Since this is American Heart Month I believe it’s time to begin sharing the journey my husband and I have been on for a number of years, as well as what we are being faced with again. Maybe, quite possibly, our story can serve to help others, or even to save someone’s life.
The last eight months have been very stressful ones in our family, as we have been dealing with some serious heart issues concerning my husband Ben. And I have to admit, it has put me into a strange place, one in which I couldn’t even concentrate on writing for months, or much of anything else except worrying about my husband.
Heart problems affect not only the person having the problems, but the entire family. Depending on the type of issues, you can find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, just to check to be sure he’s still breathing. (A friend of my mom’s said she used to do that many years ago with her husband. I didn’t understand it then, but I sure do now.) You call or text him several times a day while he’s working to make sure he’s ok and not overdoing it or experiencing any symptoms that could indicate more problems.
An unfamiliar number comes up on your cell phone and you’re not sure whether it’s a solicitation call or someone calling to tell you your husband was taken to the hospital.
Now you may associate heart problems with the elderly. I’m here to tell you that is very, very far from the truth. Heart problems can occur at any age, and at any time.
Ben’s started at age 35, not quite a year after our marriage. We were at a concert when he started having chest pains. Typical man; he didn’t tell me. Even though it went on throughout the entire concert. When we got home, he finally told me, and I promptly gave him two choices. Go to the hospital then, or agree to go first thing in the morning.
Needless to say, he took option #2 and I worried all night that I should’ve just called an ambulance then and there!
The next day we went to the ER and he ended up in the hospital being cared for by a cardiologist, who discovered he had a leaking aortic valve. I remember sitting in the room while they did an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart, and I could actually see the valve leaking blood every time his heart beat. Mind you, this was 34 years ago, and those echos have advanced dramatically, so for me to be able to see the leak then, you know it was serious!
I was terrified. I could picture myself a young widow before our first wedding anniversary. Ben was visibly shaken as well, and we were suddenly faced with a lot of decisions.
Open heart surgery. Heart valve replacement. Choose the kind of valve we want. Mechanical vs. pig valve. Chances of rejection. How long we could safely wait to decide…
This was 34 years ago. We were young and nervous. Ben was braver than I was, and he was the one who had to go through the ordeal. I was the one who had to wait outside the OR for news while he slept through the whole procedure.
What started all of this? A very healthy young man, who played tennis 3-4 times a week, went bike riding almost weekly, seldom ate junk food, suddenly finds himself in this situation. Why? A bout of rheumatic fever at the age of two set this in motion. And it continues to plague him even today.
At that time we decided on the natural (pig) valve which, if or when it failed again, it would be a gradual process, with time to have another replacement, vs. a mechanical valve which if it failed, well…there’d be no second chances.
At the age of 35 that’s a tough decision to make. But what choice did we have?
I remember checking him in at the hospital the day before the surgery, going through an orientation about what to expect for both the patient and the family. He really wasn’t that scared, so he said, until we went though the cardiac ICU and saw the post-op patients full of tubes and surrounded by monitors. It was a scary sight.
What were we getting ready to go through? But more importantly, what was my husband getting ready to go through??!!
Fortunately one of our neighbors was a nurse at the hospital where the surgery was being performed. Although a labor and delivery nurse, she asked to be assigned that day to the cardiac OR because she knew the doctor as well as the patient.
We arrived at the hospital at 6:00 am that morning, and they were already in the process of taking him down for surgery earlier than planned. We did get to see him, but he’d been given medication to calm him, and wasn’t making a lot of sense, until a nurse came by with a bucket of fried chicken she’d brought in for an early lunch. And he started a conversation with her about how he liked fried chicken and wanted to share it with her, while starting to slur his words a bit.
At least he still had a sense of humor, although with the help of a lot of meds, but I was still nervous and anxious to get this over with.
A four hour open heart surgery makes for a long morning for everyone. I was nervous, as were my mother and my aunt, who had come to the Washington, DC area where we lived at the time to be my support system. Our neighbor came out several times during the procedure to tell us things were going well, and that they’d cooled his chest down by throwing a bucket of ice in there. Yes, 34 years ago that’s what they did! Then she finally came out and told us everything went fine, he didn’t even need a transfusion, and he’d be in recovery/ICU soon. I actually saw him for a second as they wheeled him past the waiting area, with tubes and a monitor, but at least I saw him for a brief second.
What a relief!
Until I saw him several hours later up close in that UCU with tubes and lines everywhere, monitors softly beeping, imagining what he was feeling, and realizing he was asleep and had no idea. We’d been told it was harder on the family at this time, and I think they were right!
The next few days are a blur. He was in ICU for 24 hours before being transferred to a regular so could begin trying to get enough strength back so he could finally walk a few steps and go home. Which was an effort in itself. Seven days after surgery he was released. I was scared to have him home because I had no idea what to do or how to take care of him. But we managed.
It was an experience, and one I didn’t ever want us to repeat. Six weeks for recuperation, and get his strength back. Not to mention the huge medical bills and lost income. And the stress on both of us. After-surgery recuperation not only involves the physical recovery, but emotional recovery as well. Both are difficult.
Looking back, we had no idea what other issues would face us in the future. Fortunately after this first surgery, we went about 15 years before a recurrence. Even though Ben followed up with regular check ups with his cardiologist, a heart damaged by rheumatic fever never totally recovers. It just slowly gets worse.
And 15 years later when he suddenly started having difficulty going up the stairs without becoming short of breath, and extremely tired, we were faced with him undergoing the same surgery again…
The saga continues in Matters of the Heart, Part 2, to be published February 13, 2018.