The Triumphs and Pitfalls of Recovery after Open Heart Surgery

Patient Expert

The first few weeks after I got home from the hospital after having open heart surgery were actually pleasant.   The post-surgery euphoria, which so many of us enjoy after a stressful stay in the hospital, was helping me along. I was relieved to have the surgery behind me.

I was busy, too, busy with just getting well. There was, to start with, the business with the medications. There were plenty of them They required careful attention and had to be taken on time.   Three times a day we sat down at the kitchen table and lined up the pills, checked off the pills, and then I took the pills. I was on many medications, including beta blockers, heart rhythm meds, coumadin, diuretics, and pain medication as needed. The worst of all of them was the potassium. Anyone who has taken potassium knows they are large, they are difficult to swallow, and if you break them they are almost worse as you can taste them and they scratch your throat on the way down.

Between all the pills, there was a pleasant routine that developed. At first, I had trouble getting out of bed on my own so I required help, but later, I could get up, wash, brush my teeth and hair and come out to the kitchen to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee and a light breakfast. Later, I watched my "morning shows" and after lunch, I would rest and catch a movie or a soap opera.

I would read, walk around the patio and down the street a bit, and enjoy my dogs or take a phone call or two (I still did not have a lot of strength due to the incision in my right chest wall, so I sounded a bit squeaky.) Flowers and cards would arrive, which made me feel cared for and  very special.

Dinner was in front of the TV and later, I would get on the laptop in my bedroom with my dogs around. This is when I began to develop the bad habit of staying up quite late and treating myself to graham crackers and apple juice, or even unhealthier snacks, which did nothing to keep my waistline slim.

This routine was comforting but was doing little to speed my return to the "real world," and I had a business to run. I began walking more frequently and for longer periods, especially when the physical therapist came. Because of my robotic surgery,I  was able to drive within two weeks of returning home.   I actually went to the grocery store and drug store with a friend and no one could believe I had just had open heart surgery.

My post-surgical depression began to set in about a month after I was home. It was during that period where you can't really lie around on the couch or bed anymore and convince yourself you're still too weak to do anything (called "babying yourself" and everyone needs to do some of that) and the realization that you're not well enough to jump back into your life with both feet. You're sort of caught in the middle, you don't seem to be making much progress, and you might even take a few steps backward.   The anesthesia is still in your system and so are all the medications.

It was during this limbo period that I began thinking about what had happened to me and wondering why.   I also noted a certain "flatness" that pervaded my activities. Nothing I was doing on a daily basis seemed very important, compared to the literal life and death experience I had been through.   I began to question what my work was worth, the quality of my relationships, the direction I was taking, even the meaning of my life.   I wasn't satisfied with any of the answers I was giving myself. I began to feel negative and to worry about what life was going to be like now, and where I would go from here.

I didn't know it, but post-surgical depression is extremely common especially after heart surgery. And I had many of the tell tale symptoms. I wasn't sleeping very well,   I was eating more sugar and snacks and not exercising the way I had in the first weeks.   I felt generally sad, and could easily burst into tears at a movie, at a thought, a remark, or for no apparent reason at all. In fact, I cried more in the six-month period following my surgery than I had in years.   I was focusing more on my surgery than I was on my life.

I finally reached a point where I knew I needed some help, and I embarked on a plan to help myself feel better. Next week, I'll talk  about what I did and what you can do to feel better, deal with your  depression, and get  on with your life.