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You Can Find Courage and Face Your Fears Before Open Heart Surgery

Updated on February 2, 2016

You Have a Serious Condition but it is Fixable

More than half a million people in America have open heart surgery every year. People feel countless emotions when they are told they need to have heart surgery. It is normal to have some fear and doubt. When you experience all these crazy emotions recognize you are having a perfectly normal reaction. I believe once you know that what you are feeling is normal you become better equipped to deal with the situation. You have a serious condition but it is fixable.

How I Felt When I was Told I Needed Heart Surgery

When my Cardiologist told me I needed to have open heart surgery the first thing that popped into my head was Oh My God am I going to die? Statistics show there is only a 2% chance of this happening. Pretty good odds if you ask me. The second thing that popped in my head was how bad is this going to hurt? It does hurt but your imagination is your worst enemy. As an open heart surgery survivor I would like to share my experience about my pre-surgery worries. If you or one of your loved ones is facing this surgery I hope after you read about my experience you will come away with some peace of mind or maybe a laugh or two. I am not going into the specifics of the surgery you can speak with your doctor and there are numerous sites online that will walk you through the procedure. I believe there is a u-tube video out there that shows the procedure in progress if you really want that many details. Personally I passed this up. Open heart surgery is a tough road but for me pre-surgery worry was the hardest part.

I don’t know if the fact that I was born with a defective heart valve made my situation any better than for those of you who find out you need this surgery out of the blue. Since my aortic valve was defective the doctors said I might outgrow it or maybe later on in life I would have to have the valve replaced. Some time in my early thirties a local Cardiologist told me there was nothing to worry about I just had a heart murmur. Up until this time I lived my life perfectly normal going to work, raising my three children, and later on enjoying my grandchildren. The problem was I was always tired. In 2013 during a routine visit to my Family Physician I told her my heart rate was constantly high and I did not feel well. I was scheduled for an Echocardiogram and to see a Cardiologist.

At this time I was only 54 years old. My new Cardiologist was a very nice young man who told me I would probably have to have surgery within the next 5 years. Okay spooky but I could deal with that later. My next checkup was in January 2014. After my next Echocardiogram that nice young man told me he wanted me to go to the hospital and he was going to put a tube down my throat to look at my heart and then if he felt it was needed he would do a heart catherization. This was where things got real. After the heart catherization that nice young man came out and told me to pick a Surgeon. I was still drugged up from the procedures of the morning but I remember thinking what is he talking about I don’t know any heart surgeons. What was I suppose to do look in the yellow pages. At this point I was angry at the nice young doctor. I reminded him he told me I had 5 years before I would have to have surgery. He just smiled and said well things changed rather quickly. He calmed me down by telling me their office would recommend a Surgeon for me but I had the option of choosing who I wanted to perform the surgery. This was the day the emotional journey began for me.

On the way home I really started to freak out. Robert my significant other of thirty years tried to calm me down by telling me everything will be okay we could get in a car wreck and never make it home. Gee that was helpful. I was getting the gist of what he was trying to tell me none of us know when we might die but for some insane reason I felt as if my odds had just went up 50%.

Meeting the Man Who Would Hold My Life in his Hands

The next step in my journey was to meet the Surgeon who was going to hold my life in his hands. We live in Southern Indiana so I was referred to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis. We met with Doctor Bob and while sitting there trying to follow what he was saying my mind got up and left the room. He was speaking very professionally saying something about cooling my body down and suspended animation. He was explaining the difference between a tissue valve and a mechanical one. He recommended I go with the tissue valve which would probably come from a pig. We stopped at Cracker Barrel to eat lunch and I asked Robert if he had understood what the Surgeon had said. Of course being a man he told me he understood everything perfectly. Robert pointed out to me that it was all there in the little 3 page pamphlet. He told me he really liked Doctor Bob and had a good feeling about him. I said I don’t know maybe I should speak with another surgeon because I don’t care for him. Robert asked me what my problem with Doctor Bob was and I told him I think he is quite full of himself. When Robert asked Doctor Bob who was the best surgeon in the hospital for this type of surgery he told us he was.

