My Guide to Surviving Open Heart Surgery (as a patient, not as a doctor ’cause I don’t know how to do that)

When I was 20 years old, I had my heart broken….


I was born with a heart murmur.  In addition to my hearing problem,  I also wear contacts and had a heart murmur. Some might say, I was born with a medical trifecta.

I was 20, it was winter break. I did not tell my friends so while I could lament that not a single friend really visited me in the hospital, truth be told, it’s kinda hard to visit a friend in the hospital if you don’t know they’re there in the first place. I’m not sure why I didn’t tell. This was pre-social media, so I couldn’t post it as a Facebook status. Although, that would have been a freaky check-in.

The week before was a bit terrifying. My professors were not all that sympathetic. I remember asking my Women in Comedy professor for an extension due to the fact that my mind was a bit more preoccupied with having someone cut into me rather than comparing and contrasting Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore, she said no. So I was offered no extensions, no breaks which I took as a way to get my mind off the issues of surgery.

I had known I would need this surgery when I was six. There had been doctors that had said I needed the surgery immediately and my parents looked for a second opinion because they are of that belief that if they don’t have to traumatize their children, they won’t. My parents are cool like that. So I waited and got it at twenty. Leading up to it was quite scary, there was blood that had to be given and my family members gave blood as well, there were shots and things I had to sign. There was that sheet with the list of side effects, one, of course, was….death. Now here’s lesson number one:

1. If possible, don’t read the list of side effects. Yes, it’s good to be informed. It’s good to know what might happen. but if you’re going in for major surgery… kinda know. So just don’t. Save yourself the trouble.

Now, I went in for the surgery as soon as Winter Break began. I packed up several giant duffle bags, stuffed them in my car and drove the hour-long trip home. I probably said goodbye to my group of favorite college girls but mentioned nothing about what I planned to be doing. Most likely, I said nothing all that important. Looking back,  maybe  I said nothing because if I had said something, that’s what every conversation would be about. In a small school, you live and breathe your friends. You hang out with them 24/7. You know every part of their lives and they know every part of yours so if I had told, every dining hall conversation would be regarding that so maybe I wanted to concentrate on my traditional dining hall meal of sad looking spaghetti and limp looking salad.

So lesson number two:

2. It’s a personal choice to tell whomever you want. There are upsides and downsides to telling, but be prepared for the consequences to each. I did ultimately tell one childhood friend who visited a lot, but that was it. For me, I wanted the days leading up to the surgery to be about normal things. Complaining about finals and papers right before Winter Break is as normal as it gets.

Right before the surgery, I was rolled into pediatrics. They had me across from a girl who was having back surgery. My doctor apologized, hoping I wouldn’t mind that I was in the same wing as children having surgery. I looked at the doctor and told him that considering the fact that I was having open heart surgery, I was not going to be all like, “yeah….this would have been fun if only….” The girl though seemed sweet and I think was only a couple years younger than I was. We talked briefly, not sure what about, but we chatted. I think we calmed each other down without realizing it. I never saw that girl again, have no clue what her name was and if I saw her walking down the street, I would have no idea that we had met before. You know those meetings? The ones where you know it’s a one-time thing, you’ll never see that person again both of you are aware of that which makes that connection even more important? It was comforting to chat with someone who was probably just as scared as I was.  Which brings us to the next lesson….

3. A season, a reason, a lifetime. The doctor had said that people had complained in the past about waiting for surgery in the pediatric wing. To me, it was a sign that once again, everything is bigger than you are. I knew I would be fine. Maybe it was my naivete, my optimism or maybe I just did not grasp the magnitude of what was happening, but I knew it would be okay and it was nice to connect with someone else who believed they were going to be fine as well. Always keep your optimism. Yes, I know unicorns don’t exist and there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but if you’re about to have major surgery, why not believe there is?

I do not remember the surgery, obviously. I have no, “I was awake during surgery” stories to tell so let’s move on to the after part. I woke up groggy. I don’t remember much. I remember things being blurry and I remember my family smiling at me and the color yellow. Someone was wearing a yellow jacket. I remember being wheeled into a room and there was a very hot male nurse. I made a point of telling my sister that, which made her laugh. I was surrounded by my parents, my sister, my childhood best friend and my grandmother which are really the only people you need sometimes. When you have major surgery, maybe all you need are the people who you know will be there: my mother, my father, my sister, a friend from childhood. Telling everyone would mean I’d be waiting for everyone, I’d be wondering if people would come, worried and upset if they didn’t and it was more important to remain there so here’s another lesson:

4. When going in for surgery, you can always count on family–hopefully. You’re groggy, you’re tired, you’re sore, you don’t look anywhere close to your adorable self and you have tubes sticking out of every part of you…..sometimes you need the people who have been there since day one, the ones who know your moods and know the exact things to say.

