This time exactly one week ago, me and My Mum were sitting next to my Dad as he lay sedated and out of consciousness with about 15 tubes and wires coming out of him. He had just been wheeled into critical care following an 8 hour operation to repair the aorta in his heart, replace the aortic valve, and also to give him a single heart bypass. Yep, it was as serious as it sounds!
Through the last 6 months getting ready for the operation, during it, and throughout the week following it, I’ve been typing questions into google daily… from “What foods are best to eat following open heart surgery?” to “what does the nurse really mean when she says that she can’t tell you anything over the phone?!” So I thought that a post covering my experience as the daughter of someone undergoing this sort of procedure, might be useful to anyone else finding themselves in a similar situation to the one I found myself in this week. And sorry this is ridiculously long, and with no pictures… but I’d rather include too much, just in case it is of use to anyone!
I’ll start by saying that, as much as I hope this can be helpful to help someone prepare to go through this, honestly, nothing can truly prepare you for seeing a loved one have a major op! Don’t worry, I’m not being negative here, I’m just saying that everyone’s emotional response to this will be different from mine, and you just can’t imagine it until you’re living it. But stay strong and happy! However hard this has been, it has been a positive experience for me and my family, and has brought us even closer together!
So, a little background… my Dad has a congenital (born with) heart condition that he has always been a little bit aware of, though I’m not sure if he ever thought he’d need surgery to fix it! He is a very healthy 55 year old, non-smoker, he is very fit as he is a keen hill walker, though he has a fairly stressful job, he has a very healthy diet, and he drinks alcohol sensibly (which when you consider that he’s a wine merchant, is quite an achievement!) About 2 years ago, Dad had some bad news about his Dad (who incidentally 20 years ago had a quadruple heart bypass in his early 60’s). My Grandad was in hospital and to cut a long story short, had my Nan not been on the ball and dialled 999 when Grandad could not feel his legs in the night, he wouldn’t have two legs to walk on right now (which he does, all’s well that ends well!). But the news sent my Dad faint, and he went straight to the Doctors about his heart.
Just over a year of tests and Doctor’s visits later, and Dad happened to see the word “urgent” next to his name on a document meant only for the nurses eyes… it was a matter of time before his Doctor confirmed that Dad’s heart needed to be operated on. I was in New York at the time, and I remember saying to Dad “Oh, it’ll be fine, I’m sure it’ll just be keyhole surgery, right??” to which Dad calmly told me that he’d be having open heart surgery, a really big operation.
It’s been a way too long and emotionally painful wait for the surgery to finally arrive, and after 2 cancellations, you don’t get yourself set for it to happen until it already has (as my Grandad said “You haven’t had the operation until you wake up from it!”). So my first bit of advice would be, if you get a date, at least be prepared that it may get pushed back. Dad was originally looking at late April, he had his op mid August… I’m sure that everyone’s circumstances are different, but I think it’s good to be prepared for every eventuality, as building yourself up for something so big really takes its toll. And of course, it’s so important to be kind to the heart and get it prepared by keeping it steady- not stressing it out!
The Day Before Dad’s Op
On Sunday 12th August 2012, I met my folks at the NHS North Staffs University Hospital in the evening. Dad had his own room for the night before his operation, with a lovely view of a pretty sunset. The three of us sat and distracted ourselves with chat of my recent holiday in Nice, we tried to avoid all operation talk! The anaesthesiologist came to see Dad and asked a few general questions and talked him through some of the things that she would be doing, such as the tube she would put down Dad’s throat which would house a camera to help the surgeon conduct the op, she talked about things like the danger to his teeth when she inserted the tube, which I’d never have thought of! (All teeth survived!!) She also explained the running order of things for the evening and following morning, Dad was not to eat after midnight (later than I’d have thought, so he had a couple of nice chocolates to treat himself that evening!) and he would be given a sedative to help him sleep. At 7am he would be woken and would need to shower before being taken to theatre.
A nurse then came in and took a blood sample, at which point we were ready to say goodbye. It was a strange moment, and me and Mum both said afterwards that we were really pleased that we held it together and didn’t start crying in front of Dad! I don’t think it would have done Dad any good to see us upset, so instead I gave him a big hug and a big smile and I think I said “See you on the other side Dad!”.
