My Journey - Post Surgery Survival Tips

With any kind of surgery I expect that the patient receives an overload of information, but here are a few things I wish I had known ahead of time.

1. First up and most peculiar, I think, is the fact that you will clearly hear your heart beating all the time post surgery.  No need for a stethoscope, it's always there in the back of your ears.  Now my surgeon and cartiologist did warn me that this would be the case.  What they didn't tell me was that it wouldn't be a normal heartbeat, but a ticking like a clock.  So now in my head I sound like the crocodile in Peter Pan and I can't believe that no one else can hear me tick tick ticking away!
2. You will be surprised, or at least I was, by how limited your movements are for quite a while.  Things you took for granted, like being able to bend over and reach around beside or behind you.  SO many movements require the use of your sternum or breast bone and the muscles connected to it.
3. You are going to sore in ways you never expected.  I assumed that I would be sore around and under my incision, but my back was also incredibly sore from bracing myself and holding my body in an unnatural position to protect my incision.
4. Laying down flat on your back would probably offer some relief from the aforementioned back pain, however, gravity is not kind in that position and it is incredibly uncomfortable.  You will have to find an alternative sleeping position.  I found that sleeping with my head elevated and my shoulders rounded was most comfortable, though it's all relative because for a while there nothing was comfortable.
5. You will be given a dense pillow, probably in the shape of a heart, which I highly recommend keeping very close by your first several weeks.  If your surgeon is a comedian like mine, not only will the anatomical heart drawing include information about your surgery, but also a funny note like "I was here."  This pillow, in addition to being an amusing reminder of your surgery, is also quite useful.  Being under anesthesia and on a breathing tube will decrease your lung capacity and you will end up with junk in your lungs.  In order to get said junk out, you will need to cough.  Coughing is immensely painful but necessary.  Bracing the heart pillow against you chest helps...some.
6. The pillow will also help when getting up and down from chairs and out of bed.  For one thing it gives you something to do with your arms since you're really not allowed to use them for much for a while.  But it also braces your chest so that you don't feel like everything's going to come bursting out like Alien.
7. While your surgeon is likely to warn you about coughing and moving,  he/she may not think to mention laughing.  Laughing, I mean really laughing, is quite uncomfortable at first.  I just hope that your family isn't as funny as mine.  The Bro, mom, and I were playing Cards Against Humanity and I kept telling them to stop being so funny because I was laughing so hard and in so much pain!
8. And that sneezing is probably the worst post surgery experience of all!  It's like when a cartoon character swallows a stick of dynamite!  The first time that I sneezed I fully expected to see springs, and wheels, and gears all over the place when I opened my eyes because I just knew that my chest had exploded and that all of my new working bits were going to be everywhere.  Unfortunately you don't get as much warning with sneezing as you do coughing, so that's why it's a good idea to keep your pillow close.
9. You are going to need a lot of help for several weeks, just get used to it.  I could not get myself up from a lying position in bed for ages because I wasn't allowed to use my arms to push or pull.  I understand that your sternum needs to heal, but I managed to get myself stuck on my back and wedge in an odd position more than once trying to get out of bed without help.
10. When you first wake up from anesthesia you will have more tubes and wires coming out of you than you can imagine.  At one point I had three IVs! At once!
11. You are going to look like Dr. Frankenstein's monster.  There will be a gnarly incision down the center of your chest and, unless you plan on wearing turtle necks everyday, some of it will probably show.  But eventually things start to smooth out and apparently at some point what looks like a horrendous scar will heal and fade to a thin line.  I'll have to get back to you on this one because mine is still a rather unsightly foot long blemish.  I'm actually trying to come up with some fun stories for where mine came from. So far I have the mother of all paper cuts and sword fight with pirates.  Please let me know if you have any good ideas!
12. When your incision was made everything was cut including all of the nerves running down the center of your chest.  This means that for several months after surgery you are going to have very little feeling in the middle of your chest, about two inches in every direction radiating out from your incision.  It will feel like it's numb, like when your foot falls asleep, really asleep, before all of the tingling and needles.  You know that you're touching your foot, but it doesn't feel right in your foot, more like it's through about 100 layers of clothing.  That's what this will feel like, very strange!  And just wait until they start firing back up again!  It's like little electrical pulses flashing across the middle of your chest.  It's not excruciating, but it is certainly not a soothing sensation.
13. There will be swelling...And in peculiar places.  After surgery I had swelling at the top of my incision, a large lump about an inch below the base of my neck.  Very odd looking.  I assumed it would go away, but checked with my surgeon to be sure and he laughed.  He said that my swelling really wasn't that bad, apparently other patients had accused him of accidentally dropping a breast implant into their incision.  This made me feel tons better because mine wouldn't have even passed for an A cup!

The list above is based on my experience with open heart surgery.  Everyone is different, which means that everyone's reaction to surgery will be different.  For example: Some people suffer from bouts of depression after open heart surgery.  I got lucky and I have not really had that problem.  I am a bit over-reactive to health concerns at this point, but I'll get over that soon enough...I hope.  I've managed to keep myself out of the ER and/or hospital, and have only had one extra doctor's visit, so I'm going to call this a win.  All health concerns before and after open heart surgery should been taken up with your cardiologist.

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