Random Thoughts on My First Year OHS Anniversary

Blog Post from My Journey with Familial Hypercholesterolemia and Heart Disease

I have had my OHS a year ago today. I have written this piece for my Heart Valve Surgery site today. This site has been a great resource during my journey with OHS: https://www.heart-valve-surgery.com/journals/user/alinafh

I am really almost 42. But I like to think that today, my heart is one year old.

I am lucky – I get two birthdays, like most of you here. And my heart will always be almost 41 years younger than my whole body.

A year ago today I was not looking beyond that day. A year ago today, I could see nothing but darkness beyond February 11, 2016. Just uncertainty and darkness. It was a cold, foggy, quiet day and we started the day early. The day before, I had gone to the hospital for pre-op stuff and it scared me a little (yes, I am joking – it scared me to my wits!) All the warnings about how I would feel “after”, all the possibilities about infection, how I could not sit up on my own, how I had to breathe even with a cracked chest, how I won’t be allowed to open my own doors for months; all the education done by the surgeon about how difficult my circulatory arrest would be. How it could render me stupid if my brain craved the oxygen. They were unbelievable pieces of information that made me feel like an experiment. I mean, how do you not fall apart when they tell you they’ll stop your heart, cut into it and freeze it?! Then, replace a couple of its parts and rewire the rest?!

But there was something in my heart (no pun intended) that was bigger than all the warnings, larger than life itself. There was a reassurance and a peace that I could not even believe myself. I was serene, composed and calm (for those who know me, these are all things I am not, on a regular day). I was confident that this had to be done and I had the best team on my side to do it. Somehow, from somewhere, I got this reassurance. I cannot teach it. I cannot tell you that it comes in 2 lb packs at my grocery store, but I know that somehow, through fear, and prayer, and family holding hands together, and an incredible amount of hope, I found this peace.

So, on that February 11th day, I walked into the hospital on my own two feet, with husband by my side, to have my chest cracked, my heart opened and frozen, and eventually returned back to life.

I sometimes sit and ponder upon all the bends in the road, all the bumps, all the highs and the lows I have been through in this past year. Even now, every day feels a little bit different than all of the ones since February 11th at 2 or 3 AM when I woke up from surgery, nurses hovering over me telling me “Alina, you had a big operation!”. I remember those few minutes right after I came to: I felt like a little kid, peering from a small house out through a smokey window, with people looking in. Very eerie.

Funny how I got a new heart during Heart and Love Month. I went in for an aortic valve replacement, to begin with, and possibly a double by-pass. I walked away with my aortic valve and my ascending aorta replaced with an aortic graft composite (which includes the valve), with a repaired aortic arch and four bypasses. And just for safe measure, I had a heart attack while I was in the hospital, after the surgery.

And the long road towards recovery started only after I stood up from all that. Every day, I think back and I remember something about this year’s journey.

I remember my first steps in the ICU – I thought they were smoking dope when they told me the day after surgery that I must make an effort to stand up and walk. Loopy as hell, with 100 machines hooked up to me and tubes coming our from everywhere (one or two in my neck, four in my abdomen, my catheter, IV), my first walk around the ward, then my breathing exercises, and the pain from my tubes – that was the worst of it, folks! The pain from those wretched tubes – I thought it would kill me! But I must tell you one thing: do not argue for the tubes to be taken out, no matter how bad it hurts! I had one in me for about 18 days after surgery – they sent me home with it. But they never had to do a puncture for built-up fluid, and my effusions healed nicely. I am grateful to that painful tube and that PA who talked me into keeping it in.

Then, there were the long days of trying to figure out how in the heck to sleep. I slept sitting up for months – definitely something to get used to; but I eventually became so tired that I didn’t care anymore. Then, after several months, I slowly lowered myself down. Then, there were the fights with the insurance company who wanted me back to work in a month, even when the doctor recommended at least 3 months of recovery. Then, there were the ups and downs of figuring out my coumadin dose; then, the ups and downs of figuring up the dose of my beta blocker. Then, the skewed BP and pulse numbers – which are still skewed today.

Then, the OCD I developed about being clean and not touching anything in public. Seriously – I used to laugh at people who used hand sanitizer, and now I practically drink it. There were the occasional visits to the ER or Urgent Care, too. The sleepless nights when a tooth hurt and I was thinking my infection will attack my valve. It didn’t.

