Surviving five open-heart surgeries
I couldn’t believe it. I was utterly numb and shellshocked. It was 2016 and I was barely holding onto my phone while staring at an email. I needed my fifth open-heart surgery at 33 years old. Then came the flood of memories of the four other surgeries, the umpteen catheters, the hospital stays and the recovery. I collapsed into a sobbing mess.
Logically, I knew I needed the surgery to stay alive and have any kind of life. But I couldn’t bear the thought of what I’d have to go through to get there … yet again.
I remembered all too vividly the long dark days waiting for the surgery where I’d go over and over things. That led into the sleepless nights. I was lost for words when trying to tell my loved ones the news. I remembered being overwhelmed trying to figure out how I was going to pay my bills. Fumbling my way, sorting my leave and university, not knowing what I was even entitled to.
I remember feeling scared and alone. The pain and distress continued when I got home and realised we’d forgotten some of the medication I needed. Every night I woke up with dread under the heavy doona, not being sure if I could get myself out of bed. I hated the rubbish rehab plan the hospital sent me home with. I was so confused about when I could and couldn’t do things like driving, hanging out washing and even sex. Safe to say I was overwhelmed and terrified. I never wanted another surgery. Ever! But that wasn’t the reality I lived in.
After I really wallowed and swam around in my feelings, I gathered whatever crumbs of courage I had and scoured the internet desperately for help — for anything that would give me inspiration and practical ways to tackle this. I found plenty of dry, boring, personality-less fact sheets filled with stuff I already knew. But I didn’t find a single thing that resonated with me.
After days of going round in circles it finally dawned on me. I already knew way more than all these fact sheets combined. I had already lived it. I had already survived it. I knew exactly what to expect. I knew all the aspects of my life that this surgery would impact.
So I dug deep, really deep, and decided to tackle this head-on. I decided to approach this surgery with practicality and purpose. I decided to make this my best surgery ever. I made my mindset my number onepriority, connecting with a mental health professional who really understood. She helped me handle anxiety and set me up with practical tips. I also found online meditation and hypnosis to ease my worries. Writing my feelings down at night was like venting to a friend.
My family pitched in without a fuss; it wasn’t their first rodeo either. But for my husband and me, it was our first. Heartfelt discussions and meal preparation united us and fostered a new level of support. I made the tough call and put my health first and took a break from my dream job. After homework and discussions with HR, I confidently negotiated leave. They were so supportive.
My research led to an informed decision about which hospital to go to, while self-made signs to communicate post-op, new PJs and playlists set the stage for a positive experience. From a visitor plan to postsurgery meals, I had it all sorted. When I walked into the hospital, I was scared but ready to face surgery.
When I woke up from surgery my prep helped me cope better. As soon as I could, I played my favourite songs and let my mind wander with meditation. I turned the noisy hospital into peaceful forests and sunny beaches. I used those pre-made signs to communicate. I’m proud to say that I didn’t tell my family to piss off. That sign still goes unused.
Every little victory, like sitting up and having a meal, was a step towards getting back to my best life. My care team was awesome, adapting to my likes and avoiding what I didn’t. Even when things didn’t go perfectly, I focused on the good stuff. When it was time to leave, I had my questions ready. They showed me how to get out of bed on my own and told me when I could drive and do chores again. We even tackled the awkward topic of sex.
Rehab was a game changer. I had a fantastic physio at the hospital and, once home, I went to full-on rehab classes twice a week.
All my planning paid off. Within six months, I was hiking in Hawaii, working back in my dream job and living my best life! I had succeeded and had my best surgery ever. I’m now on a mission to make sure no one ever has to go through major surgery without the help they deserve.
Elle Pendrick is a five-time open-heart surgery survivor who is sharing her story to help others going through major surgery. She is the founder of Adulting Well, a lady start-up business that is teaching how to get surgery success and practical ways to navigate life with chronic illness. For more, visit adultingwell.au.