Heartened

Pasted GraphicFive years ago, on July 5, 2002, 3 weeks before my 50th birthday, I had open-heart surgery, where the blocked arteries of my heart were replaced. In medical shorthand, the procedure is called a CABGx5, which means a 5-vessel Cardio-Arterial Bypass Graft. In other words, they used pieces of vein, in my case from my leg, to reroute 5 vessels that carry the blood from my heart to feed the rest of my body. If you think about it, it’s a straightforward piece of mechanics, but of course it really is a modern miracle, the product of great advances in knowledge, skill and technology.

It surprises people when I tell them that having open heart was one of the most positive experiences of my life. But it’s true. How many of us go through an experience that takes us to the edge of death, and then, within a couple of weeks, has us back and engaged in life, physically and emotionally revitalized?

If I had lived 100 years ago, I’d almost certainly have died before my 50th birthday. Only because I had the great fortune to have resources, to live in a wealthy nation, and to live in this era, am I alive to really enjoy and be engaged in life over the last five years. That pleasure was, of course, heightened immeasurably by the just-glad-to-be-here exuberance that I still feel every day.

On this day, I think of the many people I owe great debts to:

* My physicians, Drs. Glock, Schrank and Koster, whose great skill and grave humor pulled me through.

* The Baptist Health System Jacksonville nursing staff, who cheerfully and capably goaded and guided me through my inpatient stay, rehab and home care.

* My great pal Steve Blumberg, who did much more than I was aware of to make sure all would run smoothly, which it did.

* My good friend George Lundberg MD, who called and calmed me with the facts when he heard about what was in store.

* My dear childhood friend Fannie Newman, gone now, who by serendipity called me the night before my surgery, and who, by the example of her own much greater courage, inspired me to face my fear directly and to understand that I could play an active role in my own recovery.

* Brooks and Helen Brown, who sat with Elaine during the entire surgery and provided unwavering support.

* Randy Kammer and my friends at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, who immediately jumped into the fray and expedited my care.

* My many friends, who came out of the woodwork and made me remember that life is about touching souls.

* And most of all, to my wife Elaine, who really brought me through, and whose presence then and now is the light of my life.

Here’s what I wrote in the weeks after my surgery, as I was re-emerging. I was so engrossed in the experience, I recorded it so I would never forget.

Brian

August 25, 2002

Recently I received a big surprise, open-heart surgery. For several weeks beforehand, my chest hurt and I was short of breath whenever I mowed the lawn. I procrastinated, then called my doctor.

After some tests, he became alarmed. There was a widening in the thoracic aorta, and he worried it might be an aneurysm. It was late Friday afternoon, so he sent me over to the emergency room for a CT scan. Elaine joined me for some anxious waiting, and then the discovery that it was “just” a hiatal hernia. When my doctor joined us in the ER suite, we already had the news and were in full celebration mode. I announced we were going right home to have a steak, some Rocky Road ice cream, and then we were going to fool around.

He was unimpressed. “No,” he said. “You passed the first hurdle, but we still don’t have a good explanation for the chest pains. Monday you’ll see a cardiologist, and Tuesday you’ll have a cardiac catheterization.”

“Rats,” said I. “I was counting on the Rocky Road.”

Three of my grandparents died of cardiovascular disease. A heart attack killed my maternal grandfather at 48. My mother occasionally remarked that my grandmother had murdered him with chicken fat. A month shy of my 50th birthday, it didn’t bode well.

The catheterization frightened me. But they put me under, it went off without a hitch and didn’t hurt afterwards. That said, it typically takes 15-30 minutes, and they spent an hour and a half on me.

They called Elaine in after reviewing the images. The doctor was pointed. “Your husband has serious advanced cardiac disease.” She says she did a double-take, as in “Him? The healthy guy over there?”

They woke me and the cardiologist walked over. “You have a problem,” he said. “One vessel’s completely occluded and four are more than 75%. We need to do a multiple vessel CABG.”I had an important business meeting coming up, and I protested for time. Elaine suddenly popped into my field of vision, pressed her nose next to mine, and said sweetly, firmly, filled with resolve, “Honey, you’re not going. You can put that out of your mind.” I knew I’d lost.

