Hearing people talk about what happened while I was in surgery for five and a half hours is like hearing my parents' stories about the day I was born. I was there, but I wasn't. For this segment, I interviewed my fiancée, and my mom and dad to get an idea of what they went through in the waiting room during the operation, and afterward while I was recovering in the hospital for several days. I asked them in particular if they had any advice for people facing a similar waiting-room experience. Obviously it was a very emotional time for all involved. Emotions are tricky things to pin down objectively. That makes it hard to offer concrete advice, but I will try.
First, a little more background. My parents divorced when I was 10 or 11 years old and they rarely see each other. My dad said the last time he saw my mom was perhaps eight years ago. On top of that, both my parents have been remarried and the meeting at the hospital was the first time my dad met my mom's new husband. In the middle of all that was my fiancée, Mandi. Dynamics like this are important to keep in mind, because they may very well add to the emotional challenge everyone is already facing. For my mom, the whole experience at the hospital was so intense – with her only child having heart surgery, and her being surrounded by people who were mostly strangers to her – that she declined to be interviewed at all.
The bottom line, to me, is that you should be ready for uncomfortable emotions beyond the worry you have for your loved one in surgery.
"There was a little bit of tension, seeing your mom for the first time in eight years," my dad said. "At our age (early 60s), our physical appearances have changed in that time. That was a little tough, but we all came together and had good conversation. It really was a family reunion, like a wedding or a funeral would be."
The hospital was large, and so was the waiting room on the cardiac floor. For some reason I had pictured a private little room. That perception might have come from what Mandi and I had been told in my pre-op appointments – that we should restrict the number of people in the waiting room to four at a time. Ultimately we disregarded that guideline, as did many other people. (Some hospital staff told us the request was aimed more so at the very large extended families that have been known to hold vigils in the hospital with every aunt, uncle and second cousin.) Anyway, the waiting area was large and busy, and Mandi had to pay attention to get clued in. There were electronic boards with patient names and color codes to show which stage of surgery they were in.
"We were clued into the board pretty tight – there were a lot of names on there," my dad said.
Mandi said that at one point my name disappeared from the board and gave her a scare. My surgery was taking a little longer than expected at the time, so that didn't help her fear. It was then that my group was told that the lead surgeon was ready to meet with them. Mandi was preparing to hear the worst. Then my name popped back up on the board right around the time the surgeon told them that I was doing great.
Mandi said it helped that one of her best friends stayed with her most of those anxious hours and was a good boost of moral support. I thought this was a great idea. Of course you're focused on your loved one in surgery, but it's important to take care of yourself, too, and a friend at your side who is more invested in you can be helpful. However, keep in mind that the friend's presence may be offensive to other members of the group, even if that friend is only trying to be helpful to everyone. It's up to you to weigh the pros and cons of potential social dynamics, but it is wise to consider them ahead of time. Looking back, I see that all of us might have done a better job communicating what each of us was planning so that the others wouldn't be surprised to find an extra visitor in the group.
Perhaps the most concrete take-away I gleaned from the interviews was that both Mandi and my dad said they brought more stuff to the waiting room with them than they actually needed.
"I brought all my grad school books, thinking I would study most of the time," Mandi said. "I never opened them. So I ended up carrying a heavy backpack all around."
In the four days I spent in the hospital after surgery, Mandi slept at a friend's house about 20 minutes away and my dad drove in every day from Longmont, about an hour away. My mom and step-dad lived three hours away and couldn't stay the entire time. Mandi said she had a hard time leaving my side at the hospital each night.
"I cried every time I left the hospital," she said. "I didn't want to leave you."
Sometimes she woke up in the wee hours of the night and wouldn't be able to go back to sleep until she called the nurse and made sure I was OK. Overall, she said she thought it was a good thing to have a place to sleep outside the hospital and get her mind off of her worry for me.
"I probably wouldn't have slept at all if I stayed in the hospital with you," she said.
I think it was a good thing, too, as she was more rested to care for me and be a strong source of support when I needed her most.
Meanwhile, my dad did a good job of keeping me company for several hours every day. He was usually in my room before I woke up, but he mostly kept quiet and read a book on a couch off to the side. He never made me feel like I had to keep conversation going.
"It was a blessing to live close enough that I could visit you everyday," he said.
When I first came out of surgery I was excited to see everyone, and I wanted to talk to them, but it took too much energy and was too painful. If you're visiting someone post-op, keep this inclination in mind, because you might have to actively encourage the patient to relax and forget about talking, like my family did for me.
"You kept saying that you wanted to talk but that it hurt, and you had a tube in your throat!" Mandi said. "We kept saying, 'then don't talk!'"
I can understand how it might be difficult to "visit" a patient and not actually visit with him. As for me at the time, I found that I enjoyed drifting in and out of sleep, simply aware that my dad and Mandi were keeping a warm presence in the room, even if I couldn't see them from where I laid.
The next part of this blog series about my open-heart surgery will focus on what I experienced waking up from surgery, my time at the hospital, and finally going home.