chest and a sense of unease that is strong enough to desire never to have one again. And though benign, they occur multiple times a day, every day.
This was not the symptom I was feeling going up the hill that August day in 2022, but having experienced PVCs for a full year between Covid infections, the burn that I felt was one more reason to go get a more in-depth check up.
As they say, let’s rule everything out and get peace of mind. That’s supposed to be a comforting thought, but for me, there would be no peace of mind.
After completing what seemed like a successful stress test, my son and I were preparing a customer’s house to paint. My cardiologist called said there was something in the results from the stress test he didn’t like and ordered an exploratory heart cath.
That sounded like overkill in my opinion. However, the cath would be the surest way forward to leave no unanswered questions, he assured me.
There was a problem, though: he would have to push the catheter through an artery in my wrist which would mean I couldn’t use my arm for a week as it’s imperative to allow time for the artery to heal.
I protested, lobbing up the excuse that it’s probably my lungs from Covid and suggested I rule that out first. After all, I was literally standing in my customers front yard ready to paint and would be embarrassed to pack up and leave.
He insisted the heart was too important to ignore any longer. He has a way with words… and we packed up the van to go home.
Just a few days later, I lay on the procedure table getting the cath done. While watching the ceiling undulate in a state of conscious sedation, I felt a hand grab my shoulder and heard my doctor declare in a strangely loving way, “It’s by God’s grace you’re lying on my table today!”
He had found three major blockages in my arteries and ordered me to have coronary arterial bypass graft surgery as soon as possible.
This was a devastating discovery.
Surely I had heard him incorrectly in my drunken state. I remember sheepishly asking him, “Do you mean they have to open me up?” And with an almost strange glee in his voice he said, “Yes!” He was as surprised as me to find 90% blockages in multiple arteries, but also elated that it was caught before something more serious happened.
Going into that procedure, I had surmised that the worst possibility was that he would deploy a stint, something both my brother and brother-in-law had gone through at that time.
Again, I was confident in my 46 years of near-invincibility. Oh, but how humbling it was to be rolled back to the hospital room where my loving wife was anxiously awaiting the “good” news that she, too, was sure I had received.
She tells me the look on my face said it all.
Our lives completely changed that day, but it wasn’t all bad!
As I write this, it’s been one year since my bypass surgery. I’m back to feeling great again, yet with a more cautiously optimistic outlook. I am the healthiest I’ve ever been and I’m even more active than before.
And since I’ve reached this milestone of a “heartiversary,” I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned and how my thinking has changed after dealing with an unexpected, life-changing event.
I’m far from an expert in these matters and I know there are those whose outcomes may not be as positive.
However, I think we all share similar fears when it comes to our health and I hope this can be food for thought for anyone who has had to, or may face, something like this.
10 Things I Learned After Open Heart Surgery
1. LOOKING DEATH IN THE FACE
It’s really strange to face death before you are ready.
I mean, we all know we’re going to die, but you just don’t think it’s coming for you for a long time.
Not only did my doctor say I probably wouldn’t have made it to 50 had I ignored that slight burn, but I could’ve died during surgery, as they stop your heart and hook you to a machine that breathes for you.
A friend who was eight years out from his bypass surgery shared something with me that he told himself as he faced the reaper.
I’m either going to wake up and see the face of Jesus, or my wife’s face.
It’s really a win-win for the patient, not so much for the wife!
Yet, it gave me something to hold onto as I was wheeled away from her on surgery day.
2. REALIZING YOU DON’T SUFFER ALONE
As a patient, we are whisked away and given the “good drugs” while our loved ones wait in anguish for hours for an answer.
My wife also went through open heart surgery.
Though she doesn’t bear the physical scars, the weight she had to carry was quite a burden.
She needed time to recover, too. I don’t think spouse’s get enough credit as caregivers.
3. IT TAKES TIME TO REGAIN TRUST IN YOUR BODY
This may be the scariest thing I learned after open heart surgery.
I think about death all the time now.
It’s a reality. It’s going to happen to me.
Just not yet; and living in that “not yet” is difficult.
Over the course of this last year, though, I have a better handle on my thoughts than I did just months after surgery. What I’ve come to understand is that it’s going to take time for me to trust my body again – to trust my heart again – like I have the last four decades.
I’m hopeful that as more years pass and I discover my heart continues to function well, I will feel more confident in its abilities.
However, the knowledge that any day it could stop functioning is never going away. On this side of things, I don’t really think I want to go back to my pre-surgery self – that life of blissful ignorance.
It’s better to know the dangers that are out there so you’re not caught off guard.
4. STOP THINKING “THAT’LL NEVER HAPPEN TO ME”
Despite some of the discomfort I’ve described, I didn’t feel that bad before the surgery.
