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10 Years...and I'm Still Here (Part 5)

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

If you haven't already read the first installments of this series, you can find part 1 here: I'm Still Here (Part 1)

DAY SIX: Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What happens during open heart surgery? It's something a lot of people ask and in today's age, there are a plethora of YouTube videos of one surgery or another. In the months that followed my own, I tried to watch one of them—I didn't make it past the bone saw they used to separate the ribs from the sternum.

There are a few ways to do bypass surgery. In some cases, the doctors use a less invasive method by making small incisions in the chest and dropping cameras into the chest cavity. This was not an option for me. My chest had to be cracked open, I had to be put on a bypass machine that, for the duration of the surgery, would act as my heart—and yes, you guessed it; they had to stop my heart. Knowing this was the most unnerving part of going into this type of surgery. Doubts and worry filled my head. What if I don't wake up? What if they can't restart my heart? What if this...what if that? If my blood pressure wasn't already up before, it was definitely up now.

Ten or twenty years before this, the surgeons would remove a vein from the leg by making a long incision. This vein would be used to bypass the blocked arteries around the heart. My grandfather had this procedure done too and going by what he said, that long incision in his leg (probably 18 inches or more), was harder to deal with than the cracked chest. That might have been because it was more susceptible to infection, but I don't know. Luckily for me, doctors had perfected this part of the procedure and no longer had to make such a long incision. With me, they made two small cuts, one near the groin and the second just above my ankle. Through these cuts, they separated the vein, clamped off the ends, and removed it from my leg by pulling it out of the smaller cuts.

As I mentioned, they had to crack my chest open to get to my heart and bypass the clogged arteries. Once this happens, they initiate the bypass system and stop my heart. The bypass unit circulates the blood so that it can continue to deliver precious oxygen to my body and keep me alive. What I didn't know, and didn't find out until the next few days, is that when a body is placed on bypass, when the heart is stopped, and with all the various medications, the body sort of goes under a soft reset. The only way I can describe it is like restarting your computer, but some of your applications either refuse to work, or take a while to start working. Such as it was with me and this process of relearning was horrible.

I spent the rest of the day after surgery slipping in and out of consciousness—full of drugs and exhausted, so much of that day was a complete blur. Wednesday was a different story. My hospital bed was essentially an air mattress, and it was deflated so much that it contoured to my body like a half-cocoon, not allowing me to move. It was uncomfortable and because I was unable to use my arms, my back started to stiffen and ache. At one point, they helped me move to a recliner. It wasn't much better, but at least I could shift myself around when I started to stiffen up.

In addition, I hadn't had a shower since Monday and I just felt dirty—I can't stand feeling dirty and when I feel this way, I can't rest. But showering was an ordeal. In my weakened condition, I needed help. But the help wasn't just for my inability to move well, it was because of all the tubes attached to me—tubes that weren't just attached, but were inside my body. I still had the main IV line in my neck and one in my arm. The eight-inch cut down my chest was covered with a bandage. And just below that was what looked like a rubber gasket attache to my upper stomach. On the inside were three small tubes places strategically to facilitate drainage. They connected to the gasket, where two larger tubes were attached to the outside and led to a collection bag.

I couldn't stand it any longer—I had to have a shower. Deb and a nurse helped get me ready by taping a strip of plastic over my incisions. They disconnected my IVs for the time being and except for the drain tubes; I was able to shakily stand to my feet and shuffle to the shower where I sat on a bench. Deb soaped me off and for a time after, I just sat there enjoying the warm water wash over me. I wasn't prepared for what happened next.

Since the surgery, I had been running a low-grade fever—pretty common for such a situation. However, once the shower shut off and Deb helped dry me off, the drastic temperature change caused me to start shivering uncontrollably. She helped me back to bed, where a nurse started covering me to help warm me back up. But I couldn't stop shaking. It became so intense that muscles in my back started to spasm and one particular muscle happened to be resting right against one of my internal drain tubes. I could feel it hammering against the end of the plastic and it felt like a knife slicing me from the inside. I cried out in pain, trying to turn in a bed that wouldn't allow me to move. They helped me move to my side and threw more blankets on me to try to stop the shivering. The pain seemed to last forever.

When I finally stopped shaking, I fell into a blessed sleep. I much preferred sleeping to wakefulness, where I could feel every ache and pain. I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back, this is the point where depression began to sink its unrelenting claws into my psyche—that, and the hallucinations.

Sometime that afternoon, I woke to a thunderstorm. I remember opening my eyes and seeing the open blinds, the dark clouds swirling outside, briefly lit by sporadic strikes of lightning. Rain pelted the window, followed by sleet. In my head it was so loud, a relentless white noise that just wouldn't quit and wouldn't let me go back to sleep. Half-opening my eyes, I remember asking my wife if it was raining and in the same breath asking her if she could turn it off. Yes, you read that correctly—I asked my wife to turn off the thunderstorm. The problem is, there was no thunderstorm. Everything I was seeing and hearing was in my mind. And while I thought it was nighttime, it was actually still bright outside. Bright and sunny—it was like that the entire week, but to this day, I still remember that storm.

Remember earlier I mentioned the human body resetting like a computer? By that Wednesday evening, I was beginning to realize there was a problem: I hadn't gone to the restroom since before the surgery the previous day. At least, not since having the catheter removed. I needed to go, but for some reason, I couldn't. Deb would help me to the restroom where I would sit (I was still too weak to stand for any length of time) and the minutes would tick by until my legs started to become numb. At this point, I'd give up and go back to either the bed or the recliner. Then, sometime later, I'd try again. I can't tell you just how helpless a feeling it is to not be able to go to the restroom when you're forty years old. Time and time again, I'd try to no avail. I was so bloated that, when I walked, I could feel and hear the retained fluid sloshing around in my bowels. The pressure in my stomach kept me from sleeping much that night.

And while this was going on, the nurses came in and hooked me up to a portable oxygen tank attached to a rolling walker. It was time to start walking. They said the quickest way to recovering was to start walking. I believed them, but cursed them with every jarring, swollen step I took.

Just let me go back to bed! Let me heal there! I don't want to walk! That was the depression talking. I did not want to do anything that required effort. I just wanted to either lie or sit as still as possible as to avoid any more pain and discomfort. Not only was I feeling bloated, but there was pressure on my chest too—not from fluid buildup...all that was draining well. No, this pressure was due to the lack of oxygen. I was still being fed oxygen because I wasn't yet breathing well enough on my own to saturate my blood with enough to keep me going. If my memory isn't failing me, I was only in the 75-80% level when I should be in the upper 90s.

But I walked. Not far, but I did it and didn't like it for one minute. Once back in bed, I drifted off into fitful sleep, realizing that I'd be back up the next morning, doing it all over again. The goal: walk three to four times a day until I could make it around this entire hospital wing.

About the Author

Christopher J. Thomasson was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1972. At the age of two, his family permanently settled in the piney woods of East Texas. He discovered a love for reading and writing at a very young age and until the mid-2010's he only ever wrote for himself, his family, and his closest friends.

He currently lives in Smith County, Texas with his beautiful wife Debra. They have two children, Camron and Megan; and four grandchildren; Braydon, Cheyenne, Brooklynn, and Wyatt Christopher.

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