Then and Now. A Path to Recovery

Blog Post from My Journey with Familial Hypercholesterolemia and Heart Disease

I have been pondering upon life and the resilience we have, the stubbornness we have come equipped with from birth to embrace it. To fight on. To stay on the path of making ourselves stronger and to live.

This piece is for all the people out there who are just now finding out they have to have surgery, or for those who are about to walk into the pre-op appointment tomorrow and are wondering how will they ever come out of this daunting experience. And also for those who have put the surgery behind them but are now going through the hard first days and weeks of finding their new normal. This is also for everyone who, I know, can relate. This is for you all.

I was thinking recently about what all happened to me in early 2016 when I had my surgery. I walked into that hospital in Utah on my own two legs. I was rolled into the anesthesia room at around 7 AM with a smile on my face. They gave me that first (I think) IV shot of whatever … and I slipped away into the big slumber (I think, as I cannot remember anything till the next day around 2 AM when I woke up in the ICU with what seemed like a whole army of nurses around me).

I was thinking the other day about what all happened to my body in those hours, and it made me stop in my tracks. This really did happen. They took me to the OR and they stopped my heart. They cut my chest open, then my heart open (I think). They sunk me in buckets and buckets of ice to “freeze” me during the circulatory arrest procedure they had to do to trick my brain that it did not need that much oxygen to survive. They put me on this machine that pumped the blood and breathed for me for many hours. They removed my aortic valve, and then they removed my ascending aorta. At this point, there was no life-giving blood flowing through my arteries. Only some flowing through my veins, tricking my brain that it was OK not to breathe.

They replaced my aorta with a man-made graft and did the same for my aortic valve and root. They “cleaned out” (cut into the walls and removed the bad tissue of) my aortic arch which was thick with plaque. They “un-froze” me next and then started working on my by-passes. They removed veins from my left leg and sewed them onto my heart and did the same thing with the arteries from my chest – to bypass sick arteries. Somehow, through another big miracle, after they stopped the heart and lung machine my heart jolted itself on its own back into beating and making me a whole person again. Later on, my lungs started breathing on their own.

In essence, I was dead, really, if that machine would have stopped and the three surgeons, one anesthesiologist, one “heart-and-lung machine guy” (as my surgeon called him), three PAs and the army of nurses and other staff would have walked away on me. But they didn’t. And I was breathing on my own by the time my husband saw me, in the middle of the night, and then when he left to go home.

When I got home from the hospital, after having a heart attack while in the hospital, 8 days after the surgery, I could not do a lot of things that are routine for any normally functioning human being. I could not open doors that were too heavy, including my refrigerator door. I could not tie my own shoes – I could not bend over at all. I could not clip my nails, because of the neuropathy in my fingers. I could not put on my socks. I took them off with my other foot. I could not wear a seat belt nor carry my purse on my shoulder or on my back. I could not wear a bra. I did not sleep on my back or my side; I slept sitting up for six months. After three months of medical leave, I went to work pulling a dolly that carried my purse and my lunch bag. I snuck into the building and in offices behind someone that would open the large, very heavy doors for me. I learned pretty fast where all the doors that let you push them open, rather than pull are, because I was afraid my chest would pop open if I struggled to open them myself.

Most of all. I was tired a lot. I was tired even after not doing anything at all. I was drained. I did not sleep well, but I watched a lot of TV, spent a lot of time on social media, and read a lot. I was not able to even cook, as a pot of water was too heavy to carry. I just rested. A lot. Well, I laid there – it did not feel very restful at all.

I remember writing during those early days of recovery that I cannot imagine being normal again, traveling, going about my normal life. And someone, a kind soul, told me that then I was praying for “good hours, but in time they will become good days and later good weeks.” I was dubious. But those words turned out to be true.

In the past two years and almost 5 months, I slowly grew stronger, just like that kind person predicted for me (or rather shared from experience). I started taking trips by plane again after a year. I visited three countries and went on a cruise a year after the surgery. This year, I flew across the ocean and visited my family in Europe. I carried my carry-on and my heavy backpack during security check-ins and switching gates in several airports. I drove across the USA last year, all by myself, when we moved from Utah to North Carolina. I did wear a seat belt with no trouble then.

I just took my first trip alone for a week, for work. I packed my carry-on with clothes, shoes, toiletries and gifts for a week, and had again a very heavy backpack with my purse and computer in it. Carried them all on my body, and lifted the heavy carry-on above my head and put it in the overhead bin with no problem, not even a sweat. My husband and I just finished staining our screened-in patio a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday. We worked together, side by side. We did about the same amount of work, although he did most of the “up high” areas, and I did the floor and the lower areas. It was 95F and about 70% humidity that day, and about half of that day we were in direct sunlight. I did fine.

I remember I did not plant a garden the year of my surgery because I could not sit or bent over in the sun at that time. Sunny days (even with no humidity) tired me so easily. While staining my deck I was in awe at how much different, stronger, my body has become in just two years and a little bit … I never hoped I could come this far. And I am not perfect, and there are still things I am working on two years and five months later, but I know one day I will reach most of them, just like I did all these other milestones …

If I have learned anything from this experience is that we are strong. We are built to fight, and we should give ourselves and our bodies more credit than we are inclined to to begin with. Thinking back at all these things that happened to my body and knowing how I feel today fills me with humility and gratitude!

I wish everyone happy summers, strong recoveries (they can be only as fast as you are comfortable with), and the faith that one day you will be whole again. I am just one living example that that is possible …

Much health and … keep on ticking!

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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.

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