Mum and I left the ward and walked down the corridor, at which point it was time for tears and hugs… it’s a difficult moment however you look at it, and for us, this was the fist moment that the situation really started to hit home. I went back with Mum that night to keep her company, we watched the Olympics closing ceremony (as did Dad!), drank a few glasses of wine and tried our best to get some rest.
The Day of Dad’s Heart Op
The following morning, the day of the op… we had been told that Dad would be going down to surgery at about 8am, and we knew that we couldn’t phone the hospital until realistically, about 7-8 hours later. I found that thinking about what was happening in theatre was totally unhelpful, there was no point distressing ourselves. I tried my best to distract Mum too- if you spend 8 hours watching the clock, you’ll be waiting a long time! We watched Frasier, and then an episode of Police Squad– both really helped to distract us… we even managed a few giggles! By this time it was coming on for 11am, and I remember thinking, “Well, it looks like it hasn’t been cancelled this time. This is it.” We did The Times jumbo crossword, though we found that our brains were not on top form! We started working on a craft project of making Dad some bravery badges to wear in hospital.
Mum and Dad live 1 1/2 hours from the hospital, so we decided to get out for some air- I think that getting out the house was really important. We went to Shrewsbury which is en route to the hospital, and (from what I can remember!) walked into town, stopped for coffee, and went to sit in a lovely park. We called once at half 3, Dad wasn’t out just yet, no news. We sat on a bench and chatted about non-operation things, and before we knew it, it was time to call back. This time, the nurse told Mum that Dad was out of the operation and into critical care (intensive care by any other name I think), and she could not tell us anything more. We started to feel relief at this point… but couldn’t help reading doubt into the nurses words! We reassured ourselves that obviously they are not allowed to say anything over the phone (we were right) but you really want someone to say more than that! We were thinking “What does ‘I can’t tell you anything’ mean? Is he ok? Surely she’d have said if something had gone wrong?” You can’t help but analyse every detail!
We called round the list of family who needed to hear the news, and then set off to the hospital. I don’t even remember the drive over, or the walk down to critical care… I remember getting down there and walking into this big room, and seeing Dad straight ahead of us when we walked in. I grabbed Mum’s hand, she turned to me and tears instantly started to fall. Nothing can prepare you for that, for seeing someone you love with tubes and wires coming out of them hooked up to machines and fluids. Dad was wearing a gown, and I think a blanket covered him too so we couldn’t see anything going on beneath the cover. He had the tube down his throat, and tubes supplying oxygen into his nose, he was completely out of it (he’d come out of surgery 2 hours ago) and his eyes were closed, though I remember not tightly shut. I was surprised to see colour in his face, and honestly I think he looked better than I’d anticipated, but the reality was distressing- knowing I couldn’t nudge his shoulder and wake him up was tough. Suddenly the reality of what had happened to Dad that day really hit home, this was real now.
As soon as we’d had our moment, Mum apologised (typical Mum!!) to the nurses for getting upset, and the 2 nurses there instantly smiled at us, said Dad was doing really well, and really reassured us, they were just amazing! Just seeing their confident smiling faces instantly let me know that everything was going to be ok!
The Day After The Op
The following day, Mum called the hospital first thing, and was told that Dad had come round from the op so we headed over for a lunch time visit. This time Dad was propped up in bed, and though he was groggy he was surprisingly able to chat with us! He was still in critical care, still hooked up to a load of machines, but he had had his first cup of tea (which apparently was the best ever… I think the first thing Dad remembers was that he woke from the op from a vivid dream that he was in the desert dying of thirst…the dehydration really shocked him. He managed with difficulty to drink a thimble full of water when he woke). He went very queasy when we got there (I suggested that seeing Mum caused love sickness!) but sickness and loss of appetite are both things to expect after an op like this.
He was very stiff and couldn’t move very much at all, he couldn’t lift a jug of water to pour himself a cup, he couldn’t move himself very much in the bed… but he could drink water on his own and lift his legs, the former being important to replace lost fluids, the latter being important for his circulation. He still had 4 big tubes (about 1cm in diameter I’d say) coming out by his waist, and I think one in his neck… these were to drain blood from any internal bleeding that was going on. His surgeon wanted there to be a clear 2 hours without bleeding before they were removed. After about an hour with Dad, we decided to head off as he really needed peace and quiet to help him recover.
