When Christine had her mitral valve surgery in 2013, she had many questions – but could find few answers. In this next installment of an ongoing series, she shares some tips and tricks she found made the difference for her. You can read the first of her stories here
What questions do you have – or what advice would you share – in preparing and recovering from heart surgery?
If you have time to prepare for your heart surgery, I hope this information may help – my best advice: Make your lists and check them twice!
Pre-Op Pack List for the Hospital:
In terms of packing, listed below are a few items that I found to be tremendously helpful and comforting while recuperating in the hospital. While it is true that "There's No Place Like Home", and at times all you will want to do is click your red high heels together, unfortunately the reality is that you will be hospitalized for a short time.
I was hospitalized for seven days due to some complications with fluid around my heart, lungs and low blood pressure. These items will help you feel somewhat at home while you recover in the hospital.
- Your own pillow. Hospital pillows are the most uncomfortable ever. All the nurses commented that it was smart of me to bring my own pillow as I was able to use it to prop up to a more comfortable position. At night it came in handy to put alongside while trying to reach a comfortable sleeping position. Even though the hospital beds recline, they only recline to a point. Pillows can double as that extra comfort level that the reclined bed position cannot provide.
- Dry Shampoo. After days of not being able to wash your hair, this was a life saver! While I was unable to shower until my 5th day, I at least felt somewhat put together with the ability to spray my hair clean. I used GLO Essentials RE-Energizing provided to me by hair stylist. If you cannot find a dry shampoo that you like, baby powder also does the trick to absorb the excess oil.
- IPAD or other device with some form relaxation or nature sounds music. This helped drown out the continuous beeping sounds of the heart monitor, nurses’ station and general traffic. This was also especially helpful at night when going to bed.
- Tampons and/or pads (for women). Regardless of whether or not you are able to plan your surgery around your menstrual cycle, if you are of menstruating age, you WILL get your period post-op. Five days after surgery I thought that perhaps my chest tube ruptured or something else was hemorrhaging. I certainly did not think it was my period since I just had it a week before surgery. Sure enough when a nurse confirmed that it was my period, I wanted to cry. As if going through open heart surgery wasn't enough. She advised me stress can and does cause amazing things to our body and any major surgery is one of those stresses.
- Desitin cream for any burns or reactions to the leads from EKG and heart monitors. I have very sensitive skin and broke out in blisters from the gel adhesive in theses patches. Cortisone or Benadryl cream did not work for me. My brother-in-law paramedic firefighter recommended that it is the zinc oxide compound that helped me gain relief. A bit of caution, this can stain and ruin your undergarments and is difficult to remove from your hands, but it worked wonders for me! As always, check with your doctor or nurse first before using.
- Boxer shorts. Hospital gowns are notoriously uncomfortable and one size fits none. As a result do not expect too much privacy in terms of covering up your assets. I did find that boxer shorts provided me with enough coverage for when I was walking around the hospital on my daily rounds. Additionally, I also had to have Lovenox shots in my abdomen. Boxer shorts did not feel constricting around the area of my shots especially when your chest tube drains and wires from the heart monitors will also be near.
- V-Neck Nightgown. While you will be in a hospital gown the entire length of your stay, you will eventually leave it behind when you go home. I packed a regular v neck nightgown that doubled as a dress for when I was discharged. The V-neck is helpful in that it will not irritate your surgical site. I threw a scarf around my neck and slipped on flip flops. For me, I was retaining some water and my feet were very swollen. Pack a shoe that will easily slip on, even if they are house slippers with a sole. You may not be able to fully bend down to tie your laces on your shoes right away.
Some items you may want to consider orchestrating or inquiries made before you head into surgery:
Post-Op Recovery In Your Room:
- Nails. If you have acrylic or gel nails, consult your surgical liaison as to whether or not the surgical team prefers at least one nail free from gel or acrylic for an accurate read of the pulse ox meter. The same holds true for a pedicure and if you should arrive without polish on both your feet and hands.
- Bed Wedge for recovering at home. I found that I alternated between sleeping in a recliner my first week to using the bed wedge while in bed. You will find at first, that getting in and out of bed will be very difficult, yet alone trying to lay flat or propped up carefully with pillows. The bed wedge is available in various inclinations and provides a sturdy surface by which you can remain propped up without sinking into your pillows. I found my bed wedge during post - op recovery at a local medical supply store. It was not until I was recovering post -op, having my first cardio version, with many sleepless nights under my head, that I discovered this through the kind mercy of a cardiac nurse.
