I don’t know how long it was until I woke up. I know I gained consciousness in ICU at some point — later my parents said when they visited me I’d tried, multiple times, to pull my breathing tube out — but mostly what I remember of it now is a Hollywoodesque montage of masked faces, bright lights, and a bite of strawberry jello.
I spent one and a half blurry nights there — I only needed one, but had to wait for a bed in the hospital proper to become available — at the end of which I sort of recall a nurse telling me my room was ready and that they’d called my parents to let them know.
Since it was so late at night, when the call came my mom initially said she’d go back to sleep and come see me in the morning. After hanging up she second-guessed her decision, and wound up coming to see me that night after all. Unfortunately, I don’t remember her arriving. What I do remember is the moment the nurses helped me climb off of the gurney and onto the bed in my room.
It hurt. It hurt like nothing ever had before. It’s a tired old analogy, but there is no more accurate comparison than this: it felt like I’d been run over by a truck. Several times. My chest ached in every possible way, and I couldn’t take a single breath without making it exponentially worse. It probably only took a few seconds to move me, but the pain lasted much longer.
In fact, a lot of my memories of the five following days I spent in the hospital are of either pain or nausea, or both. Lying flat hurt; sitting up hurt; standing hurt. The time one overworked night nurse accidentally forgot to administer my pain medication definitely hurt. Removing my breathing tubes and the IV from my neck were agony. And even the slightest glimpse or whiff of food made me sick to my stomach for the first couple of days; I don’t think I ate anything at all the first day. I believe the first meal I managed to keep down with any success at all consisted of about three grapes.
It wasn’t all bad, though. I was lucky enough to be in one of the top-rated hospitals in the US. The building itself was beautiful, the rooms clean and crisp with nice views, and nearly every member of the staff proved worth their weight in gold. They treated me like a person, instead of the science experiment I often felt like I was. A precious few even managed to bring smiles to my face. I think the first time I laughed was at a Lion King joke made by my favorite night nurse, an upbeat, goofy man with multiple piercings and a gremlin-like giggle I will never forget.
I even got a new nickname: Pediatric Wing, an allusion to me being the only patient on the floor younger than fifty years old. My nurses encouraged me to eat, to walk, to believe things would get better, and every time my surgeon visited he made a point of telling me how good I looked and how much progress I seemed to be making. Once, as I fought to walk down the hallway with a straight back (cardiac surgery patients tend to slouch, which can do permanent damage), one woman remarked that I had posture like a princess. In response, I copied the dignified “princess wave” from Princess Diaries, mentally telling her, “Thank you for being here today.”
The food, by the way, actually tasted pretty good, once I was able to keep any of it down. The nausea turned out to be caused by one of the nastier pain medications I was taken, a fun little narcotic known as oxycodone. It wasn’t just food that triggered it, either — too much movement, too much noise, or looking out of my fourth-floor window, could also do the trick.
On the other hand, the one side effect I’d been curious to experience, hallucinations, didn’t really affect me much at all. I did, however, develop an irrational fear of sliding sideways out of the window whenever the curtains were opened, and occasionally I thought I glimpsed some large, furry thing hiding under my bed — a creepy illusion which would disappear any time I tried to look directly at it.
The thing that drove me craziest about it all was how helpless I felt. Given how fresh off the operating table I was and how much healing my body had to do, it’s not surprising I could barely move, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating.
When you’re planning for a surgery the pamphlets they give you tell you how long you can expect to be in the hospital — what they don’t tell you is how uncomfortable it is. They don’t talk about how even the most nicely furnished hospital room in the world is still going to smell like medicine and antiseptics, or how the night nurses are going to wake you up every night checking your vitals and then wish you a good night’s sleep (fully knowing you’ll have to wake up again at 6AM when the day shift checks in).
They also fail to mention how sitting on your butt for 90% of your day is going to make your butt sore as sore can be, and they definitely don’t contain any information on how embarrassing it is to have to be helped to the bathroom (and even in the bathroom) by strangers when, up until very recently, you were a fully functional human being capable of independent movement used to being able to do private things (like visiting the ladies’ room) by yourself.
Upon finally being released, I had mixed feelings. Even though I fought like hell to be able to go home as soon as possible, the moment I succeeded I suddenly thought, “What if something goes wrong?” In the hospital I had immediate access to medical attention; at home I would have to hitch a ride in an ambulance.
In fact, just two days after getting home, I did exactly that. I woke up and was picking out my clothes for the day when something suddenly didn’t feel right. I felt dizzy, sparkles like migraine aura buzzed at the edges of my vision, and I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears like a Taiko drum. I mumbled something to my mom about needing to sit down, and perched on the edge of my bed.
The next thing I knew, I was on my hands and knees on my tile floor. My mom rushed over to kneel down next to me and asked if I was all right. I sat back against my bed and tried to look at her, but I couldn’t quite focus on her face. I tried to talk, and thought I said several things like “I’m okay,” and, “Can I have some water?” but no sound actually came out. From a million miles away I heard my mom tell my dad to call 911.
Outwardly I was unresponsive. Inwardly I was panicking. Was it my heart? Was the valve malfunctioning? Was I having a stroke? I had no idea. I only knew that I could feel myself slipping away. It was creepy as hell. As I described it later in my journal,
“Passing out doesn’t feel like falling asleep. It feels like your soul is being sucked out of your body. It is sickening and odd and terribly frightening. I thought I was dying.”
Oddly, I don’t remember the sound of the siren. I just remember the sound of my mom’s voice and the EMTs’ constant chatter, and how bright the morning sun was when they took me out of the house and into the ambulance.
In the ER they discovered I’d collapsed because of dehydration caused by the diuretic I’d been prescribed to prevent swelling in my extremities. Whenever I tried to stand my blood pressure dropped through the floor, hence the fainting. It took two bags of saline through an IV and a cup of ice water to rehydrate me, and I was taken off the diuretic then and there. Luckily, because it had happened in the morning, I recovered in time to go home late that afternoon.
Such was the less-than-auspicious start of the second stage of my recovery: home care.
This is the fourth 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.