I am a reluctant runner. I have friends who say they like running as much as chocolate. Friends who get a “runner’s high.” Friends who run very long distances. I don’t get it.
But, I do it anyway. Because I know heart disease has hereditary causes, and it definitely runs in my family. And while I can’t avoid my genetics, I know diet and exercise are key preventative measures. So I remind myself with every sweaty, huffing-and-puffing step: this is better than open-heart surgery.
And last month, I was proved right, up-close and very personally.
It got the call I wasn’t expecting.
Testing for what was to have been routine outpatient surgery had revealed an issue with my Mom’s aorta. Open-heart surgery was scheduled.
This was the second time I found my sandwich-generation-self leaving my family to care for my Mom during a surgery. (Two years ago, she had a carotid artery repaired.) Then, as now, it was considered routine, with all the statistics in her favor.
But nothing seems routine when it involves surgery on your Mom.
I arrived the night prior, and, on cue, Mom began a dramatic review of her last will and testament. I suppose this was her way of dealing with fear, but it was also a good way to remind us of reality.
While I was confident she would pull through the surgery, I couldn’t help wonder how I would deal with it if she didn’t. I tossed and turned all night, then woke in the early pre-dawn for the dark drive to the hospital.
When we arrived, a nurse whisked Mom away to get changed, while I was sent to registration. It was then I realized, her dramatic talk the night before had not included any essential information. Sure, I knew where she wants to be buried, and the hymns to sing at her funeral. But did I have a copy of her insurance card? Uh, no. Living will? Yeah, no.
They took her anyway.
I went back to see her before she was wheeled to OR. It was a difficult moment as I squeezed her hand, said a prayer, and told her: The hardest part will be opening your eyes.
For me, the hardest part had just started.
The waiting room is a perfect place to observe human behavior under stress, and the staff is very good at keeping family informed. They even offered a class to discuss the process of the day, and other classes to help caregivers provide rehabilitative care at home. It all helps pass the long hours of waiting.
Once the surgery was over, the Dr. spoke to me. He assured me the surgery went well: the valve was successfully replaced. The not-so-great new: there was already damage to her heart. While the new valve may help recover some of the damage, it will not likely be 100%. And the looming truth was what I have told myself all along: preventative care is essential.
I wasn’t there when she opened her eyes the first time, and she doesn’t remember it. When I did get in to ICU to see her, I quickly realized the nurses were right: now was the time to get some rest myself. I would come back when she was more alert.
The thing about this surgery is, even when it’s over, it’s not really over. Each phase of the initial recovery process was excruciating. The medical team is insistent you move around on your own as much as possible, an effort she resisted, like I resist running.
Twenty-four hours into the recovery, my Mom said: “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
I’m pretty sure what she meant was, she didn’t want to make it. Her vitals were fine; there were no complications. But she certainly didn’t feel like herself. The surgery left her weak. Her body was retaining fluid, which limited her dexterity. And the pain medication made her loopy and nauseous.
Transitioning from the narcotic pain medication was the first step to helping her feel more like herself. She was better able to express herself – which included passing judgment on all caretakers. We all knew quickly whom she did and did not like.
“You’re mean,” she told one nurse, who insisted she feed herself, and whose name sounded most unfortunately similar to Cruella.
By the third post-op day, she was able to walk a very short distance, with the help of an incredibly patient nurse’s aid. Each day was a little better, and after one full week, she was transported to a rehab center, where recovery continues.
I returned home, very grateful for modern medicine, and with increased motivation to eat well, keep running, and hopefully avoid what genetics seem to indicate is inevitable.