In my first entry of this series, I shared what I learned about surgery prep. In my second entry, I talked about my post-op experience. And in this entry, I’ll fill you in on what recovery is like.
RECOVERY LOCATION: My currently living situation has many stairs, so a family I’m friends with generously offered to let me recover at their stair-free home after I was discharged from the hospital. This was a great decision. I stayed there for 8 days. I got a cold at some point while I was staying there, and that probably delayed my departure by a few days. Without it, I might’ve been able to leave around Day 5 instead of Day 8.
SLEEP: Recovery is a strange few weeks. I’ve never found the “two steps forward, one step back” adage to be more true. There were hours when I felt so energetic I thought I’d crossed the last hurdle. Then I’d be in bed for 12 hours. Sleep was the hardest thing to adjust to, because it was entirely unpredictable. At times I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and at other times I couldn’t fall asleep, no matter what I tried. I was grateful I didn’t have to work for a few weeks, because a regular schedule seemed impossible to me.
PAIN MEDS: For the most part I was able to get off my prescription pain meds almost immediately upon leaving the hospital. I took Aleve a few times a day, and that kept most of my pain at bay. There were two exceptions: 1) my pain spiked on a couple of mornings, and I took a painkiller, and 2) I was too uncomfortable to sleep on a few nights, so I took a muscle relaxer. Overall the transition off the meds was fairly seamless.
APPETITE: My appetite took about a month to return, and until that point, I mostly preferred bland foods. Because of the doctor’s orders to stay high-protein, low-sodium, I ate a lot of greek yogurt, protein shakes, plain eggs, and oatmeal. I also kept a box of whole wheat crackers by my bed for when I woke up at night to take my meds (not good on an empty stomach). For some reason, people want to bring you a lot of sweets when you have a medical procedure. Of all the sweet foods I normally love, the only one that tasted good to me was Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla.
I also got off the diuretics after 30 days. Prior to that, I was really thirsty all the time. I didn’t know I could’ve gotten off them sooner, or I would’ve opted for that.
SNEEZING: This hurts. It was far worse than coughing. I kept my “heart pillow” nearby.
WALKING: My first walk was a loop around the cul-de-sac outside my recovery house. My doctor told me it’s not as important to add distance or speed as it is to add time. So every day, I’d aim for 5 more minutes in each walk. I was supposed to get up to 3 walks of up to 20 minutes each, then transition to 2 walks of up to 30 minutes each, then 1 walk of up to 60 minutes. I really pressed myself toward this, and I made it to the 60 minute walk within about 10 days from my discharge. For a while, I took my oxometer with me, to make sure I was breathing properly while I walked. The number should stay above 90.
STRANGER THINGS: Each day that passed presented some bizarre new side effect. One morning I woke to what sounded like pop rocks in my lungs every time I inhaled deeply. It scared me, but the doctor told me it was just the fluid working its way out. Frequently, I could hear bones popping loudly in my chest, and I feared I was dislocating my ribs. When I got a cold, I asked the doctor for suggested cold meds that wouldn’t have contraindications with my post-op meds … then, one of the things they recommended gave me a nosebleed. I wrote all these things down, along with the date they happened.
When I went for my post-op visit (3 weeks after surgery), I took my list, showed it to my surgeon, and he said: “If something causes you pain, call us. But if something is just strange, it’s probably just your body’s way of processing and adjusting to everything it’s been through.”
PVCs (Premature Ventricular Contractions): The first time I had these, they woke me from my sleep. I didn’t know what it was. I called my cardiologist first thing in the morning, and she asked me to come in on Monday (it was over the weekend).
Over the weekend, I had PVCs a few times. They happened for me exclusively when I was lying down, even if I wasn’t asleep. It was not a rapid heartbeat, but a powerful heartbeat, every 3 or 4 beats. If I sat upright after they started, it wasn’t as bad (though I could still feel it), but if I stayed lying down, I could hardly breathe and / or I coughed a lot.
When I saw my cardiologist, she said my heart sounded healthy, diagnosed the PVCs, and told me to take another dose of my beta blocker in the evenings, as prevention (I was already on a minimal dose in the morning). That solved the problem immediately.
GETTING OUT: Some of my best memories from recovery were when friends picked me up to get me out of the house. One friend took me to get a mani/pedi a week after I got out of the hospital. Then a week later, she took me to see a movie (at a theater!). Another friend invited me over for dinner at her house and made sure I had a ride. A neighbor didn’t just ask what groceries I might need, but took me out to the store to buy them. These were bright spots in my recovery, easily one of the most helpful things for me both physically and emotionally.
DRIVING: I was released to drive at 3 weeks, but I can see why it wasn’t sooner. Turning my head and lifting my arm caused minor pain, so I kept my first few days of driving within a few miles.
SIX WEEKS: I went home after 8 days at the recovery house. Sleep continued to be the most difficult thing. Just when I thought I had a pattern down, it would change again. It took me 6 weeks post-op for this (and pretty much everything else) to get back to normal. Everyone kept saying “give it 6 weeks,” and I had no idea it was such a spot-on time frame.
By 8 weeks, I was running short distances. I did not opt to do my hospital’s Cardiac Rehab program (mostly because it was too far away), but I think I fared well in recovering without it, primarily because I’m the kind of person who will push myself. If it weren’t for that temperament, the Cardiac Rehab program would’ve been a necessity.
A NOTE ABOUT DEPRESSION: Studies vary on this, but on average 35% of people who endure open heart surgery will have some degree of depression afterward. I was blessed not to face this struggle, but there were times when it felt entirely plausible and when I understood why it might be enhanced in these circumstances.
First, my body went through a major change and was still trying to make sense of it all, so a lot of my signals were off. On top of that, there’s the added physical and chemical changes I endured because of the medicines I needed to take. Finally — perhaps most notably — it’s incredibly isolating for an extrovert like me. Lots of people came to see me in the hospital, but visitors in recovery (and beyond) were few and far between. That was due in part to the fact that I was sleeping so much, and I was awake for long amounts of time during the middle of the night. But in addition to that, I couldn’t attend many social functions, and people assumed I wanted privacy.
If I could give myself advice, I’d say, “Ask for what you need. People don’t know.” And if I were giving my friends advice, I’d say, “Ask if you can come visit. Those emotional needs are often greater than soup or crackers.”
I’m 36 hours out from my 2nd open heart surgery as I write this. While I don’t necessarily look forward to it, I am grateful for the things I learned on my first OHS, and I hope they’ll be helpful to you as well!