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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.

Article featured in WellBeing 208

Elle Pendrick

Elle Pendrick

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. ​

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