Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

The Toughest Part Of My Heart Surgery

A post from a fellow Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor triggered an emotional flashback for me recently.  A young parent themselves, one of their main concerns, is for their young children, and this will be the first time that this friend will be apart from their children for any amount of time.  Even more relatable, are two main factors, this fellow survivor is having open heart surgery, and their children are the same ages as my daughters were back in 2008.

My daughters were three and five years old, and had never been apart from me.  I went from just telling them, I had to go stay overnight somewhere for something special, but would see them the next day, to the horror 24 hours later of thinking I would never see them again.

A blockage had been discovered that was believed correctable with a simple stent being placed.  I would be up and going in just a week, an overnight stay in the hospital.  No big deal.  I was still coming out of the anesthesia that day, when the doctor was informing my family, my situation was more grave than thought, and instead I would need to have open heart surgery the next morning.  You can read the story “CABG – Not Just A Green Leafy Vegetable” for that whole situation.

But as I came out of the fog from the anesthesia, and began to understand the severity of what I was facing, there was even a more daunting concern for me.  If anything bad happened to me during this surgery, I never got to see or hold my daughters again, especially before the surgery.

I am a firm believer in not discussing things with children that are not age appropriate, and this was something that was not going to be discussed with them in great detail.  But that did not make my heartbreak any less.  Even if the surgery was successful, I would be in the hospital, expected to be about a week in length.  I had never been apart from them at all, even until the day before for the stent process.  I got to talk to them on the telephone that night before, and that was going to have to be good enough.  In less than eight hours, I would be taken down to the operating room.

Three days following the surgery, out of the ICU and in a private room, I still had some tubes and wires, but not nearly as many as when I first came out of the surgery.  At that point, it was decided to bring my daughters to visit me, a surprise visit, because they were all I could think about.  My older daughter was curious about all the equipment that I was hooked up to.  And the joke, er… concern, was that she would not do to me what she did to her mechanical horse Butterscotch, when we were not looking and she started pulling the horse’s wiring apart.  My younger daughter on the other hand, sat on the foot of my bed.  This was the first either of them had seen me in this type of condition, and clearly she was scared.

The picture above, was taken a couple days after we got home, no worse for the wear.  In fact, my younger daughter had resumed her playfulness with me, forgetting the fragile area of my chest, starting from across the room, running full tilt at me, unsuspecting, planting her head into my chest like a battering ram.  That was when that “heart” pillow came in handy besides my coughs and sneezes.

My daughters would witness another event, just as severe, and probably more scary, because they watched it happen in real time.  After just celebrating my older daughter’s birthday  that day, an ambulance crew was rolling me out of our house on a stretcher, again facing a dire situation, septic shock, due to a specific type of bacterial pneumonia I was unaware that I had.  One of the only memories I have of that early 4am event, was the look on my daughters faces as I was rolled by.

As I talked to my fellow survivor, one of the things I wanted to do, as I do with others in our situation, is to share our experiences, as to offer some sort of comfort to the stressful event soon to take place.  I encouraged her to focus on the surgery.

I had spoken with both of my daughters this evening, to gather their perspective on what happened those two time periods, the second time period they were five and seven years older.  Neither really remembers anything from my heart surgery.  And all either of them really remember of the second episode, was all the policemen and paramedics in the house.  It was never a thought to them that I would not come back home, though it was unusual for me not to be home.

For the second time, I had been apart from my daughters.  And this would happen again several times.  It never got easier.  Just as my fellow survivor feels I am sure, our children mean everything to us.  Fortunately they were at an age, where they really did not need to know or understand how serious everything was.  All that mattered to me, was that they knew I would come home.  And with every time something happened, this was how I handled it.  Each time, they believed I would come home.

Late in their teenage years now, they are learning more about my health history, and the origin, my battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the treatments used to save my life.  They can handle the details as I have given them in small amounts, and not in vivid detail.  As adults, they will learn the seriousness of the things I face, because as they will be my medical proxies, it will be important that they know all the details.

My daughters do not recall anything from my heart surgery, and have very few memories of the second event.  And I am glad for that.  They have witnessed enough with me in the hospital.  They know my situation is serious.

More importantly, they know that they are the reason that I keep fighting when faced with these challenges.  My divorce has caused quite a bit of separation, and while I do miss every moment I wish I could have with them, it pales in comparison to the emotional pain I felt back in 2008 when I thought I would never see them again.

Yet, here I am.  Another year closer to seeing them graduate, hopefully go to college, and perhaps start a family of their own.  Something back in 2008, I never thought I would see.

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