I recovered for several days. I also had to reinflate my lungs which hurt. Imagine trying to lift an elephant off your chest when you have no upper body strength? Tough.  It was kinda fun to blow into the tube and make the little tiny yellow ball go up and down in the reinflating lungs machine tube thing–there may be a more technical name for this.

They also accidentally touched a nerve in my left leg which when I walked felt like a million little knives stabbing me in the thigh. Basically, what they did was cut through my side and under my chest to do their job and despite occasional leg cramps, they did their job well.

I also did know there was good food at the UCLA Medical Center. Good frozen yogurt, which I had none of and I really enjoyed the red jello. Personally, I feel red jello is the best jello and if you are recovering from surgery, you will get the red jello because you know….open heart surgery. It has its benefits–you get all the red jello.

I also watched Must See Television. I remember this so vividly for some reason. I remember the episode of Friends I watched. It felt like a dream. Phoebe was volunteering with the Salvation Army and Rachel was going out with a guy who was too weirdly close to his sister…..even then I remember thinking–while morphine was running through my body— “this isn’t a very good episode”. I have seen it several hundred more times since then and I still don’t think it’s the greatest episode.

I also watched ER. Big mistake. The episode featured an overturned school bus and had a very creepy shot of the bus with blackened out windows. As a film major, it was an amazing shot, brilliant for 90’s technology actually but as a person recovering from surgery…..I could not change the channel fast enough.

Also, by the end of your stay, if you have extra flowers then give them to the hard working nurses. While I may not have told my friends, my room had no shortage of flowers from those who were in the know. It was truly amazing and really, be kind to the nurses. Always. I work with children all day, but even I would have to admit to not having the patience to be a nurse. In addition, if you’re nice to the nurses, they’ll hook you up with all the red jello you want. Just saying….

Next lesson:

5. Make the most of your hospital stay. Watch good television–no hospital dramas–and find ways to make your recovery more enjoyable. Be kind to people who are there with you or at that very least try. Also, have lots of red jello because it’s the best and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.

Oh, and I discovered that the blood that my family donated during surgery was not used. I asked and they don’t get that blood back. The more you know…..

I left the hospital after three days and went home to my big, brand new bed. Up until I left for college, I had bunk beds, but now I had a glorious wonderful bed that I actually still have because it is magnificent. It’s big and comfy and I want to live in it. Also, they tell you to rest after you get home….I went to lunch with my sister. Call it my work ethic, call it my refusal to complain or my stubbornness but I was fine. If I could eat lunch somewhere, I would. Next lesson….

6. Go with what your body tells you. If you feel okay to go out, then go. I wouldn’t suggest running marathons but no harm in going somewhere to eat and enjoying the people you’re with….

I recovered all month and drove back to school for second semester. I wasn’t allowed to lift heavy things which was fine with me, so when I told the two hot guys in my suite that I had open heart surgery and I needed someone to carry my bags for me, they happily did so and yes, I told hot guys before I told my closest friends. Sometimes you just have to make choices….

I did tell my closest friends that first night back in the dining hall when we all brought each other up to speed on our lives. They were worried, concerned, of course, but each reaction was exactly what I thought it would be. The differences between my pre-med and not pre-med friends were huge: the pre-med ones always want to know the details and non-pre-med ones just want to know if you’re fine. I was. I will continue to be. I still have scars, but I will never have them removed.  Why would I? I’ve had some experiences and those scars are a conversation piece.

No one was too upset that I did not tell them. When you tell the people closest to you, there’s an understanding. They understood and I love those college friends even more for how the reacted after the fact.

So here’s my final lesson… happens. Surgery happens. People have big things happen in their lives. Go into with optimism. Go into it wondering how many funny moments you can get out of it and believe in your own happy ending.


One thought on “My Guide to Surviving Open Heart Surgery (as a patient, not as a doctor ’cause I don’t know how to do that)

  1. i love you MER – I’ll never forget seeing you in recovery and waiting with ANDEE and dad while you were in surgery. We went to cpk, right? Feels like a lifetime ago. Also – remember how late you used to sleep in?!!!

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