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Letters to the Editor

June 18, 1999|By Denise Troxell

Getting to the heart of what went wrong with me

As I look back on my open heart surgery, it is difficult to remember how traumatic and profound it was for me. Compared to my double lung transplant, it was easy, but at the time, when I was 30 with two very small sons, it was terrifying.

At Thanksgiving my appointment for surgery was made for the first week of January, 1985 at Shadyside Hospital in Pittsburgh. I would be able to have Christmas with my family.

That was a mistake. While I was able to write some letters and get ready, mostly I sat every night in my dark living room, weeping. I couldn't sleep for thinking of my boys without a mother. It was one of the worst months of my life.

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So, some advice. If you need major surgery, get it over with quickly.

We have a picture of me and the boys taken just before I left for the hospital. Sean, 4, has some sense that things aren't right and looks sad and fearful. Alec at 2 just looks curious.

Our three faces are lined up cheek to cheek and I still cry to think of that moment. I am so glad I didn't die.

How do we say goodbye to our children? I've done it several times now and I still don't know the answer. You have to believe everything will go well or your fear might help kill you, but you have to make sure they know that you love them and that they are deeply good just in case you don't make it.

I was admitted midweek for testing, with my surgery being scheduled for the following Monday. A long wait.

My parents came from France where my sister had just had my niece, Elisabeth. My brothers were there, as was Ken, who was very scared. Having family with you is crucial.

There were several survival techniques I mastered at Shadyside. The first I learned during my heart catheterization.

A heart cath involves a long, very fine tube, or catheter, being inserted through a large vein in the groin or the arm all the way through to the heart where it sits as dye is injected and pictures are taken. The dye illuminates the whole circulatory system around the heart on video and the doctors can see blockages and measure pressures inside the heart.

It is not an enjoyable procedure for the patient, but it is not as painful as others. A shot of Lidocaine, which stings like a bee sting for about 20 seconds, numbs the spot where they put the tube in.

You can get through a lot of hurtful invasions in the hospital if you can grit your teeth and count to 20.

The dye was in a big red tank with reassuring radioactive symbols on it. When they shot the dye in I was instantly hot all over and astounded at the speed of my circulation. My head felt like it was going to explode, but, and here's the trick, I kept watching the TV screen. It showed my heart and every vein and artery in exquisite detail. It was amazing to watch it beat, all lit up on the screen.

Always ask for a view of the screen in any test. It helps distance you from yourself.

I chose to be fascinated by the science and beauty of it all, and tried to ignore the discomfort. Brain tricks.

Unfortunately they had to repeat the dye because an intern forgot to measure something, after which I started gagging which wasn't fascinating at all.

Hospitals are great places to learn. If you're learning, you aren't worrying as much. When you and your family understand your body and thetreatments, you can help take care of yourself. Lives have been saved this way.

Another coping mechanism I learned at Shadyside was to mingle.

Being on the cardiac ward for five days before my surgery, I walked around and made friends. Most of them were in for bypasses and were much older than me.

I prayed and cried with almost all of them. We had a regular Pentecost with one man being from a Christian commune, a woman Jehovah's Witness, and a young Catholic woman who had the blood of Jesus in every prayer. We comforted each other before and after our surgeries. A Russian Orthodox priest asked me if I wanted a blessing after visiting my roommate. I said yes, thank you.

Touching and listening to other people who are afraid and sick busies your mind and makes it feel productive. Like the song, "Whistle a Happy Tune" from The King and I, "when I fool the people I fool, I fool myself as well."

At the same time you have to be sensitive to people who don't want to talk, who want to just rest and gather their strength. But a soft smile is good for everyone.

A sense of humor helps too, if you can muster it.

At the orientation the night before we all had surgery, the nurse took us through the procedures. She said we would wake up with tubes everywhere, breathing on a respirator.

I asked what we would be wearing. When she said nothing I immediately ordered the men in my group to keep their eyes to themselves when they woke up, which caused everyone to burst out laughing.

Granted, hospital humor isn't always elegant, but laughing is great for evaporating tension.

What's really fun is to joke with serious doctors.

A doctor with a sense of humor is an angel in disguise.

The night before my surgery I asked the nurse for an organ donation form in case I died. She was appalled and had a hard time finding one, but she did. Nowadays that wouldn't happen, I hope.

Finally the morning came. Quick hugs all around, then 20 minutes on a gurney, high on morphine, staring at a clock, with my little brother Rob winking at me through the window in the door.

I was saying the phrase, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit," over and over like a mantra.

Then the nurse was wrestling my wrists to place the big arterial and IV tubes. I blissfully felt no pain. I was calm and safe and warm and completely out of control. I rested in that.

I had a generous speech prepared for the operating room of course, but was fast asleep before I ever saw it.




Denise Troxell is a member of the Sharpsburg Town Council and writes for The Herald-Mail.

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