We left him feeling very reassured, it was so nice to speak to him! He was clearly very poorly, but it wasn’t even 24 hours since he came out of surgery… so we were overwhelmingly happy with how things were going.
Two Days after the Op
In the morning we’d heard that he’d had a bad night, nothing to worry about, but he’d been very uncomfortable and in a lot of pain (I’m sure Dad would edit this bit and make it sound worse, but I don’t want to cause worry!!). The drainage tubes were responsible for most of the pain… which I can imagine having seen them, the nurse told us that they jab into the body internally, and it’s difficult to lie comfortably. Although he was obviously on painkillers, the previous night they had just not been strong enough, and to make matters worse, the nurses were pushed to the limit with other patients. Without wishing to cause angst, he did say that this night in particular was very tough. He was obviously still groggy and confused, in pain, and meanwhile around him he could hear other patients in urgent situations being saved by the doctors and nurses.
Jamie, my brother, had come over from Wales and was first in today with Mum (max 2 to a bed!) whilst I waited my turn in the critical care reception area (where I tried my hardest to block out the gossipy and indulgent conversation of some young girls who must have been visiting a relative and were talking loudly about what to wear for a funeral!! I mean, come on, have some compassion!!). I was so pleased to finally go in and see Dad looking so much better than I had imagined- the tubes were removed, and so a big layer of pain had been removed too. Dad looked so much happier and more comfortable, we were all so pleased.
While we were there, the physio came around and asked Dad to take some deep breaths to check he was opening his chest out fully, it’s important to get the chest moving to full extension early on. He also had to cough, after the op you need to clear the lungs out (it looked painful, but Dad made no fuss!).
As we were getting ready to say goodbye at the end of visiting, it was time for Dad to get out of his gown and into his pyjamas, so that he could go up to the ward- yep, it was already time to leave critical care! They were planning on lifting Dad from his critical bed to his new bed, but he managed to walk the couple of steps between them- amazing when you consider how close we still were to his op, and the rough night that he’d just had! We said goodbye after this visit in very high spirits.
The Final Few Days Before Leaving Hospital
The next few days on the ward were a little up and down, but mostly up, the most important thing was that Dad was making a good recovery. The only slight blip, was when his heart rate leapt up… a fairly common reaction of the heart to its new mechanics. He was given drugs to bring his heart rate back down, and eventually hopefully the heart will adjust to its repair and will not feel the need to over-compensate in this way!
Dads appetite had been a little bit all over, and I believe that mentally he’s been a little up and down (both of which I could totally relate to last week by the way!) He’s been a little like a pregnant woman I believe… not being able to stomach certain foods, and some things hitting the spot just right! I would advise fruit smoothies, I took them for him from almost day 1 and they were one of the first things Dad could manage.
He has been very tired, but he has not been able to sleep very well since the op so that hasn’t helped things! I would say that it’s like he’s suffering from heavy flu, the body is amazing at healing itself, but it takes time and there are physical and mental effects.
Back at Home!
So, after 7 nights in hospital, and just 6 post-op, Dad was able to leave the hospital on Sunday 19th. (Top-tip here: take a cushion for the journey home to go between the operation wound and the seatbelt! Great advice given to Dad by someone who’d had the same op!)
It’s been the craziest week of my life, one that went by in a total blur, and yet one that I will not forget. I’m still recovering from it, I feel so emotional and tired (like PMT times ten!) For anyone preparing to see a loved one through this op, I hope that my memories of the week have helped in some way… though nothing can really prepare you for what it feels like to go through this, and maybe your experience will be very different from ours.
It was so overwhelming to see the flood of loving concern from friends and family, a time like this tests us, but most importantly makes us stronger for it. And I hope that the same will be true for Dad’s heart, as my Mum always says, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!”
My thoughts go out to anyone going through this, or any other operation themselves, and those standing by the bedside of a loved one. Strength and love will keep you going through it, and you may find that, like me, you come out of the whole experience feeling joy and thanks.
I can’t begin to explain how much overwhelming gratitude I feel towards the wonderful staff at North Staffs University Hospital, from the smiling receptionists, to the wonderful nurses, to the amazing surgeons… thank you for saving my Dad’s life!
I’ll post again with an update on how he’s doing, I heard from Mum today that he had a better night’s sleep last night! Onwards and upwards!
Huge amounts of mended heart love!