Today (the spring equinox, hence the title) marks exactly six weeks since my heart surgery, and it's been a busy last week in the recovery process.
Last week I had an echocardiogram to see how the new aortic valve is doing, along with a chest x-ray to see how my sternum is healing and look for anything out of the ordinary. Then I had the big 5-week followup with my surgeon. It was all good: The valve has zero leakage, the pressure coming out of the heart was perfectly normal, and all the muscle/nerves/bone in my chest are healing nicely. The surgeon lifted some of the sternal restrictions, for example I can now lift 20 pounds instead of 10; and very importantly, he cleared me to start driving again.
A word on driving: That's huge. The worst part of this whole recovery process --- which has been largely trouble-free, so I'm not complaining --- hasn't been the physical discomfort or anything, but the physical and social isolation of being stuck at home all day. Want to go to the grocery store? Get a ride. Tired of walking inside the house and want to go to GVSU to walk? Get a ride. Being able, if I chose, to pile into the van and drive up to the coffee shop for an hour is a privilege I didn't realize I had until I didn't have it.
Back to this week: Today I had my last follow-up appointment with the doctors until probably January 2020. Again, it was generally an all-clear, and all systems are normal at this point. My blood pressure read a little on the high side, so I'll need to watch this and some of my meds may get adjusted if it stays high. But otherwise, this meeting was merely a formal closure to the main part of the recovery process. And for that, I am very grateful.
From here on out, I will see a cardiologist once a year --- maybe once every 18 months if things continue to go well. My new heart valve has a lifespan of about 20 years. Every year, I'll be checked over to make sure that the valve is performing properly --- no leaks or clots or anything like that. At some point when I'm nearly 70 years old, I'll have to have it replaced again, but the next time I can have it done using the much-less-invasive TAVR procedure.
Back to this week again, I've started the next part of the recovery process: cardiac rehab. Starting in April, I'll be going into a Spectrum facility every MWF to exercise --- specifically to push myself in exercise to find out what my limits are, and start building back up to the level of activity I want. I'll be working with a trainer doing treadmill activity, rowing machines, weight training, and more while hooked up to monitors. The place is basically a gym with nurses.
The goal I have set for myself is to run a sub-30-minute 5K --- something which I could do fairly regularly back before the arterial stenosis began to make me pass out when I got above 160 beats per minute in my heart rate. I also have a longer-term goal of losing weight, from my current 194 pounds down to 180 pounds. That will definitely take longer than 6 weeks to accomplish, but I think now's the time to start. I think the staff at the rehab center will be super valuable in helping me get there.
Meanwhile, I have a little over two weeks left on my FMLA leave, and then I'll be back at work. I've been ramping up my work while at home, since I have three speaking engagements coming up in April and May to prepare for. It will be weird going back since I was gone for the entire middle 2/3 of the semester. But I'm also looking forward to resuming a more normal work life. Not that it's been disagreeable; working from home (or right now, from a coffee shop) suits me pretty well.
Personally, I feel better every day for the most part. I continue to take beta blockers and aspirin to help with the workload on the heart, but I mostly haven't needed pain medication. My chest area is still pretty sore and will be for a few more months as the sternum grows back together. (As the doctor told me today, "You do not want to see what they did to your chest.") But I can move around a lot more easily than I could just 10 days ago, and I'm now walking 2+ miles a day at a good pace with no issues. (In fact this is the first time in my entire life that I've stuck with a daily regimen of exercise, without taking days off or letting life get in the way, and I can feel it.)
The only real issue is with sleep. I'm a side sleeper, but it hurts my chest to roll over onto my side, while on the other hand it's hard for me to sleep while on my back. So getting to sleep is a issue. And when I do get to sleep, I will roll onto my side unconsciously and wake up with a lot of soreness in my chest and shoulder area. One Tylenol will take care of the soreness for most of the day, but I'm hoping my body will figure out how to drift off when I'm not in my normal position.
And honestly if that's the worst thing I am experiencing right now, I would call that a near miracle. My sister Carolyn and I were texting recently about my Mom, who had this kind of open heart surgery near the end of her life when she was not in good health and I just find it hard to imagine how tough she must have been to deal with that level of discomfort on top of everything else. I count myself fortunate that I had this done when I did.
Thanks again for reading and for all your support.