By Heather Abbott
21 Jun

Open Heart Surgery Preparation Tips

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In June 2008, I had open heart surgery to replace my severely leaking pulmonary valve (PVR). This leak was a direct result of my original Tetralogy of Fallot repair back in 1977 so I’ve always known a valve replacement was possible. My surgery was not an emergency, though it was an inevitable necessity in my life. At the time, I was working full-time in marketing, had two Ivy League degrees, exercised almost daily, and traveled often for both work and pleasure. I had friends and a significant other. Pretty much a normal lifestyle for a young 30-something except that I was born with a heart defect.

Living with a congenital heart defect for me means living a normal lifestyle with the constant fear in back of my mind that I will need a heart procedure done at some point. With medical technology these days, these procedures can be considered somewhat “minor”; however, recovery time is not overnight. So proper preparation is key to a successful recovery. Personally, I took about 7 months to fully prepare for my surgery and 4-6 week recovery and I’d even venture to call the experience my personal Olympics. I experienced minimal post-op pain and was back at work part-time within 6 weeks, New York City commuting and all. So to commemorate this 3rd anniversary of my PVR, here are some basic tips on how I prepared—I hope these are helpful:

  • Compile a list of friends/family in advance who are willing to help. Assign one person to serve as coordinator of post-op visits/meals. Limit to no more than two visitors per day.
  • Purchase/rent/borrow a comfortable recliner! Must have!
  • Have extra pillows handy for when you can sleep in your bed again. This varies by patient but I was in my bed the second night after I got home. For some it’s weeks.
  • If your primary caretaker works, have a back-up available, especially early on when it may be too painful to do simple tasks such as pulling a shirt over your head or opening a water bottle.
  • Join Netflix or suggest to friends that they bring/send you their favorite DVDs. This is also a great time to catch up on or watch a TV series.
  • Meditate Meditate Meditate.
  • Get a massage or two in the week prior to surgery. This will help blood flow more freely and keep you relaxed.
  • If possible, train on a pilates reformer for 1-3 months prior to surgery. I am almost convinced this is why I had minimal sternal pain post-op. A cheaper alternative would be floor pilates classes.
  • Having books and magazines on hand is great but make sure they are light reads.
  • Be prepared for disappointment and pleasant surprises. Some of the folks you think will be the biggest help will let you down and vice versa.
  • Be prepared for frustration and aggravation—hospital bills, insurance issues (especially with heart defects), normal things you cannot do, cabin fever due to exhaustion and not being able to drive for 4-6 weeks. Cabin fever may be less of a factor if you live in a city or small town. I unfortunately did not.
  • Keep a blog, Facebook and/or Twitter page. These are a great alternative to replying to phone calls/emails when you’re exhausted. Facebook/Twitter is great for mini status updates, and the blog for longer updates. I found my blog to be very therapeutic, too.
  • Find a support network. I used the ACHA Discussion Forum religiously and even found a few new friends!

Do you have additional tips to add? Post them below. Thanks!


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The contents of this blog are presented for informational purposes only, and should not be substituted for professional advice. Always consult your physicians with your questions and concerns.