Journeying with others through physical and mental recovery after heart surgery
What a surprise for me. As someone who was healthy and ate an American Heart Healthy diet, hearing the ER doctor say, “You are suffering a mild myocardial infarction,” was a shock.
Having left work the night before feeling like I had some mild indigestion, I slept through the night and awoke with some mild pain in my lungs. As it was minimal, I went shopping that morning and for a quick visit to my 6-day-old grandson who had just come home from the NICU. The pain increased, but I had no other heart attack symptoms. I started thinking that I was coming down with pneumonia or something lung-related, so I went to the emergency room. After the initial diagnosis and a two-day wait and heart catheterization, my second surprise came when I learned they couldn’t place stents and I would need to have a five-artery bypass. I really thought they were talking about someone else – surely not someone like me – who was only 52 and had below-average cholesterol.
It would be another four days until they could do the needed open-heart surgery – days that became full of lots of hospital hallway walking, visits from family and friends, and processing what was occurring. I tried to understand what was about to happen and come to terms with needing open heart surgery. I tried to process why and what we should change. During this process, we learned that a whole food, plant-based diet is proven to prevent and reverse heart disease. My wife was first in deciding to make this switch, but with more information and time to consider it, my desire to live another 50 years without another heart attack, open heart surgery, or stroke gave me the reason to move to this new lifestyle.
Post open-heart surgery, I realized the process for healing and moving on requires a great support group. While I was surrounded by wonderful family, friends, and co-workers, there was always the element that they had not experienced the same surgery I had. Four weeks after surgery, I attended Cardiac Rehab and was able to continue the healing process with people who had been through the same procedure. This also gave me the knowledge and strength to add a regular exercise routine to my lifestyle, something that had been part of life earlier on but had fallen off in the past few years.
I now had a better reason to get up when I didn’t want to, and I learned how to exercise post-surgery. Through the nurses at Rehab, I learned about an organization called Mended Hearts. Mended Hearts is a national and community-based nonprofit organization that has been offering the gift of hope to heart disease patients, their families, and caregivers. I decided to join the Lancaster, PA, chapter and both my wife Carolyn and I went through the volunteer certification program at Lancaster General Health and became certified member volunteers. I now serve as the president of our local chapter, and Carolyn and I continue to work with other volunteer visitors to visit Open Heart Surgery and Valve Replacement (TAVR) patients at Lancaster General Hospital. In conjunction with the other volunteers, at least one person is in the hospital three times a week to conduct visits and let patients see firsthand that there is hope and life after heart surgery, even if it doesn’t feel like it right then with tubes running out of their bodies and being in deep pain.
I’m grateful my wife Carolyn agreed to do this program with me. Having her by my side affords me the opportunity to speak both to the patient as well as the often-overlooked caregiver. I have been using Candoris-offered volunteer time off (VTO) to visit these patients twice a month. When we visit people we give them a booklet with information about the healing process as well as answer any questions they might have. My witness of being up and around a year after surgery gives the patients hope that they can get back to who they were before it all happened, because for many of the patients, the surgery was unexpected. They are journeying through both the physical recovery as well as the mental work required to process this sudden change.
I am so thankful to Candoris for offering me paid time off to bring a small measure of encouragement to these patients and their families. I encourage all recovering heart surgery patients to attend a cardiac rehabilitation program and join the Mended Hearts support group. It has been an integral part of my continued recovery, my new lifestyle, and my future outlook.