Today marks two calendar months since I had quadruple coronary bypass surgery. It has been an amazing journey. I am almost "normal" now, though who really wants to be normal, anyway? ;-)
Things I can do now that were difficult or ill-advised earlier in my recovery:
Sleep without pain medication, and sleep on either side (sleeping on my stomach is still uncomfortable).
Get into and out of bed without pain (I no longer lie in bed at night, debating with myself whether or not I can wait a few more minutes to go to the bathroom).
DRIVE! My heart surgeon kept me away from my wheels for a little over six weeks. Though I had argued that a three-week hiatus was enough, I will now admit that normal driving motions did hurt a bit at first, so it’s possible that he was right. I plan to relish the freedom of driving for the next two or three decades; because I know that if I live long enough, there will come a time when some doctor or my children will take the keys away again.
Work a normal day, which for me is usually 10 hours or more. I began answering office phones on roll-over about a week and a half after surgery, and I increased time at the office until I'm back to fulltime. Though going out to show property is still physically taxing, I can function as a Realtor, if I limit the number of houses I show in a day. The weather is a factor, of course, in how much I can tolerate.
Get dressed in normal clothes. Even Victoria's Secret does not make a heart-surgery friendly bra, and most necklines on women's clothes swoop low enough to reveal the scar starting just below my collarbone. I’ve decided that always trying to hide my scar is not really necessary. I have decided not to spend my life in turtlenecks like a teenager trying to hide a hickey.
Anyone who notices my scar either already knows that I had heart surgery or maybe needs to know more about women’s weird heart symptoms. If they stare, I explain. It's a little flattering when folks say things like, "But you don't look like a heart patient" or "Aren't you too young for heart trouble?" Both of those statements, however, present an opportunity for that person to re-think their preconceived notions about women and heart health.
Cough without also cringing uncontrollably. If I start coughing, it really helps to have someone hug me tightly. Sneezing is still a problem, and hiccups are just plain unwelcomed!
Exercise without being forced to do so. I have been in cardiac rehabilitation now for three weeks, and I am learning to make exercise a habit. I’m sure that is part of the nefarious plan behind cardiac rehab.
Eat normally while still taking my health into account. At first, just thinking about many common foods made me nauseous; and I became a picky eater, having trouble deciding what to eat even when I was hungry. Though I am still careful about what and how much I eat, I’m no longer the “difficult” family member. I am losing a little weight, and that is heart healthy, for sure. I did not gain an ounce during our very strange Thanksgiving, and I plan to make it through what I hope will be a much less strange Christmas without gaining weight. I already had normal cholesterol and trigliceride levels, but I now have to do better. My blood sugar level, while under control, also needs to be better now.
I am settling down into a new normal, and I have almost no pain (twinges, mostly). Twinges can actually be good, because they remind me that life is precious—and I walked right out on the edge just a few, short weeks ago.
My story (for people who have not already heard it):
I want to repeat what I have promised myself I will do often as a public service to women everywhere: If you know something is wrong, trust your own instincts. Not until my fourth trip to the emergency room did a doctor actually realize that I was having heart trouble.
In the last few years, I have had cardiac workups including ultrasounds, Thallium stress test, Holter monitoring, EKGs galore, asthma screening, and all sorts of digestive testing to try and diagnose my pain. All of those tests concluded that my heart was fine. I was disgusted with the whole process and almost talked myself out of going to the hospital that fourth time. It turned out that I had four serious blockages, one of which was a 100% blockage that should have killed me and would have if I had not also developed collateral circulation over the years—YEARS during which I had heart trouble that went undiagnosed. The other blockages were 90%, 80% and 60%.
My first symptom was a gripping sensation in my throat, so severe that I thought I might choke. That went on sporadically for years, and I sought medical attention during three trips to the ER, from my doctor, and through all sorts of medical tests. The gripping pain was transitory, and it was usually gone by the time I actually got in front of a doctor. I never could predict it or draw any conclusions about what brought it on. Most of the time, the pain was swept away as not important, because I always got better. Over time, the gripping sensation lessened (or I got used to it), but I began to also feel breathless. In the month before surgery, I developed an accompanying pain over the entire left side of my face, a searing pain that sometimes seemed to start in a troublesome tooth and then spread quickly to my face. When I realized that relatively mild physical exertion brought on the symptoms and that sitting down eased them, I knew that I was dealing with something serious.
That last time when I walked into the ER, I announced my own diagnosis/fear, “I think it’s my heart.” They took me seriously. Though the initial tests on that night did not indicate that it was my heart, the ER doctor really listened to my symptoms, and he was convinced that more tests would prove that my heart was involved. He admitted me for observation. An angiogram and elevated cardiac enzymes the next day provided a complete diagnosis.
Listen to yourself and your own instincts. If you know something is wrong, it probably is!
If you love a woman who is having symptoms, encourage her to keep seeking help. One night, a doctor in the ER who has never met her may get it right and save her life!
At the risk of being over-bearing and repetitive to my regular readers, I will keep posting about the issue of women's heart health from time to time. Someday, a woman's life may be saved.
Additional posts in this series: