Perils and Pitfalls of Heart Surgery


As of the day I write this post, it’s been exactly 4 months since I had open-heart surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. Since I was a teenager I had been misdiagnosed. First, it was a pulled muscle when my mother rushed me to the ER in high school afraid I was having a heart attack. Then, in my early twenties after almost passing out from heart palpitations due to stress, I was diagnosed with MVP (MitroValve Prolapse). MVP is a very common diagnosis in women, so I’ve been told. So for the past XX years (not telling you how old I am!) I have been running around with a heart condition that could have killed me instantly if I was too active. Thank goodness I haven’t been very athletic since my time in Army!

My super rare condition is known as Anomalous Right Coronary Artery. (click the condition and you will be taken to Stanford’s website to describe the condition in detail.)

Basically, there are two main arteries going through your heart with a few veins along the sides. They pump blood to your heart and if one of the veins coming off a main artery is in a bad spot, you could have limited blood flow to your most important muscle. It’s estimated less than 100,000 people in the US have this condition. Have you heard of healthy athletes dying instantly of a heart attack? One of the causes is an ARCA (Anomalous Right Coronary Artery). Turns out the only time it’s good to live a sedentary life is when you have an ARCA and don’t know it!

open-heart surgery

I would get chest pains and have difficulty breathing at different times over the years and just ignored it because that is common when you have MVP.

A couple of years ago the VA did a heart scan and told me I didn’t have MVP. So when I complained this past summer of chest pains to my VA primary care doctor, she ordered a couple of tests. One being a cardiac stress test. I had an episode on the treadmill during my stress test. We stopped the treadmill and the cardiologist was informed of my situation. He said he would review my tests and get back to me. Two days later I had an appointment with a Cardiac Fellow.

I have to stop and say that the man who first saw me was a smokin’ hot Spaniard doing his Cardiac Fellowship at my local VA hospital! He made the trip to the hospital worth it! I also must admit I flirted with him! I’m so shameless! LOL

While I was with him, I had another episode of chest pains. They had been increasing in number as well as the severity of pain. I still didn’t understand what exactly was going on. I had only told my roommate who happens to be my cousin and her mom, my aunt. I didn’t tell anyone else because I didn’t think it was anything major.

Within just a few weeks I was scheduled for a surgical consult with a specialist at the Palo Alto VA hospital. I flew up to see him and learned he was a pre-eminent cardiothoracic surgeon who was well known for the surgery required to fix an ARCA. I went up on Thursday and was supposed to fly home later that day. They kept me overnight because they wanted to do a cardiac catheterization on the spot.

Turns out, when my surgeon, Dr. Burdon, says jump, everyone says, “How high?” He rushed through the cardiac test and had the results within a few hours.

This man runs the program at the VA hospital in addition to Stanford Medical, which is just a few miles away from the VA hospital in Palo Alto! And I’m very glad for the fantastic treatment I received! On that Thursday he scheduled my surgery for 4 days later! He was worried I wouldn’t survive a heart attack if I waited any longer.

When they wheeled me into surgery, I requested a cabana boy for when I came out of it. No cabana boy when I awoke!

open-heart surgery

Me right after they took out my breathing tube. Probably 4 hours post surgery

Did you know when you go in for surgery you are totally naked on the operating table? I didn’t know it until after the surgery and I discovered I was only covered with sheets and a blanket. Total commando underneath it all!

When I went under I had two IV lines in me. When I woke up I had 5! Three in my arms, one in my neck (carotid artery), and one in my thigh. I also had a catheter and a chest tube inside me when I awoke. See all of those lines and bags hooked up to me? ugh!

When I woke up I was madder than a bee about to sting you! Dr. Burdon told me I would be sedated for up to 24 hours after the surgery. He did warn me when I woke up I would still have my breathing tube down my throat, because they wanted to make sure I could breathe before removing it. Instead, he woke me up only 2 hours after surgery and I had still had the tube! I was awake by 1PM on that Monday afternoon! I don’t remember it, but my aunt told me I called my doctor a liar and a few other choice words! LOL But, to be fair, I was in a ton of pain! They had put me in a weird position on the operating table and it caused a severe spasm all through my back. I was literally hunched over within a few hours after waking up. They put a heating pad under me and I kept turning it on every couple of hours because it has an auto-off function. The nurses all helped by giving me back massages. Not even the highest level of pain meds (dilaudid) worked to take the pain away!