Rehab was in there somewhere too. I thought I was going to throw up on my first day there, when they made me walk very slowly on a treadmill for 5 minutes! When I graduated, a couple of months later, I was walking 45 minutes and hardly breaking a sweat. But that could have been the coumadin – that thing makes me cold, to this day.

Then, the going back to work with people smiling and politely telling me I looked great, when I knew I didn’t. I got down to 95lbs and I looked like a pole with stuff on when I went back. Plus, my skin was gray. I learned from a heart book I read this year that OHS patients have a gray complexion, because the heart pumps oxygen weakly right after surgery, and the main organs (liver, kidneys and brain) get the oxygen first with the skin being last. I was gray for a long while after the surgery.

There are literally hundreds of things I have been through this year that come to mind every day that make me wonder how in the heck do I still stand on my feet?! Things I never felt before that now I am used to as part of who I am: the dizzy spells, the weird double vision spells, the forgetful pump head and the stuttering, the hoarse voice, the wild dreams on pain killers, the permanent “Charlie horse” feeling on my numb left arm, the shallow breathing, the tightness in my chest, like a shirt two sizes too small … the blood popped vessels in my eye, the bruises right after surgery, the weirder than weird BP values …the fear of bleeding to death from coumadin, and the even greater, more horrid, overpowering and permanent fear of blood clots interfering with my new valve… and I could go on for a whole day…

It’s also been a year of trying to get back to normal. My normal is my work, my husband, my travels. I remember the travels this past year, full of fear and emotion, but also more vivid, more acute, filled with life, because every one of them was another achievement towards that elusive “normal. The mountains, the rivers, and people I met feel more real than before. I take them in and internalize them all more acutely than ever. This is what is important, for me, that, crutches or not, I get out there and live life. I smile at precious things, I frown at ugly ones, I walk, I see the sky, I love, I hate, I do what makes me human. I owe it to my doctor and to God who both put me back together to do my part and show them that their work was not in vain; that there is still life in this beating heart and curiosity in my brain, and a drive to discover.

It’s really been a guessing game, every second of every day since February 12th of 2016, when I started my life on this “other side”. Every day, I discover a new feeling in my body, a new pain, or numbness, or betterment, even. Every day, I am amazed at what medicine, but mostly at what very brave people can do to mend hearts. Every day, I visualize what went on in my chest and how these bionic pieces are now working with my heart to keep me alive.

It’s amazing how much you learn about yourself and your body when you’re listening. This past year has been a journey into that, for sure – into listening and paying attention closely and re-learning my body and who I am to some extent. I took all the freedom and symptoms from before for granted. But now, every single thing means something and it gets me closer to my core.

I don’t hear my valve click, but I do hear my heart beat very strongly (stronger and louder than before) when it’s quiet at night. With every beat I am walking closer and closer to my end, and I am aware now more of that end than ever before. I don’t want any of these beats wasted. I want them full of meaning. Every precious beat is a gift. I want to sign a ‘thank you’ note to God for every beat I hear in my ear every night.

I still think of what happened every second of every day. I asked an OHS friend how long it took him to just never think about what happened in his chest, after having his aortic valve replaced. He said about 3 years. It’s a long time, I say, but in a way, I never want to be forgetting it. I do hope that one day I will surprise myself with “Ha! I did not think of my bionic heart at all today.” but I am not rushing that day … Just like this year has taught me: one step at a time, in due time.

Today also ends my self-imposed ban on air travel. My first flight since before the surgery will be in a couple of weeks and we’re shooting for a warm cruise. A little shy and nervous about it, but I am willing to let go a bit. I am ready to pack up with what I’ve got, the good and the bad, and head on to living life. It’s the reason why I was given a second chance: the show must go on.

The toughest question I get asked is “are you feeling better?” Or “Are you 100% yet?”. If this year has taught me anything is that “100%” is an elusive number. I don’t care who you are and what your life or health looks like, but none of us is ever 100%. But this does not stop us from living, does it?! I just want to scream at the top of my lungs that I am alive. Anything else is just bonus. I don’t judge the way I feel anymore. When people ask how I am, or if I have a good day, I now always say that “Any day when I am alive is a good day”. And really, I mean that. From the wholeness of my heart. People look at me weird. But OHS has shaken me up to the point that my frame of reference is completely changed than before – I am more grateful and more aware. If I had to pick two words to describe me now, these would be them.