In recovery, the surgeon dropped by to introduce himself. He was pretty straightforward. “Look. You’ve had a load of crap dumped on you. We have to dig you out.” Charming or not, the metaphor drove the point home. I agreed.

They set me up for 3 days later, after the big holiday. As a parting shot, I asked the surgeon what would happen if I made love before the operation. He didn’t miss a beat. “You’ll likely go out in blaze of glory.”

I had a few days of anticipation. I read up on the procedure, how they’d saw my sternum in half, take a vein out of my leg, and sew me back together. They do nearly half a million of these procedures a year. The complication rate is less than 2%, lower than for tonsillectomies.

The Big Day, Elaine and I arrived at 5:30 AM for the 6:30 surgery. I undressed and they shaved me from stem to stern. This done, we had the chance for a little small talk. With nothing to do but wait, I wallowed in a little self-pity, whining aloud why I, who don’t smoke, eat a good diet and am relatively fit, am going through this. An old black nurse sidled up and gave me a pitying look, “Sometimes,” she said, “it just BE’S that way.” Elaine meant it when she said, “That’s probably the smartest person in this hospital.”

When the anesthesiologist showed up, I told him I have friends who counseled me to ask for Versed. I said, “As long as I’m here, give me the good drugs.” Elaine rolled her eyes. He smiled. Suddenly, I don’t remember anything more.

Elaine says that after the Versed but before things got rolling, I sat up on the gurney. She told me to lie down, but I said I couldn’t because I didn’t have a pillow. Then I turned to the anesthesiologist and asked whether he followed protocols. Elaine said he started laughing, and said he did. I don’t remember any of this, but I apologized later.

When I regained consciousness, one tube was down my throat and another stretched from my nose to my stomach. A clock on the opposite wall said 8:30. My hands were bound, a holdover from escape attempts a couple hours earlier. They woke me, but I struggled and tried to pull out my tubes. Later I apologized for this too. The nurses were good sports and said it happened all the time.

My bladder felt like it was going to explode. During the operation they stop your heart and transfer circulation and breathing to a machine, which infuses fluid into your system. I gained nearly 30 pounds during the operation. Elaine says I became very round, like a cartoon character.

In the confused aftermath of the surgery, I couldn’t remember whether I had a bladder catheter, even though they had told me beforehand that I’d have one. A frantic internal discussion went something like this. “WOW! I really need to go! Did they put a Foley in me? They must have. Well, I’m going to let ‘er rip!” Which I did, and guiltily felt for spreading dampness that, gratefully, never materialized. It wasn’t easy, but the relief was titanic.

In the first week after the procedure, you metabolize the fluid and urinate to beat the band. Once unhooked from the catheter – a blessed moment – you start tracking the fluid, and can’t help being impressed by the volume.

Drained and able to focus on the larger picture, I remember thinking, “I’m ALIVE!” I really meant this, and realized I honestly hadn’t expected to be here when it was done. I was exhilarated.

I turned my head to the dimming light out the window to my left and recognized the scene. This located me in space, but more importantly, convinced me that I was aware. That was comforting.

Two nurses began to bathe me, gently, firmly, and VERY thoroughly. I felt no inhibitions, and it was utterly comforting and warm. By the time they were done, I was ready to marry them.

They told me to rest. Then another woman said it would be about a half hour before they could extubate me. I nodded. This seemed like an OK idea. I could certainly be patient for a half-hour. I kept my eyes on the clock, though. About 45 minutes later they removed the tube, which makes you gag but isn’t terrible. A little after that, they withdrew the nasal-gastric tube, also an improvement but a bit of an ordeal.

In addition to the bladder catheter, I had three “fire hoses” (Elaine’s term) draining my chest, a central line (a large IV half the length of a soda straw) in my neck, and an IV in my hand. I was plumbed or, to use Elaine’s Human Resource term, “completely outsourced.”

The nurses said Elaine had waited for me to waken, but had finally gone home. She would be back first thing in the morning. I knew she’d needed the rest. I later learned that, during surgery, several friends had sat for a long while with her. One was a pal, a VP at the hospital who “just wanted to make sure that no barriers arose.” Another was a retired surgeon and his wife who knew the value of comfort. Elaine doesn’t mind being alone in circumstances like this, but I was particularly glad for these kindnesses.