Too bad my original cardiac fellowship candidate wasn’t in Palo Alto! I would have loved to get a back massage from him! LOL

Have you seen The Exorcist? The original one with Linda Blair? Remember when she had green projectile vomiting? I always thought that was silly. Until the night of my surgery! I spewed red all over me, my bed, and my nurse 3 times before I finally stopped! They had to take all of my linens off and give me a sponge bath only a few hours after surgery! Not fun! Learn from my experience, DON’T DRINK CRANBERRY JUICE after major surgery!

This is what I felt like:

But this is what I looked like the next day:

open-heart surgery

on day 2 it’s normal to be put into a chair. I slept a lot the first few days in the chair.

I spent 5 days in ICU before being taken to the cardiac ward. One of the good things about being a woman in the VA hospital was I received a private room! Woot Woot! Also, the surgery was 100% free!

When they closed me up they used a procedure and bandage called, AquaGel. They stitched me up inside like normal, and then instead of staples or stitches in my skin, they glued my chest back together and put a funky bandage on it. As seen here:

Honestly, what does that bandage on my chest look like to you? LOL But it is designed to help heal the skin much faster than using staples, which some doctors are still doing! Ugh!

Most patients are kicked out of the hospital 5 days after open-heart surgery due to insurance not wanting to pay for more days. In the VA, there is not an insurance person screaming to kick patients to the curb! I stayed in for 9 days! Yikes! I was soooo ready to go home after 7 days. My doctor normally keeps his patients from 10 – 14 days! I promised him I would stay a week at my aunt and uncle’s house so they could take care of me if he sent me home early. He agreed!

But, before I could leave the hospital I had to wait until my chest tube had finished draining. They took it out and stitched up that hole on day 7. Then he wanted me to do more with the therapist before I went home. Thankfully, I didn’t have to go anywhere for therapy when I got home. My local cardiac doctor let me do my therapy at home and I am still doing it! I have lost 20 lbs since surgery just by walking every day.

Me right after they took off the funky bandage

I will tell you having a goal is very helpful for healing. I had made plans to attend a writer’s conference in Vegas on November 2. This wasn’t even 6 weeks after my surgery. The doctor wasn’t sure if I could go. I certainly couldn’t drive to Vegas. I had to stay in the back seat until after the 6-week mark just in case I was in an accident. They didn’t want anything to mess up my sternum while it was setting back into place. But I did everything my surgeon said and he let me go! I’ll admit I overdid it a couple of times. Bad Jen! But it was so much fun! Meeting all of the authors I interacted with online was so much fun!

Here I am with Bryan Cohen and Craig Martelle! If you expand the picture and look really closely you can see the top of my scar. It’s tough to see. My shirt scooched over during the photo but you can see a red spot just above the corner of my v-neck shirt on my right side.

I’ll admit I did take a walker and used it. I tried to do dinner without it on the last night and regretted it. My walker was cool, but I must admit I hated appearing so week. No one could even believe I was there! Even though I told everyone I was going, most didn’t think I would actually make it! I have an author friend who has gone through much worse health issues than I have and he offered to let me drive up with him and his wife! Brandon Barr is a totally cool guy and his wife is super nice! I had a great road trip with them!

Here’s a better pic of my healing scar:

Only a few days after I went home to place. Almost 3 weeks after surgery.

My first three months of recovery moved along very nicely and without any issues! I was healing faster than most expected. Until I got bronchitis and a sinus infection all at once. Stay tuned for another blog about how I broke my healing sternum and what the doctors plan to do about it. 🙁

I will say this, tons of prayers and a positive attitude will help heal a body much faster than being negative! So, If you are going through something like this, do everything you can to keep a positive attitude and remember, God is in control. Trust his plan and you won’t worry nearly as much!

I want to thank everyone for their prayers and well wishes! I’m not done healing and have recently suffered a setback, but I’m in good spirits and trust in God to guide me through this all!

December 8 at Disneyland with my niece and nephew