Monday, December 14, 2009

10 Years Ago today....

I had open heart surgery to repair an ASD (atrial septal defect). An ASD is a hole between the right and left atrium, all babies while in the womb have this hole so blood can pass through the heart, after birth and the first breath that hole begins to close. Mine never did.

How we found out: I was a swimmer in high school and would occasionally have boughts of rapid heart rate, after one fairly intense episode my mom decided it was time to take me to the doctor. My pediatrician (I was 17) did an EKG and the results were abnormal but not abnormal enough to be too concerned about but knowing that my parent's were worried they referred us to a pediatric cardiologist. He decided to do an ECHO, my mom had to work so my dad took me. As I laid in that room while the technician did the ECHO I watched his face the whole time and when I saw him scrunch up his brow in confusion I knew there was a problem. The cardiologist came in and had a look and told my dad and I that I had a hole in my heart and I could either get it fixed now or die when I'm forty (an ASD causes blood to pump through the heart a second time which causes the heart to enlarge, if it goes unrepaired your heart can get so large that it cannot function). We were dumbstruck, numb, and confused. My dad called my mom and told her what this doctor had said and she experienced the same emotions, I'm sure. My mom is a nurse, and used to work in the cardiac care unit so she knew quite a few cardiologists in town and asked one of them for a second opinion. This doctor did a different test a TEE, they basically stick a camera down your throat to look at your heart from the backside. This test was by far the worst experience of my life to date including the open heart surgery. They did not give me enough medicine to put me under so I felt everything and remember every detail. After that experience the only questions I ever had of the surgeon were "Will I be asleep?" The TEE confirmed that I did indeed have a hole in my heart roughly the size of a quarter. This happened in September and they scheduled my surgery for December 14th.

Preparation: There was a lot I had to do to prepare. I had to give 2 pints of blood for myself, I am O- so I can give to everyone but only receive my own blood type. I had to go to the doctor for more tests and consultations. I had to start eating red meat again (I had stopped eating red meat for about a year and a half) and I had to put bactriban in my nose to keep me from getting sick and to keep my immune system strong. During all of this from diagnosis to surgery, I was never scared. Which is shocking since I'm such a worry wart but I wasn't worried at all. My family on the other hand was scared to death especially my mom. She was a CICU nurse, she had seen what could go wrong and she was afraid for my life.

December 14, 1999: The night before and morning of I had to shower in this milk-like substance and get up entirely too early. My family and I made our way to the hospital that morning and they took me back where they made me change clothes and gave me an anti-anxiety pill, they let my family come in to tell me bye (this was the hardest part), my parents stayed with me as they rolled me into the hall but then I was all alone being rolled down a long corridor and I heard my mom yell down the hall "and she was very old." My screen is beginning to get blurry but I do need to tell you why she yelled that; my mom as I told you earlier was very scared and the morning of my surgery in her devotional the scripture was Luke 2:36-37 "There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old..." This brought my mother peace and it was one of the last things I heard before going in for open heart surgery. They took me into the prep room (I don't know the real name but the place where they put you under before they take you into the OR) and began pushing my iv's. The anesthesiolgist came in and was surprised to see me awake. She said that usually people are asleep before she comes in and asked me if other people in my family were hard to put under, since I didn't know they called for my mom to come up. My mom got to come up and ended up knowing my anesthesiologist, so as they talked I slowly drifted off with my mom holding my hand. Over the course of my surgery my family began to realize just how many people that we knew were around me. My mom had known the anesthesiologist, one of the nurses in the room during my surgery was the sister of a girl I worked with, the first nurse I had after my surgery was not only a friend of my mom's but the aunt of one of my best friends. I was surrounded by people who knew me and that was so comforting to me and my family. I won't lie, the first hours after my surgery were awful especially when they had to weigh me (they had to lay me down flat and that was brutal).
Unlike most open heart patients I was awake the first hour after my surgery, I remember my first visitors and the details of what they said, I remember my boyfriend coming in and trying to make him kiss me, I remember my best friend coming in and going as white as a ghost (I'm sure I looked pretty scary with numerous tubes coming out of me), I remember coercing my dad into giving me more ice chips than the nurses allowed (I was so thirsty), I remember the nurses giving me baths in the CICU, I remember it all and every one of the cardiologists were befuddled that I was as alert as I was only hours after my operation. My favorite nurse was one of my night nurses the second night after my surgery. She was a rather large African American lady and she babied me. She knew I hated to be weighed (oh the pain) so she gave me more pain medicine than anyone else did and she never laid the bed down as much as the other nurses did.

Recovery: My surgery was on a Tuesday and by Wednesday I was tired of being there so I told my doctor that I was going home on Friday. He told me that the chances of that were slim. I told him that I would prove him wrong. Recovery went smooth but was not without intense pain. I had to have 10-12 vials of blood drawn a day, I was overcome with awful nausea and vomiting only left me in more pain that I was before, I had to have pace makers, tubes, and catheters removed, I would not eat because I was so afraid that food would come smushing out the separation in my chest (it wouldn't have done that but I was scared it would); I lost 20 pounds in 4 days, I saw many visitors and some I didn't see at all because they came to sit with my family in the waiting room, I saw my grandfather (one of the strongest men I knew) break down in tears at the sight of me, I knew that even though I was alone in my room for the majority of the time (hospital rules only allowed visitors in every other hour for 30 minutes) that one or both of my parents were sitting 30 yards away in the waiting room, and I knew that all I wanted was to go home. I did go home on Friday, much to the shock and awe of the cardiologists and nurses. It wasn't much easier at home but at least I was at home.

Aftermath: I spent many nights rotating between the couch and the recliner. My mom had to help me shower, I missed six weeks of school during which they allowed my dad (a teacher at my high school) to be my homebound teacher, my sister was my body guard and was very protective of who came to see me and how long they stayed, my mom had to change my dressings daily and help me get around. I remember not knowing if I would ever not feel pain anymore and not remembering what it was like to feel no pain and not worry about my chest opening up. Eventually, the pain went away and my scar began to fade and now I look back on that time in my life and can't not believe it has been 10 years.

My sister recently went to the hospital for a cardiac work up, the nurse noticed her maiden name and asked her if she was related to me. My sister said yes, and the nurse told her that they still talk about that little 17 year old and how quickly I recovered. Maybe my story made someone else less anxious about surgery...just maybe.


  1. You know that story made me cry. As soon as I started reading it I thought about the "And she was very old thing." Boy that was scary. For you obviously but for me too. I"m assuming I was that ghost white friend. Gracious day. Glad you are all better now friend.

  2. That's so cool that they still remember you. What an amazing story- you're so brave.

  3. That had to have been scary. And when you said your grandpa cried I teared up. The men in my family are not criers so if I ever see them cry, I'll lose it.

    Glad you're doing better 10 years later.

  4. Brooke - you were so much more than just my best friend who turned as white as a ghost! You did so much more than that! You organized the swim team into giving me a going away party, organized the video (that I still have) of the swim team members telling me how much they missed me which brought me to tears, you were a source of comfort and strength and you were in general my best friend who stood by my side even when I was a scary mess. I don't think I've ever thanked you for all that you Thank You SO Much Brooke! Having you being a part of something so monumental in my life meant so much to me and it is something I will always remember.

  5. Very cool--I'm glad there was a way to fix your problem (and that you didn't have to almost die to discover it!) Happy Anniversary.