- Shower chair. I did not anticipate having any post-op issues, low blood pressure being one of them. As a result, I could not stand in the shower for the entire duration, especially when washing my hair without getting dizzy. The shower chair allowed me the comfortability and stability needed to confidently shower. This item can also be found in a medical supply store, or you may inquire from the hospital occupational therapist or discharge planner who will visit you during your post - op recovery.
- A watch that measures your heart rate and walking distance for when you begin your journey recovering at home with daily walks and increased activity. It is also helpful in cardiac rehabilitation in terms of monitoring your heart rate even though you are hooked up to a telemetry monitor.
- Color treated hair. If you have color treated hair, you may want to schedule your final color 4 weeks before surgery. Keep in mind that the anesthesia and medications post - op may affect the pigmentation of your hair, not to mention the overall processing of your hair color in terms of whether it will take longer or faster. Also beware that during recovery your skin and hair could become dry and brittle. You may even experience some hair loss and this is normal over time as the anesthesia works its way out of your system. Before your surgery, talk to your stylist to see what he or she recommends in terms of specifics. There's nothing more disappointing than going through major surgery, wanting to feel good about your self-image only to find that your hair color is not quite how it's supposed to be post-surgery.
- Undergarments. I found it extremely comfortable to wear a tank top with a built in shelf bra while I recovered at home. Initially, I needed some assistance while heeding my sternal precautions, but I found that this was something that I could easily transition into from day to night while minimizing my overhead movements. In a few weeks I was able to maneuver a sports bra that hooked in the front. Shop for these items prior to your surgery.
- Distribution List. Many friends and family will no doubt want to monitor your progress. From the caregiver's perspective your open heart surgery will be just as stressful on them. I was blessed to have my husband, parents and sisters in the recovery room waiting for me. Every minute that passes while you are in surgery is agonizing for them. Designate one person to send an email or text update to your distribution list to update your loved ones on your progress. This will also come in handy once you have been moved to the cardiac unit to keep in touch with them.
- A journal or notebook. This will be very useful when doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, discharge planners and medical staff come to visit you while in the hospital. I found this very helpful in monitoring my vitals, medications and taking notes on my progress. For me, I lost all concept of a time frame and found that by writing things down, I could easily communicate with doctors and nurses how I was feeling each day. Expect that each day you recover will be a new feeling, whether positive or negative. I also found this tremendously helpful when I recovered at home, as I would always take my black book with me to each follow up doctor visit and have all my information at my fingertips when discussing my progress.
If there is one tip that I can provide, it is that your nurses will be your angels with hidden wings.
They truly are the heartbeat of healthcare. If you are able ahead of time, coordinate a basket of candy for your caregivers to bring when they come to visit you in the hospital. A small token of appreciation will go a long way when you push the nurse call light at 2:00 am.
While my post-op recovery in my room was filled with daily x-rays, a lung tap to drain fluid, endless blood tests, echocardiograms to measure the fluid retention around my heart, and a never ending cocktail of meds, I somehow managed to keep a positive outlook. While it's hard to stay positive and motivated while in pain, the entire experience is a life altering escapade. Feelings of being scared, lonely, nerve-wrecking, heart breaking and an overall drawn out experience emotionally and physically to say the least permeate your thoughts. Then you realized you survived it all and you smile! You think to yourself, ‘It can't get much worse than open heart surgery’ and now that you survived this, you're ready for anything that lies ahead.
I found that establishing a routine in the morning, helped me prepare for my day. I would wash my face, brush my teeth, spray my hair with shampoo and transfer to the chair to await my breakfast. I would keep current with my spirometer exercises and I would try my best to walk.
The key is to keep moving as permitted by your nurses. While you will not be able to walk a block, celebrate your small victories one heartbeat at a time. You may only be able to walk to and from the door at first. As you become stronger each day you will be able to walk farther and farther. Try to stay positive. You WILL get there with each step of the way.
If your diet permits, find something that you enjoy and celebrate your small victories. Remember when you were a child and ice-cream seemed to take away all the pain? For me it was fresh strawberries and vanilla ice-cream…it still does!