Pre-Surgery Worry

This all happened in March of 2014 and my surgery was not scheduled until May 22 since Doctor Bob was going on vacation to Italy. For some reason this made me really mad it was not fair he was taking a vacation to Italy and I was facing a serious surgery. He had given me the option of choosing another Surgeon but Robert talked me into waiting for Doctor Bob to return from his vacation. So now I had close to two months to worry. Every day I told Robert I felt like the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz and I needed to get some cur-cur-age. I stayed in panic mode for quite awhile and I can’t even tell you at what point during the time leading up to my surgery I reached down somewhere deep inside myself and found the courage to accept my situation. I think the hardest part for me was acceptance. I took on the attitude of it just had to be done. I decided to put myself in God’s care and the Doctor hands and hope for the best.

I went in search of information on the internet and all the well meaning advice that could be found there which is something I personally don’t recommend because I think it hurt me more than it helped. Collect information but don’t plunge too deeply into the internet. We are afraid of things that endanger our life and our reaction is controlled by an adrenaline response. I noticed several sites refer to the fight or flight response. By this time I had accepted I had no choice in the matter. I had a leaky valve, a swollen heart, and an aortic aneurism. It was either have the surgery or die. So flight was not an option although there are days before your surgery you will just want to run away. I would click on a site and if it gave me a negative impression I moved on to the next. I know that people who had been through this surgery want to share their experiences but I was in no mood to hear about the specifics or perhaps complications. The way I looked at the situation was I only wanted to read about positive experiences. As the days went by I turned to sad stories about children with cancer or articles about people who had horrible things happen to them. As crazy as this must sound it made me feel better. My motto was there are always folks who are in worse situations than you.

Ironically the word courage comes from the French root cour or coeur, which means heart. So courage has to do with the heart, that vital muscle that keeps our blood flowing and sustains life.

Laughter is The Best Medicine

During the time period leading up to my surgery I still worried especially when I thought about them cutting through the upper part of my breastbone. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and have a panic attack. I was lucky since my best friend who lives in Florida was available to me any time night or day. Bless her heart she always has the ability to calm my fears. By the time I would hang up the phone I was always laughing. I think we have all heard the saying laughter is the best medicine. My other half Robert was very supportive even though he has a wicked sense of humor. He made pig jokes such as I was going to be part pig so I could not eat bacon anymore. That would make me a cannibal. I would be eating my kin folk. He told me they were going to use a saw to cut me open. Of course they don’t it’s all done with a laser. My advice is if you have a person in your life that stays positive and has the ability to make you feel good stay as close as possible to this person. I did look up some heart surgery jokes and posted them on my face book page. I think what helped me the most was finding humor in the situation.

Finally on May 22 2014 the day of my surgery arrived. I felt so much relief. I just wanted to get it over with. I gave myself over to a highly qualified medical team and let them do their job I remember that morning when Doctor Bob came in to see me before my surgery all I could say was Do a Good Job! Doctor Bob was amazingly wonderful along with the hospital staff. I spent 5 days in the hospital then went home to recover. Modern medical technology is so advanced.

Having open heart surgery can be terrifying and most folks who know about the surgery in advance spend this time feeling angry, scared, or depressed. I cannot even begin to describe the rollercoaster of emotions I went through. There are many different personality types and each individual reacts to a bad situation in different ways. Some stay calm cool and rational while others like me flip out. I hope if you are facing open heart you are one of the first types but I believe no matter what your personality type is you will be scared. You may not show it but this is a big deal and you would not be human if you were not scared. From the moment a Doctor tells you need heart surgery until you have the surgery, recover and then get on with your life it is a long hard journey. Please remember your imagination is your worst enemy. I know it is a hard road but you will get through it

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.”
Mark Twain

The odds are definitely in your favor

Tara Summers


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