Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of my second Open Heart Surgery. Don’t I look gorgeous? The first picture is me the morning of the surgery. The second was taken directly after surgery. For those who have major surgeries, the dates always stick out, the anniversaries, the memories, the pain, the fear, and hopefully the relief.

November 29th, 2006

My first child, Sophia, turned six months old that day. I remember being petrified. I was so scared I would die on the table and never see her grow up. I was anguished, worrying that she would grow up without a mother. Her dad is great, but the thought of her going through life, without me to help navigate, was crushing. Her first steps, words, foods, school, boys, periods, her body changing, her wedding , her kids. All without a mom.

I had breastfed her until two weeks before the surgery. It broke my heart to give that up. For both of us. Breastfeeding came naturally to her and me, once the initial phases had been gotten through. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold her for weeks after the surgery, which was just as mentally painful.

On the big day I had to be at the hospital, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, at around 6 a.m. I crept into Sophia’s room at 5 a.m. to look at her one last time. She was such an easy baby and the center of my world. As I stared down at her fast asleep in her crib, tears flooded my eyes, spilling down my cheeks. My husband, Gio, drove me to the hospital. We barely spoke in the car. I could see he was just as scared as I was.

On arrival at the hospital, I changed into a gown. The anesthesiologists came to ask what seemed like hundreds of questions. I could barely hear them speak. I was given various intravenous medications to help me relax, and antibiotics as prophylaxis pre-surgery. I developed what is known as Red Man’s Syndrome. Dear Lord, the itching was terrible. The medication to relax me worked a bit too well. I was very uninhibited. That on top of me usually being so. I proclaimed how itchy my arse was, specifying it was my actual butthole that was involved. I made sure they understood by loudly repeating this over and over again. I’m sure the other patients loved me! It did provide some light relief for my husband and me.

It came time for me to be wheeled back to the O.R. and be knocked out. I was to have my mitral valve replaced. I opted to have a tissue valve over a mechanical one, so I could have more children. I had Conor and Rebecca in between my two surgeries.

I woke up eight hours later intubated. The tube was pushing my lip against my teeth really hard. The morphine was taking care of the sternum pain, so all I could think of was my stupid lip. I engaged in a futile effort to let the nurse and my husband know. Eventually I was extubated. My surgeon, Dr. Patrick McCarthy came and told me all was well. However his notes stated that mine [was the most calcified apparatus he had ever seen] and that [it was with great difficulty that the new valve was placed]. All this from a world-renowned surgeon. I was lucky to be alive.

Some hours later I suddenly went blind, and could barely feel or move my left arm and leg. Staff went into overdrive. I was sent for a C.T. of my head to rule in/out a stroke. As I was being wheeled back, my vision started slowly coming back, albeit blurry. My arm and leg movement were slower to come back. I noticed I was starting to feel pain in my sternum. I was informed that all my pain meds had been stopped, so the neurologists could perform neuro tests at a specific frequency.

Within a couple of hours the pain was excruciating. The worst pain I have ever felt. I moaned, cried, and screamed in agony. Then more complications. I was losing so much blood, I required two units of blood to be transfused. Then came the pneumothorax (collapsed lung). This required a chest tube to be placed, all without pain meds. I am still surprised I did not pass out with the pain. I cannot describe how awful it was, except to say I begged them to let me die. I didn’t care that I had a six month old daughter at home who needed me. I was done. When several neuro tests were completed (over a day or two) with normal results, I was put back on the pain meds.

Enter shit. Feces. Then I started shitting every hour or so. On top of everything else, I had developed MRSA. Yay me. Even with morphine, getting in and out of bed, and generally moving about is extremely painful post-op. I had to somehow get in and out of bed and quickly to the toilet. Fun times.

I remember moving from the I.C.U. to the regular cardiac ward. I just bawled crying against my husband’s chest unable to get myself into bed. I was in constant excruciating pain.

I left the hospital after seven days. I was still in a lot of pain, which slowly subsided over the following weeks. The neurological problems were deemed to be caused by a T.I.A. (transient ischemic attack), commonly known as a mini-stroke. The cause of the T.I.A. was either a blood clot, or a small piece of calcium that became dislodged in my heart during surgery.

