Updates and FAQs from 6 days out

Yesterday I had my final pre-operation meeting at the heart hospital, with Cathy and one of the cardiac nurses. The purpose this time was to get our FMLA leave paperwork filled out (finally!) and to go over the game plan for the next few days and into my recovery period.

We learned at the meeting that the results from the x-ray procedure I mentioned last time indicated that I was indeed eligible for the "minimally invasive" form of the valve replacement surgery, which means that my surgeon will be OK to make a much smaller incision when he goes in -- something like 3-4" long instead of 6-8" or more. This means a faster healing time and, I suppose, less pain as the bone heals. This could change if he gets into the surgical process and decides he needs more real estate. But for now that's good news.

Otherwise what we discussed is information that I'd already learned from the literature they gave me. Here's kind of what the next few days are going to look like.

  • As of yesterday I am not allowed aspirin, ibuprofen, or vitamins. And today I start in with an antibacterial ointment I use in my nose because that's where some of the breathing apparatus will be located.
  • I'll go into the hospital on Wednesday at 6:30am. The surgery itself will take 3-6 hours to complete. I'll be on a heart-lung bypass machine during this time (it turns out operating on your heart while it's still beating is a bad idea). Cathy will be there and they'll come out and give updates every so often. Once the surgery is done, I'll be in a cardiac recovery room for the rest of the day, completely knocked out and connected to a breathing machine, pacemaker, and other apparatuses.
  • Once I wake up, they'll take out the breathing tubes and have me start breathing on my own. I'll be doing deep breathing exercises once an hour, because there will be fluid in my lungs and I'll need to breathe to inflate my lungs and cough this stuff out.

Question: But they're cutting open your chest and cutting your breastbone in half, then patching it the bone back together with stainless steel wires and you'll have a big incision on your chest. Isn't coughing going to hurt like a [insert expletive here]?

Answer: Yep. But it has to be done. They'll be giving me a "heart pillow" that I am supposed to clutch up against the incision when I cough (or move, or...) that should support the incision and moderate the pain. That, and the drugs. (And I suppose I can cry into the pillow if the drugs aren't strong enough.)

  • The usual stay in the hospital is 3-5 days. They said 3 days is really unusual, so we are planning for me to be there basically through the weekend. While I'm there, I'll be doing breathing actitivites, going on walks with the nurses up and down the hallways, and learning how to avoid using my arms for things. About the arms, try getting up from your chair right now the usual way, by pushing off from the chair or a desk with both arms. Feel that pressure it puts in your chest area? Exactly.
  • At some point over the weekend I'll go home and continue this process. I'll be basically in my room for a while, then as I get stronger I'll be able to go downstairs and maybe even get driven out to the mall for a longer walk. No outside walking for now since it's still winter here until usually around the middle of March.
  • I'll have a home nurse come in twice a week to check in on me and make adjustments as needed, for the first month. I'll go back to see the cardiologist in March for a checkup and then we'll see what the trajectory looks like.

Q: What will you be doing once you're home?

A: The plan is to take it slow and easy. No GVSU work will enter my consciousness during February. I want eventually to get back to being active in both work and play. The fastest path to that goal is to do nothing whatsoever that is remotely active or stressful for the first 3 weeks at least, apart from taking walks. This is totally against my nature but I've accepted it, even kind of looked forward to it, since I have 100% permission to just sit around. My main plan for the short term is twofold: (1) re-watch the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in chronological order in the run-up to Captain Marvel and Avengers 4 (both of which I fully intend to see on opening night) , and (2) do the Zepathon.

Q: Are you going to be writing stuff and giving updates during this time?

A: Sort of. I have two new blog posts for rtalbert.org already written that I have set to auto-post during February, and on Twitter I have scheduled some posts that link back to older blog posts, like a "greatest hits" that people may not know about. But otherwise I'm not planning on blogging until March. Here at this mini-blog I'll post updates as I have them. If you want more frequent updates, check out Cathy's Facebook feed.

Q: What are Cathy and the kids going to be doing?

A: Cathy will be home with me the entire first week that I'm home, thanks to FMLA. Then I'll be hanging here by myself during the day, except for visits from the in-home care person. The kids will be in school until... well, possibly July at this point, but certainly through this entire process so they're taken care of. Everybody is going to have to pitch in to cover what I usually do, including cooking the meals, which should be interesting.

Q: Speaking of meals -- do you need people to bring you stuff to eat?

A: We appreciate that offer, but we'll let people know if that's something we need. Our kids are so picky with what they eat that we're afraid that most of what people might bring us will end up going bad before we can consume it. So again, maybe watch Cathy's Facebook page and this blog for any needs.

Q: When do you go back to work?

A: My FMLA plan has me returning to GVSU on Monday, April 8. I've spent the whole month of January doing a focused sprint on several Assistant Chair projects to get them either done, or ready to be handed off to someone else or put on ice for 8 weeks, and I'm mostly done with that. A few of those projects are what I'll be spending the last 3 weeks of the semester doing --- that, and preparing for my summer online class that starts May 7. Otherwise: No GVSU work will enter my consciousness in February and only little stuff in March.

Q: Are you nervous?

A: A little. You can't not be nervous when you're looking at a life-changing event for which you have no prior experience for comparison, not to mention it's not exactly a risk-free procedure. It's all becoming very real this week, and I wouldn't be fully human if it were just no big deal for me. However:

  • I just so happen to live near a city with some of the best aortic valve replacement surgeons and cardiologists in the country. I may look back at all this and see that the series of events that led me to leave my job in Indiana in 2011, then find work here in GVSU and west Michigan were all designed to get me to the point where I could have this surgery done here, in this city at this hospital.
  • I'm relatively young and in good health, except for my heart.
  • I also have faith in God --- for real, as in what you find in the Nicene Creed, as the "maker of all things visible and invisible". He made me and sustains me now, and always has, so I really don't fear anything going into Wednesday.

Thanks as always for your support, prayer, good vibes, and anything else you have been sending. I'll check in at least once more before the big day.

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