Waking Up to a Fresh Start (Part 1)
Note: This is part six of the “Open Heart” series. To read part 1, click here.
I'll tell you now that the four-and-a-half days in the hospital after open heart surgery feel very distant. It was less than four months ago as I write this, but it seems much longer than that.
At the time, the ordeal was a magnanimous one, but now it is almost a speck in my rearview mirror. You might say it's out-of-body, because it's so far removed from your typical life, and then suddenly it's over and almost everything is back to normal. And normal isn't entirely a good thing.
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I'll tell you now that the four-and-a-half days in the hospital after open heart surgery feel very distant.
It was less than four months ago as I write this, but it seems much longer than that.
At the time, the ordeal was a magnanimous one, but now it is almost a speck in my rearview mirror. You might say it's out-of-body, because it's so far removed from your typical life, and then suddenly it's over and almost everything is back to normal. And normal isn't entirely a good thing. Normal means that shit continues to happen.
The New Normal
Life goes on, even as you struggle with the direct challenges of your recovery.
For example, my fiancée fell two months behind in her grad school program because she was taking care of me. There was a serious decision on New Year's Day whether or not she had the gumption to dig in and commit to finishing her 100-page thesis by April, or if it would be smarter to pay an extra $5,000 and defer her final semester until the fall.
Meanwhile, we were still planning our wedding for June. Then our condo flooded Jan. 18.
Expect The Unexpected
As I write this in early March, the house is still in a state of ripped-up chaos as we wait for our new flooring to arrive.
Like I said, Life (with a capital L) doesn't wait for you to feel better. It continues to throw hard balls. Be ready for it. During my hospital stay, I made the mistake of imagining that my recovery was going to be straightforward, as if that would be the main difficulty in the months ahead.
Nope. This is why it's crucial to have a strong support system of family and friends, especially during the first two months.
Balls Keep Coming
Getting Back On Track
I should add that "returning to normal life" has its good things, too, of course. I've been rock climbing again on toprope since Valentine's Day, and I climbed quite well.
Much better than I'd dared to hope. Also, I've been able to take on more domestic responsibilities since January – such as making dinners and walking the dog every morning – which has helped Mandi get back on track with grad school.
I've realized how great a difference it makes to have the physical ability to do so many little things I used to take for granted.
All Spread Out
Anyway, I'll go into more detail about the recovery outside the hospital in another blog.
The only other thing I'll say about the overall experience is that the hospital stay was physically traumatic over a short period of time, and perhaps analogous to the emotional challenge since then. Emotionally, this whole deal has been equally as traumatic as all the fear and pain in the hospital, but less tangible and spread out over a much longer time period. Be ready for that.
Long Road Ahead
My first memory of waking up after five and a half hours of open heart surgery is vague except for one powerful feeling: joy. I'd survived.
And my family was there in the ICU with me. I wanted to talk to them – I was so excited to be through it – but I had a tube in my throat, and tubes coming out all over my body.
Mandi said that waking up was a longer process than I remember. She said the drugs took a while to wear off and for me to regain full consciousness. Then again, it might not be accurate to say I had full consciousness at all until the following day. Waking up from surgery, I was in-and-out while everyone stood and watched. The decisive moment for me, however, was that feeling of relief, knowing that I came through OK.
Making It Through
I was floating on morphine, which is to say I had so many pain killers looping through my system, I couldn't focus on much of anything except the fact that I was alive.
I was incredibly thirsty, but I wasn't allowed to have water until the anesthesia cleared from my body. Finally the nurse gave Mandi a sponge soaked in water for me to bite down on and wet my mouth. It was almost a tease, I wanted a cold drink so badly.
Once the nurse said I could have a drink, I drank so much ice water I ended up with an upset stomach. Lesson learned.
I spent the rest of the night floating there, half naked in the bed. A variety of aches and pains nagged me too much to sleep, but the drugs kept them far away, like a muffled voice under my pillow.
But I wasn't awake, either. I was in a sort of limbo I'd never experienced. As I mentioned in some earlier blogs, I'd made a long, uplifting playlist on my iPod to have during surgery, but that first night in the ICU is when I was most grateful to have it. The music gave my brain something to carry it along in that limbo state.
Wow, I just went through open heart surgery, I kept thinking as the light of dawn seeped through the curtains of my room.
Part 2 continues here.