Elaine arrived the next morning. Early in the afternoon, a nurse arrived with a walker and told me to get out of bed, that I was going for a walk. I looked at her and asked whether she’d been doing acid. She gave me a look that suggested she wasn’t in the mood to fool around, and that I’d better get in gear. Elaine came over and we went for a walk down the hall. Considering somebody had fiddled with my ticker the day before, we both thought this was incredible.

I remained in Cardiac ICU the next 2 days. Every half hour, the nurses took measurements, made me blow into an inspirometer, wiggle my toes, roll over. I was sore and stiff, but it wasn’t bad, and they gave me drugs to keep the pain in check. Now and then there was nausea or weakness, but all in all it was a breeze.

The 3rd day, I moved to a regular room. I had a lot of visitors, calls, books and magazines. My room looked like the Ituri Forest from the plants and flowers. I’d walk around the halls, and go a little farther and faster than the day before. I watched movies or read in the quiet times. Each evening, Elaine sent out a slightly smart-alecky report on my progress to a list of friends, and the following day would bring in highlights from the emails. (“Damn! Five vessels? VERY respectable!” or “Isn’t this going a little far to study the health care system?” or “Is there no end to your histrionics?!”) It was a gratifying outpouring of support, and it meant a lot for my spirits.

They spung me in the early afternoon of the fifth day. They wheeled me down to the pick-up circle, and I eased into the back seat. You avoid airbags after this type of surgery, just in case they deploy. Elaine somehow picked the bumpiest route and I felt every jolt, but soon we were home. We placed a chair in the shower, and she gave me a luxurious shampoo and a long wash. Then we took a nap in our own bed and realized we were finally home again, together, through it.

It’s seven weeks now since the surgery, and I’ve returned to my routine. It’s oddly satisfying to noticeably feel your strength return. I began a regimen by trudging around the block. That’s progressed to a brisk 3 mile walk every morning and, sometimes, another slightly shorter one in the evenings. Now I’ve added workouts at Cardiac Rehab.

People went out of their way. A few days after arriving home I looked out the window to see my neighbor Budd – a paunchy chain smoker – cheerfully mowing my lawn. I think the irony escaped him. “So don’t expect a card,” he said.

Elaine returned to work. Colleagues would drop by with extravagant lunches: tabouli with hummus, or homemade leek soup with tomato pasta on the side. The braver ones asked to see my incision – my “scratch” as the surgeon called it – and would ooh and aah appropriately.

There are phases. Body hair is slow to return, and it’s prickly. “Like sleeping with a porcupine,” was Elaine’s comment. Friends would join me for a walk, and I’d have to slow them down. There’s the day you drive again, scary but sweet with liberation. Or the moment you realize the day passed without a nap.

Normally I was buoyant, filled with the euphoria of still being alive. But there were intermittent blues too, when I was tired of not feeling like me. The psychological path is uphill and requires a purposefulness not always easy to sustain.

My 50th birthday arrived just short of 3 weeks after discharge. Once Elaine was out of the house and couldn’t stop me, I drove out to the Ichetucknee River, a pristine, crystal clear ribbon of fresh water coursing through the North Florida jungle. I’ve swum this river for 35 years. I slowly swam and drifted a mile and half, watching the fish and the grasses. It was the cleansing I was looking for, and I was renewed in all kinds of ways. Arriving home, inevitable as death and taxes, and just as sobering, my AARP card was waiting.

Trauma shrinks your world, narrows your view. Early in my recovery, I was utterly disinterested in news or work. Gradually, though, I returned to my upstairs office and the world expanded again. It was organic, natural, and passed almost without notice.

All in all, it would be hard to have had a better experience. It didn’t really hurt, I have a new lease on life, and I’m regaining strength daily. My family, all wonderful, stood by with a clear-eyed unwavering support. And at a time when I could really use it, I was awash in the glow of my friends’ warmth and good wishes.

Could anything be better?

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About Brian Klepper

Brian Klepper is a health care analyst, commentator and a Principal in Worksite Health Advisors.
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