A nurse told me I woke up in the operating room while they were cleaning up, a good three hours before “most normal people,” wake up after open heart surgery. My wife said I woke up a few times during my first night in the CTICU, I don’t remember either of those premature wake ups.
My first memory after the surgery was of my nurse, Robert, shining a light into my eyes and telling me that I was going to be okay. Robert had a kind face and a great demeanor, and was the perfect person to watch over me on my first night after the surgery, so much so that I almost feel bad about choking him an hour or so into our relationship, but stuff happens after bypass. More on that later.
We were told that after bypass surgery most patients sit up and even walk during their first 24 hours in the CTICU. That was not going to happen in my case. The balloon they inserted in my chest would force me to lay on my back for two to three days. If I sat up the balloon could rupture, which, apparently, would not be good.
Flat on my back, for what turned out to be 60 hours. Never has so much pain come from doing nothing. In addition to all the tubes and wires and blood lines going in and around my body, my chest felt like it was going to explode after every breath I took. The extreme motionless led to intense rashes on my back, legs and butt. And my left leg was wrapped in an ace bandage to protect all the intrusions that were made from grafting veins that were removed and transported to my heart.
My nurses were amazing, Robert handled the first 12 hours, Megan the second 12, before Robert returned for the second night. The care they gave me was amazing, from monitoring all my levels and administering my meds to listening to my needs and talking me through the early stages of my recovery, we could not have asked for a better crew.
The pain was intense at times. Imagine a hiccup, a cute little hiccup, we all have them and they are no big deal. Now imagine you have just had someone cut your sternum in half before rooting around under your ribs for eight hours then sewing you up and sending you on your way.
Now hiccup. Go ahead, hiccup, what you will feel is a hammer being brought down on your chest. Now cough, you will feel like someone is beating both your chest and upper back with a tire iron. And just when you think it can’t feel any worse. Sneeze. A simple sneeze after open heart surgery will make you want to wheel yourself down to the train tracks and pray the express to Grand Central is on its way.
You don’t get used to these pains, but you can learn to deal with them. For me, I grunted or belted out preemptive screams before these bodily functions occurred. The nurses and my visitors weren’t sure what to make of it, but it was how I managed the pain.
At this point the only thing I was interested in was water. I had no appetite, I was told that was normal and began to imagine writing a bestseller called the Bypass Miracle Diet. However I was told that insurance companies and general common sense would never allow that book to be published. So I moved on and focused on other things, like breathing.
By Sunday night I was told that my heart was responding well, my lungs and other organs were looking good (still no word on my brain) and that if the night went well the balloon would be removed in the morning.
Not exactly how I had planned to spend that weekend, or any weekend for that matter but despite laying on my back with tubes and machines running my organs, I was told I was making progress, and that that was a good thing.
When I faded away that night I remember wanting to smile.