Heart Surgery from the POV of the scared wife… and not the med student.

Texas Childrens Hospital - West Campus

Well, it’s been too long for me to recap everything that has happened since my last post. I’ll try to hit the high points!

My husband had open heart surgery at the end of October. For the sake of his privacy, I will just say it was planned (not emergent) and was done to further correct a congenital defect he has.

The surgery he had was pretty routine for the surgeons… and pretty life-altering for our family. His mom and dad and siblings (with the exception of one actress and one lawyer) and me are all in the medical field. And we all experienced very different things as we went through this.

His parents and siblings were shaken up from memories of his past surgery in 2003… I wasn’t yet in his life at that point (I was actually celebrating my 13th birthday when he was having his first major surgery!), so my experience was a new and scary one. I didn’t have anything to base my fears or hopes on other than my knowledge of medicine and surgery. You would think as someone aspiring to become a physician, I would have hope in medical care, but I found myself questioning every decision the doctors made and wondering if the nurses were checking on him often enough and if there was enough communication going on in the medical team.

His mom and dad had the right questions to ask. They “knew the drill,” so to speak, and they knew the doctors fairly well and could talk about their careers and families together. Everyone kept asking me if I wanted to see cool medical things or if I had considered residency there or if I had any questions… I had questions and I wanted to ask them but froze when they asked. I was so scared and the last thing I wanted to talk about was my own future in medicine. I was so flattered they wanted to help me with my future, but I was also facing something I never have before- the emotions of a terrified wife. Honestly, I didn’t want to experience David’s surgery through the eyes of a medical student. I wanted everyone to back off and let me be an ignorant non-medical person. I wanted to be comforted by the medical team instead of offered career advice and “insider info.” I wanted to forget the intricacies of surgery and the step-by-step process of how to stop and restart a heart. I wanted people to stop asking how I was handling things, because I didn’t know how to answer that question without becoming bitter about having to go through this alone, without Dave by my side holding my hand. I wanted to move forward and not have to deal with the recovery period that brings its own share of post-op complications.

Sometimes knowing the medicine doesn’t make things better. Sometimes it makes things much worse.

Trying to be strong for his family was difficult too, because they haven’t experienced my personal struggle and fears. Where David is their son or brother, he’s my husband- i.e. I chose this life with him and we promised to share a future together in front of God, our family, and our friends at our wedding. Even though the surgery was bound to be successful, I couldn’t help but entertain the horrible thoughts: What if we don’t make it through this? What about the future we promised we would share together?

All I remember feeling when his 6 hour surgery turned into a 10+ hour surgery was that I wanted to call him to talk to him about how scared I was. I wanted to talk to him because he’s the one I go to when things are rough and when I need to calm myself down. And it wasn’t an option because he was sedated on the operating table. That was the most difficult part for me, I think. Not having that one person that is always there. I felt really lonely even though I was surrounded by love. I guess that’s what makes marriage so special. We really are a team in this thing called life.

They brought him to the cardiac ICU then admitted him to the floor the next day. He was able to go home 5 days later (pretty phenomenal considering his last surgery was 17 days in the hospital!). His post-op appointments went well and everything checked out nicely.

His recovery period has been an adventure in itself. He had sternal precautions which meant he couldn’t use his arms to do pretty much anything (lift over 5 pounds, drive, push, pull, etc.). He had activity precautions which meant he couldn’t get his heart rate up (going up stairs, any form of exercise, etc.). He had psychological recovery too, which was difficult for us both. Once the pain went away and he felt 100% better, he got really frustrated by his activity precautions. I had a difficult time knowing how to help him through his own mental battle while maintaining my own sanity. He had mostly good days but some bad ones that really tested both of our patience levels. Overall I think this experience brought us closer together. It’s a unique struggle to be completely dependent on someone and have someone totally dependent on you. I helped him wash his hair and use the bathroom, and sure, it was awkward- but we promised “in sickness and in health” and we meant it. I definitely had weak moments where I wished it would all go away and we could just go back to our normal lives. It was a really humbling experience for me and helped me understand what families go through when we discharge them. I hope these memories stick with me so that I can be more sensitive to my future patients and maybe make their experience a little less scary than it has to be.

Today he is past the 6 week mark and can resume normal activity! He was so excited to go to the YMCA and be able to work out again! His recovery won’t be fully complete for another 6 months or so, but as far as limitations, he is good to go! I couldn’t be more proud of him for his strength through this whole adventure.

Unless you’ve been there, I don’t know how else to relay my experience. I definitely don’t wish it on anyone, but I will say it has made our marriage stronger. I can’t explain how exactly- maybe it’s just the small things that we both appreciate a little more- but I am thankful for the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s unique and it’s terrifying but it’s ours, and I love it.

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