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Dr. Patrick McCarthy
Executive Director, Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute
Chief of Cardiac Surgery in the Department of Surgery

March 20th, 2014

My husband, three kids, and I were due to go to Ireland in the summer of 2014. I got the all-clear to travel from my cardiologist, Dr. Marla Mendelson, in December 2013, and so we booked the trip. Within a couple of months I became extremely short of breath. I could not walk a block without having to stop. One day I went out with colleagues for lunch. I had to stop just around the corner. I couldn’t walk back to the office without waiting for a few minutes to get me breath back. I called my Primary Care Physician once I got back to work. He saw me that evening, and sent me straight to the Emergency Department.

I knew my symptoms could not be related to my heart, because I had been cleared in December. Once I got to hospital some basic tests were done. It looked like I was going to be discharged, because I had such recent tests showing my heart was okay. A doctor came in however when I was sitting in a chair. She asked me to get up on the gurney to be examined. When she saw how breathless I became just moving from the chair to the bed, she told me I wasn’t going anywhere.

I was admitted to Northwestern again. Several tests were run over the following few days. They confirmed my worst fears – I needed another operation. No one could account for how rapid the deterioration of my valves were. It seems a cascade effect happened. This time I would need two valves replaced, my mitral and aortic valves, and part of my aorta. They gave my case to a different surgeon, who by all accounts is excellent. I begged to have the surgeon I had the first time around. I wasn’t successful initially, but once I asked the resident to show Dr. McCarthy the report from my first surgery, he remembered my case and agreed to do it.

I had about three weeks to prepare for surgery. I went to work each day, came home, and hung out with the kids. I talked to friends and colleagues about my upcoming surgery. I felt completely calm, but still was sure I’d die. I called my parents from work the day before the surgery, to say goodbye (permanently). They were very brave, but it was a terrifying conversation for them.

On March 20th, 2014 I had to face my second Open Heart Surgery. I had a seven year old, a five year old, and a twenty-one month old, Becca, at home. Once again I crept into their rooms. Saying goodbye to Rebecca was like deva-vu from saying goodbye to Sophia the first time around. I was convinced she would never know me. The surgeon had given me a 10% risk to life, but in my core I believed I would not make it through.

This time around I had no complications in hospital. I was surprised when I woke up that I was indeed alive. I had my mitral and aortic valves replaced with mechanical valves. Mechanical valves should last a lifetime, and since I didn’t want anymore kids, they were the simple option. I did not need part of my aorta replaced. Once Dr. McCarthy went in, he felt it was unnecessary.

I went home after five days. That evening my right leg ballooned up, and I had extreme pain in my right groin. The leg issue was a clot which resolved on its own. The groin turned out to be a huge hematoma the size of the palm of my hand. It spread from the top of my leg well across the midline of my pubic bone. The pain was a nine out of ten. I would have described it as a ten had I not been through a true ten after my first surgery.

I was admitted and given dilaudid intravenously for pain, which is magical. I just didn’t care about the pain. They shouldn’t give that stuff to addicts because it’s awesome. That’s okay because I wasn’t officially diagnosed as an alcoholic at this stage.

Once again, recovery was painful, difficult, emotional, and slow. Depression often follows Open Heart Surgery, and certainly my two surgeries took their emotional toll on me. I’m sure my current struggles with depression have some root in my operations. Anyway. The hope is that I’ll never need O.H.S. again. I have been diagnosed with Coronary Artery Disease since then, but hope it doesn’t impinge too much on my day-to-day living. I would like to put all this behind me, but I will need to see my cardiologist regularly for life. I have many scars all over my chest, abdomen, and groin as reminders of those difficult times. Usually I’m not all that bothered by it all, but it has had a huge influence on who I am, how I feel, and my outlook on life. I am hugely grateful for the time and place I live in. For the second and third chances at life. I sometimes feel bitter about the hand I’ve been dealt, but it tends not to last. It is behind me now. I hope!

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