Open Heart (Part 1) - Putting the Craic back in Chest Cracking


Only in Ireland would you have a hospital called ‘The Mater’ (pronounced ‘matter’). Everytime I refer to it I have to fight the urge to transform into a New York cabbie, throwing my hands up in despair, and yelling “What’s the matter with ya?”. I think that would make for an excellent advertising campaign. In truth ‘The Mater’ is short for ‘The Mater Misericordiae Hospital’, Mater being the latin for Mother (which is apt as the Irish do love their mammies) and Misericordiae latin for Mercy. I was hoping it would be latin for Miserable making it the Miserable Mammy Hospital.

As a miserable mammy myself, I dropped in one day in February for some planned open heart surgery to repair one of my heart valves, that was flagrantly flopping around the place, it had barely done a day’s work in years. A good stitching in place would soon sort the lopsided leaflet out.

Heart surgery is major surgery, it’s a big deal even for the coolest of customers, but for the staff in the cardiac surgery ward, it’s just another day in the office. So naturally enough there was a perfunctory air about everything, tick tick tick of lists, wheeled here and there for this test and that exam. I was given bottles of disinfectant and asked to have 3 showers! After the third scrubbing, I looked like I had drank a bottle of Mr Sheen, there wasn’t a microbe of natural bacteria left on my body. I squeaked into bed, looking and feeling like a plastic doll, all set for surgery next morning at the crack of dawn.

At some point late in the evening the Anaesthetist glided into my room. He was the embodiment of calm, a walking anaesthetic. He was an older man who spoke in a gentle tone, he may have even held my hand at one point and given it a soft squeeze as he explained the surgery. I could almost feel myself drifting into a pleasant comatosed state until “...the surgeon will make a small incision in your side and enter laparoscopically, if we can’t get to your heart that way we will use a small saw to cut open your chest. Your lungs will be collapsed and a machine will take over your life support during the procedure. The operation will take about six hours. Any questions?”. I was now fully alert, “No” I said in a high voice, at this point I was definitely squeezing his hand, hard.

The next morning, bright and early I was wheeled down the corridor, my lovely Anaesthetist was there with a big relaxed smile, Dr Dreamcatcher, (I can’t remember his real name, I was off my head on pre-meds). “So,” I said to him in slurs “I won’t know if you did keyhole, or cracked my chest, until I wake up and look down, right?”. “That’s right,” he said with his meditative semi quaver. I remember smiling inanely trying to see how long I could fight the sedation and maintain the high (I always play that game, I don’t know why because I never win, thank god). I was out.

The operation took longer than expected. They cut my side and tried to go in laparoscopically but my chest wall was adhered to my lungs due to prior radiation therapy. It was too dangerous to proceed that way. So instead they hacked open my breast bone and ripped my ribs apart, (which doesn’t sound dangerous at all!) I lost a lot of blood. But thankfully it was a success.

Well, success is a relative term, when I finally woke up in the ICU, I couldn’t tell if I was dead or alive. The effort to open my eyes was herculean. The surgeon told me I would feel like a bus had hit me. I felt like a bus had hit me, the driver reversed back over me, then got out and shot me, then drove back over me again.

I genuinely couldn’t work out if I was in a coffin or a hospital bed. I could see a nurse sitting at the end of my bed but the room was also filled with every dead person I knew. The dead stood around my bed like a guard of honour with their backs to me, except one, my Mum. She stood beside me smiling. I felt I was between two worlds and I didn’t know which way to go.

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