And that’s the scary part: death was hurtling toward me faster than I was aware.
I’ve stopped saying, “That’ll never happen to me. That happens to other people.”
I don’t have that luxury anymore.
Stop ignoring even mild symptoms and go get answers.
You have to be your own advocate for your health. My previous doctors acted blasé about my “slightly” high cholesterol numbers I exhibited since college. They assured me I was young and healthy otherwise so not to worry.
I placed all my trust in their expertise, but they don’t always get it right.
It might happen to you, so go get checked out!
5. STOP FINDING SECURITY IN EMPTY PLATITUDES
Stay calm. Relax. All is well.
Every little thing is gonna be alright, the song states.
None of that means as much to me anymore.
It’s a vain attempt at security; a mantra we trick ourselves into believing.
Don’t get me wrong, keeping calm is a good thing and we often need reassurance that every thing is going to be ok, but I’m no longer able to hold tightly to such innocence.
Everything may not be ok and that’s… okay. Everything may not be okay right now… but it might be, or… it might not.
We will just have to learn to live in that tension.
6. YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL
We are creatures that crave control.
Facing the unexpected reminds you that you have no control, and that’s a gut punch of reality.
It’s another delusion we live under.
I believe there’s a balance, here, though: in one sense, the idea of taking control of your health is important.
But you must face the facts that even if you do everything right, you can’t control the eventual outcome.
7. FEED YOUR BODY NUTRITIOUS FOOD
I would like to go back and warn my old self that whatever I was eating was not worth what was coming down the road.
Food was an idol for me.
I used to brag that I didn’t drink or smoke and then laud myself that “food is my drug of choice.”
As if that’s a good thing!
Meanwhile, I ate everything in front of me, especially if it was soaked in barbecue sauce or fried.
Oh, the arrogance of thinking that kind of food wasn’t killing me.
Even though I knew better, I ignored the prompting to stop because of my bloodlust for tasty things.
But do you know what?
Real, whole foods, the way God intended them, is a taste I never knew existed. Not only are the flavors delightful, so is the color on the plate. And now, I no longer worry that it’s slowly killing me.
I still think about food, a lot, but it’s to nourish my body, not simply to tantalize my taste buds.
8. EXERCISE LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT
One of the positive outcomes from this situation has been how it has affected the lifestyles of my wife and two sons.
The menu has changed in our house dramatically and instead of protesters, we have all become participants!
Not only do we eat for good health, but we also exercise like our life depends on it, because it does!
My oldest headed down the same unhealthy path as I walked and this surgery changed that for him.
We now live by his mantra: “If I don’t exercise, I’ll die.”
Harsh, but true.
9. CARPE DIEM – SIEZE THE DAY
Another life lesson I’ve learned through this is to stop putting things off.
The night before surgery was really tough. I went out to eat with my immediate family.
I remember wondering if this was going to be the last time I saw them.
My youngest son embraced me later that evening before going to bed for the longest time without saying a word.
All I could think about is, did I teach him well? Did we spend enough time together? Did we make lasting memories? Was I a good dad?
The thoughts were painful, but from the moment I woke up from surgery, realizing I had made it, I knew from then on I was going to make the most out of my remaining days.
I hate to admit it, but Tim McGraw’s song, “Live Like You Were Dying,” was on repeat in my head.
(Sorry, Tim, I’m not allowed to get bbq stains on my white t-shirts anymore. If you know, you know.)
10. AVOID BS AND THE PEOPLE THAT SLING IT
When you go through a life-changing event, you meet others who have gone through the same or similar things.
It’s great therapy as you can receive and share insights.
Someone recently dropped a truth bomb about the aftermath of facing the possibility of death: you lose the ability to tolerate BS.
It’s so true.
When you finally realize how precious life and time is, you just can’t imagine wasting another second of it suffering fools.
Seek and find your people, the right church, a new hobby.
Maybe take some time away from politics and arguments.
Go be creative. Walk and then walk some more. Be intimate with your thoughts and dreams.
Do the thing!
We can’t get all of this right and BS hides around every corner, but do all you can to minimize it.
I know there will be more life lessons to learn from all of this.
I’m still learning to live in the tension of the “not yet.”
I’m just grateful to still be here with my wife and sons.
And I’m thankful to Christ that He is in control.
I’m excited for what lies ahead for my family and I’m glad this has changed my family for the better.
I need reminders every day of all this because somehow our blessings are easy to forget.
But like Nacho Libre says, “Get that corn outta my face!”
Erm, I mean, “Life is goooood!”
I hope these things I learned after open heart surgery is helpful for you if you are facing this same journey.
Please comment or reach out if you need encouragement. We are happy to help!