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Opinion: Heart advice

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | March 27, 2024 2:00 AM

I’ve run into quite a few friends and readers since I had my double bypass heart surgery and I thought I’d share some experiences on what you might expect if you have to have this procedure done.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: It’s painful. The most painful thing I’ve ever had done. During surgery, your lungs are collapsed and your sternum in cut in two and then wired back together. The sternum wires stay in your chest the rest of your life. You’ll also have a couple of drainage tubes in your abdomen that drain fluid from your lungs and chest into these reservoirs that a nurse will empty every few hours. They strip the tubes out with their hand. The first night it felt like the nurse was pulling my lung out of the one tube. I have never swore so much in my life. But after that, it got much better. There’s also a multitude of wires that run into your chest and designed to give you a jolt if something goes awry. Your chest will feel like crap until they pull them out. I had tubes in me for six days. I suspect most patients go through this with plenty of opioid pain meds. But opioids made me feel worse, not better, so I gutted it out with just Tylenol after day three. No fun. When they finally pulled the wires and tubes out it really didn’t hurt much, but it did feel weird. You feel a lot better when they’re out.

The respiratory therapy is very painful as well, but take it seriously and do what they tell you to. It hurt like hell, but my lungs felt 100% better when the sessions were over.

Get up and move around. My first big test was to get out of bed and walk across the hall. I made that and then was able to walk to a scale so they could take my weight. It was maybe 25 feet. This was day two of recovery, I think (things get a little blurry, to be honest, you’re in a bit of a fog). By the time I left the hospital  I was walking about a half mile through the halls.

Once you’re home, take baby steps. I started by walking up and down stairs slowly and then outside to do simple stuff, like get the mail or walk to the end of the street. I made little goals for myself. My neighborhood has short blocks so I started with going around the block, then two blocks and then up more and more hills. Simple stuff like putting on a shirt or taking a shower is a pain in the butt at first, but it does get better. Hang in there.

Seven weeks in I figure I’m improving roughly 1 percent a day, sometimes none at all. My longest walk to date has been about four miles. 

Prevention, of course, is the best cure. Get your cholesterol checked and have a work-up by a doctor if you’re in middle age. I was 99% blocked in my left anterior descending artery, which is also known as the widowmaker.  If it had been caught sooner who knows? May have gotten away with a stent or just medication. You can go down the proverbial tubes quickly. I went from hiking 14 mile days in Glacier in October with a full pack to barely being able to walk around the block in January just prior to surgery.

After surgery, be patient. You’re in it for the long haul. Eat right, stop smoking if you smoke (I didn’t) and listen to your doctors. My cardiologist thinks I can make it to 80 if I play my cards right. We shall see.