Recovering from Open Heart Surgery

Leslie Lafayette Health Guide
  • In the last few weeks, I've been sharing my experience of undergoing mitral valve repair surgery. I've talked about making the decision, finding the surgeon, undergoing the surgery itself, and experiences in the hospital.  In this post , I'd like to address the true nature of recovery.


    What does recovery really mean?


    To begin, there is a difference between recuperation, which is the process of resting and gaining back your strength, health and equilibrium,  and recovery, which is by definition,"recovering" what you have lost with your illness, becoming "well" and being completely over it and ready to move on.

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    No question is asked more frequently than "How long did it take you to recover?" Most people who face any kind of surgery or illness want to know one thing: how long will it be until I'm myself again?  We don't want to consider the possibility that we'll be anything but perfectly well and we want those results now.


    Perhaps that's why the name "patient" was coined for someone who suffers illness and must go through treatment and a recovery period!


    I can only use the word "joy" to describe what most patients feel at that moment when the hospital doors swing open and they are headed outside, ready to go home. There is nothing like that first breath of "real" outdoor air, the knowledge that you are well enough to leave, the hope and gratitude that fill your heart when you step into the car and face forward, leaving the days of surgery, treatments, noisy hospital corridors, doctors and nurses, and often, unpalatable hospital food behind you.


    You can feel overwhelmed with emotion, as I did when I happily walked back into my own home, greeted my loving dogs, looked around at my living room and garden outside, and realized it was really behind me, that I had weathered a very serious surgery and come through.  But later, once you are home for a day or two and have relished the happiness of resting on your own bed, comes the moment of reckoning. 


    You are not completely well, you are not recovered, you have a journey ahead of you, and for many it can be daunting.


    Open heart surgery is one of the most grueling and demanding surgeries your body can undergo. Even though I was lucky to have had the Da Vinci robot to minimize my incision, I still had my heart stopped, cut into, and repaired. I had a hole in my heart patched. I remained on the heart-lung bypass machine for nearly two hours. My body was assaulted with dozens of drugs for anesthesia and pain relief. I spent 5 days in bed with short walks around the hospital floor, and I endured atrial fibrillation, blood transfusions, needle pokes at any hour and several times a day,ice cold xrays, echocardiograms... and even the dreaded warm prune juice and milk of magnesia cocktail.


    The first thing you must understand about your journey after surgery is that substances used for anesthesia and pain do not leave your body for a long time. Some estimates put it at six months before the full effects of the medications used are eliminated by your hard working system, which is busy trying to heal you and to right itself. In addition, you will probably remain on a number of medications from the hospital, which will gradually be weaned.


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    If your surgery has been sufficiently serious, if you have continuing issues with blood pressure or blood sugar, if you are on a blood thinner such as Coumadin as I was, you will probably be assigned a home nurse, who may come daily, or a couple of times a week. Mine came on Tuesdays and Fridays for three weeks, and took my blood for INR (Coumadin ratio should be between 2-3). She would listen to my heart, take my temperature and blood pressure, and ask how I was feeling.


    I also had a physical therapist who visited twice weekly to begin the process of helping me stretch the muscles around the incision site, use the right arm, and walk with him down the block and back.  He gave me special exercises to do in between his visits, which I admit I did sometimes, but not enough.


    I thought I was going along just fine, and then, as it often does, my recovery took something of a detour.  Next week, we'll talk about dealing with your family, who wonder how long you're going to be underfoot...and your friends, your own expectations. We'll explore how to find support. What is it like getting out in public,driving, managing anxiety and worries,  and the worst enemy of your recovery: post operative depression.



Published On: June 20, 2011