Susan Lancaster - Accepting My New Normal
Susan Lancaster was born with a congenital heart defect that was not discovered until she was an adult. She writes about how she coped with the physical and emotional toll of her valve surgery.
My story is long and begins during my pregnancy with my first child. Everything was going swimmingly, and then one day my doctor said, "Oh you have a heart murmur, probably because you're pregnant, nothing to worry about, it's very common for pregnant women to have a heart murmur." I went along with my life and didn’t give it a second thought. In March of 1987, I gave birth to my beautiful son. I was 27 years old. Three and half years later I gave birth to our sweet, and oh so precious baby girl. The doctor had again said that I had a heart murmur but because I had one with the first pregnancy, he suggested it was probably nothing and didn’t investigate any further.
The bomb finally dropped when I was in my middle thirties. I was having dizzy episodes at work and thought it was stress so I ignored it as long as I could. One morning my boss called me into his office for an update, and as I stood by his desk, the whole room began to swirl, I thought I was having a panic attack. I was very scared as I fell into the front of his desk but I managed to regain my composure. That’s when I knew it was probably something more than stress.
The doctor listened to my heart, said I had a murmur and ordered an echocardiogram for that same week. They got the results back and it turned out I had a congenital heart defect, a bicuspid aortic valve. I was put on a beta-blocker to help with the palpitations and because of my age, we wouldn’t do surgery until it greatly affected my quality of life. So I waited and waited until I couldn’t lift my arms above my head without getting winded. Six months before my next scheduled echocardiogram, I went to ask my doctor if he thought I should take fish oil since I had heard it was good for my heart. He listened to my heart and said, “We need to schedule your surgery now.”
I cried like a baby for a full 3 hours. I thought I was prepared. So many feelings rushing forward at once, I was more scared than I have ever been, I was angry because I thought if I lived in denial, maybe I’d be the lucky one who’d never need surgery. I was terrified that I would die and leave my husband to raise our two young children alone, the oldest on the autism spectrum. That night I prayed. I don’t pray. I don’t do religion, but with every ounce of my being, I wanted God to be up there listening. I begged him, “If you’re up there, I’m ok with dying when it’s my time, but please just let me live long enough for my kids to grow up and then you can take me.”
Happily, I can report that in 2006, I had open-heart surgery to replace my valve and repair an aortic aneurism that would have taken my life in the days before my next scheduled echo. Needless to say, every day I am still alive is a blessing, and I try to treat it with the reverence it deserves. Not saying, for one moment, that everything is perfect, but I’ll happily take what I’m given, and hope to, in some way, give back for the extra years I have been gifted.
After my surgery, I went through a period of mourning and depression and I believe this is considered normal. The loss of a part of my body, that only a person who has been through this would understand, was quite devastating to me. The scar took me a long time to get over emotionally. Having someone literally cut me open and reach inside my body, felt like such an invasion. Again, you wouldn’t understand unless you’ve been through this. I knew I had to move forward and embrace my new normal.
I am a yoga teacher and have practiced for many years and decided to turn to meditation rather than drugs to get over my depression and recover from my surgery. The following steps helped me to heal more quickly than I could ever have imagined possible. I had to:
- Accept that this happened to me and it wasn’t my fault
- Let go of control
- Let others care for me, accept their help
- Look at my scar in the mirror until I could stop crying (It took me a long time to be comfortable wearing shirts that show my scar, I don’t care anymore, I’m actually proud of my battle scar)
- Get used to being on medication for the rest of my life (I’m still angry about that sometimes)
- Deal with my stress and anxiety and take better care of myself
By accepting my new normal I can live more fully and let myself enjoy things again. The fear remains about the uncertainty of it all, but I am strong and have faced the idea of my death. After all, I made a pact with God about letting me survive. My children are now 33 and 29, so he kept his end of the bargain. I will soldier on and know that every day is a blessing and should never be taken for granted. I will continue to give back and support others where I can, and practice gratitude every day.