What It Feels Like Immediately After Open Heart Surgery

Patient Expert

Most people who ask about open heart surgery focus on the experience itself. What was it like? When you went into the operating room, what did you see? Do you remember anything? Was it painful? Were you scared?

For me, anyway, all surgeries and other scary events follow the same pattern. When I first realize I am really going to have to do something (in this case, undergo open heart bypass surgery) I do have a period of anxiety and yes, outright fear. I steady myself by studying and researching as much as I can. I don't know how others prepare themselves for such a major event, but something interesting happens to me once I set the date. I know in my mind that it is a "done deal," and I don't allow myself any second guessing.   I move forward with preparations to handle work responsibilities, my dogs, the house, and let whatever family or friends that I want to include know my plans. On January 23, 2008 as I was wheeled into the operating room, I was ready for this show to be on the road.

My heart surgery experience was enlivened by the presence of cameras and an interviewer named Alyssa Roberts. Lifetime TV was going to videotape a story about my surgery. You can see the results on Walgreen's Health Corner web site.   I felt a little like a movie star before my surgery, but afterwards, I just felt like I'd been run over by an ice cream truck.

Once the hour and a half of prep was done in the OR, and my anesthetist put me under, I had no further knowledge of anything that happened.

The first memory I have after my surgery is opening my eyes in a very bright recovery room and looking at the clock, which I'm sure they have positioned so the patient can see. It was 11:35 and I knew that meant more than twelve hours after I had gone into the OR.   I had a pre-arranged signal for Douglas, who was at my side. He was to hold up two fingers, twice, to indicate: they were able to repair (not replace) the valve, and they were able to use the robot. He flashed the "V" sign twice, and I smiled.

Later, I would be told that I had come out of the OR at about 6 PM and apparently was moving around too much for them to wake me up, so they put me back in a deeper sleep for awhile.

Once I opened my eyes, I did what I usually do and opened my mouth to say something My nurse immediately told me I was on a ventilator. That became apparent quickly because you can't say a single thing on a ventilator. It's frustrating! It's also a bit uncomfortable and the air is a bit warm and moist.

Despite that, I did not have to struggle to breathe and it was not as scary as it had sounded. The nurses asked me to try to breathe more on my own and turned down the amount of oxygen I was getting. About an hour after I awoke, they were satisfied with my ability to breathe on my own, and they took out the tube. It was a heavenly moment!

That first night in the ICU is one of my favorite memories. You probably wonder why. I remember it was darkened in the room, with many small lights glowing, and at least one nurse coming in and out constantly. Someone was always checking on me. I learned later that everyone in ICU has his or her own private nurse. I basked in the knowledge that my big surgery was over, and I was alive, and I was not in pain, and I was grateful to be there. At about five in the morning, I was finally given some ice chips. I was never so thirsty in my life!   I was eager to pour them all in my mouth but warned to go slowly. Five minutes later, I was throwing up water. But I didn't care. More ice chips please!

For that night, at least, I was comfortable and pleased. I felt almost elated.   It never occurred to me that I was still enjoying the effects of being anesthetized.   It wasn't until the cold grey of dawn (it was raining in Los Angeles!) that I was to begin to learn the true meaning of "recovery" in the days, weeks and months following open heart surgery .  (Next week, we'll talk about my recovery.)