It began on a cold Saturday night in early January. While out for a birthday dinner for my son with his girlfriend and my husband, I noticed my heart speeding up. Since I was diagnosed in high school with Mitral Valve Prolapse (a condition that occurs in approximately 2% of the population), this was not uncommon. I often felt palpitations, but they rarely lasted more than a minute. Though the palpitations that night were also painless, this time they didn’t stop.
After dinner, we headed to the ER. They examined me and hooked me up to an EKG. The diagnosis? Atrial Fibrillation or AFib, according to the American Heart Association: “a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.”
They kept me overnight with orders to see a cardiologist before I left on a Caribbean cruise the following Friday. On Tuesday, I met with a cardiologist who gave me an echocardiogram, an ultrasound procedure similar to those you get when you’re pregnant. Before the echo, the doctor listened to my heart and said, “You sound fine. You’re young and healthy. I’m not worried at all.” But after the echo, she came into my room and closed the door.
Apparently, my MVP had progressed to mitral valve regurgitation, which is a far more serious situation. Again, here’s what the AHA says: “Mitral regurgitation is leakage of blood backward through the mitral valve each time the left ventricle contracts.” The problem is, this can cause blood clots, and strokes. “You’ll need to see a surgeon,” she said, “And no alcohol on your trip.”
After returning home, I met with a heart surgeon to determine the date for my surgery. The surgery, which is considered ‘minimally invasive’ since the surgeon cuts into the outside of the right breast rather than going in through the chest for a full-on open heart surgery, went well. Unfortunately, the bleeding that is fairly normal after heart surgeries refused to stop. It was so bad that seven blood transfusions and nine hours later, I was rushed back into the OR for an emergency open-heart surgery. My blood pressure, normally 110/65, had dropped to 50/20. I almost didn’t make it.
That was ten weeks ago.
My appetite has improved, as have my strength and stamina. But while the pain has lessened, it is still prevalent. If all had gone well, I’d be close to fully-healed by now. Due to the emergency open-heart surgery, it will be 3-6 months until I’m feeling “back to normal.”
Experiencing major surgery is, well, major. Your world is turned upside down. You don’t have the ability to fully care for yourself. You feel weak, physically and emotionally. You do your best not to be a bother and to avoid the very common pitfall of depression.
If you know someone who is scheduled for or has recently undergone major surgery, here are some suggestions:
1. Send Cards and/or Flowers
In the early stages of recovery, communication—even talking on the phone, emailing, or texting—are difficult. It’s fine to communicate, but don’t expect a response. Your friend or family member will respond when he or she is ready. Allergies notwithstanding, flowers are wonderful. They brighten the room and the mood.
2. Check in with “Assigned” Family Member or Friend
Often times, someone close to the patient will be named to accept and distribute communications. It’s best to interact with that person for updates, and to pass along your thoughts/wishes/prayers through them, too.
3. Be patient!
Your loved one, who you’re used to seeing alert, happy, and energetic, will most likely be none of those things. At least, for a while. Allow them time to heal,to become whole again.
4. Don’t Send Food (Or At Least Check First)
Of course, my Jewish friends and family wanted to feed me! However, after major surgery, nearly everyone loses their appetite. This may last a week or longer. It’s also not uncommon to experience an aversion to food altogether, even things that normally taste good. For example, I had no desire for chocolate, which sits high atop my nutritional pyramid.
5. Stay in Communication
As time passes, it’s normal to think the patient feels better and no longer needs to hear from you. After major surgery, that’s rarely the case. Let them know you realize they’re still recuperating months later, and not to feel bad if recovery’s taking longer than expected. Tell them you’re still thinking of them, that you’re there for them, that you care.
6. Call Before You Visit
Some people like to have visitors, others not so much. Check in first before you make the trip.
7. Give Hugs
When you do see your loved one, give them a gentle hug. Physical touch is often the best medicine.
8. Prayers/Healing Thoughts
Inform your loved if they’re included in Mi Shebeirach prayers. For me, it was comforting to know entire communities had me in their thoughts.
9. Don’t Project Your Hopes Onto Them
In my case, many people say, “You look great, you must be feeling better!” While the intentions are good, when you’re still in pain, it’s hard to pretend you’re feeling better or admit you’re still not feeling well. Worse, you can feel like a failure.
Though major surgery takes a lot out of even the healthiest of folks, don’t ever doubt your power to contribute to the healing process. Stay strong and in communication, and remember: you can never give too much love or support to those in need.