Lately, when something traumatic happens, I have taken to the computer and feverishly written letters, published articles, and generally made it known to whomever cared to listen. The best explanation I have is that I feel the need to be vocal about events that will forever impact my life, and to feel like those events are not being ignored. Apparently, I make no exception for my personal life, and this is my story.
This week marks the 1 year anniversary of my open heart surgery, and near death. This surgery came about in an urgent fashion last year after I experienced an event in June in which it felt as though my heart had stopped – for about 10 seconds. On November 17th, I underwent a surgical repair of my Mitral Valve and a surgical ablation, a procedure performed to strategically kill off certain parts of the heart tissue to help prevent certain arrhythmia. For unknown reasons, after the surgery my heart did not want to function, at all. I had to be shocked “half a dozen” times in order to restart my heart, and I immediately went into heart failure. My ejection fraction dropped to 20% (the ejection fraction is the percentage of blood in the heart going in the right direction, up and out into the body and a normal level is 55% and up). I was in the intensive care for a week then sent home still in heart failure, only to be readmitted to another local hospital that night due to more arrhythmia and a very rapid heart rate. I was in the hospital over Thanksgiving, and I was subjected to the most revolting Thanksgiving dinner of my life. Nonetheless, I remember thinking how fortunate I was to be alive in the hospital and not dead in the morgue.
Two weeks after the first surgery, I had to have a second surgery to have a defibrillator implanted. This was because some of the arrhythmia I have can be fatal if they are sustained, and because they had no explanation for why I did so poorly post-operatively. My doctors’ best guess was that I may have some genetic predisposition to a sudden death type scenario. They couldn’t do the implantation of the defibrillator immediately, because my heart function was so poor they didn’t think I would survive another procedure. When I finally went home, I had so many scars and holes from various procedures, tubes, and leads that my husband thought I looked like a beat up sprinkler system. I remained in heart failure for a month.
Much of my experience I would rather forget: the uncontrolled pain coupled with nausea, the refusal by one of my nurses to allow me a consult with an anesthesiologist, the drowning sensation I experienced for weeks when attempting to lie flat when fluid would back up into my airway, the stat tests that were required the morning after my surgery to determine whether I had suffered a heart attack (I had not). I keep waiting for post-traumatic stress disorder to kick in, but it still hasn’t. At times I get close to forgetting, but then I am reminded daily by this huge defibrillator tucked under my collar bone. It is roughly the size of a cell phone, and I keep wondering if the surgical team mistakenly implanted one of their cell phones in my chest. Fortunately, I haven’t needed to test out its function as of yet, and hopefully I never will. No one has attempted to call me through the device, either.
While I struggled to get my life back to normal after my surgeries, the world around me seemed to lose the stability that I apparently take for granted. Around the time I proclaimed myself a graduate of cardiac rehabilitation, I was stunned by the cardiac related death of the younger brother of a high school friend. A few months later, this friend’s best friend, and one of my very close high school friends, died. Around the same time, another close friend from high school became ill and has been hospitalized ever since, battling for his life. In September, my hometown was devastated by record level flooding, and nearly everyone I know from the town has been affected in some way.
Sometimes there is nothing like crisis to bring clarity to one’s life. This Thanksgiving, I hope that each person who reads this will take stock of the things that really matter in their lives, and remember how precious the gift of life is. I still get winded sooner than I think I should, I still have some minor swelling, and I still have (and will likely always have) arrhythmia although I feel like I have fewer than before surgery. But I laugh, and I am happy. A few months ago I celebrated my 40th birthday. Last month my little girl turned 3 and my son turned 8. They still have no solid comprehension of the drama that unfolded last year, but they know that I had surgery and that I still have a visible “owie” that they need to be wary of. I am grateful for every single moment I have with them. I am also grateful for my husband, my parents, and my siblings all of whom were exceedingly stressed out by my antics last year. I am grateful to my surgeon, Dr. Randy Kessler, and my cardiologist, Dr. Roger Damle, for their expertise, swift decision making, and persistence in continuing to fight for me and my heart.
Even if this year’s turkey dinner is burnt, the stuffing is too mushy, and the pie in unfit for consumption, I will cherish this Thanksgiving with my family as one of the best ever. Because I am here, and so are they.