Dave, a 50-year-old man from Idaho, sent me a message this morning, he had open heart surgery a few years ago, and he told me that he has never spoken of it since, not to his wife, his father, his children, his co-workers. I read your blog every day, he says, and I cry with each journal. I just can't talk about it. I thought about Dave quite a bit today, I understand that he is saying, how he feels. I have only cried once or twice since my surgery, and although I rarely talk about it, I force myself to write about it, it is healing for me, it is affirming to write, it is what I do, who I am. Without it, I think I would cease to exist.
No, let me be honest, I love to write about it, I need to write about it,
Dave is talking about the loneliness of open heart surgery, perhaps the loneliness of any kind of major surgery. If I were to be asked what the greatest danger is that faces me in the recovery, it would be loneliness and isolation. Open heart surgery is major surgery, it frightens people and gets their attention. When I got home from the hospital, I was flooded with cards, offers of help, people bringing food, offering to drive me places, asking me how I was. That sense of urgency is short-lived, of course, and it should be. Things are quiet here now, we are settling in for the long haul. The truly valiant friends keep showing up.
But people have to get on with their lives, I need to get on with mine, I struggle every day to return to as much normalcy and independence as I can manage. We are not built to dwell on misery and suffering, our lives pull us along. I will get there, too, just not for a bit.
I can feed myself, dress myself, do some work, take walks, write, listen to music, take a few photos, talk on the phone, do some chores. Still, I see there is an aching loneliness to being a surgical patient, I was trying to explain it to Maria who said I was uncharacteristically withdrawn and quiet. She looks over at me sometimes and I see the worry and concern in her face. Is he okay? He is not himself.
I know, I can feel it myself. I said the danger from surgery was narcissism, I feel quite isolated sometimes because I am dealing with my body almost every single minute, dealing with things nobody else can see or feel but that cannot be avoided. I feel like those World War II soldiers who came back from dark places and could never quite talk about what they had seen or where they had been. I understand now.
My medications all have side affects. Suddenly I might be nauseous, or have cramps, or break into a sweat, or feel exhausted, or wince from the pain of my healing wounds, or feel anxious and distracted. My blood sugar is still rocketing up and down and I can feel it when it happens. Sometimes it feels like my insides are moving around. I can't be talking about myself all of the time, and my feelings, it is too self-referential, too uncomfortable, too personal.
But I have to pay attention to myself quite a bit of the time – have I taken the right pills in the morning, the insulin in the right dose, can I walk now or need rest? Sometimes there is a shooting pain that is quite breathtaking. One minute the scars from the artery removal in my leg aches, then pain from my healing chest, the messages from my healing heart, the stitches itch and burn. Should I take a walk, and move, or rest and heal? These are all private things, private considerations, no one else can see them or feel them, but they isolate me still from the world. They pull me into myself, into my own healing world.
I will deal with them all in time, they will all ease, heal or I will adjust to them, fiddle with them, work through them. I feel like I am standing in one of those baseball hitting cages sometimes, fastballs are coming at me every second, I can hardly get my bat off the shoulder. It is so easy to think about yourself all day, it is hard not to, narcissism and self-absorption is a greater danger than healing scars.
Every time I see Maria or any other person, I am sure to ask her or them how they are, what they are doing, how they are feeling? I cannot bear to be one of those many people I meet who never, ever ask about anyone else, never talk about anything but them. Open heart surgery can give you the wrong idea, that your problems are more important than anybody else's, that you are the center of the universe. I think it was true for a day or so in the ICU, I was the center of the universe. But now, not so, I meet people every day with worse problems than me.
It has been almost a month, I can see how time and healing and recovery work – everything is a little bit better every single day, I am a good patient, I am working hard at healing. My daughter worried that I would over do things, she said that would be my problem, but she doesn't quite understand this part of me: I will do every single thing I can possibly do to heal in the best and quickest possible way. A doctor once told me I was the best diabetes patient he had ever had, and the nurse in the ICU said I was the best open heart surgical patient she had ever had, and my goal is for my surgeon, Dr. Akujuo to say the same thing this Thursday when I see her again. As my nurse-practitioner says, I am an over-achiever.
A different nurse I am close to and fond of called today to check up on me and I asked her how long it would be before I wasn't exhausted in the afternoon. Four or five months, she said. This isn't a cold, kiddo, she said, they stopped your heart and put you on life support and broke your chest open and moved your arteries around. Ouch, okay, put that way, I get it.
I talk to my heart at least once a day, now that we are getting to know one another after many years of estrangement. How are things going? Good, she says, two-and-a-half miles today up a hill is enough today. It is rainy and humid, let's take it easy today. How are you, she says? I feel a little lonely sometimes, I said, I can't really explain this to anyone in words. Quite natural, she says, everyone with a serious illness feels it, open heart patients especially, men in particular. You'll get through it. You were never ill before, never in a hospital, never had surgery. Open heart surgery is a big one for the first time.
Dave knows how it feels, but he can't talk about it. Perhaps it will help him if I write about it. One of these nights, I will cry too. I told him that each day, I work myself a little bit more back into life.