My memories of January 14, 2015, are sketchy at best. I remember the operation was scheduled at the beginning of the hospital day because the surgeon said the procedure itself could take up to six hours. The night before I didn’t bother trying to get too much sleep, partly because I knew I couldn’t, and partly because I wanted to be as certain as possible of pure unconsciousness throughout the surgery. I’d never been put under anesthesia before, and I didn’t know how my body would react. I wasn’t taking any chances.
That morning we arrived at the hospital at 4-something AM, where we were met by two of my friends who had kindly driven in from out of town to be with me. They presented me with belated birthday gifts, a steampunkish necklace and a Cheshire cat pillow, in the hopes of cheering me up a little. It worked, at least for a little while.
Waiting in the actual waiting room was hard; waiting in the pre-op room was harder. I changed into my hospital gown and lay on my back as a nurse jabbed IV needles (the worst kind of needles) in both my arms. I lay there. And lay there some more.
One by one my family and friends came in to see me. One of my friends, someone who had been through a difficult surgery himself only a couple of years before, someone who also happens to have the worst poker face in history, took one look at me, at the gown, at the needles, and went white as a sheet. In a bizarre twist I found myself comforting him, telling him I would be fine and not to worry.
The worst moment came just before they wheeled me away to the operating room. The last thing I remember before the anesthesia hit is my mom rushing in at the last minute to see me again before I went, her eyes bloodshot and her face uncharacteristically wet with tears. Up until that moment I’d been fairly calm, at least on the outside, but the sight of my mom crying over me sent my system into full-blown panic mode and I broke down sobbing even as I tried to tell her I’d be okay. Later she said she’d just been tired and overwhelmed with everything, but at the time all I could think was, “This is it. That was goodbye.”
Anesthesia is like falling asleep. You don’t even realize it’s happening until you wake up on the other side of it.
I consider it a blessing I don’t remember anything about the operation itself. I didn’t have one of those weird out-of-body experiences people always describe on talk shows; I didn’t float over myself watching the procedure, or fly to Paris on a spur-of-the-moment astral projection trip. I slept like the dead.
I didn’t get the details of how it all went down until much later, during my final follow-up appointment with my surgeon. All the stress of my situation and the holidays and pre-op testing had pushed me to a critical point by the time of the procedure. Normally, an aortic aneurysm that measures 5.5cm or more, or that expands more than half a centimeter within a six-month period, is considered dangerous and requires surgery right away. At the time of my operation, mine measured exactly 5.5cm, meaning it had grown almost a full centimeter in just a little over one month.
When my surgeon came out of the operating room at the end of the day to tell my parents how things had gone, he’d described my aneurysm as “impressive,” and he’d remarked (jokingly — I hope) he wished he could have taken a picture. Weirdest. Compliment. Ever.
Then again, my surgery was a bit of a production. Aside from my surgeon and his partner and a couple of cardiac health experts, a couple of representatives from the company that manufactured my mechanical valve attended my bloody little party as well. I never fully knew whether it was because of my highly peculiar demographic (I am one of the least likely people to require that particular procedure) or simply because On-X valves are still relatively new in the medical world. Either way, it was somewhat comforting knowing just how many highly trained personnel would be on hand if anything did happen to go wrong during the operation.
Thankfully, nothing did go wrong, though my surgeon did mention I needed a bit of a blood transfusion towards the end of the procedure to make up for excess lost blood. He had actually expected this would happen; it’s very common for redheaded patients to bleed more during surgery. Joy.
This is the third post in a five-part series about my experience with aortic valve replacement surgery. Links to the rest of the posts in the series are listed below.