Open Heart (Part 3) - Be Brave

3 weeks after surgery - fake it till ya make it

After ICU I was moved to a High Dependency Unit officially known as ‘Step Down’. I laughed when they told me it was time for ‘Step Down’! Wow, down? Seriously? Were things going to get worse?? I kid, I just can’t see them using that verbiage in California, Step Down? Hell No, more like 'Step it On Up Girl'?

I scored a corner bed in a four person room. They had taken me off all my drips and drops, they kept 7 leads hanging out of my neck like a leaking Frankenstein and every now and then they’d lash a blood transfusion into me. Sometimes I would be asked not to leave my bed because my blood pressure was too low but for the most part I was my own person, shuffling around the corridor like the ghost of yesteryear, thinking I was a rockstar for managing a flight of stairs.

On one of my shuffles around the ward, the man in the bed next to me, Harold, declared “It’s because of you my surgery got delayed you know?” I turned to look at him. He was a large man in his 60s, horsing through his dinner, looking like he was in hospital for a possible toenail clipping. “Huh?” was all I managed, I was still unable to properly eat at that stage, even watching Harold munch through his stew was turning my innards.

“Your surgery was before mine, yours went on for so long, mine was pushed back, and I was fasting, you know, it was tough”

“Sorry,” I offered, then thought I’d qualify things “I had open heart surgery”

Harold wiped the dribbling stew from his chin and looked up “So did I”

Looking at Harold devouring his meal I could see how food was an important fixture. However, I realized myself and Harold were on different recovery paths.

The average time in ICU is one day and some patients require no blood transfusions, I had been in for four days and was still requiring a top up of someone else’s hemoglobin. No one else in Step Down had leads, tubes, anything hanging out of them, I looked like a plug n play.

I should say, a lot of people’s heart surgery stories are ones of little pain, little fuss, no big deal, and they feel wonderful, shortly afterwards. I’ve heard different theories as to why this is so - a person may have been very unwell for years so the operation is a fix that immediately improves their health, an older person may have more fat and less muscle so the operation itself is physically less traumatic, older people are tougher, etc, who knows. Harold was clearly one of these people, he appeared to have no real pain, I was lost in it.

Regarding the pain, I must admit, I thought I would be given a morphine pump after the surgery or at least an opioid of some description. Instead I was repeatedly offered paracetamol. Essentially somebody took a chainsaw to my chest and then gave me a Lemsip afterwards. I fully understand opioid addiction and it is a crisis etc. But there is a time and a place for prescribed narcotics and it’s called severe pain. If I could change one thing about my heart operation experience it would be the pain management, we’re not all Harry, sadly.

If I ever had to have an operation again, I would strongly consider bringing a bottle of whiskey with me.

The man in the bed across from me had not downed a bottle of whiskey, but he was quite liberal with the old hospital gown. He didn’t seem to be overly concerned about tying it up or keeping things under wraps. He didn’t speak English, which was neither here nor there as I had no desire to talk to him, I couldn’t even look in his direction. I did wonder though why his wife who sat beside him for 12 hours straight every day didn’t think to tell him he was putting on a show. Turns out she wasn’t his wife, she was his manager! No I’m kidding, she was his interpreter. What a bum gig!

I did have one interaction with him. Somehow our TV remote controls got switched. By the way, whoever thought of putting individual TVs in a shared room… it doesn’t work out. So everytime I changed the channel on my TV, it actually changed the channel on his telly and vice versa. In his broken English, he hobbled over with his gown half off, pointed at the remote in my hands and said “Give me”. I gave it to him, he went back to watching his soccer. I asked could I have the other remote and he said “No”. I looked at the translator who shrugged her shoulders. It was actually quite amusing, fair play to him. I turned off the TV and slept.

It was a private hospital therefore no team of doctors ever streamed to my bed, with older doctors nursing younger minds as they learned on the job. There was no waiting about, everything was done quickly. On my day of discharge the Physiotherapist popped by for the first time. She reminded me of a character from a Hi-De-Hi Summer camp, lots of high energy, possibly someone who would say, “There is no such word as ‘can’t’ ”. She said she had seen me walking about and I was clearly doing well. With her large smile she gave me a page of written exercises to take home. I told her I was still in a lot of pain, this seemed to bounce right off her unflinching grin with a, “Great! Keep it up!”, and she was gone.

I feel like in a public hospital that would have been drawn out, protracted into procedural steps with teachable moments, there would have been follow ups and outpatient appointments and Cardiac Rehab forms filled out and whatnot. I missed that nonsense.

Over the coming weeks and months I realized how important family and friends are and how much I relied on them to pull me through it, whether they knew it or not. I will always be eternally grateful for the support I received but more importantly I try and pay that support back. You don’t have to wait until somebody is at death’s door, or in the throes of bereavement, or down on their luck to step up and lend a hand, honestly, even a compliment, or some good advice, or 10 minutes of your time can carry a person through a difficult day.

On my last night in the hospital I finally made it into a normal private room. I had an absolute sweetheart of a nurse who for reasons unknown ran off and bought me a bottle of 7 Up because she thought I looked like I needed it. She was so happy and smiley, you could just tell she was genuinely concerned about each and all of her patients. She listened to my grumblings about my pain and how paracetamol just wasn’t doing the trick, she sorted me out with something that made it all disappear, if only for one night.

I heard the kind nurse talking to the woman in the room next to me who was having a hard time. The woman said she was afraid. The nurse was so gentle and reassuring to the old lady. The lady said in a quiet voice “I’m very brave”, the nurse responded “ brave”. I found this incredibly moving, tears welled up in my own eyes and I said to my empty room “Be brave”.

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