OHS – Open Heart Surgery – My story

“Being a mechanic, shop owner, writer, lecturer, and teacher 
I tend to ‘think’ I’m capable of answering any question, take 
on any challenge, and solve any problem that comes my way. 
 This… is one time, I wasn’t able to do so.” Gonzo

How it all started

    Leading up to my zipper (which is slang for open heart 
surgery) I thought I was just getting old and tired. For 
two years or so, I had a very slight off and on chest 
pain that didn’t last longer than a few minutes. It hurt, but 
I wasn’t concerned. As soon as the pain dissipated I forgot 
all about it. Most of the time I would have months between 
incidences, but that gradually changed to an all-out crushing 
pressure that lingered longer and longer between no pain 
and intense pain. The increasing occurrences went from 
once in a while, to once a month, to too often to consider 
it something other than what it was… a heart attack.  

     Things that I used to do in a few minutes seemed to take hours. I’ve always been a hands on and very physical type of guy. Never one to pass on heavy lifting or something that was physically demanding, but this “slowing down” stuff was just the something that you couldn’t ignore. It was time to see a doctor. An appointment was made, but as usual the pain subsided and I was busy at the shop, so on I went back at it as hard as I normally went at it. Thinking as usual, that I was as tough as a grizzly and could solve this like any other problem I’ve encountered. 

      There were a lot of signs leading up to my eventual heart attacks, (yes plural…as in several), but as with most boldly-go-where-no-man-has-gone-pig headed “A” personality-types with the personal drive of a MAC truck, and someone who still thinks he can keep up with the twenty something crowd (speaking of myself, of course) – and one who doesn’t listen to their own body or loved ones about your own demise, I ignored the signs. You fall into the trap of misdiagnosing yourself and possibly ending your career and family life all in one fatal swoop. If that’s you, then you’re bound to end up on the floor in the fetal position clutching your chest in extreme agony. (Been there…done that). 

The ER

     So, it’s no surprise I ended up in the ER with my son trying to carry his old man through the doors, while my wife is frantically making hand gestures seeking help from the nursing staff. It wasn’t long before I was zipped (Gotta love that word, ya know) off into an awaiting curtained off room. A few quick tests confirmed that this old guy wasn’t heading home any time soon. Even the doctor who first examined me was in shock. He said, “Most everyone I see this bad off are downstairs … with the sheet over their face … if ya get my drift.” He went as far as pulling up the blanket and resting his arm alongside of my leg to show the color differences. Wow, now I’m shocked.

    All of this led to more tests, and more tests. By now all of my kids have flown into town to be at my side. Stents were tried, but that didn’t work. All that did was give me a few jolts with the paddles and a few burn marks to show for their efforts. (Nice mementos don’t ya think.) Anyway, this all led to even more tests and a trip to another hospital to be put on the schedule for my eventual zipper club initiation ceremony. In other words, an open heart surgery. 

The first encounter with reality

    After my ride in the ambulance on my first day at the “new” hospital I was sitting there in my room, in between one monitoring device and another with my two grown daughters holding each hand, I started to feel something wasn’t right. I’m still a bit groggy from the stent debacle from the last hospital, but I could tell the medication was wearing off. Just then, another massive heart attack decided to invite itself. My only thought was… “Don’t you die with both your daughters holding your hands, ya old fart… pull yourself together!” The wife was already out of the room looking for the nurse. The nurse, quite calmly hit the code button, and methodically, as to not bring on any more chaos from the scene which was already happening, carried in a nitro pill for me. In just a few seconds the pill dissolved under my tongue and I could feel the pain and pressure lifting away.

Waiting on surgery day

    A few days passed, I’ve been poked and prodded, medicated and subdued by so many different IV’s and pills that I’m feeling like a new guy already. Even though the actual surgery is still days away. Friends and family called or stopped by on a regular basis. Physically, you can deal with this, emotionally, I don’t know how to put it all into words. At best, all I can say is that nearly everything you do, hear, or read about has a higher emotional connotation than ever before. You’ll have no idea how much your emotional state is brought to the surface while going through all of this. I’ve never been one to cry at the drop of a tissue, but I found myself in these uncontrollable moments over some of the silliest things. I was later told it’s the medication, then I was told… it’s your heart speaking out, I’m not sure what it is… but it certainly is a change from the norm. (For anyone who has been through this you know exactly what I mean)

Big John

    The night before the actual operation my usual nursing staff was in for a bit of a change. The typical female nurse was replaced with BIG John. Oh yes, I mean big too. 6’5” and towering over everyone and anything. His job was to get me prepped for the operation. Now, I’m not a little guy myself. I’m no 6’5” but I’m not a frail little guy by any means. Big John comes into my room carrying several items. First there was the bacterial wash. “Use this entire bottle and don’t miss a spot,” John tells me. Then, there were these two pill cups. John presses the cups in my direction. “OK, these you take orally, and this one goes knuckle deep, and I’ve got to make sure you’ve done both.” The realization of why “Big John” was here on this special occasion has become apparent. If I don’t get this done myself… I’m pretty sure he will. Obviously, modesty has left the building quite some time ago, so it wasn’t a stretch to be in the same room with this mammoth individual while I made the knuckle deep insertion. Although, he wasn’t present for the eventual outcome he was well aware of the results. I don’t know what they put in those, but a toilet seat belt and ceiling padding would have been appropriate. 


    The surgery itself (as I was told, because even though I was there…what the heck could I tell you about it) had a few difficulties, but as if it’s not noticeable by now I made it through with my heart beat intact. The surgeon performs an operation called a CABG (Coronary Artery Bypass Graft). Mine was a double, meaning two grafts were made. One graft was taken from the left side of the chest and one was taken from behind the left knee. A heart pump is used during the operation to ensure a steady flow while the heart is being worked on. Believe me, you (the patient) have no idea what is going on until you’re told later on. Hopefully, when the medication wears off and you’re coherent. For me, the wife had to retell and retell the whole thing to me, because I wasn’t comprehending much of anything for quite some time. 


