Note: This is the first of a series of articles about my experience before, during and after open-heart surgery, which occurred Oct. 30, 2014, when I was 31 years old. My hope is that sharing these thoughts and details might help others facing a similar situation.
Six weeks after open heart surgery to replace my aortic valve, I finally got around to Googling videos of the procedure. If you are about to have open heart surgery, I would recommend not doing a Web search before you go in. Saying that will just give you the urge to do it more so than ever, I know, but hear me out for a moment.
I grew up with a mom who would collect owl pellets and boil the flesh off mountain lion skulls (we found a dead young cougar in the hills behind our house when I was 5) just to show me the amazing world of biology. I loved it, even though I couldn't eat chicken off the bone for a year after seeing the skull plucked from a boiling pot. I watched protozoa under a microscope and did all the dissections I could get my hands on through high school, which included med-prep and anatomy classes. So I wouldn't classify myself as squeamish about blood and guts. I thought I knew pretty well what I was getting into with open-heart surgery. Scientifically, I did, certainly. Visually, not so much. It's just harder to watch when you can personally identify with the pieces of meat being cut apart and stitched together.
Which is why I knew subconsciously all along that I shouldn't watch the videos. Not yet. I suspect detailed footage that includes the opening of the sternum is hard to find for a reason; even in the best video I found, the part where huge calipers spread the sternum is blipped out. I found footage of that being done on a cadaver, and my sternum flared with pain all over again as my hand reactively clutched at my chest (that happens often these days – "you'll be more aware of sensations in your chest the rest of your life," my cardiologist said recently). And a dead body being cut apart on the table is another image you don't want in your head as you go onto the procedure. So just leave it alone for now.
You want to focus on the important facts of the procedure, which are: the surgery is a necessary risk, it's out of your hands (it's in the surgeon's hands), and the odds are likely in your favor. (The doc gave me a 97 percent chance that everything would turn out fine). I realize I'm young – I'll be 32 next week – and healthy, so those odds don't necessarily translate to every patient. But open-heart surgery is routine by modern medical standards. They know what they're doing, as well as any astronaut on any space mission. These people don't get to where they are without a lot of knowledge and experience. This seems very obvious to point out, but it is important to remember for your own emotional stability, because unlike most space missions, you are going along for the ride. In fact, you are the vessel!
If you're like me, there is a nagging need to get down and rollick in the muck of morbid thoughts when facing such matters. At least a little bit. I would lie awake at night, imagining the completely foreign experience of having my ribcage sawed open so that my heart could be stopped, cut open, stitched back together and restarted. (I kept having visions of a stubborn old car battery that might barely flicker to life after lots of frustrated effort.) I even started researching Aztec sacrifice, where the ancient priests cut the hearts out of live victims and kicked the bodies down the temple steps. So I chose to think of it as a "Vision Quest Acid Trip to the Alter of the Aztecs" – which made my surgeon laugh – and that helped a little. In other words, I framed my fate in the positive light as a new and crazy personal life experience.
Yes there is a mortality you must come to terms with on these things. Embrace it. Allow sorrow for yourself. Accept the fact that it's at least a little scary. Then let it go, because that's all you can do, and it's the only way to stay positive. And you don't need to have gory, concrete visuals to make that process harder. So look at diagrams, read up on everything, but refrain from photos and videos if you can.
Afterwards, you can look at them, clutch your chest and think, Damn, I went through that? No wonder I still hurt. I guess I feel pretty good considering what I went through just some odd weeks ago. That will be another helpful thought to have when you are dealing with the emotional frustration of your limited physical ability, as I am doing now. I'll write more on that topic later. For now, good luck on your surgery.