Just like river water, we are never the same person we were even a second ago. We are just different. But nonetheless, we owe ourselves to move on, eager to meet the next “different” us.

I heard it for years in yoga that we just inhabit this body, it’s not ours, we just happen to find this host to carry us through this life. We’re responsible to keep it clean and safe and sane, just like we would any abode. But I have not truly believed that till my heart stopped and got rebooted and I came out of it and read my surgery report and really bowed down in humility that this body indeed does not belong to me. And I am grateful it was given to me to care for … I hope I do it proud!

You will go through this and you will learn so much about you, first and foremost. About what makes you tick (literally). About how strong you are and how fragile and emotional you are, too. My dad always told me that heart patients are emotional – I have found this to be true. This site is proof of that – you all have big hearts and juggle big emotions. I have learned so much from you all. I also have learned that I am more emotional than I like to admit. I blame the heart for that.

You will also learn a lot about so many of the things that we cannot control. Especially, you will learn to trust: trust in God, trust in your doctors, your nurses, your family (even when they don’t do the dishes just the way you like it, they are there for you, make your recovery easier, and keep you alive).

You will learn a lot about people, in general. About compassion or lack thereof, about caring and about science.

I have tried to live every second of the last year very much present and very much aware. I listen to my body more now. I know what it wants and when it wants it. I never ever put anything first before my body: if my body says I am tired, I stop. I left a job I loved because I was not able to close the door at 5 and just relax and give my body a break. I did not know how to relax before a year ago. Well I am glad to tell you – I love this relaxing stuff now. Some days, I am a total sloth – I just read, or paint, or knit, and let the dishes or the laundry wait another day. Some weekends are just lazy cat weekends with lots of comfort food and naps. Whatever I need, I give it to myself.

I have finally learned what the airlines tell us in every flight: put your own oxygen mask first, before you help someone else with theirs. In other words: you have to care for you, first, before you can be of any help to others.

I cannot believe this day has come. I cannot believe I have truly lived for 366 days (it was a leap year, last year) and muddled through this new me and have lived to tell you the tale. I was hoping that after all these days that big fog would be lifted and I would see the future more clearly. But it’s not true. We can never see into the future, no matter how perfect we think our lives are. We can only see the now and here, and what we can touch in arm’s reach. It’s up to us whether we make this perfect, or wait for the fog to lift.

The now is the only guarantee I have, so I am permanently living inside it, cherishing it, loving it, as if it were all I got. And it is. I know you think this is a cliché, but there is no tomorrow without exhausting the now and today. This year turned this cliché into just fact, for me. The quality of tomorrow is measured only by what I put into the quality of today. So, I am trying my damnest to make it worth it.

I wish every single one of you much courage and faith. There is peace to be found and you will find it, right before your big day. And after that, there are amazing resources within your own self that will carry you through every day that follows. Trust in yourself, and trust in the power of medicine. We live in a fortunate age which is truly amazing and we are given all the ammunition to use that medicine to be whole. Not necessarily better (that’s judgment), but whole and full.

And for those of you who can hear that click-clack of your valves, enjoy them! If that does not spell quite clearly “life”, I don’t know what does. And isn’t the sound of life the sweetest sound of all?!

Much health and strength to all of you, on my first second birthday!

What a difference a year makes: February 11, 2016 and 2017
What a difference a year makes: February 11, 2016 and 2017

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Blog Post by A.W.

About this Blog

In this blog I will follow my everyday journey of living with familial hypercholesterolemia (or FH). I am sharing my own experience with this inherited disorder, and how I manage it daily – from what literature I read on the topic and what my doctors say to how I live my life (what I eat, what medicine I take, how I exercise, etc). This is solely a personal account that might or might not offer some insight on what to expect when diagnosed with this condition. This blog does not offer advice, in any way, to anyone suffering from this disease.

One Response to “Random Thoughts on My First Year OHS Anniversary”

  1. Kathy Thompson

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I’m reaching my one year post CABGx4 Surgery in April and am planning on celebrating! I too remember the difficult days where a trip to the mailbox was an incredible feat. I’m now back to golfing and living life. I too have some fear when I travel…I wonder if I should ever be in a remote place far from hospitals? I try to live life and remember I did all those things before the surgery when I was in bad shape and didn’t even know it. Life is meant to be lived each day and as I watch the blossoms of spring beginning I realize it’s a new year for me as well!


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