    The ICU (Intensive care unit) is a whole new experience. The first thing is the introduction prior to the surgery. I was wheeled into the adjacent room to the operating room where I would be monitored and was told what to expect when I first woke up from the surgery. The big thing the nurse kept stressing was that I would feel some discomfort from the breathing tube and not to make any attempts to pull it out. Besides I would be strapped down to the table for my own safety. I remember waking up and hearing the nurses talking to each other, “He’s coming to, be ready.” “OK sir, don’t pull it out…Don’t pull it out!” I realized where and what was going on and understood her commands. To me it was just seconds ago that she had told me to not try to pull out the breathing tube, but in reality it was about five or six hours later. However, the “minor discomfort” was over shadowed by the fact you’re trying to breathe through a drinking straw. That I wasn’t expecting at all. Yea, Uhm Ms. Nurse… you forgot to mention that part.  

    My night nurse for ICU was the most anal retentive-OCD person I’ve ever met. The guy spent every waking hour neatly aligning all of the monitors, bottles, tubes, and me over and over again as if we were about to have the commanding general stop by for an inspection. Although, when the day came for me to be wheeled back into a regular room a new nurse was assigned the task. My OCD nurse was sent off to another patients ICU room to straighten up their hoses and IV units. The new nurse on the other hand, starting grabbing monitors, IV’s and whatever else needed to go, or that was still attached, and flung them on or around me while I was seated in an oversized recliner. At one point she said to me as monitors were being tossed about, “Hold this…and this… and this.” and before long I’m being wheeled down the hallway at record setting speeds as if it’s the Indy 500, only slowing down to make the corners or to change elevators. The overhead florescent lights were moving by so fast I thought they were camera flashes. I’m not sure the reason for the mad dash down the hallways, but it sure was the quickest sprint I’ve ever been on while in a recliner.

Sleeping in at the hospital

    Not that I hate hospitals, OK… I’m not their no#1 fan, but a hospital is not the place to get any sleep. It seemed at exactly 5 minutes past the hour-every hour-day or night somebody was going to come into the room. 7 o’clock was the worst. That was shift change and it never failed that somebody didn’t tell somebody about what somebody was to do or not do, which meant even more trips in and out of the room. I learned very quickly that the best way to avoid the ever persistent knocking on the door was to just leave the door open….at least that way they didn’t knock, and if you were just about to doze off you might actually catch a bit of shut eye before the next round of visitors, and if you’re really lucky you could avoid the guy coming in to check the serial number on the IV for the UPTEENTH time.

    It was always the same guy at least twice a day from the inventory department. I told him, “Dude, look around, I’m stuck in this room with this IV monitor and I assure you if anybody comes in here and steals it, replaces it with one that looks just like it, I guarantee I’ll call you and let you know. With all these interruptions I’m awake 24-7 which means me and this IV have become the best of friends. I’m dammed sure this is the same IV unit that was here yesterday! So why in the world do you need to come in and scan the serial number twice a day?!” I don’t think I came off as his next best pal by a long shot. 

    Eventually, the day came to get out of the hospital. One the happiest days of my new life. Me and my IV had to part ways, and no, I didn’t tell the inventory guy. 

Home at last

    When you finally get to be home, start your rehab schedule, and try to reassemble your now broken apart life, you begin to reevaluate what is most important for your future. Walking is your foremost concern. I had a routine I would do and set a goal each day a bit farther than the previous day. Oh, I’d push it too far, and the wife or my son would have to come haul the emotionally incoherent old guy off of our hilly driveway more than once. It does get better, but it does take time.  

    You soon learn new routines, things like coughing and sneezing should only be done if your heart pillow or Teddy bear are close by. Squeezing the pillow (or bear) against your chest prevents you from popping your sternum open. You also learn how to stand up and roll over without using your upper body as much as you previously did. Sleeping in a bed is out, at least for a month or so (if not longer) you’ll have to learn how to be comfortable in a recliner 24-7. Breathing, talking, walking, and bathing, etc… all have their problems that you’ll need to overcome. And, probably the most important thing or the most annoying, (Your interpretation may vary) is the now-and-for-ever-more medications you’ll be on. 

Putting it all into perspective

    Family and friends take precedence over work and bills. The realization that life is all about a beginning and an end and that you’ve been given a chance to change your life’s conclusion differently than what it could have been. Not that you need a lightning bolt to drop out of the sky to tell you to change your life…but a heart attack and open heart surgery is close enough to the same thing. So heed the warning, do yourself a favor. Except it for what it is, and discover what is more important. Not a lot of people get this second chance. For some, it’s as sudden and as unexpected as a car crash. I feel there’s reason for every action and reaction. It’s how you cope and/or do with those actions and reactions that makes the difference.  

    Life is what you make of it. There is no perfect solution, there is no golden key, it’s up to you to make something of it all. It’s not money or fame… just you. As we’ve all heard before, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have much at all.” True to some extent, but not always true and not always is your health something that you can have the way you’d like it to be. What is possible is living life to the fullest no matter what the odds. I for one, love to hear stories of people who have found out they have some sort of rare disease and decided to fill their bucket list of personal accomplishments until their time has expired. I commend them and hope I can do the same. 

    So even though my stamina and strength may not be equal to what it was of years past, I’m still able to experience all there is out there. For me, I’d like to think I still can try. Maybe it’s not all about the challenges, maybe it’s not all about solutions, perhaps it’s just about the adventure. Becoming a member of the Zipper Club isn’t the end… it’s a new beginning.  

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